Unpacking the untold stories of Cambodia’s indigenous minorities

Changing Indigenous Culture in Cambodia: War, and Now

Eight months, 41 days in the field. That involved  7 provinces, 14 buses, 6 cars, 16 days on motorbikes, 2 tuk tuks, 1 river raft, hours of muddy walks, 5 translators, over 20 homestay floors to sleep on, 24 families, 1 MacBook filled with data, 2 digital camera bodies, 6 camera batteries, 1 old film camera, 1 box of 120 film, 3 bags, 1 pair of converse, 1 bottle of mosquito repellent, 3 power banks, 2 notebooks, 2 broken sunglasses, 1 novel, 1 broken iPhone, 1 broken backup camera, months of research, repeated sunburn, a lot of sticky rice snacks, plenty of backbone, countless tears, and infine laughs… This is what goes into a National Geographic Young Explorer’s Expedition.

Now, I’m sitting at home in central Phnom Penh, looking through thousands of photographs of Cambodia’s changing indigenous minorities. What was originally supposed to be 40 days of simple fieldwork over a couple of months, turned into more than 40 days in the field, and countless more days of research and planning, spanning more than 8 months. These 8 months were filled with struggles, and failure, as well as accomplishments, and wins.

Little was previously known about the subject of my project, which is to research and document Cambodia’s changing indigenous minorities, through key stages of Khmer history. Focusing on current changes and transitions, followed by a brief look into the past and and the more recent history through two key historical periods: French colonialism from 1867-1953, and the Khmer Rouge who were in power 1975-1979.

As with the unfolding of all stories, my ideas are constantly developing and evolving. Usually the final product is a mere shell of the original idea. Whist further researching Cambodia’s minorities, it was apparent how little information there was on these groups as they are now, and even less information on their history. Slowly the focus and interest shifted to the indigenous history, and the impacts of the French and Khmer Rouge on their culture. Untold Cambodia evolved from a story, to a timeline of stories.

Hong Ompuy, 50, and his cousin Chheat Doeun, 61 — both Indigenous Phnong — sit in Chheat’s house, looking at prints of the old French maps we were following. Whilst looking through the old maps, they discussing stories they remembered being passed down from their grandparents. With limited access during the rain season, a lot of the villages on the map are remote, and small, often with only around a hundred inhabitants. In Srebeng village, there were only a handful of village elders left, and we could only reach Chheat as the others were far away, living on the land where they grow crops, unable to leave due to poor weather conditions, and the river cutting off access to the main village. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert.

As a photojournalist I’m a natural storyteller in the field, but to tell a story from over a century ago, and find a way to make a connection to the past — this was a challenge! The part of the story I thought would be the least compelling, turned out to be the most captivating; knowing I was telling a story that nobody else knew.

We found ourselves trying to find towns from 1915, where town names and provinces had since changed, nd tracking down surviving families of indigenous Khmer Rouge cadres who were sentenced to death during the regime. We had to find towns and people, with nothing more than an old French map of rebellion from 1915, and a list of names and old prison documents from S-21 prison, now the genocide museum.

Also, like all stories in the field, nothing ever goes to plan. We had our share of disasters and mishaps. Time was of the essence, as tracking down people and locations took longer than expected, as we found ourselves driving from village to village, with no phone signal, asking if anybody knew anyone from our list of names. With dwindling resources and a budget to last only 40 days in the field, many of these days were lost, time slipped away, and the pressure was on.

An abandoned traditional Phnong hut sits overgrown in Srebeng village, Kratie province, Cambodia. in 1915, there was a lot of fighting between the indigenous groups and the French. Isolated and often cut off from other villages during the rain season, the village is beginning to change. Now people are abandoning their traditional huts made from natural native materials found in the surrounding forest, ordering wood and building supplies to built Khmer-tyle stilt houses. Khmer wooden homes are more expensive to make, but are easier to maintain, and stronger. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert
Ker Pay, 60, an Indigenous Phnong in O’Kok village, Kratie, Cambodia, heard stories from the Phnong village elders about the rebellion against the French. The elders said the French violated Phnong rights, taking their land and abusing their women. He was told that when the French came, the women had to flee, hiding in the forest to avoid sexual assaults; believing that if the French saw a beautiful woman, they would take her, stealing women like her for their wives. The older generation fought in the rebellion, with most of the fighting occurring in 1915. Ker Pay’s parents joined the rebellion, making wooden guns in order to scare the French, tricking them into thinking the minority groups had weapons. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert

Looking at the final project, it’s difficult not to be judgemental and hard on yourself, whilst thinking about all the photos you missed, and all the questions you forgot to ask. Then, after taking a breath, it’s difficult to not feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.

You know you have a good story when you’ve finished your work, and still have more stories to tell.

O’Preas village, Kratie, Cambodia. In Thouen (b.1944) heard from his grandfather about the indigenous conflict with the French, and that the Phnong from his village rebelled against them. During this time the Phnong would not stay at their homes out of fear. When the French would come, the villagers would run for their lives, fleeing the village to hide in the forest. The king recruited indigenous soldiers to rebel, and make wooden guns. In Thouen was born and lived in the forest, but in 1955 King SIhanouk called for the people living in the forest to come to the town, where he built schools, houses, and farms for the indigenous communities. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert
Hong Ompuy, 50, an Indigenous Phnong in Srebeng village. He grew up hearing stories about the French from his parents and grandparents. He was told that when the French came to take their indigenous land, the villagers weren’t ready or prepared to fight, so they would hide. Whilst in hiding, the French would track them in the forest. To outsmart and trick the colonial forces, they would wear their shoes backwards to confuse them with backwards footprints. Later, the men fought the French, whilst their women hid in the jungle to avoid sexual abuse. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert
In Ratanakiri Province, the indigenous Kreung village elders remember a time when people still built and used traditional bride and groom huts, and wore and made traditional Kreung clothes and jewelry. Dedicated bride and groom huts were a Kreung tradition, giving adolescent women their own hut outside the family house, in order to give them independence, and help them select the right partner. Huot Sley, 65, says when she was young the Kreung used to have huts for young single people, and she had the freedom to invite men into her hut. Since then, this tradition has changed, and the traditional coming-of-age huts have not been used for the past 15 years. Photograph by Charlotte L. Pert

I will be continuing this project in the future. Focusing on a specific time period, following an old French map from the early 1900s, mapping the indigenous rebellion against the french in Cambodia. I started visiting villages from the map where the fighting occurred, collecting stories from village elders who remember stories that had been passed down from their parents and grandparents about the rebellion. With few elders left, I’ll be visiting the villages, collecting these stories and memories, before they are completely gone. I will document these stories by taking portraits using an old form of photography that would have been used during the same time period I’m exploring: tintype/wet plate photography.

Portrait: Courtesy of Thomas Cristofoletti

Photojournalist Charlotte L. Pert has a National Geographic Young Explorer grant  to tell the story “Changing Indigenous Culture in Cambodia, War, and Now.” The outheast Asian country is known in the West for its spectacular Angkor ruins — and for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century. Cambodia is less known for its 22 indigenous groups, which to this day still remain largely undocumented.

Indigenous minorities were particularly targeted by the Khmer Rouge. Having lost their cultural identities 40 years ago, these communities are now trying to recover and survive in their changed world, whilst also overcoming modern-day issues. In a country where the entire nation was traumatised, how are these minorities surviving?

Charley Pert plans to photograph and document these remaining groups, and present what has been recovered, and lost, in the wake of the genocide. She is attempting to source old colonial photographs, and compile stories from elders who were about at the time, or who remember the stories of their parents who lived through colonialism. In this way she hopes to build an image of what has been lost, as well as what has been preserved. Looking into the changes that have occurred over time,  from pre-war to modern day factors (like access to electricity and communications) that are influencing the youth, she hopes to also showcase how the indigenous way of life is being adapted by the next generation.

As these indigenous cultures are changing so rapidly, it is important to capture what is left and look into how they are retaining their identities.

Charley’s photography has been published by The Guardian, Daily Beast, and Phnom Penh Post.


  1. Jim Pollock
    October 19, 9:06 am

    Hi Charlotte – what a marvellous challenge you have set yourself. I am interested in collecting stories from the past, but in the province of Kampot. My wife and I have been coming out for about 6 years – we build houses with Tabitha, and NGO. The Kampot story collecting is in its infancy, though I am nearly at the stage of completing the basic website and want to link it to a blog which will invite people to tell me about stories, answer questions (it will be an inquiry based living history website / blog) and help collect them. I haven’t seen a similar concept so feel I am a little flying blind. I sense a similar sense of adventure in what you do. Do you plan to do any work in Kampot? Do you know Michel Fillipe? regards and good luck – Jim Pollock, Perth WA.

  2. Malcolm Carter
    Phnom Penh
    September 17, 12:59 am

    What a wonderful, ambitious and important project. Your photos are terrific, and your commentary is illuminating. I much admire your persistence and success.

  3. Peter Maguire
    Wilmington, North Carolina
    September 16, 9:32 am

    Cambodia based linguist Sylvain Vogel has been doing similar work for more than 20 years. He will be in the US for a conference on the Bunong my foundation (Fainting Robin Foundation) is putting on in conjunction with University of North Carolina Wilmington in February. He is also the recipient of my foundation’s first distinguished scholar award. Give my best to Youk if you are in Cambodia.
    Dr. Sylvain Vogel
    2017 Fainting Robin Distinguished Scholar
    “For more than twenty years, on his own time and at his own expense, Sylvain Vogel has traveled to Cambodia’s most remote and malarial forests to document the language, culture, and folklore of Cambodia’s Bunong hilltribe,” said FRF founder and chairman Dr. Peter Maguire in his announcement of the award, “Vogel is exactly the type of prolific, under supported, and independent scholar that our foundation looks to help.” FRF will bring Vogel to Wilmington in 2017 where he and Maguire will translate his latest work into English and interview some of the Cambodian Bunong who have resettled here.
    Southeast Asia’s hill tribes (Montagnards) have been dying a slow, agonizing death since their American allies withdrew from Southeast Asia in 1975. Prior to the Vietnam War, one million people inhabited the highlands of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos where the thirty-three tribes spoke their own languages, worshipped their own Gods, and lived according to their own rules. Because the surviving 30,000 Bunong remain largely unilingual, their language is one of the last authentic examples of the old base of Mon-Khmer languages.
    This research is both important and time sensitive because hill tribe languages and cultures are vanishing due to deforestation and the encroachment of the exogenous populations of Cambodia and Vietnam. Vogel’s discoveries about the phonetic and syntactic features of Bunong have invalidated many linguistic theories and helped to refine others. After studying their language and immersing himself in their culture, Sylvain Vogel learned of a vast body of unwritten literature that was passed down from generation to generation. These philosophical stories of causation explain everything from the mysterious construction of temples at Angkor Wat to the Vietnam War. Vogel believes that the structure of these aetiologic tales proves that the Bunong live self sufficiently in the forest by choice, they “rejected the coercion of the nation state or any other outside ruler.” Not only is this hill tribe conscious of having both a literature and orature, their language has specific terms for each literary genre (epic tale, mythical story, etc.). For many Western researchers these genres are difficult to define. Vogel, however, has shown that the defining criterion is the sound of the recitation in this monosyllabic language: singing, repetition within a single stanza (theme/rhyme) or grammatical structure (subject/predicate), assonance, or a rupture marking a conclusion. The linguist identified examples of phonetic reduction, the neutralization of sequences, the use of deictic particles, and enunciation. Sylvain Vogel’s two books and three journal articles on the Bunong have clarified and resolved a number of linguistic debates.
    As the Cambodian forest vanishes so does the hill tribe’s means of sustaining their traditional way of life. The changing economics of globalism, the imposition of the sovereign state system, and ethics of the outside world have forced many to abandon their traditional, egalitarian values and the freedom they once enjoyed as independent farmers and hunters. “I was only a witness who watched, with great sadness and a feeling of helplessness, the disappearance of a culture,” said Vogel, “No wishful thinking, no culturally sensitive language, no crying, or bleeding of hearts, can change a thing.”
    “What Sylvain Vogel accomplished is astonishing, his latest book, published by UNESCO, Voix du Mondolkiri historique, is a tribute to the oral literature of the Bunong, which the linguist compares to The Iliad. Given that Vogel is also a master of ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, he knows what he is talking about”
    —Professor Mathieu Guérin of the French National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO)
    “The story of Mr. Vogel is quite curious. A recognized specialist of Persian and Pashto, he was ranked 1st in the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (the largest governmental research organization in France) entrance examination in 1992….He learned Khmer, founded a department of linguistics where he taught Khmer, and studied Phnong, to which he had already devoted three books and two articles to the Asian Journal (2000 and 2007). The reasons why no French scientific institute has chosen to recruit this very brilliant and productive linguist would undoubtedly be the subject of an interesting article in academic sociology”
    —Professor Gérard Fussman Collège de France.
    Sylvain Vogel received his undergraduate degree from Strasbourg University in 1976 and spent most of 1977-1991 in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fieldwork he conducted in Baluchistan on the Wanetsi dialect of Pashto became his dissertation, “Aspects of the Pashto Verb.” After receiving his doctorate from the Sorbonne, Vogel moved to Cambodia where he reestablished the linguistics department at Phnom Penh University and began to document the language, culture and folklore of the Cambodian hilltribes. Vogel is the author of: “Conflits ethniques au Balouchistan pakistanais : deux récits en wanetsi,” Journal Asiatique, 1988; “Syntagme verbal et aspect en Pashto,” Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique, 1991; “Oppositions aspectuelles et injonction en Pashto,” Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique, 1994; “Impératif, sémantique modale et personne en Pashto,” Studia Iranica, 1989; “Pronoms et particules énonciatives en phnong,” Journal Asiatique, 2000; “Classificateurs et quantifieurs en khmer moderne,” BEFEO, 2002; “Noms en em- ploi syncatégorématique en khmer et en francique,” Bulletin de la Société de la linguistique de Paris, 2003; Introduction à la grammaire de la langue et aux dits traditionnels des Phnong de Mondulkiri, Editions Funan, 2006 (a 260-page book about the grammar and the traditional poetry of the Cambodian province of Mondulkiri; Chants phnong du Mondulkiri, Editions Funan, 2008.

  4. Philip Coggan
    September 15, 6:29 am

    Charlotte, I love what you’re doing. There’s a lady called Emiko Stark working with the Cham, she visits PP sometimes, works with old photos. You might like to make contact.

    • Charlotte L. Pert
      September 15, 6:48 am

      Hi Philip, thanks a lot for your lovely comment, it means a lot. Im really excited to continue working on this project and sharing more. That sounds wonderful, I would definitely love to make contact with Emiko Stark. Thanks a lot for sharing this information with me, its great having people keeping the project alive and helping to give it a push…

  5. Jessica Austin
    United States
    September 13, 10:22 pm

    A couple questions: will there be audio recordings of the interviews so that the public can have access? Or transcripts? Will the work be accessible in Khmer language?
    Are you working with any local organizations that could help provide or organize a public place to store this kind of incredibly valuable oral history information? If you are getting life -time stories please try to allow the narratives from the “nation building era” of the 1950s-75 to be woven in, which had a lot of interesting impacts on indigenous folks in Cambodia since part of the nation-building project from the central government was to generalize indigenous people as Khmer Loeu. Best wishes from a fellow memory worker and storyteller.

    • Charlotte L. Pert
      September 13, 10:49 pm

      Hi fellow memory worker and storyteller- thank you for commenting. A lot off interesting points you brought up, all of which I’m excited to explore…
      I will be setting up a website in the form of a time line, documenting all these stories. The website will be in both English and khmer, so all the information is accessible to the people of Cambodia. I worked closely with DC-Cam on this project, and will be passing all my work on to them, as I believe DC-Cam is a valuable resource centre and the best place for all this information to be stored, as well as accessed. I will be continuing this project, and excited to explore the nation building era. In the long run, I would like to document all of these stories in a photo book, which could also be used as an educational material in Cambodia.
      I would love to continue this discussion further with you, from one storyteller to another… Till we next converse, warm wishes!