Ethnic Diversity on the Saison River  

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  Krem, Tombon, Laos, Chinese and Khmer  

In Ratanakiri province, rather than measuring distances in kilometers, you could measure by the number of diverse cultures you passed along the way. We were headed to the Saison River, to visit a Tombon burial ground. Along the way, my 25 year-old Khmer guide, Hao, took me to a Krem minority village, and told me about their way of life.  

The Krem used slash and burn agriculture, planting dry rice, in a rotating system.

Each time they plant rice, they sacrifice a chicken, pig, or other animal to make food for the spirits. Afterwards, they invite all of their friends to eat the animal, and drink rice wine, from a large stone jar. After the party, a shrine is built, with the head of the slaughtered animal suspended on bamboo poles.  They would make another sacrifice when the rice harvest had ripened. Scarcity of land has forced the tribal people to travel further and further to till their fields. For this reason, Krem families maintained one house in the village and one near their rice fields.

When working in the field, the men go in to the jungle and hunt for animals.

They use a crossbow, similar to many other tribes. But different from the Tombon tribe, they use poison tipped arrows. The poison is made from cobra venom, mixed with tree resin. They would also catch cobras to sell to the Vietnamese in Banlung. But now the cobra is a protected species, so it is illegal to hunt them. According to Hao, the Vietnamese use the skin to make leather goods. The blood is often mixed with alcohol and drunk. But only rich people can afford that. Said Hao.

A few miles up the road, we mounted a boat, which took us a long way up the Saison River to Ganjon Tombon village. The way was scenic and quiet. The thick green jungle was only occasionally broken by the appearance of a tribal village. Although the river is quite wide, there is very little traffic. Tribal people use canoes extensively, but never venture far from their home village. The head man, Dam Gam Pun, told us that he was 75 years old. I asked about the two coffins under his house.

One of those will be for the old man.¡¨ Explained Hao. ¡§They get the coffin while he is still alive, so no one has to go into the jungle to cut wood, and miss out on the funeral party. 

Dam Gam Pun was typically slim, but tall for a Tombon. Obviously happy to hav evisitors, he instantly became a ball of energy, running around the village, demonstrating every facet of their lives, from the use Tombon cooking pots to showing us the use of fish traps. He particularly enjoyed showing us how they drink rice wine from large stone jugs, and he reeked of alcohol. But at 75 I think he ws allowed. 

Some tribal people are quite shy. But lukily, Dam Gam Pun was open, and answered all of my questions. He told us that during the Khmer Rouge time he left, to live in the forest. This corroborates the story of much of my research. Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri came under Khmer Rouge control first, years before the fall of Phnom Penh. Some of the earliest recruits were among the hill tribe people, who had been turned against the west by Nixon¡¦s constant US bombing raids into Cambodia. But, once the Khmer Rouge began tightening the screws, eradicating languages and cultures which differed from the Khmer ideal, many hill tribe people ran off into the jungle to wait out the war.

Prince Sihanouk and later, republican Dictator, Lon Nol, also invested great effort in recruiting tribal soldiers. Dam Gam Pun told us that two people from the village had served in Lon Nol¡¦s army, but returned unharmed. It was a direct result of these recruiting and integration efforts that the Cambodia¡¦s tribal people were given citizenship cards and passports.

Although they are facing the same issues of land grabbing, poverty, illiteracy, and cultural annihilation as tribal people everywhere, citizenship is a decided advantage over the tribal people of Thailand and Burma who are stateless persons.

The village didn't have a school, but some children could take a boat, and attend the school on the other side of the river. According to Dam Gam Pun the only job in the village was farming. They supplemented their diet with hunting.

As soon as I expressed an interest in hunting, Dam Gam Pun began laughing like a child. He called all of the village boys to help him set up the nets, so he could show me how they killed wild pigs. They strung up a strong net between two trees, tying it off only lightly at the ends, with plenty of slack in the middle. Next, they proped up the net with tall sticks stuck in the ground.

Dam Gam Pun handed out long sharpened sticks to all of the boys, who got on line, and began marching towards the net.

They will scare the pig.¡¨ Explained Dam Gam Pun. ¡§And he will run into the net. 

Once the pig was tangled in the net, two men, armed with harpoons, would leap out from behind the trees, and stab the pig to death. It didn't seem like a pleasant way to go. I was never so glad that I was not a pig.

Examining the harpoons, they were about two meters long, with a cruel looking eighteen-inch metal blade at the end.

Dam Gam Pun looked extremely happy. I wondered if maybe at his age this was as close as he would get to hunting. Perhaps showing me his toys was like a trip down memory lane for him. Dancing about on unsteady feet, he waved his harpoon at me. I wanted to remind him that alcohol and spears don't mix, but he was really the one in control.

Leaving the harpoons in his hut, Dam Gam Pun showed me the knife they used for sacrificing buffalo. It was a long metal blade, attached to a curved stick, designed for hacking. He was explaining the funeral rights to me, in general, but on some level, he was explaining what the villagers would do when he died, which he believed to be very soon.

When a buffalo is killed at a funeral, the knees are cut first, forcing the animal to drop to the ground. Finally, the neck is cut. Everyone in the village helps to cut and clean the meat. A feast is called, and it usually takes two nights for an entire buffalo to be eaten. Hao told me that since it is the deceased who is paying for the party, when a rich man dies it could last much longer.

Depending on how rich he was, it could be three nights or even two weeks.

For the rich man, they would kill a lot of buffalo.

On the way to the graveyard, Hao stopped to show me a separate, smaller burial area.

If someone dies outside of the village, the funeral and party would be here.¡¨ Explained Hao. The main cemetery is only for people who died in the village. 

The main cemetery in Ganjon Tombon village was truly amazing. Some of the villagers nearer to Banlung are slowly loosing their customs. They are also loosing land through illegal sales and grabs, forcing them to do away with their elaborate burial procedures. But the graves in Ganjon village were perfect examples of the true tribal culture, right out of a textbook.

Each grave was covered with a roof, to keep the spirit of the dead from flying away. All of the villagers are buried in the same area, so that they can rebuild the village in the spirit world. The roofs and supports were decorated with motifs from the life of the deceased. For example, one roof bore a tremendous carving of ship, signifying that the deceased had been a fisherman. One of the best decorations was on the grave of a policeman.

There was a huge carving of a man, with sunglasses, a hat, and a walky-talky.

A small shrine was built on the grave, displaying the head of the buffalo slaughtered at the funeral. On the grave of a dead man, there was a carving of a girl, so that he could have a girlfriend in the next life. Further along in the quest for equality, the graves of women were also adorned with carvings of men. Once the roof was built, then the grave would be covered with all of the things that the person had used in life. But, the objects had to broken first. The graves were covered with shards of pottery, to symbolize that this life was bad, but the next life would be better.

Two people can occupy one grave.¡¨ Explained Hao. ¡§If a husband dies first, he is buried on one side, with a girl statue. Then when the wife dies, she is buried on the other side, with a boy statue.

One grave had elephant tusks, made of wood.

Hao explained. ¡§Elephants were once very important to the tribe, used to take their goods to market. But now only one local village has elephants.

Most tribal people use a motorcycle.

The Tombon plant banana trees on the grave. If the trees grow, they he will be happy in next life.

Westerners have called tribal people primitive. But in actuality they have a strict set of rules and codes, which they would never violate. Hao explained that if the roof breaks, they cannot fix it unless they do another sacrifice.

Dam Gam Pun explained the native people¡¦s love of the forest. ¡§Before we cut the tree we ask the spirit for permission. Before we plant rice, we sleep here. If, in the dream, the spirits give permission, then you can cut the trees and plant. If the spirits say no, you must find another place. If the spirits are unhappy, then you must kill an animal and make a sacrifice.¡¨

Some families never repair the graves because they are too poor.

Traipsing through the jungle, hundreds of nautical miles up river from the nearest city, I was beginning to feel like Sir Richard Francis Burton, searching for the source of the Nile. But my fantasy was shattered when not one but four groups of tourists appeared on the trail both behind and in front me.

I came to the end of the world and found people on guided tours.

Tourism in Cambodia is still in its infancy, and you can be the first person to do a particular tour, or the first person that year, or at least, the only one that day. But, an end to the wild adventure is coming. A major highway is planned, connecting Ratanakiri and Vietnam. The small airport, with the unpaved runway is about to be replaced by an international airport.

I found myself surrounded by French and Germans. Soon, I would be escaping to the sanity of Phnom Penh. But for the tribes, there was no escape. And the constant march of digital cameras, US Dollars, and handkerchief-sized swimsuits on corpulent German men was going to eradicate their way of life.

Chinese Village

Wen Sai Chinese village is home to only 150 people, from 25 Kuo Ming Dan families, who came to Cambodia, from Guangdon Province, to escape war with the Japanese and with the Communist forces of Mao Tse Dong. The village is locate only a few meters from Ganjon Tombon village, but the difference between the two was instantly noticeable.

Children laughed and played in the Chinese village. They looked healthier, well nourished and more alert. I got a more playful laughs and giggles and children coming out to greet and joke with me than I did in tribal or Khmer villages. The poverty of the Khmers and tribal people results in malnutrition, which in turn makes them less productive, and less alert. It is a vicious cycle, which drives them deeper into poverty. The Chinese seem to be the only ethnic group who have managed to avoid sinking into this trap.

The Chinese houses were all painted blue, and stood two stories tall, whereas Khmer and tribal houses are all one story, up on stilts, and made of unfinished wood or bamboo. The houses were neat, and tidy, with living space upstairs, and a shop downstairs.

All of the Chinese are businessmen.¡¨ Explained Hao, using the Indochinese word, which means both merchant and businessman.

In addition to the cleanliness, the wealthy houses, and the happy healthy children, there was something else unusal about the Chinese village.

It's the men. Said Hao. There are men in a Chinese village. 

That was it! In Khmer and tribal villages we had only seen children and women. If there were any men at all, they were very old. 

Normally the men go to work in the rice fields, so there are only old people and children in the villages. Explained Hao. ¡§But because the Chinese are businessmen, they are home all day.

Men sat at tables, sharing fruit or drinking glasses of tea, talking about the price of rice and fish.

I had no idea how one could earn money with an office so far from Wall Street. So, I asked Hao exactly what business the Chinese were doing in this jungle retreat.

They buy rice from the Lao village next door. But they pay a cheap price. Said Hao. Then they take the rice to Banlung and sell it a t a profit. After the Lao people sell the rice to the Chinese they buy all of the things they need in the Chinese shops. 

So, the Chinese even get back the small price they paid for the rice. I concluded.

Yes, but not finished. Said Hao. ¡§Because the Chinese pay them so little for the rice, they need money during the growing season, so they borrow from the Chinese. They have to pay 100% interest, and they pay back with rice instead of money. 

The story went even further.

 When they have a failed rice harvest, the Lao have to buy back their own rice from the Chinese at a higher price, in order to survive.

No wonder the Chinese didn't have to break their backs out in the fields, they had the entire Lao community in debt servitude.

When I used a ten dollar US note to buy a coke in a Chinese shop, the worker, the owner's son, gave me my change in Riel (Cambodian currency). In the capital it was the common practice that you would not usually be given more than one or two dollars in local currency, and the rest in US dollars.

The informal exchange rate used in shops throughout the country was 4,000 Riel to the dollar. But at banks the exchange rate had crept up to 4,200 Riel to the dollar. By giving change exclusively in Riel, the Chinese family was shoring up their familiar reserves of hard currency. And on my transaction alone, they had earned 2,000 Riels, or fifty cents, by playing the exchange rates. Most of Cambodia's poor labourers earned about a dollar per day. Aside from the fact that a rural Khmer business would have lost the sale, because they couldn't change a ten dollar bill, just by making change in Riel, the Chinese had already earned half a day's wages.  

As always in Indochina, and particularly in Cambodia, I was impressed with the Chinese. They were the merchants of Asia, and would probably become the merchants of the Earth. In 1975, under the Pol Pot regime, they were singled out, hunted and killed. In 1979, when Cambodia was starting over again from zero, the Chinese were starting over from minus. And yet, today they were the owners, the bosses, the landlords, moneylenders, and business people just as it was thirty years ago. The Pol Pot regime had been intended to end Cambodia's subservience to foreign governments and foreign culture. And now, they had come full circle. Millions of people had died needlessly, but things were right back to where they started. 

Some thing else I had noticed in the Chinese village was the absence of pigs. Normally, pigs and chickens ran freely through villages.

Knowing how much the Chinese enjoy eating pork, Don't Chinese people have pigs. I asked Hao.

Oh yes, some of them do. But they make a business, raising large numbers of pigs in an enclosure. When the pigs are big enough, they sell them in the city. 

Khmer, hill tribe and Lao families just have a few pigs. And when the pigs are large enough, they slaughter and eat them.  

Outside a shop, I met one of the villages two Chinese teachers. Pleased to discover that he spoke Mandarin, we continued in that language, and he told me about life in the village.

He was twenty-four years old. Although he was born in Cambodia, he had attended Chinese school, and now worked as a teacher. He said that all the other families came from Guangdong, but at home they spoke Tchiew, the predominant Chinese dialect in Indochina. Throughout the world, Cantonese, Fukinies, Hokien, and Tchiew seem to be the most common dialects spoken in overseas Chinese communities. But there is a movement among families to have their children learn Mandarin at private Chinese schools.

The teacher told me that the students went to school in the morning to do state schooling, in Khmer, with a Khmer teacher. In the afternoon, they went back to school, but this time all of the subjects were taught in Mandarine.

The children were learning to write genti ze, simplified Chinese characters, which were now the standard used in Beijing. Two of the children showed me their homework, and I marvelled at the countless hours of practice that were required to learn to write Chinese. I told the teacher that although I could speak mandarin well, I had given up after a few hundred characters. The teacher laughed, saying You are just being modest. I carefully wrote out a few characters to show him. He laughed again. More beautiful than my letters.

No, they aren't. I protested.

The children write slowly and beautifully, concentrating on their letters. He explained. But the older you get, the faster you write, and the uglier your characters are, until no one can read them. I went to the school to meet the other teacher, an energetic, bright, and beautiful young lady, from community of Chinese Diaspora in Malaysia.

I think they pay her a lot of money or she wouldn't come here. Said Hao. ¡§The Khmer teachers are paid by the government, and their salary is about $25 per month. But this girl is paid by the parents who all contributed to her salary. 

This was so typical of the Chinese. Among Khmers Chinese had a reputation for being skinflints. But the one area where they spared no expense was in their children's education. In Phnom Penh, it was very common that Chinese children attended Khmer school, Chinese, and English school all at the same time. Some high school and university students had already completed their private English school and English proficiency exams, and were attending Australian Polytechnic at night, while finishing high school or university during the day.  

Everything in the village was clean, neat, and orderly. The shops were well appointed, and filled with colourful merchandise. Many of them looked better than the average shop in Phnom Penh. But the school building was particularly nice, with a bright blue sign out front. The children all wore their neat, spotless school uniforms, dutifully following their lessons. I happened to walk in the middle of the English class, and was happy to find that the base medium of instruction was Chinese. Children can learn faster using their own language as a base. Also, Khmer lacked the terms to explain the English grammar and lacked the vocabulary to do translations. But Chinese has a word for everything. 

On the board the teacher had written out the Chinese characters for count and non-count nouns, and under each had written a list of English nouns. 

All of the children in Wen Sai were fluent in both written and spoken Khmer, which set them ahead of 87% of the population of Ratanakiri and 54% of Cambodians. They spoke Tchiew at home, were fluent in written and spoken Mandarin, and were learning English, four languages, not bad for a 125 person village in the middle of nowhere, down a river in Ratanakiri. 

That morning at breakfast, Mr. Sompong, the owner of the guesthouse where I was staying, had told me that the Chinese dominated the entire economy of Ratanakiri.

 We walked only a hundred meters further, to the Lao Village.

You see, it looks like a very poor Khmer village. 

The Lao house was a normal, unpainted, one story house on stilts. There were pigs and chickens, and small, mussy children running naked in the unkept yards. 

You see,¡¨ Said Hao. There are no men in the Lao village, because they are farmers, they are all out in the fields. The Chinese don't farm, they sit all day in their shops and do business. 

As we headed back to our boat, and the end of our tour, I thought that I had built enough rapport with Hao that I could ask him the question that had been burning in me for the last eighteen months, since my arrival in Cambodia. 

What do you think about the Chinese? I asked.

I think they are good and hard working. I think they do everything legally. When Khmer are rich, they do corruption. But Chinese get rich by making business. 

How did they get rich? I asked. Were they rich when they came here? 

No, they came from the war. Said Hao. They had nothing. But when they came, they don't care about shy. They do every job just to get money. Then they use money to make a business. And when they get money form the business. They don't spend the money, they use it to make the business bigger. 

Hao's assessment was surprisingly well thought out. Often, when questioning Khmers on cause and effect relationships of why this or that happened in their lives, I had the impression that they didn't know. Much of what happens to them is attributed to karma. But Hao's answered seemed both reasonable and right. So now, I asked the real question. 

If you know how they did it, why can't you do the same? and by you, I meant all of the Khmers.

There is no opportunity in Cambodia. Said Hao, parroting the party line. 

ut you just told me that the Chinese were refugees when they came here. I find it hard to believe that a refugee has more opportunity than a Khmer.

But I have no money to start a business. Protested Hao. 

But you just told me that the Chinese had no money when they came. I pointed out. 

Hao just shook his head in that Does not compute, kind of way that people do, when you challenge their core beliefs. 

The Chinese are hard working. They work every minute. Said Hao, as if this were a reason he couldn't emulate them. But Khmer and Lao, we like to lay in the hammock and rest. 

Once again, if you know this is the problem, why can't you just overcome it?

Hao ignored my comment and kept talking. The things he said were all true, and all reasons why it would be difficult to do what the Chinese had done.

But he spit them out like ready-made excuses. 

When Khmer have money, we spend it. The Chinese like to make their business bigger. But we like to buy a new cell phone or a motorcycle, so our friends will know that we are rich. 

His final answer may actually have been the core problem. The Chinese follow Mahayana Buddhism, whereas the Khmer follow Theravada. 

The Khmer believe there is no point in earning so much money, because we can't take it with us when we die. But the Chinese believe they can. 

Finally, deciding that I wasn't going to solve Cambodia's poverty in a single discussion, I let young Hao off the hook. When we arrived at the guesthouse, I paid him a generous tip for the mental anguish I had subjected him to. 

Seeing the economic progress of the Chinese, I remembered the proverb, which my Tombon friend, Noeuke had taught me. 

The Chinese chase the Khmer. The Khmer chase the tribes. The tribes chase the spirits. And the spirits live in the mountains. 

The Chinese were clearly taking over Ratanakiri. Maybe the world was next, and we would all become Chinese. And as we moved closer to urbanization and capitalism, we were moving away from the farming land, living in commune with nature, and moving away from the mountains, where the spirits lived.

Contact the author at: antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com

You can reach Long Leng of Phnom Penh Tours at
sales@phnompenhtours.com
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