Our visit to the province of Ratanikiri was a spectacular, not only because of the things we were able to learn about local and Khmer culture, view and experience wonderful natural sights but also because we happened to visit a village celebrating a funeral.
Now let me say from the outset I realise that we were intruders to the event and that I am really not certain how welcome we were to participate. Our guide tried to reassure us it was fine, but I feel like he too was a stranger to the village and the permission was not really his to give; I get ahead of myself…
Our tour this day was mainly to visit some of the hill tribe people or the northern part of Cambodia. There are a number of tribes but collectively they are known as the Khmer Loeu. There are challenges for these people in some way similar to home. They are underrepresented in the government and while they are supposed to have access to traditional lands, in practice this is not always the case. We visited three different villages and had different experiences at each one, the last was the most amazing in case you want to keep track in my story.
Our first village visit was to a small community where we stopped to see traditional weaving. It was great to be able to walk into a home and to see how it was built and how things like cooking and working was done. The weaving process was unique because there was no permanent loom. The strands were attached to a wooden panel that was placed behind the back of the weaver and as she leaned back the strings were held taught. We spoke to her for a bit and watched as she wove, she described that it would take her about 2 weeks to finish one piece of fabric, longer if the patterns were more complicated. She was selling each of her fabrics for $25 USD. I could not imagine working for that little money, it was clear that they had to rely on their own ability to grow food and raise or hunt animals to survive.
The family also showed us beaded necklaces made from seeds of one of their trees. The father, just as we were to leave brought down his hand-crafted cross bow and showed us how it worked. He described how he would use poison from local trees on the tips of his bamboo arrows and hunt at night with a headlamp. Each piece of the weapon was hand made and of amazing quality. Light and efficient I can easily imagine this man walking through the jungle quietly scanning for the lamp’s reflections in the eyes of an animal soon to become dinner for the family.
Showing how to load the bolt
How to load the bolt
The second village was larger, maybe 200 homes. This village seemed prosperous in the sense that there were clean wells, lots of gardens and the children seemed clean and well dressed. We had passed a school just outside of the village so I optimistically think that many of these children have access to some form of education, even if it is minimal. We stopped to talk with a group of mothers and children having a snack. They were enjoying a fruit something like a gooseberry I think, they would dip it into a mortar containing salt and chillies. After a bit more walking about we headed back to the van and continued on our way.
Water well in the second village
A cooking fire with lunch in the pot. Clothes hung to dry and a hammock for resting
One of the newer/more modern homes
Berries with seasonings for snacking
Our last village stop at first seemed to be less prosperous that the previous two, but on reflection this might have more to do with the fact they were at the end of a funeral celebration that lasts days rather than any serious lacking of food, water and sanitation. It seemed when we climbed out of the van that there were not too many people around despite it looking like a good-sized village. The first group of people we met were smoking their homegrown tobacco. Jasper bought some and then requested to be shown how to roll the banana leaf and smoke it they way they were. The women were happy to show us how it was done and soon everyone had the chance to take a puff or two from the prepared cone. The others described it as smooth and rather tasty, I’ll have to take their word for it.
Village woman enjoying her smoke
Jasper with some new friends
As we took photos our guide learned that they were celebrating the death of a man in the village. I choose the word celebration very deliberately as these people spend several days celebrating that the person has gone to the afterlife, a good thing in their view. At the end of the three days the coffin is taken to the jungle and buried with a number of items and they are no longer of concern to the village (meaning no one really visits and thinks of the dead once buried).
We arrived in what could be described as the village square. Here, people gathered to visit and dance. There was much drinking, smoking and overall carousing. We were able to stand back and take it all in for only a few minutes. Eventually the three of us girls were pulled, prodded and encouraged to join in the dancing. The women of the village were in perfect synchronicity in their steps, me, well I was awkward. There was a kind of half step swing back that I just could not catch onto. If was fun for a bit, but there were a few men that were far gone in drink or gone enough to have the courage to be more hands on than any of us girls enjoyed.
Jasper was having a different experience with the men and while us girls had had enough of the dancing; he was enjoying the experience with the men. We left him to enjoy more time in the village and we continued our tour. This last stop was at a cemetery in the jungle. Bug spray was generously applied again before heading into see the graves and off we went. There were moments where my skin crawled as the cobwebs stuck to my sweaty skin, not really wanting to think about the size of some of the spiders found in this part of the world. The dead are surrounded by the things they will need in the afterlife. Food (buffalo bones from the beasts eaten at their funeral), rice wine, mosquito nets, mattress, even motos. They are placed into little shelters, something like a mausoleum but open. Wooden statues on the four corners. While super interesting the jungle bugs were feasting on us and we didn’t linger too long.
Returning to the village to pick up Jasper we arrived in time to see the village taking their family member to the jungle for burial. What a sight! As we stood near the van the whole village come down the road, the cement coffin hanging from logs the men carrying it along….and of course Jasper too! We followed the procession out of the village and down the road where we saw them enter the jungle, bury the coffin and leave again in very short order.
Overall, the day was a huge success. I can honestly say that being present and participating even a little in the funeral celebration is what travelers dream of when they say “I want to have an authentic experience with the locals”. This kind of experience is unique and very hard to come by so I know just how privileged we were to be in this right place at the right time. I might even say it makes the top of my travel experiences.