Lao Culture Along The Sesan River
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Along the Sesan river in Cambodia, the rich history of the land still imbues the lives along the riverbanks, the stories of the past unforgotten, but coded into the blood that flows through the veins of one generation to the next.
After coming under the French colonial rule in the late 19th century, the borderlands between Cambodia and Laos were reorganised and divided up with neat lines drawn up by the French, a simple but clear way to delineate territory and geographical extents of administrative power. In an attempt to weaken Champasak, a presently Lao province which was then under Siamese rule, Paul Beau, the Governor-General of Indochina, gave Stung Treng, Siem Pang, and Veun Sai to Cambodia instead of Laos, justifying this move as a way to appease the Cambodian royal court and the strong local Khmer nationalist sentiments in these areas.
Map of Northeastern Cambodia and the Khmer-Lao border in 2010. It depicts the provinces of Siem Pang, Stung Treng, and Veun Sai. Our study site, Kalan Nhai, is located in Veun Sai. The inset contained the map of Cambodia.
However, this justification for the move becomes less sound when, in fact, the actual regional population was overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Lao people. Baird (2010) reported that the Khmer people only made up about 1% of the population or less in Stung Treng and Veun Sai, and less than 10% in Siem Pang.
Three generations on, these Lao communities are still there. Although they have never moved from their place of dwelling, the borders drawn up an entire century ago have displaced them from their homeland, placing them in a social-cultural climate that is incoherent with their cultural identity. Nonetheless, the people here learn to negotiate this discrepancy and, in the process, create a constantly evolving culture that is uniquely theirs.
During our stay in Kalan Nhai village, we spoke to many of the local Lao people who generously shared with us their experiences of growing up as a Lao in Cambodian territory. Their stories mainly centred around how the wider socio-political setting of the nation shaped their language, culture, and identity.
"LANGUAGE AS A PASSAGE TO SOCIETY"
The title of this section originated from a passing comment made by Keanich, one of our Cambodian buddies, who summed up the essence of what many locals shared with us when asked about the evolution of the local culture. Language, written and spoken, is the medium which people use to communicate and transfer ideas. ‘Society’ in this context would refer to the political economy which they function under and also encompasses social settings whereby community and familial-based bonding occurs.
During our interviews, it became clear that many elderly and children did not know how to speak Khmer, only Lao. A simple reason for this is that Khmer is not a language used frequently in social settings within the household and the Lao community. Mdm Som shared that young children are usually only fluent in conversational Lao. Although they understand some Khmer, they are unable to speak, read, or write it until they are older and get enrolled into Khmer schools. Thus, despite being situated in Cambodia, the ethnic Lao continue to use their Mother Tongue as the key language for communication within their own communities. This continued use of the language in the communal context reaffirms their Lao identity as language is often significant to one’s identity. Ti Busom (Figure 2), who insisted on teaching his children Lao because it was their “first language”, embodies this sentiment as his conviction likely stemmed from the belief that Lao people should know the Lao language.
Photo with Mr. Ti Busom and his grandson.
However, their fluency in conversational Lao does not equate to their ability to read and write the language. Our interviewees shared that the children do not learn how to read or write Lao as there are no public schools that teach the Lao language in Cambodia. In fact, when we asked the father of our host family (Figure 3) how he learnt to read and write in Lao, he answered that he had to go to the temple to learn the characters by himself from the scriptures written in their language as there was no one else who could teach him.
Photo with our host family.
Furthermore, studying the Lao language has limited practical utility in Cambodia’s economy. Most of our interviewees like Mr. Thorn and Mr. Sovann shared that knowing Khmer would help you get employed. Thus, they shared that their children are not very keen on learning how to read and write Lao as they would likely not use it in the future.
Interestingly, despite being more capable in Khmer in terms of reading and writing, this does not affect their perception of their Lao identity. Although we only managed to interview ten people, they came from all three generations of Lao people staying there. When we asked about what they identified themselves as, regardless of their fluency in either language, the answer was unanimously, “I am Lao.” This disengagement between their Lao identity and their capability and perception of the utility of the two languages was the most evident in the interview with Mr. Sovann, who, although was nonchalant about the possible disappearance of the Lao language or even its culture in their community as embracing the Khmer culture would allow them to lead a better life, still identified as Lao. This is because his parents were Lao and that he spoke Lao. Many other shared similar reasons to Mr. Sovann when we asked about why they identified as Lao.
Therefore, while language is an important medium in culture and identity in this community, it seems that the importance of the spoken language within the homespace and the ethnicity of their parents trumps that of the written language and its practicality in the wider socio-political context when it comes to the construction of their identity.
LOST IN TRANSLATION: A HYBRID OF CULTURES
We found out that since many are unable to read and write Lao, the villagers rely on cultures being passed down through word of mouth. For instance, Mr. Sovann shared, “While I do not pass down the skills of writing and reading Lao, because I think it is not useful in society today, my children still pick up Lao language by listening to the older people speak it”.
However, this results in the dilution and even loss of the Lao culture as many from the younger generations start to determine for themselves what aspects of the culture they want to participate in, and found out from Mr. Ti Busom that “people would rather choose to practice Khmer culture because it is more convenient to follow”. For example, during weddings, the bride and the groom used to wear traditional wedding clothes throughout the ceremony which are not worn by couples today. Our host who leads the morning prayers in the temple Kalan Nhai during the Phcum Ben festival also shared with us that the celebration of the festival has evolved throughout the years by the acceptance of foreign influences into their traditional culture. As seen in Figure 4, people perform traditional dances alongside hip-hop dance music. It is to our surprise that no one seems to reject either form of entertainment and instead they coexist in the same space of the Pchum Ben festival.
People dancing Rom Vong rhythm (a traditional Khmer dance) alongside pop-culture/hip-hop music.
While socio-political factors can influence the language used by the people, this is not to say that the Cambodians are entirely forced to use only one language. Being able to speak both Lao and Khmer emphasises the social agency that these villagers have to construct and negotiate their identities regardless of the changing socio-political environment. Ultimately, giving rise to the emergence of a unique hybrid of Lao and Khmer traditional practices amongst the people.
Baird, I. G. (2010). Different views of history: Shades of irredentism along the Laos-Cambodia border. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 41(2), 187-213.
Phou, personal communication, 2019, September 25
Tourism Cambodia. (2010). Map of Northeastern Cambodia and the Khmer-Lao border in 2010 [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.tourismcambodia.com/ftp/high-res-maps/Hi-Res-Cambodia-Map.jpg
Zubida, H., Lavi, L., Harper, R. A., Nakash, O., & Shoshani, A. (2013). Home and Away:
Thorn, personal communication, 2019, September 27
Sovann, personal communication, 2019, September 27