Sitting at the heart of a global biodiversity hotspot, Cambodia harbours a remarkable variety of species. The spectacular cultural diversity of the Kingdom of Wonder is less well known, but encompasses a number of ethnic minorities, including Cambodia’s first peoples. Whilst limited information exists, recent estimations suggest that around 200,000 people identify as Indigenous, making up 24 ethnic groups.
Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains represent one of the largest remaining tracts of rainforest in Southeast Asia. Red dirt roads enrobed with lush forests are knitted through the hills, leading to the rural commune of Tatey Leu. Reaching the village, the forest opens into spectacular vistas, where vibrant rice paddies mirror the indigo silhouette of the mountains. Tatey Leu is home to the Indigenous Chhong people, who are Khmer Deaum or “original Khmer”. For the Chhong of Tatey Leu, people and nature are inextricably linked; here, “everything is from the forest”.
With special permission from community leaders, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) staff have been invited to an Indigenous ceremony. This ceremony calls forth the neak tah (spirits) to bring prosperity to the village in the coming year. Single file, the ceremonial procession winds its way through rice paddies and into the dense forest. On reaching a clearing, an altar is prepared and offerings are made to entice the neak tah from their dwellings in the ancient boughs of only the largest trees. Ceremonial incense is lit and, as a twist of silver smoke threads its way through the air, a wooden flute plays and community members dance through dappled light, singing to invoke the spirits. As part of this rite, elders don headdresses with wooden horns fashioned to resemble those of the kouprey, a large forest-dwelling ungulate. The cultural significance of the kouprey is expressed in the practices of the Chhong, but also nationally, with Prince Sihanouk declaring this species the Kingdom’s national animal in the 1960s. The poignant reality is that the kouprey is now functionally extinct, with recent population surveys estimating there are fewer than 50 individuals left in the wild.