sen monorom city, Mondolkiri province – Bamboo houses with arched thatch roofs once marked the hilltribe villages that dotted the green valleys and grassy hills of this northeastern province.
Now, Khmer-style wooden houses on stilts are all the rage. And though they have their own language, young members of the Banong minority in Mondolkiri often only speak the Khmer language now, while traditional Banong dress is reserved only for special occasions—a sign, some believe, that their traditions and culture is fading fast as Mondolkiri connects more with Cambodia’s lowlands.
“The future of the [Banong] people as an ethnic group is limited,” said Bill Herod, a longtime development worker in Cambodia who moved to Sen Monorom City several years ago.
“I am deeply concerned that we might be in the last decade,” Mr Herod said.
The Banong, who once practiced rotational farming in the province’s forests and have animist beliefs, are still the dominant ethnic group in Mondolkiri province. But their language, culture and religion are being rapidly lost.
Their traditional skills are dying along with the elderly Banong people, who once knew how to capture wild elephants in the forests, spin wool for their clothes and make the dyes that gave the bright colors to their garments, Mr Herod said.
The young “have some pride in their [Banong] background, but they see it as the old ways and they see the way forward to become fully integrated in Khmer society.”
At the same time, foreign businesses have destroyed spirit forests—sacred groves of trees that the Banong worship and are prohibited from harming—and forced people from their land in economic concession zones, Mr Herod said.
Government policies have also not let Banong people learn in their own language, he said.
“This meets the [cultural] definition of genocide,” he added, noting that the term could apply to depriving people of their ethnic identities or dispossessing them of their land.
Sam Vanny, chief of O’Reang district’s Dak Dam commune, where 95 percent of the 1,400-strong population is Banong, disagreed with such dire predictions for the future.
Residents still practice traditions such as killing buffaloes as sacrifices to the spirits who bring rain or to appease the forest spirits who bring sickness.
Less than 10 percent of the houses in Dak Dam are built in a traditional Banong style, and those that are, are mostly inhabited by elderly people, Mr Vanny said.
Traditional homes are less popular now for a very practical reason, he said: The thatch needs to be replaced every three years.
“But other traditions and cultural practices still exist,” he added.
“It’s not [cultural] genocide. I am also Banong. People have just changed their way of life.”
Myay Tob, a 17-year-old Banong from Pouchrey commune in Pech Chreada district, said that she had never seen a traditional Banong house made from thatch and bamboo, and all the homes in her birthplace, Pouchrey Chang village, were made of wood.
“I used to hear people talk about the traditional houses and [Banong] jewelry, but they complain that it is difficult to find materials such as bamboo and thatch,” she said.
Ms Tob said that she mostly spoke in the Khmer language, which she learned from her siblings, who studied at school, and from television.
“I can speak Banong, but not very well,” she admitted.
Her neighbor Sary Ven, 27, said that over the past five years, only a few people have built traditional-style homes, which have a fire in the middle. The traditional houses are hard to construct now because of a lack of materials, she explained.
“Bamboo and plants for thatch still exist in the forest, but it is too far from village now, because forested areas have been cleared for rubber and cassava plantations,” she said.
Traditional garments and jewelry have also gone the way of the Banong’s houses, Ms Ven said.
“I don’t know how to weave and make baskets worn on the back. But I think other older Banong people can do it.”
Aisi Sokuntheari, Mondolkiri deputy governor, said that indigenous people have never been forced to abandon their way of life. The changes evident amongst the Banong in the province are a natural development, she said.
“Indigenous villagers love to adapt to modern life, to Cambodian civilization. Especially, they now wear jeans, shirts, and T-shirts,” she said, noting that traditional clothes are expensive and take a long time to make by hand.
The Mondolkiri Resource and Documentation Center opened its doors in December in an attempt to preserve a record of Banong heritage and traditional knowledge. Banong language and customs, including playing a guitar-like instrument called the guitoeun, would likely not last much longer, said the center’s manager Bunthy Chey.
“But if we try to promote places like this, we can help to preserve some of their culture,” said Ms Chey, who is Banong and Khmer herself. The resource is a project of NGO Nomad RSI and supported by the UN Spain Millennium Development Goal Achievement Fund.
The center has about 500 books, reports, sound recordings and videos on issues important to the area, such as gold mining and local ethnic groups, she said.
The center held traditional Banong storytelling sessions in June and will open an exhibition on food collected from the forest in November, she added.
Broev Narong, 16, who visited the center yesterday to set up a Facebook account using one of the center’s computers, is indicative of the changing face of the province’s Banong youth.
“I have never even seen traditional [Banong] clothes,” said Narong, who moved from Pouraing village, in O’Reang district’s Sen Monorom commune, to live at a residential center in town in order to study at high school.
Reflecting on being Banong, Narong said simply, “The culture, language and traditions have changed.”