This is what Mondulkiri looks like an immense expanse of an inscrutable green with marked hues, home to an incredible variety of humans, animals and plants. It is Cambodia’s easternmost, wildest and least densely populated region, located on the border with Laos and Vietnam. It is the land of the Bunong.
In the 1960s and 1970s, part of the trail used to bring weapons from North to South Vietnam passed through here.
Several minorities live in the jungle that populates these remote mountains, including the Bunong – also known as Pnong -, an animist ethnic group that has lived in symbiosis with the nature of Mondulkiri for over two thousand years. The Bunong believe in the spirits of the forest and follow a code of behaviour centred on respect for the resources it grants them.
They are the custodians of an ancient tradition that allows them to tame elephants, animals that are considered members of the community. This is why Bunong men are also called mahout, which means ‘he who rides the elephant‘ in Hindi. Humans communicate with elephants using a peculiar language: whistles, hoarse sounds, grunts and high-pitched sounds.
In traditional Bunong houses, ancient cylindrical vessels that have been handed down from generation to generation and traditional gongs are preserved. These are the most precious objects that Bunong families possess, materially and spiritually. It is said that, during the Pol Pot regime, many of these vases were buried in the forest to prevent them from being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. And it seems that some of them are still there, waiting for someone to pick them up.
Over the past two decades, the practice of land grabbing, i.e. the sale by private individuals or government agencies of parts of the forest to foreign companies in exchange for money, for exploitation, has become widespread. Fortunately, awareness of this problem has been raised in recent years and efforts are being made to curb it by finding a sustainable development system for this area.
The Mondulkiri and Sen Monorom area is part of the Cambodia 2019 Masterclass programme