AsiaViews, Edition: 31/I/August/2004
Tourism is changing the face of Mondulkiri. But while increasing numbers of visitors mean more money for this poor province, fears are that it is the ethnic-minority hill-tribes who will pay the price.
It is the rainy season and the landscape is at its most beautiful. The grassy hills shine in lime-green, a vivid contrast against the dark-clouded sky. Bearm, 14, looks out on her village, Pucham, 11 kilometers outside the provincial capital of Sen Monorom. It is an isolated place, seemingly forgotten by time.
Everyone living in the village is Phnong, Mondulkiri's largest minority, a hill-tribe people spread out in the jungles of Cambodia's northeast and across the border in Vietnam, where the hill tribes are still generically known by the French-colonial appellation Montagnards - "mountain people".
The first tourist is yet to set foot in the village, but Bearm hopes it will happen soon. "I wish they would come," she says. "It would be interesting to see them, to see their white skin and beautiful clothes. Maybe I can make friends with them."
In a guesthouse in Sen Monorom, Orn Tina, 24, looks hopefully towards the future. He has just graduated from Mondulkiri's first course for tourist guides. With 18 other guides from the province, he has learnt about environmental protection, local history and English. Orn Tina is ethnic lowland Khmer, unlike the majority of the 35,000 people in the province. Originally from Kampong Cham, he has no plans to go back.
"[By working here] I can support myself and improve my English step by step," he says, revealing a dream of eventually ending up in one of the province's few foreign NGOs.
And it looks like Tina will be busy. With the opening of the new road to Phnom Penh last year; travel times have been cut from up to two days to just six hours - and tourism is booming.
Whether it is the isolated jungle waterfalls, the elephant rides to the Phnong villages or simply the cool air, people are coming in increasing numbers. Local tourism office statistics reflect the changes: the 4,362 people who have visited the province during the first half of this year already exceed last year's total figure of 3,027.
Nowhere are the changes more visible than in Sen Monorom. This once-sleepy market town is coming to life. Two years ago, the town had four guest houses. Today, there are at least fourteen, and this is only the beginning. By the end of next year, with the new road to Ratanakkiri finished, local tourism office director Sam Chin expects the figure to double again. Optimists are talking about Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri together becoming Cambodia's center for eco-tourism, something that would turn the northeast into a major tourist region.
For the people living here, this is in many ways good news. Jobs are being created and a new hospital is being built. Half of Sen Monorom is now connected to 24-hour electricity, with the other half on its way. On the outskirts of town, popping up along the Phnom Penh road, are new luxury houses built by successful guesthouse owners, locals say.
"Mondulkiri has changed a lot only over the last couple of years," says Sam Chin. "Before, people up here used to live their lives without comforts like electricity. Now everyone is thinking about how to make things better. It is a new mentality. And it is good for Mondulkiri."
Deputy governor Nharang Chan agrees with Sam Chin but says there is a much bigger potential if the infrastructure could be developed.
"There are so many beautiful places here, but most of them are hidden in the jungle so we can't take tourists there." Chan is one of the few Phnongs holding a government position.
As a consequence of this development, land prices in Sen Monorom have rocketed. Lots that cost $150 two years ago now go for three or four times as much.
Braden and Johanna Pewitt - American Seventh day Adventists who live and work with the Phnong - paint a picture of a speculation boom, where locals and people from Phnom Penh hope to make the kind of money they hardly dreamed of before.
When they first came to Mondulkiri two years ago, there were no fences, they say. Now, everyone is marking up the land. But no one seems to know who they should buy the land from.
"From my understanding, they just put out fences and if it is far enough out, no one will care," Braden Pewitt says, adding: "I am afraid that this could lead to land disputes."
This means that the Phnong's traditional way of life - where they clear new rice fields every few years - is likely to come under increased pressure. "My fear for the future is that one day when the Phnong want to clear another field, someone will show up and say 'This is my land'," Braden Pewitt says.
That day might not be far away. There is already talk circulating that some of the guesthouse owners are buying up the land next to the most popular waterfalls, traditionally hidden in the jungle. However, one of the guest-house owners, Long Vibol, denies buying land himself and says he is unaware of others doing it.
Although the Phnong's unique culture is one of the attractions drawing visitors to the province, most of them see very little of the money. All the guest houses are owned by Khmers and there are few Phnong on the staff lists. Those fortunate enough to own an elephant get some money from renting out their animals to the guest houses for tourist rides. But once in the Phnong village, the huts where the visitors stay overnight may well turn out to be owned by a guest house.
This situation is in many ways the result of the Phnong's tradition to stay out of business. Apart from the occasional roadside stalls, everything is run by lowland Khmers or the odd Vietnamese immigrant. For the Phnong, the concept of making money from tourists is abstract.
Soon after their arrival, Braden and Johanna Pewitt asked if they could buy one of the baskets the Phnong make. But the answer was clear: 'Make your own!' After that, they understood why all the souvenir baskets at Sen Monorom's market were made in Vietnam.
Tourism office director Sam Chin says he thinks the imports are a shame.
"We have to take measures for this to change. As soon as we get the Phnong to make enough baskets for the tourists, we will stop importing."
At the same time, Sam Chin says he worries that the tourist influx will destroy the Phnong's traditional way of life. "If more and more people come, I am afraid the Phnong will start following these people's lifestyle and in the end lose their own culture."
The Pewitts say they want to help the Phnong by making them face the changes in a way that will benefit them. "We try to make them understand that the tourists don't know how to make things out of bamboo."
Sam Chin talks about the need to educate the Phnong to make them realize the value in their culture. He says he has an idea to start a project next year, aimed at making village chiefs aware of the possibilities of tourism. It is all part of his plan to develop ecologically sustainable tourism, he says.
"If we manage to develop tourism in a way that saves the minority people and the nature, life up here will be much better in the future. Even for the Phnong."
Back in Pucham village, Bearm's 75-year-old neighbor, Gnoeng Blong, has more immediate worries on his mind. With a few more weeks of rain, the dirt track leading to the outside world will turn to mud, making it hard to get his sick 60-year-old wife Toum to the doctor in Sen Monorom.
Sitting in their dark hut with his eyes on the glowing fire, he thinks of the village where he has spent his life. Temporarily forgetting the few tin roofs and the odd motorbike, he says in a low tone: "We live the same life here as then. Nothing has changed since I was a child."
By: Staffan Lindberg
Phnom Penh Post July 30 - August 12, 2004