With Loss of a Forest Comes Loss of a Culture, Part 2

Pnong woman gathering snails in waterfall Guest author, Wesley Hedden, is currently based in Cambodia. He serves as an adviser for a local NGO working on natural resource management issues and protecting indigenous cultures. This is the second part of an article about the Phnongs in Cambodia and the work of the Phnong Center. Part 1 can be found here.

Bill Herod, who has lived in Cambodia for nearly two decades, moved to Mondulkiri several years ago and has started a community based organization called the Phnong Center in Sen Monorom and several Phnong villages in the surrounding area. One of the Phnong Center’s projects supports local handicraft production, including weaving, blacksmithing, and making traditional instruments. The Phnong Center has opened a store in Sen Monorom that sells handmade knives, musical instruments, and a variety of weaved items including hand bags, shirts, and traditional scarves. The store also sells traditional food products like wild honey. All of the products come from Phnong villages where local artisans are paid fair prices for high quality products.

International tourists are the primary customers at the store, and the market has been so good since the opening of this store that weavers in certain villages have formed a weaving association to share ideas and techniques and to pool products together for easier sale and quality control. The sales representatives at the Phnong Center store are Phnong students. By working at the store they are able to earn a supplemental income, learn business skills, and practice speaking English with customers.

Traditional Pnong House The store is also a center for information about the Phnong people. The center offers guided tours to Phnong villages with trained Phnong guides. On these tours, tourists get an opportunity to visit Phnong homes and learn about the local traditions, village structure, and economic activities. Other hotels and tour companies offer tours such as these, but the Phnong Center is the only tour provider that exclusively employs Phnong guides. These tours have been so successful that two branches of the Sen Monorom handicraft store have been opened in villages so that tourists can buy products in the places where they’re made.

The Phnong Center is also focused on education efforts for the Phnong in Mondulkiri. There is only one high school in all of Mondulkiri province, and as such, few Phnong children are able to receive education beyond the primary level. The Phnong Center has opened a dormitory in Sen Monorom to provide free accommodation and meals for 120 Phnong (including a few Khmer) students, who would otherwise not be able to afford to study at the high school level. Many of the Phnong students are weak in Khmer or lack the confidence to express themselves in a Khmer dominated classroom, so the Phnong Center has also opened a community center that offers tutorials and courses in the evenings to supplement the students’ daytime learning and build their confidence in Khmer.

Pnong gathering for a wedding In spite of these and other such efforts, Mr. Herod is not optimistic about the prospects of the survival of the Phnong language and traditions. There is little desire on the part of the younger generation to maintain Phnong culture. Young people are more interested in getting their hands on the newest mobile phone model or motorbike. Mr. Herod expects many elements of Phnong culture to disappear in the next five to ten years. “The best we can hope for,” he lamented, “is to protect older people in their last years and help younger people adjust and participate in reality. There is no point in raging against reality”

For more information about the Phnong in Cambodia, visit the Phnong Center’s website.

Photo 1: A Phnong woman collects snails in Busra Waterfall

Photo 2: A traditional Phnong house is sandwiched between two Khmer stye houses

Photo 3: Phnong villagers gather for an evening wedding