Veun Sai district, Ratanakkiri province – Bou On knows change is coming. Her eyes, milky with age, have seen a jungle footpath swell into a full-sized road. They’ve squinted into a sun reflected from tin roofs that were once wood. And they’ve helplessly followed the footsteps of unwelcome visitors treading on sacred ground.
Caught between their past and their future, the Kachon Krom villagers of Kachon commune are angry and scared. An ancient burial ground resting in the hill tribe community has become a highly coveted tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world. But the development that should make them rich is instead making them poor.
“When the tourists come, the soul is awakened and the angry spirits demand a new home be built. Even the poorest family must sacrifice at least one cow, chicken and pig. We just cannot afford this,” said 60-year-old Bou On, who is a mix of Laotian and Tampuen.
Standing no taller than a healthy 10-year-old girl, Bou On’s frame is slight but her stance firm. She is unwavering in her belief about the cemetery’s rules and the consequences of breaking them.
“After the [funeral] ceremony, no one can visit the tomb. If a family member returns to the site, they will disturb the spirit,” she said. “I just saw a spirit consume the body of a man who revisited his family’s grave. He fell ill and had to give sacrifices to calm the spirit.”
A group of village elders recently wrote a letter to the provincial government requesting their support to prohibit tourists from disturbing the spirits. They even have appealed to Bou On’s brother, former CPP defense minister and deputy prime minister Bou Thong, for help.
Bou Thong, now a parliamentarian and the fifth-ranking member of the CPP’s elite Standing Committee, has donated buffalo and rice to appease the spirits but suggested no more than a protective fence to solve the problem, they said.
Bou Thong has declined to be interviewed.
Now elders are relying on younger residents, like Om Mean, to find a solution. More mud than clothes cover Om Mean’s body as he balances a pile of warning notices on his bicycle handlebars. A young disciple preaching his elders’ words, the 26-year-old member of the village’s natural resource committee passes a paper to each person he meets.
“Tourists should not come, because this is a ghost world separate from the human world,” he said, standing on a new road that cuts the cemetery in half.
Small houses capped with pointed roofs and enclosed by thin wooden fences surround him. Totem poles roughly carved into the shape of men and women stand tall beside the houses, symbolizing the servants of the dead. They bear wooden elephant tusks and riches, a wish for prosperity in the life to come. The wooden mobile phones and tin bras appearing on the latest totems testify to a recent merger between tradition and modernity.
Three warning signs printed in Khmer and English should be enough to keep visitors from touching the totems, but if tour groups insist on breaking the rules, “militant action” must be taken, Om Mean said.
“We can use a knife, stick or hammer to drive them from the site or arrest them,” he said. “If any tourists break the regulations, we will charge them the cost of a ceremonial sacrifice or arrest them and bring them to provincial court.”
It would be a lonely battle, as provincial government officials are unwilling to take firm action on the matter. Ratanakkiri is Cambodia’s largest eco-tourism destination and fourth on the government’s list of tourism development priorities. The internationally renowned Lonely Planet travel book even advises travelers to make the trip to Kachon’s cemetery.
Plans for a new airport and improved roads throughout Cambodia—including one highway planned to go through neighboring Stung Treng province—could transform the province within the next couple of years. The last thing the government wants to do is dissuade visitors from coming, said Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun.
“We won’t support the fining of visitors. The villagers will have to handle it themselves,” he said. “We’ll just follow them for awhile and tell tourists to visit other cemeteries.”
Economic constraints will likely alter villagers’ traditional belief systems, Kham Khoeun said, adding that in a few years the elders would realize their wrongs.
“Their thinking is not so clear or modern,” he said. “There’s no way that visitors walking through that cemetery are affecting their culture.”
The seven ethnic minorities and the ethnic Khmer, Laotian and Vietnamese residents occupying Ratanakkiri have already laid the groundwork for a collision of cultures, which is not necessarily bad, according to Jan Noorlander, CARE’s Highland Children’s Education Project manager.
“A clash of cultures is natural and makes an area more economically viable. People thrive off it. But if they’re not the agents of their own change, people may suffer from it, rather than benefit,” he said.
Over the past five years, an influx of tourists and new residents has rapidly introducing new technology, clothing and languages to the province’s many hill tribes. Sixty-five percent of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities, most of whom practice animism and speak distinct dialects. Their belief systems differ greatly from Khmer culture, and impel many hill tribes to appeal to spirits for a malaria cure or a good harvest.
The risk of rapid cultural integration or homogenization, Noorlander said, is creating a culture of shame.
“Some young indigenous people turn more Khmer than Khmers will ever be. They have a false sense of shame about their roots and their background,” he said. “This results in a rift between elder and younger generations.”
No major ideological divide separates older Kachon Krom villagers from their younger counterparts, they said. But the passage of time may mean the loss of history and a commitment to preserve the past for the future.
Maoeun Choeun, 18, dropped out of second grade years ago to till his family’s soil. He knows little about the spirits. But he works and lives beside his elders and agrees with them because he respects them.
“I guess people could go along to the cemetery as long as they don’t touch it,” Maoeun Choeun said. “I don’t know why. That’s just what the elders say.”