In this excerpt from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, Christine Dimmock experiences a grave moment in Ratanakiri.
Voices are approaching, and I half expect to be accosted for trespass. I sneak around quietly until the sounds fade into the distance. I am in Ratanakiri, the most northeasterly province of Cambodia on the banks of the Sesan River, north of the town of Ban Lung. More importantly, I am fighting my way through the undergrowth of an overgrown burial ground at Kachon village, home to one of the ethnically distinct groups that makes up the population in Ratanakiri.
Because my mother engendered in me an affinity for old cemeteries, I can’t help but be drawn into this one. I soon realize that it is the most unusual graveyard I am probably going to see in my life. In fact, from the moment my motodop “had relations” with the minority villagers—that is, he sought their permission—I have been falling over myself in a flurry of discovery.
Adventure travel writer Ray Zepp and others reported seeing Polynesian-style funerary statues here, and as I enter I stop at the closest grave, which has a rectangular fence, an elaborately shaped metal roof painted in bright geometrical patterns, and life-size carved wooden figures of a man and a woman at two corners. At the remaining corners are large pairs of carved tusks. Household items have been provided for the dead to use in the afterlife.
I do my best to tread lightly out of respect for this deeply spiritual place. More graves appear as I click away with my camera, and I must struggle through prickly vines and red ants. Photography is challenging due to the combination of bright sunlight and deep dappled shade, and first I concentrate on the newer, colored wooden figures. Some wear metal wristwatches, and a female sports a pair of metal sunglasses. There are clothes in red, green, and yellow paint. Several male figures wear military-style caps, and one has a carved walkie-talkie on his chest. Another carries a bow and arrows. His wife wears round metal earrings and a green painted bra top, which matches the large pipe protruding from her mouth amongst the leaves.
While these modern effigies are intriguing, the older figures are my favorites. They are unpainted, less elaborate, softly weathered, and spotted with lichen. Their only adornments are metal eyes and earrings, and in one case a headband. Occasionally there is a touch of red on female lips or black on male eyebrows. Their heads are large and their bodies lack detail. Items for their use in the afterlife are simple—baskets, china plates, bottles, cooking pots, and brown glazed pottery vessels. Several sets of cow and buffalo horns are lying around, suggesting the ritualistic slaughter of animals.
Reluctantly I tear myself away. On the return journey to Ban Lung, I’m surprised by an unexpected visit to another smaller graveyard. The attraction here is a grave adorned with a naive replica of a helicopter painted in army camouflage. The villager buried here may have helped the Americans in the Vietnam War, as did the ethnic minority groups across the border in the central highlands of Vietnam. Looking at this grave, I realize that these sites are much more than just a tribute to the person buried there. They are a record of Cambodia, both its past and its progress, over the course of the last century.
Graveyards around Ban Lung
In Ban Lung, the capital of Ratanakiri Province, you can hire a motorcycle taxi or ask at your guesthouse about gathering a group together for travel by jeep. Voen Sai is thirty-five kilometers northwest of Ban Lung, and Kachon is one hour by boat east of Voen Sai. Expect to pay around $15 for the boat ride, which will also include a visit to the Chinese and Lao villages on the way back to Voen Sai. Unfortunately, access to this particular graveyard is now closed, though others on the opposite bank of the river may be accessible.