Hill Tribespeople

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Hill Tribespeople


LOCATION: Cambodia; Laos; Thailand; Vietnam

POPULATION: 70,000100,000

LANGUAGE: Mon-Khmer; Austronesian

RELIGION: Traditional spirit-based beliefs


Among the groups who live in Cambodia are the hill tribespeople. These tribespeople are not ethnic Khmer, as are the vast majority of Cambodians. They number less than 2 percent of the total Cambodian population, which is estimated at 8 million.

The tribespeople of Cambodia were originally called phnong or samre, meaning savage. The Cambodian government began calling them Khmer Loeu (Highland Khmer) in the 1960s, apparently to create unity among the highland tribal groups and the lowland Khmer. Most hill groups come from a very different cultural background than lowland Cambodians. Most have different language, customs, survival strategies, religion, and appearance.

During the 1960s, the Cambodian government sent the army to teach the Khmer language and culture to the hill tribespoeple in an effort to eventually assimilate (absorb) them into Cambodian society. Many tribes-people resented these efforts.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Communist Khmer Rouge were able to recruit a number of young tribesmen to their cause. The illiterate tribal youth, unfamiliar with any element of civilization, became the prototype (model) of the Khmer Rouge army. Like other Cambodians, tribespeople were forced to abandon their traditional religious rituals, customs, and activities.

In 1978, the Vietnamese pushed the Khmer Rouge from power in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge regained control of some areas of northeastern Cambodia in the 1980s. In most areas, however, the tribes-people live as they did before the Democratic Kampuchea years of the late 1970s. As of the late 1990s, the government was againg trying to teach the Cambodian language and culture to the hill tribespeople. The government claims that tribal languages and customs will continue to be respected.


The Khmer Loeu hill tribes live in remote highland areas in the plateaus and mountainous areas on the edges of Cambodia. The Khmer Loeu of Cambodia include thirteen distinct minority groups. The tribes-people live without regard to country borders, often in settlements that span both in Cambodia and in neighboring Laos or Vietnam. This is possible because of the isolation and ruggedness of the terrain, making political boundaries difficult to control. Hill people through the centuries have been able to avoid contact with lowlanders and to travel fairly freely across political boundaries.

The turmoil of the Vietnam War (195475) and Democratic Kampuchean rule that followed (197578) deeply affected the hill tribes. While some groups were recruited by the Khmer Rouge as soldiers, others fought to escape being drafted and controlled by the Communists. Many tribal people escaped the war and horrors of Cambodia by slipping over the border into neighboring countries where they lived with fellow tribespeople. When conditions were better in Cambodia, they moved back across the border.


The hill tribes of Cambodia belong to two very different language groups. One group speaks Mon-Khmer, an Austroasiatic language. The other group speaks an Austronesian language.

Names vary greatly from group to group. A person may carry an individual name, a nickname, and may change names frequently according to life situations and events. In some groups, people are called by the name of their father, mother, child, or spouse. Sometimes the name of a relative is added to the individual's name.


The heroes and myths of the hill tribes of Cambodia are religious and familial in nature. Heroes are actual or fictional ancestors whose deeds and characteristics are passed down from generation to generation. Many of these heroes are considered to have originated particular clans (large family groupings). They are respected, even worshiped, by their descendants both as great people and as the founders of their tribal group.

The myths of particular groups relate to these founding ancestors. Other myths relate stories of the spirits, landscape, animals, and plants of a group's environment. The myths of the highland groups thus form part of their traditional religious beliefs.


The people of the hill tribes continue the traditional beliefs and practices of their ancestors. They believe that magical spirits live in the natural world, inhabiting rocks, mountains, rivers, and trees.

Most religious leaders are also spirit healers who lead ceremonies to cure illness and other physical and mental problems. They do so by communicating with the spirits who have caused the difficulty or have allowed it to happen.

In some villages, there are two important sorcerers whose main duty is to control the weather. By so doing, they protect the community from natural calamities and aid in the growth of crops.


The holidays of the tribal groups of Cambodia are primarily religious celebrations. Festivals are held to make the spirits happy and exorcise (drive out) evil spirits. The beginning of the lunar New Year is always an important festival. Life-cycle events such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, are celebrated by families and villages. These are often major festivals involving multiple families and villages and considerable money and preparation.


Among most hill groups, infants and small children are greatly desired and are treated with great indulgence. Seldom scolded or punished, they are carried constantly by parents, siblings, or extended family members until around age three or four.

By the time girls are five or six years of age, they are assisting their mother in the home and with caring for younger siblings. By that age, boys are helping with garden duties and caring for the family's livestock. By the age of eight or nine, both boys and girls help in the fields.

Many youth marry while they are still teenagers. By the time most hill tribespeople have reached their early teens, they are fully socialized into adult life. The lives of adult hill people center on family, making a living, and dealing with the spirits or gods who rule the earth.


For tribal people, like most traditional people living in small villages, interpersonal relations are based on fairly strict rules of etiquette (manners and proper behavior). Most villagers have known one another since birth and will continue living as neighbors for years to come. Consequently, they try to avoid conflict in their everyday relations.

With strangers, most tribespeople are modest and reserved. With family and fellow villagers, they are more open and expressive. Always, however, there is an emphasis on getting along with one another. Men and women, even closely related, seldom display affection openly. Visiting is a major activity and a common form of entertainment.

Young people do not date as do youth in the West. Courtship may be brief and involve little contact between the future bride and groom in some groups. Parents or matchmakers do most of the visiting and arranging. Contact between young men and women is generally careful, supervised, and understood to be leading to marriage.


Most hill groups live in regions far away from denser population areas of Cambodia. In Ratanakiri Province, for example, the only way into much of the province during the rainy season is by airplane and elephant.

The Khmer Loeu live in widely scattered villages near their fields. When they abandon their fields to seek new ones, they also abandon their village sites. Sometimes they return a generation or two later when the fields have regained their fertility.

Houses vary in size from huge dwellings in which many families live, to small, single-family structures. Multifamily houses generally are divided into sections, one per family. Each family also keeps its own hearth for cooking food. Houses may be built close to the ground or high on stilts. Most hill people live much as their ancestors did, without the electricity, running water, and appliances available to many Cambodians who live in the central plains.


Hill tribespeople observe a strict division of labor. Women have the primary responsibility for domestic chores, child care, carrying water, and looking after the domestic animals. They also gather food and weave. In agricultural villages, they are also involved in some rice cultivation chores. Men do the hunting and the heavy agricultural tasks. They also make and repair tools and build and repair houses.

Families tend to be large, and most hill people rely on their children to assist with chores. Marriages tend to remain traditional. In many groups, the choice of a mate and wedding arrangements are made by parents, often before the youth reach puberty.

Villages among the hill groups of Cambodia traditionally have been the basic political unit of social life. They are, therefore, independent and self-governing.


Most Khmer Loeu continue to wear traditional clothing. Men wear a short loincloth and strings of beads. Women wear a variety of skirts.

The hill tribes of Cambodia weave their traditional colorful clothing on homemade looms. Each tribe has a different style of clothing and jewelry. Clothing is made of cloth that repeats thousands of tiny patterns, with decorations such as silver hoops added. One dress can take weeks to make. Some highland groups file their front teeth and wear tattoos just as their ancestors did.

The decrease in isolation from ethnic Cambodians has resulted in the use of imported clothing. Tribespeople increasingly wear a combination of traditional, Cambodian, and European clothing.


Some hill groups who are primarily rice cultivators have rice as their central food. Groups who raise root crops, such as cassava, taro, and yams, depend primarily on those crops as well as maize (corn), eggplant, beans, sugar cane, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables.

Rice and vegetable crops are supplemented by greatly valued meat. This comes either from domestic animals, such as pigs and poultry, or game and birds from the neighboring forests. Additional valued foods include fish and eggs. Rice wine and cassava beer are common and are consumed primarily on ritual occasions.

Because modern appliances and packaged goods are few, much time and energy goes into the growing, preservation, and preparing of a family's daily meals. Women are primarily responsible for everyday food preparation. Men often bear the responsibility for making alcoholic beverages and cooking ritual foods.


Schools and teachers from the lowlands are increasingly available for highland children. However, most highland children continue to be taught traditional skills in traditional ways by parents and relatives. The more contact a village has with Cambodians from the central plains, the more likely their exposure to schools and education in Cambodian subjects and language.

Traditionally, knowledge was passed on orally, rather than through writing. Recently, however, several of the hill languages have been put into written form.


Music among hill people is played primarily in the service of religion. It is also played on ritual occasions such as marriage and funerals, and for popular entertainment. Musical instruments include drums, flutes, gongs, xylophones, and various kinds of horns. Instruments are traditionally made of wood, animal horn, and other natural materials. More recently, instruments have been made of modern metals.

The hill tribes have a strong oral tradition that consists of myths, legends, stories, and group knowledge. In the absence of writing and modern entertainment, youth learned the beliefs and events of their past from their elders. In turn, they passed them on to their children.


The hill people of Cambodia are either sedentary (staying in one place) or nomadic (migratory). Sedentary groups, which have larger populations, primarily cultivate rice in flooded fields known as paddies. Some are engaged in growing industrial crops.

Nomadic groups are farmers who use slash-and-burn agriculture. Land is cleared for agriculture by cutting down and burning the trees. Then the land is cultivated for several years, and finally abandoned to allow the forest to grow back. After a few decades, the original plot of soil has regained its nutrients and can again support crops.

In addition to growing crops, hill men also raise some domestic animals, including pigs, poultry, and buffalo. Some also raise ducks and geese. Men hunt game and birds in the surrounding forests, and they fish as well. Women do most of the vegetable and herb gathering.


Tribal children do not engage in organized sports. They spend much of their time assisting their parents in hunting, gathering, and growing crops. Boys learn from an early age to help their fathers. Recreation centers help teach boys what their fathers do. Boys practice with tiny bows, shooting small animals, trying to catch birds and fish, and in numerous ways imitating the activities of their elders.

Children who attend school may also play competitive games such as soccer or volleyball.


Music is a major form of entertainment. Musical instruments include flutes, mouth organs and harps, and percussion instruments, most made from bamboo. The bronze drum is both a musical instrument and a symbol of wealth and status used in important communal ceremonies.

Children spend many nighttime hours listening to the stories and legends of their people.

Movies, television, videos, and other popular entertainment of Westernized countries remain rare in much of highland Cambodia. Tribespeople rely on singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments for much of their entertainment.


Hill women weave clothing such as skirts and blouses for themselves, loincloths for their men, and blankets. Using cruder materials, men weave mats and baskets. Embroidery and appliqué work are also done. Hill tribespeople make a number of musical instruments, including gourd flutes, mouth harps, guitars, and banjos. Men make agricultural, hunting, and gathering tools. The Kuy of northern Cambodia have a reputation for being excellent blacksmiths. The Brao are noted for their pottery-making skills.


The Khmer Loeu hill tribes continue to struggle for more independence from the lowland Cambodians. They continue to be viewed by many ethnic Khmer as inferior, with strange customs that are best done away with. Many Khmer Loeu fear that within a few years, their cultures will have disappeared along with their environment. Many are gradually being incorporated into lowland Cambodian life, adopting Khmer customs, clothing, and practices. Many of the youth are now being taught the Khmer language and are working on Cambodian farms.


Chandler, David P. The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution since 1945. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Hickey, Gerald C. Shattered Worlds: Adaptation and Survival among Vietnam's Highland Peoples during the Vietnam War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Kiernan, Ben. How Pol Pot Came to Power: A History of Communism in Kampuchea, 19301975. London: Verso, 1985

LeBar, Frank M., Gerald D. Hickey, and John K. Musgrave. Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files, 1964.


Royal Embassy of Cambodia, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.embassy.org/cambodia, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Cambodia. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/kh/gen.html, 1998.