Unpacking The Disappearing Kachok Culture: The Untold Stories Of Koh Peak Village
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
WHO ARE THE KACHOK?
A young Kachok villager dressed in modern clothing. Kachok people wearing traditional costumes is a rare sight today.
Kachok is one of the smallest ethnic minority groups in Cambodia, with a population of about 3,365 residing in Cambodia today. The Kachok are indigenous people and holders of a unique language, way of living, knowledge, and beliefs, making them distinct from the Khmer majority. However, the Kachok culture we know of today bears little similarity to the past.
To investigate this changing indigenous culture and tradition, we decided to immerse ourselves in Koh Peak, a Kachok village in Vernsai District of Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia. Koh Peak is home to 311 Kachok families and a small group of other ethnic minorities.
THE DISAPPEARING KACHOK CULTURE
When we first arrived in Koh Peak village, it was not immediately obvious that the village belonged to the Kachok indigenous group. There were no distinct physical signs that differentiated the community from other indigenous communities, or even Khmer communities; every villager was wearing modern clothing and most of the young and middle-aged villagers were conversing in fluent Khmer.
A display of the Kachok traditional costume. When worn, the costume is meant to be wrapped around the body.
Through our interviews and casual conversations with some of the elders in the village, including the current and ex- village chief of Koh Peak, it was revealed to us that the aspects that defined and made the Kachok culture unique included their unique traditional costumes, the Kachok language that they speak, their traditional marriage ceremonies and ritual practices, and certain cultural artifacts such as the Ka pa (woven bamboo basket), rice wine jars, and traditional musical instruments.
Unfortunately, many of these aspects are no longer seen or being practiced in the village today, with many of the younger generations of villagers having had no encounter with these cultural features.
"If nothing is done and this community continues living as it is, the Kachok culture will soon disappear completely..."
- No Jang, Previous village chief of Koh Peak village
KHMER NATIONALISM AND ASSIMILATION OF CULTURE
Upon discovering that so many defining aspects of the Kachok culture were disappearing, or already lost, we sought to understand the reasons for this disappearing Kachok culture. We soon discovered that one of the reasons might be that of Khmer nationalism.
Nationalism refers to a system of belief that aims to forward the interests of an individual nation, through encouraging the cultural unity of the nation itself. Several of the village elders who have lived through the Khmer Rouge regime, told of how the regime introduced numerous reforms throughout the nation, including the forced wearing of standardized attire. During that period, the adorning of the Kachok traditional costume, or any attire other than the uniform black shirts and pants, was illegal, and violators of this rule would face severe consequences.
Koh Pek Primary School, the only educational institution present within the village of Koh Peak.
This effectively rid the presence of the Kachok costumes from the daily lives of Koh Peak villagers today, with the village’s cultural performers being the only people to still own the traditional outfit.
However, Khmer nationalism pre-dates the Khmer Rouge regime. After the end of French colonial rule, the new Cambodian government sought to create a ‘One Khmer’ unified Cambodia, and made it compulsory for all educational institutions to teach in the medium of the Khmer language. When Koh Peak village children reached schooling age, they would be taught only the Khmer language instead of their native language in class, gradually resulting in the replacement of the Kachok language, and other indigenous languages, with the standardized Khmer language.
This cultural assimilation is extensive within the village; most of the younger villagers claim that they are more comfortable speaking Khmer rather than Kachok.
CAPITALISM WORKING THROUGH CULTURE
For many years before the French colonialism and Khmer Rouge, the Kachok people lived uncontacted without interference from the outside world. According to village elders, post-Khmer Rouge was said to be the ‘turning point’ to modernity as their ‘eyes were opened to’ the Khmer and international markets of modern clothing and practices. After the Khmer Rouge, the Kachok realized the practicality of modernity and did not revert back to old practices of wearing traditional costumes. Modern goods and technology were sold or traded, things which the indigenous Kachok people previously did not know about. With the opening of markets and modern influences seeping into the Kachok culture, the culture gradually adapted to incorporate these goods and influences into their culture.
Modern practices continue to infiltrate into the daily practices of the Kachok, even in their wedding practices. The adoption of Khmer wedding dresses, beer, and popular music are evidence of globalisation and capitalism working through the Kachok culture, altering and reshaping their cultural practices. It is capitalism that ardently defies the inherited separation of nature and society - between the untouched Kachok and the Cambodian and international communities - that reproduces the socially constructed new norms. Here, we can see how the Kachok culture is so intertwined with the circulation of capital and valuing of commodities through money. It is these overlapping forces of economic, social, and political processes that shape the Kachok culture today.
Capitalism and economic flows from outside the village still exist today.
A Kachok villager weaves baskets for cash to purchase goods and commodities from outside the village.
CAPACITY TO INSPIRE
A youth discussing how the culture has hindered him economically and his aspirations as a boat driver.
In our world where modernisation is the pursuit, culture connotes a sense of backwardness and even a form of limitation to advancement. When we think of ‘habits’, ‘traditions’ and ‘customs’, they oppose the definitions of development which constitutes forward-moving and the future.
The aspirations of people are not just individual choices but rather are shaped by the dominant social and physical environment. Poverty remains a worrisome situation as the Kachok youths are expected to carry on the agricultural livelihoods and cultural practices from the older generations, restricting them spatially and aspirationally to the boundaries of their village. They are also faced with many practical issues such as accessibility to city jobs and basic goods (i.e. clean water and proper sanitation infrastructure).
In an economically less privileged community like Koh Peak, villagers find themselves stuck between a cultural binary where they either “remain loyal” to Kachok or “exit” from the culture for modern pursuit. The older generations are resisting the changes in the Kajoc culture and the younger generations are resisting the ‘outdated and impractical’ practices in order to shape their futures and aspirations.
It leads us to ask the question: Is it really impossible to strike a balance between the aspirations and needs of the community, and keeping the Kachok culture alive?
"The cultural actor is a person of and from the past, and the economic actor a person of the future."
- Arjun Appadurai
The disappearance of aspects of the Kachok culture may seem bleak, negative, and saddening. However, the villagers of Koh Peak seem to have a very different take on this issue. Rather than being strong opponents of the change, the elders within the village actually saw positives gleaned from these changing cultural aspects, including embracing the greater comfort and practicality that modern clothing affords them compared to traditional attire. The younger generation of villagers in Koh Peak also welcomed the changing aspects of Kachok, commenting that village living is simpler and easier with the absence of the need to conduct ‘unnecessary and expensive rituals’.
A small part of the Koh Peak community engages in traditional music and dance performances
in a bid to preserve memories of the Kachok culture.
While almost all the villagers saw positives in some disappearing aspects of the culture, every villager we talked to insisted on the importance of preventing the complete loss of Kachok culture. The changes have afforded many benefits and conveniences to the village community, but the Kachok community strongly believes in the need to preserve the culture, at least through memories. This forms the motivation behind the movement, organized by No Jang, to continue traditional Kachok performances to share memories of the lives and aspects of the culture to the younger generations and to people from outside the community. The physical aspects of the Kachok culture may be slowly dissipating, but the memories and spirit of the Kachok community will continue to live on in the decades to come.
"Thank you for coming to our village and conducting interviews about our culture with both young and old. It has truly been reflective for me and it is good for my village because it allows them to wonder and ponder our Kachok culture and what lies ahead for us in the future."
- Om Doi, Village Chief of Koh Peak village
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