Indigenous Bunong community
The Bunong are believed to be the first inhabitants of Mondulkiri, having lived here for more than 2000 years. They practice animism, the belief that all things have spirits. They revere nature, particularly elephants, and they live in harmony with the forest. Their way of life has yet to be severely impacted by globalisation.
The Bunong are the majority of the population in Mondulkiri but less than 2% of the total population in Cambodia.
Importance of this community
Their contribution toward Cambodian and world heritages are not limited to their unique way of life, but also their deep knowledge of the forests, natural remedies, and animals – especially the Asian elephants.
They believe in forest spirits and firmly abide by rules and taboos which, as old-fashioned as they may be, work toward living in harmony with each other and nature. The unique biodiversity this region of Cambodia has today is a result of these practices.
There is a lot of wisdom within their traditions and much of it is not yet understood. As with any culture, traditions are doomed if not nourished by the local people - a fate suffered by many indigenous tribes.
Bunong – the caretakers of elephants
Also known as elephant tamers, the Bunong have co-existed with the elephants for more than 120 years. Like the Forest Spirit, they worship the Elephant Spirit and consider them sacred. The elephants are treated like members of the family and it is forbidden to eat their meat. They are collectively looked after by village families, who once domesticated were mainly used for transport – especially in deep forest areas. Today things are different. The elephants roam freely, are always watched and cared for, and are never overworked, underfed, or shackled. Bunong traditions are tied to and revolve around the elephants. The male elephants are even invited to local weddings.
Current state of affairs
￼After surviving the Khmer Rouge, which devastated local communities, their fight for survival continues in the wake of Cambodia’s increasing urbanization.Their simple way of life has left them unprepared to deal with the 21st century. With education and health care still barely accessible in their villages, they often suffer from illness and are taken advantage of by the better educated.Their livelihood depends on farming. They mainly grow bananas, rice, cassava and jackfruit, selling the excess in nearby towns. During the dry season crops are difficult to grow and families resort to the forest for produce such as resin and fish. Their skills with weaving and elephant taming are close to extinction. Responsible tourism is becoming increasingly important for their quality of life, keeping them close to their elephants, and preserving their way of life.
￼There are many international NGOs that urge the government of Cambodia to protect the Bunong, the Asian elephant, and the unique biodiversity of the country. We, too, endeavor to contribute towards their welfare while recognizing how closely interdependent they are. It is a long road to deliverance, but every journey begins with a small step.