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More to Cambodian Culture than Angkor Wat

Here is the slightly fuller version of the article published in the Khmer Times, with more scholarly and  pointed references.  Also below is a second photograph and caption.

 The Putaing Community Social Enterprise Group decided to revive Bunong Song and Dance for extra income from performing at traditional ceremonies and for eco-tourism visitors.

More to Cambodian Culture than Angkor Wat

Cambodia can justifiably take great pride in Angkor Wat and its classic dance led by its graceful Apsaras.

Yet there is far more to Cambodian culture, to be just as proud about, and not just to impress or attract foreign visitors. All Cambodians should appreciate and enjoy their compatriots’ heritage and culture.

Indigenous ancestries pre-date the Khmer. No-one has yet done a definitive study.  A United Nations report suggests 6 larger tribes and 20 smaller ones[1].  Their combined population probably exceeds 200,000 or up to 2% of the Cambodia’s population. Indigenous people are wary of being counted, which explains why there is no exact figure. Sometimes they are referred to as "Khmer Loeu" collectively although this is clearly wrong. They are distinct from Khmer and some groups from each other.  The same error is made when calling them "Montagnards" a colonial title.  (More here by Minority Rights Group International or by Professor Ian G Baird.)

Languages living and dying?

The languages spoken are as diverse as the cultures. Like Khmer, they are classified as “Austroasiatic” spreading from India to Malaysia. Four distinct sub-groups cover Cambodia with notable differences[2].  Khmer are “Khmeric”.  Kreung, Tampoun and Bunong, in mainly the North-East, belong to the Bahranic sub-group.  Smaller indigenous groups elsewhere belong to the Katuic and Pearic sub-groups, and are in more danger of dying out.  Khmer predominates for official purposes and in formal education.  Some indigenous languages are spoken-only. Most have not converted to Khmer script, derived originally from a south Indian alphabet. Nor have any followed the French influence in Vietnam to adopt the Latin alphabet.  Today initiatives are underway to allow teaching of indigenous students in their own languages, enabling far more to complete schooling and go on to higher education.[3][4]  English is of course becoming omnipresent due to the internet and social media.

In religion, most indigenous people are “Animist” and not naturally akin to the Buddhist majority, though beliefs and customs tend to intertwine.  Unlike many of their cousins in Vietnam, Cambodian indigenous people in general have not embraced Christianity.

Darkest days

Over the years, indigenous minorities have been pressured to join mainstream culture.  The most violent was by the Khmer Rouge There is one Kampuchean revolution. In Kampuchea, there is one nation and one language, the Khmer language. From now on, the various nationalities do not exist any longer in Kampuchea.”[5]

Fortunately, despite tens of thousands perishing, enough survived to return to their ancient homes and lands, to rebuild traditional lives and livelihoods. Importantly, they have retained many unique qualities, recognized first by Anthropologists?[6].  Ratanakkiri, the province’s name meaning “Mountain of precious stones”, has jewels in the form of its peoples, but like the now over-mined gems, they could disappear altogether.

One unique universal quality of indigenous people, due to their affinity with nature is that they are good husbands of forests and highly efficient in their utilization of scarce resources”[7]. Unfortunately most of their lands are now being taken from them in the name of development, at times with international agencies like the World Bank involved acting contrarily to its aims and policies.

They also have a peaceful and forgiving nature.  They are less haunted by the country’s violent past. “Crimes common in larger-scale societies (theft, rape, murder) are virtually unheard of due to deterrents in both the spiritual sense but also to the heavy fines in sacrifice and feasts in ceremonies to appease that would be levied”.[8]

Good development partners

Too often we still hear that indigenous people are primitive or savage[9], undeserving of their lands to be put to better use for the country’s development[10].  Decision-makers, instead of excluding them, should invite them for consultations and mutually acceptable solutions.

Tourism is already a major-revenue earner for Cambodia and expected to grow.  Yet Angkor Wat is already over-saturated; risking damage to fragile monuments, with the enjoyment of tourists spoilt by over-crowding.   Many go in search of alternative ways to amuse themselves.  They visit dubious orphanages, with attendant risks and harm to Cambodian children[11].  Recently some have taken to visiting garbage dumps – now what kind of impression, does that give[12]?

Respectable adventurous tourists search out the many attractions often unnoticed all over Cambodia. Perhaps more Cambodians will break the habit of simply descending on Siem Reap; Preah Sihanouk or Kampot/Kep for Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year?  Some are already discovering the charms of Mondulkiri.  But are they embracing indigenous culture?  Outsiders are taking over prime spots such as Bousra Waterfall, detracting from the genuine local authenticity that attracts people in the first place.  Will they want to be entertained by the Putaing Bunong traditional dancers, or go for live music that goes on despite the sad death of renowned pioneer Nyel Che last year[13]?  Can the various “Eco-tourism” projects, founded on indigenous people’s values, appeal to Cambodians as much as to foreigners[14]?

Many of us hope that a National Cambodian Indigenous People’s Cultural Centre will develop based on Mondulkiri’s centre begun with the help of UNESCO and now supported by Germany’s Henreich Böll Foundation.[15]

Now if everyone could fully appreciate Cambodia’s indigenous people’s rich culture, then their rightful place in Society - and their continued existence - would be safe.

www.mdgfund.org - Kreung Handicrafts - Ratanakkiri Province

The Creative Industries Support Programme (CISP), a partnership between UN agencies and local organizations, supported indigenous and Khmer artisans in northern and eastern Cambodia.  One of the problems these days, is that tourists may be sold non-authentic goods imported in to Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri.

A great snapshot of what life was like in indigenous communities can be seen here.

Similarly for more go to this great video of the Indigenous People's Market in Mondulkiri

Back Story: In both Banlung Ratanakkiri and Sen Monorom Mondulkiri we discovered that all the sedentary market-stalls were taken by Khmer and outside traders. Indigenous people, many of whom had lived without cash until recently, and who carried their goods in traditional baskets many miles through the night over mountainous terrain, had to try to sell them in the open with no shelter from hot rain or tropical downpours. (At one time Bill Herod ran a great little place where they could rest and have breakfast*.)  In Banlung we secured some spaces for them but in Sen Monorom there wasn't room, so with the help of a project operated by ILO and UNESCO, we were able to build a special market for them. (See also this posting)

* "Bunong Center" closed when the rented property was re-let at greatly more cost to major conservation INGOs!)


Cambodia Indigenous Peoples; some videos fromthank you. Go there for more.

Updates - most recent first

Update February 2023
Hul Kanha Exhibit

Excellent article about Bunong women, their culture and fabrics, as captured by Artist Hul Kanha.

Whereas with some minorities, for example in Thailand and Vietnam, you will see women and girls out and about in traditional attire, Bunong these days tend to reserve it as their best for special occasions such as weddings.  It's quite good to see the contrast from Khmer women who of course prefer their best silks.

Update September 2022

An excellent round-up/overview article by Bunly Soueng in New Mandala - just one major omission.  Fails to point out the complete and repeated failures of the major international Conservation NGOs that have not only been operating with presences (offices and teams) in all areas, but have been remarkably quiet and complicit. They have chosen to co-operate with authorities violently opposed to indigenous communities trying to preserve their forests and who have been active participants in crimes. They have been and are Gamekeeper-Cum-Poachers!

Update August 2022

Punchy article by Bunly Soueng about Cambodia's Indigenous people's severe land loss and repercussions.

Update July 2022

An endearing story featuring the Chong minority, one of the smallest and most at-risk, as the area opens up for development and "eco-tourism" that may not benefit them. See earlier blog too. 

Update June 2022

Great story here by Jack Brook in the SEA Globe about elephants in Mondulkiri and Bunong culture.

Also excellent publication from AIPP about the situation of Indigenous People in Cambodia and other Mekong countries, setting out deficiencies especially in land, environmental and cultural rights.

Update February 2022

Excellent publication by Sango Mahanty going back to the year I first went to Mondulkiri, and when things were very different. "Khmerization" had arrived but was not dominant in most indigenous villages where people still lived largely traditional lives.  That included little need for and use of money. Logging was taking place but not on the scale seen later, and few economic land concessions had been granted. "Surya", although an incomer is the main character describing changes and the "new unsettled frontier" markets that emerged.

Update June 2021

Terrible news. Gold-mining is now underway in Mondulkiri despite no proper environmental and social assessments and needless to say few if any benefits going to local indigenous communities. A good article has appeared in Earth Journalism Network depicting how deforestation is impacting on traditional food and more besides.  I don't agree with one statement that Bunong indigenous people have little legal knowledge. Most do know their rights these days.  It's just that those rights are not respected by authorities led mainly by Khmer incomers and because the major conservation NGOs mentioned have manifestly failed in their mission to protect natural resources.

Update April 2021

The Covid19 pandemic has reached Cambodia and as with indigenous people elsewhere is likely to impact Cambodia's more than main stream societies. (You can go to my website for our health initiatives with them.) Land issues are also the the fore again.  The agencies and donors who have failed all poor groups deprived of traditional lands up to now are back with more big plans and big money. Will they do any good this time? Good article from Danielle Keeton-Olsen.

Update August 2020

Chris Humphreys in Mongahay writes one of the most detailed articles about the situation in Keo Seima where indigenous people, authorities, and international conservationists all come together. This area despite its sparse population and once abundant forest (I first navigated in 1998) has seen an astonishing amount of Foreign Aid money spent and wasted. Hardly any has benefited Bunong people. Deforestation has done untold harm.

Beautiful photography in this SE Asia Globe piece about Vietnam's ethnic minorities - who of course pre-exist modern borders and nation states, and so are closely related to their Cambodian cousins. Similar high quality images from Sean Gallagher [video] of deforestation.

Update September 2019

Indigenous people in Cambodia have had very little protection from authorities and courts in Cambodia. How will this group fare in France? Follow twitter thread for articles.

Update June 2019

very good study by Margerheriti Maffii for FAO was released today coinciding with the visit by the Australian Ambassador to Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri and my comments.  Although the study is focussed on gender issues facing indigenous women, it does make salient wider points.

Here again I just wish to elaborate on my long-term observation of the main impediment to Cambodia's indigenous people being able to advance and secure what they regard as their best interests. Historically even distinct groups including the larger ones have no tradition of centralised leaderships within communities let alone across their related communities.  Now that gap has always so far been filled by external parties who have their own agendas.  Obviously the most significant of those are Khmer rulers including the ruling party today who still harbour designs on their lands. However equally motivated by their own agenda have been the major conservation and human rights NGOs. Donors have not helped much either by supporting projects and individual causes not the "big picture".  All of this has created a heady mix of many often disparate groups, in fact far too many separate indigenous people's supposed own NGOs, all individually too small to have much impact. Since 2010 I have been trying to secure funds for a national independent body to try to bring them together. Originally I hoped that the various community-based development and education sponsorship projects I'd initiated and supported would lead to a mass membership-based gathering of indigenous leaders and young people with leadership potential. We proved that federated self-help groups work and when in supported residences indigenous students do acquire collective spirit. However, no-one so far has been willing to build on these foundations to develop a truly authentic indigenous network and co-ordinating advocacy body that is needed. Long-term not short-term thinking is needed.

Update 10 January 2019

A very good statement by the indigenous people of Taiwan that holds for all everywhere.

"We do not share the monoculturalism, unification, and hegemony promoted by you, Mr. Xi, on behalf of the government of China. It is far from greatness. It is of nothing that we desire. Being humble to the land, respecting other lives, to co-exist with other groups of people in pursuit of common good — these are values that we believe in".

Update November 2018

An excellent academic treatise on Cambodia's ethnic identities - during the Khmer Rouge era.  Although it is not the ethnic minorities but the Cham Muslims, women and other "minority"groups studied, the analysis and conclusions apply equally.

Update 1 October 2018

Excellent worldwide report by UN Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. Cambodia is not one of the countries studied but her conclusions do still apply there.

Update September 2018

Nice little  tweet  and video by the Phnom Penh Post on one of our smaller projects - the market for the Bunong indigenous people to sell their produce in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri. It was a challenging project to surmount obstacles from taxi-drivers and other traders (all Khmer) but in the end in a rare spirit of all-round co-operation, the market went ahead.

In-depth academic study "Impact of Government Policies and Corporate Land Grabs on Indigenous People’s Access to Common Lands and Livelihood Resilience in Northeast Cambodia". 

Update 12 June 2018

A new kid on the block? Yet another new Cambodian Indigenous People's Organisation (CIPO) but the "more the merrier" if they co-ordinate and pursue common agenda. They're tweeting here. Website in Khmer only so far here.

Update May 2018

Please see this excellent report and the great work being done to save the most endangered of Cambodian ethnic minority languages.

Update February 2018

Please see this excellent conference write-up hosted by University of Wilmington.

Update  27 December 2917

Fascinating insight in to the ancient spiritual beliefs being harnessed for modern advocacy by Jonas Kramp and Chay Vathana.

Update October 2017

A film in Khmer is available here with an explanation of the contents in English text to go with the vivid images. One of the four ethnic minorities featured are the Kreung, very close to Bunong, but all are related ancient SE Asia inhabitants from pre-colonial times and borders.

Update August 2017

Bousra Waterfall
Recently I met Bunong students studying in Phnom Penh from Bousra in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. Their village is the home of the famous waterfall that is the most popular tourist site in the province.

They confirmed what I observed on my last visit there last year - that all but one of the refreshment and souvenir kiosks had been acquired by incomers, many selling imitation local handicrafts, instead of their genuine products. One dresses up tourists as Bunong people, as pictured right.

During that visit I also went to Ratanakkiri and its most popular tourist site, Yak Loam Lake. There too was the notable absence of any of the indigenous minorities, unlike years ago, who once made up substantial majorities in both of these provinces.

Clearly more efforts are needed if ethical tourism is to provide major benefits to Cambodia's indigenous people, and somehow begin to make up for the vast loss of their traditional lands and livelihoods.

One small promising development, however, is Yun Mane's new restaurant in Phnom Penh, located in the popular tourist area of Tuol Tom Pong , the “Russian Market”. Their food is authentic; prepared, cooked, and served by indigenous staff while using true ingredients from their farms and [what is left of their] forests.

Ratanakkiri's most popular tourist site. Such areas still house important spiritual sites for indigenous people who are animists. Often these are not respected by tourist operators and tourists. One of the few exceptions is Globalteers who are giving a welcome lead.


More Viewing and Reading

Eco-tourism is portrayed as a way for indigenous communities to adapt to modernity and to take advantage of opportunities. An optimistic assessment of its potential with codicils was given by Survival in its early days. The argument raised then and proved since to be apt is to what extent are indigenous communities involved?  In Mondulkiri they're being squeezed out. As recently as 2016 there was scope to reverse this. Chanrith Ngin explains in this detailed study.

Although not of indigenous people's areas of Cambodia, Roberto Serrini's aerial photography of rural Cambodia captures life away from the cities and tourist spots. You can also view several trailers of documentaries about Cambodia here. For those of us who remember the 1960s, the one about the country's "Lost Rock and Roll" depicts just how alike countries and cultures can be before events force them in different directions. You can listen to Dengue Fever's Khmer version of  Joni Mitchell/Judy Collins "Both Sides Now" here.

Excellent article in the Cambodia Daily setting out the place of indigenous people's in the context of climate change and other worldwide dimensions. 

For more detailed background of the role of Traditional Health Workers during  the Khmer Rouge rule, please see this study by Anne Y. Guillou, Our book on Bunong "Kruu Boran" includes one of many forced to practice his skills far from home.

One more great feature was produced by up-and-coming journalist Abbie Sieff who has "cut her teeth" in Cambodia.  She describes the implications of development on the Mekong that will impact seriously on all the population depending on it, none more so than indigenous people. See also the vivid report on 2 February 2018 by Earth Rights International about the water-levels as they rise and displace indigenous people in Stung Treng province.

Indigenous Bunong People are not just being flushed out of house and home, but from their ancestral lands, despite supposed to be protected by Cambodia's 2001 Land Law and the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) that requires "full free and informed prior consent" for any development.
Tom Frewer discusses good governance and NGOs in the context of Mondulkiri, making some valid points - including the proliferation of NGOs for such a small population and the apparent differences between indigenous Bunong people and NGO external Khmer leaders advocating what they regard is best for them. "Doing NGO Work: the politics of being ‘civil society' and promoting 'good governance' in Cambodia".

Ian Baird is also an excellent chronicler of indigenous issues - here is a link to some of his papers.  The main one here discusses the rights of the Lao minority in Cambodia, whose presence of course predates the nation state borders introduced in the colonial era.

Andreas Neef has conducted studies on land issues in Cambodia including in Kratie province where of course indigenous people have been bady affected.  His study in 2013 is well worth re-reading as well as another in 2016. His choice of phrase is apt:

As you will see from the quotes PM Hun Sen of Cambodia is openly critical of Cambodia's indigenous people wanting to continue with their traditional resin-collection. Neal Keating explains such issues in his 2012 paper "From Spirit Forests to Rubber Plantations". 

For other articles and relevant developments, go to Latest News here.

[2] “Kuay in Cambodia” by Gerald Diffloth.
[4] http://www.unicef.org/cambodia/12633_17787.html
[5] (Quote from Page 11 of  http://www.minorityrights.org/download.php@id=418) See also:
[6] http://www.worldcat.org/title/mountain-of-precious-stones-ratanakiri-cambodia-essays-in-social-anthropology/oclc/148032215
[7]  Ethnic Minorities and Rural Poverty in Lao PDR, Anders Engvall, Stockholm School of Economics, April 2006, Page 23.
[8] White Joanna, the indigenous highlanders of the NE Cambodia – an uncertain future.
[9] “Acting like a “Phnong,” a minority group in the country, a slur against whom is associated with ignorance and poor education” - http://www.voacambodia.com/content/unacceptable-insult-leads-to-opposition-walkout-at-national-assembly-session/1546042.html.
[10] “Do you want to continue collecting vines and harvesting resin?”**
[11] http://childsafetourism.org/
[13] http://www.phnompenhpost.com/7days/tributes-pour-mondulkiri-musician-and-his-unique-art-form
[15] mondulkiri-centre.org ; https://mondulkiricentre.wordpress.com
[16] Indigenous People - Bunong and Spirit Forests.

** See also Neal B Keating - "From Spirit Forest to Rubber Plantation - Accelerating Disaster..."

Academic Papers

This site gives access to many relevant papers, proving if nothing else Cambodia is well-studied! The shame is most are now historic documents rather than a careful compilation of institutional knowledge being built up and acted upon.

John Lowrie
General Co-ordinator (2010 - 2016)
Nomad RSI is a French INGO in Mondulkiri since 1997, conducting environmental and anthropological studies, while facilitating development projects with indigenous people.


  1. Mr. Lowrie, this is an excellent article explaining several of the threats to the indigenous highlander culture on the northeast frontier. I've always respected NOMAD's work immensely and am thankful a few of our Bunong highlander university graduates have been able to assist your NGO in the past.

    Tommy Daniels, Pres./Chairman
    Cambodia Corps, Inc. (CCi)

  2. Dear Tommy

    Very many thanks.

    I have to admit that it is a hard sell to get over that indigenous people are not just being deprived of their rights but that it simply does not make any sense, including economic, to displace them. It keeps worrying me that the main advocates are people with their own agenda (human rights, the environment), not putting the indigenous issues first.

    Nomad RSI is now phasing out, as we develop and hand over to the federated local NGO formed from what are now 16 self-help groups (so still less one fifth of the 98 villages.)

    "Mondulkiri Indigenous People Association for Development"


    We hope that they will become a powerful self-advocacy group.

    I hope that your graduates will, as with those in CIYA, take active part. MIPAD does need the most talented people, ones who have those cultural origins on the one hand and a good education on the other.

    Best wishes


  3. Belated but great recognition of Sylvain's work of saving the Bunong language. Where would we be without him? https://www.voanews.com/a/saving-bunong-a-vulnerable-language-in-cambodia/3905123.html

  4. Excellent detailed report about the land-grabbing in Preah Vihear province and how it is affecting indigenous people there. Soon they will have little or no ancestral lands despite supposed protection under International and Cambodian Laws.

  5. Today’s travellers are seeking out authentic experiences over a couple of weeks lazing in the sun, and Cambodia has this by the bucketload.

    Dubai Dune Buggy

  6. Always good articles John. Especially the humorous one that we placed on our website to encourage foreign students from Cambodia on what to expect when arriving in the UK for the first time! https://www.learningenglish-cambodia.com/learning-english-abroad/life-in-the-uk-test.php