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The Lao Island That Belongs To Cambodia

Updated: Dec 27, 2020


ABOUT | Lngo is a Cambodian island that situates at the border between Cambodia and Laos. Interestingly, Lngo is substantially influenced by Lao culture. This article illustrates some characteristics of the porous border and the ways identifies are formed in such borderscapes, by looking into the lives of two residents.

Team members: 
Brindabella Neo, Daniel Tan, Pangara Chor, Chhay Vuchleng

INTRODUCTION


Lngo is an island that is home to approximately 60 families. Although it is situated at the riverine border between Laos and Cambodia, the residents are more affiliated with their upstream Laotian neighbours. They have embraced the identity of being Laotian from generation to generation. They tend to have feelings of resistance toward the national identity of Khmer despite the territory demarcation. Also, they seem unfamiliar with many Cambodian terms.


For example, Lngo, the name of the island officially registered in Cambodiarefers to the black sesame seed plant, which they are not even sure was grown before or where the name originated from. Don Langa, the island’s Laotian name is also situated among bigger islands like Don Sahong, Don Sadam and Don Khon. These bigger islands on the Laos side are frequented by the locals for everyday goods and services since they are closer to Lngo than Preah Romkel on the Cambodian mainland.


A hand-drawn map of the Lngo island and its surrounding territories


THE POROUS BORDER

Sapo (second from the left) shares about his livelihood in a trilingual interview (i.e. English, Khmer and Lao)

Sapo (second from the left) shares about his livelihood in a trilingual interview (i.e. English, Khmer and Lao)


Historical events and spatial occasions manifest how people and things in Lngo are inextricably tied to their Laotian counterparts. Mekong geopolitics in the 1970s, for example, evidences the close affinity that Lngo islanders had for Laotian neighbours. “We moved to Don Khon to avoid the Khmer Rouge in the midst of the civil war”, remarked Sapoa 53-year-old fisherman. Sapo himself is indeed originally from Laos; he moved to Lngo from Don Sai, an inland about 40 km upstream, for his marriage.


Yet, it is mundane things in everyday life that best represent the porous character of the ‘border’. A 21-year-old girl, Pon, transports her groceries via a boat from the Laotian island, Don Khon, to her shoreline drink stall. The ice cubes she buys barely melt in the Cambodian heat. Her customers are largely tourists who are on kayaking expeditions from Don Khon. They hop the border to tour the islands. Further inland, Laotian songs provide background music for a house party at midday, while the ground is littered with wrappers bearing Lao descriptions. The flag flies Cambodian but the ground says otherwise. A tourist may even think that s/he has landed on a Lao Island.


NATIONAL AND CULTURAL IDENTITIES


The everyday life of Lngo islanders are largely influenced by Laotian culture despite being in Cambodia; Lao is the lingua franca while Laotian kip is the currency used. In a border island where multiple cultures coexist, it is difficult to pinpoint one’s identity. The mixed feeling is epitomised by stunned silence that the villagers pose when asked about their identity. Many of  them would identify themselves as Khmer, but they do not deny a heavy Lao influence given the island’s history and proximity.


Hout, a 49- year-old man, is one of the few people on the island that spoke Khmer. Born on the island, he moved to Don Khon during the civil war and came back in 1979. Then, he met his Khmer wife whose family had settled down on the island for business. While his children are scattered in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, he intends to remain in Lngo because this is where he belongs. Though being Khmer by nationality, he grew up in Don Khon and shares an affinity with Laos. Like many other villagers, his everyday life and practices do not just reflect their Cambodian national identity but incorporates their Lao cultural identity as well.


Hout is sitting on a hammock


The multiplicity of cultures that exists on Lngo is also the result of external influences. In 2000, a not-for-profit organisation called Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT) embarked on various initiatives with the objective of improving the villager’s lives and fostering the educating of farming techniques and nutrition. This NGO’s entrance brought in Khmer influence. For instance, Khmer was chosen as the language for communicating with the villagers. They were exposed to Khmer through translators. Today, village schools are taught in Khmer. However, their lao-speaking culture prevails, as many of them still prefer speaking Lao despite the attempts to highlight their national identity.


Nutritional guideline in Khmer distributed by CRDT


The actions of CRDT represent the underlying ‘Khmer-isation’ of islands like Lngo. While the NGO is apolitical in its mission, it is obvious that it pursued the country’s political agenda to instill the national identity with the national language, Khmer. Ideas of identity – both national and cultural ones- in a borderspace are therefore open to many influences, and could be engendered both internally and externally.


CONCLUSION


Border spaces demonstrate the ways in which cultures are fluid and how multiple identities can be merged. Such fluidity is facilitated by cross-border mobility of people; it is encouraged not only by common interests but often also by ‘the unity of borderland’s culture’[1]. Where people could easily cross borders because there is a common understanding that all of them are dependent on each other. Identities formed in such borderlands often contrast purely national ones, and Lngo island is an excellent example of how borders create an artificial boundary between people and cultures.

Such borderscapes are shaped by a variety of external influences too. As evidenced by the agendas of CRDT and other governmental agencies, the age of globalisation will have deep implications for islands like Lngo as more external influences have access to enter the island. How will such communities adapt to external influences?

 

REFERENCES

  1. Asiwaju, A.I. 1985, “Partitioned africans: Ethnic relations across africa’s international boundaries, 1884-1984”, New York: St. Martin’s Press, pp. 223-251.