For the past four days I’ve been in the mountains of Cambodia. Sen Monorom is the capital of Mondulkiri Province and home to all sorts of outdoor activities in the jungle. Mondulkiri is also home to the Bunong Hill Tribe who who are a minority in Cambodia, but actually make up the majority in this province. Their language and culture is unique to them and it’s believed that they’ve been here for about 2,000 years.
A few things about the Bunong:
- In a country where 90% of the population are Buddhist, Bunong people practice Animism. They believe that everything has a spirit and that the spirits can get angry when people do things they disagree with. If the spirits get mad, they can make people sick or give them a bad life. But good news! These things can usually be undone by some combination of prayer and rituals.
- Despite the fact that they’ve lived on their land for 2,000 years they don’t actually own it. In a government as corrupt as that of Cambodia, not actually owning the land can lead to problems. If someone eyes their land for the luxury timber (there’s a ton of teak here) they can easily come in, cut it down and plant rubber trees wherever they’d like. You can’t drive for very long here without seeing a huge rubber tree plantation, which is sad. NOTE: In the past, having legal rights to your land doesn’t even always mean it’s really yours. As an example, In the early 2000s a number of people were displaced in Phnom Penh because Hun Sen decided he wanted this land back. That’s the quick version of that story, which is all you get because I don’t want to get thrown into Cambodian People’s Party prison for saying mean things about the government.
- While some people say that the Bunong people were left unscathed by the Khmer Rouge, I’ve spoken to a few local people here who say that’s not the case. But, the Khmer Rouge gave special treatment to people who were already living a basic life off the land (they called them “base people”) and the Bunong definitely fell into this category, so things were probably much different for them then the city people of Phnom Penh.
While Sen Monorom is the capital of Mondulkiri, there’s not a whole lot going on in the center of town. There are a few guesthouses, a hospital (there aren’t always doctors on duty here,) the bus station and a few restaurants. Pretty much everything there is to see is outside of town. I was told by a woman I met in Kampot (more on Kampot at some point) that I should go to the “Bunong Place” to meet the head of the Bunong Place NGO who would give me a Bunong guide. I swung by on my first day in town and the next day I was zipping through the mountains on the back of Soknai’s motorbike.
The day included lots of nature, but the best part was the three hours we spent with a Bunong family. When we arrived, the family’s father was in the process of making one of the typical Bunong baskets by cutting small strips of bamboo to weave, while the rest of the family was lounging around. On a Tuesday afternoon.
The kids don’t go to school, which was a topic of conversation between the father and Soknai who tried to tell him how important it was that at least one of his kids attend school.
Soon after we arrived, the oldest daughter cooked lunch for everyone and we went into their house to eat on the raised platform that is used for pretty much everything from eating to sleeping.
Lunch was steamed rice with a vegetable “found in the forest” and dried meat “killed in the forest.” I asked a few times if Soknai knew what type of meat we were eating and all I got was “animal killed in forest.” Specific enough for me! It was good. You’ll remember that I thought the fried beef with red ants was good as well, so I didn’t ask many questions.
After lunch the father asked Soknai if I would take a photo of their oldest daughter. After that photo shoot, we decided to do one of the whole family so that Soknai could print them out and bring them over.
The entire family brushed their hair and the father washed his hair and changed his clothes completely.
Below are photos from their big photo shoot, along with some highlights of the rest of the day:
© Michelle Starin 2014