o’chum district, Ratanakkiri province – After living for all of his 19 years without clocks, medicine or clothes made of fabric, Lat Baum has made his first major purchase:
A Casio digital wristwatch.
He hasn’t learned to tell time yet, but this hasn’t spoiled his enjoyment of his new $5 timepiece.
“We never knew the time in the jungle,” said Lat Baum on Monday, speaking proudly of his watch as he squatted in front of his tiny thatched house in Krala village—a Kreung minority community in O’Chum district.
Three months ago, Lat Baum and 33 other ethnic minority villagers emerged from the dense forests in northeastern Ratanakkiri province and turned themselves over to Laotian authorities. They fled to the jungle after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and lived in isolation from the outside world for 25 years. Their return has captured imaginations.
Today, sporting a blue baseball cap and decked out in a light blue shirt and blue trousers, Lat Baum is happy with his new life.
“When we lived in the jungle we had no clothes. What we wore we made from the trees,” he said.
Now Lat Baum and others from his group are mentally and physically adjusting to the relative modernity of northeastern Cambodia.
And though none miss the forest where they lived for decades, the pressure of their return to civilization is taking its toll.
In the forest, clothes were made from pliable tree bark, now clothing must be purchased. Food and medicine must be purchased from the market, and motorcycle taxi drivers want money for the journey to get there, Lat Baum said.
“I will never go back to visit the forest. But it is very expensive for us to live here,” he said.
On the opposite side of Krala village, Ly Moun, 36, his wife and their gaggle of children agreed that their life now was better than in the forest.
But their health has suffered since their return to society, and a monetary economy has been, in some ways, more difficult to survive in than the jungle.
“The hardest thing in the village is finding money,” Ly Moun said. “In the forests we didn’t need clothes and shoes, trousers and skirts for the children. Now we come here and there are many people, and we need clothes for the children,” he said.
Though illness was never an issue during their years in isolation, those who left the forest in November have experienced frequent bouts of fever, colds and a constant hacking cough, Ly Moun’s wife, Ath, said.
No one suffered from malaria or other serious sicknesses in the forest, and the one man from the group who died several years ago was 60 years old. He died from what Ly Moun and others described as cancer.
A 10-day-old baby died when the group first arrived in Banlung, and another member of the original group has also since passed away, Ly Moun said.
Ratanakkiri First Deputy Governor Muong Poy said on Wednesday that he received information that one of the original group, an elderly woman, had died from sickness in January.
“In the jungle we rarely got sick. Now all the people who were in the jungle have the cough,” said Ly Moun, who puts their illnesses down to living in close proximity to other people.
Having many people living nearby was, however, the best thing about leaving the jungle, said Ly Moun’s 9-year-old son, Khieng, who played raucously on Monday with other children in the village.
“There are many children and many places to play. In the jungle we had no music or stereos,” said Khieng, who in the past months has become a fan of Khmer pop music.
Though television, packaged food and school are some of the best things about his new life in the village, Khieng still prefers one far older invention over all the other things he has discovered since leaving the jungle.
Pointing to a battered and rusty bicycle parked beneath his wooden house, he said: “I love the bicycle the most.”