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"Our Spiritual Roots" by Kalyanee Mam

The first video featured is of a special ceremony in Areng Valley, an area in Southwest Cambodia considered one of the most rich and bio-diverse in the country.

Editor’s Note: In this series ‘Cambodia UPROOTED,’ VOA guest columnist Cambodian-American filmmaker Kalyanee Mam will release a series of six video clips and essays, over the course of twelve months that will seek to understand how Cambodia is being “uprooted” by massive and unrestrained development and how Cambodia can learn to retrace its “roots” again. Utilizing footage captured over the course of five years and personal and insightful essays, the series will seek to explore significant social and environmental issues related to deforestation, land grabbing, industrial agriculture, overfishing, sand dredging, migration, and urban development. This series will emphasize that only when Cambodia protects its people and environment can it root and ground itself again in the natural and cultural heritage of its ancestors.

17 September 2015

The first video featured is of a special ceremony in Areng Valley, an area in Southwest Cambodia considered one of the most rich and bio-diverse in the country. This ceremony happens only once every three years to honor the forest spirits and to seek their protection. During this ceremony, a leading village elder speaks about the importance of land and water. We come from the land and water, he says. Without the land and the water we cannot survive. Land and water is the root of our natural and cultural identity.

The message is simple but it strikes at the heart of the natural and cultural genocide that is taking place in Cambodia today. Millions of Cambodians live directly off nature, off its rivers, lakes, and forests, and thus depend on healthy ecosystems and their sustainable usage. Destruction of this thousand-year old relationship would not only spell the destruction of the country and its people, but of Cambodia’s currently faltering national identity. How do we retrace, recapture and reclaim our roots? This video, urges for the protection of our ancestors – our land and our water - as the answer to finding ourselves again.

Our Spiritual Roots

I've always been puzzled by the concept of home since as a refugee my family and I had lost our homeland. I grew up torn between two worlds, believing that I had to choose between two cultures; two countries. I realize that throughout the years I've been constantly searching for my home and for my place in the world. Psychologically scarred by the trauma of war and displacement, I think many of us, either as immigrants and refugees abroad or children of war living in Cambodia, are still searching for that firm ground into which we can plant our roots. What we may not realize is that the roots of our identity lie within us and in the land and the water that makes Cambodia our home.

It was early morning when I made my way out to Pralay Village, one of six villages nestled in Areng Valley, which lies at the foot of the Central Cardamom Mountains. I was living in Chumnop at the time, with Reem Sav See and her family, getting to know them and documenting their way of life. But that morning I wanted to join a ceremony that takes place only once every three years and has been practiced for six centuries and for as long as the Chong people have lived and existed in this area. This ceremony called Laing Prey Damrey or Celebration of the Elephant Forest, honors the forest spirits (Neak Ta), celebrates the land and the water, and prays for their protection. This year, the village elders would plead for the protection of Areng Valley from the threat of a proposed hydroelectric dam.

I walked to the home of one of the village elders who was in charge of the ceremony. He invited me to sit with him on the bamboo flooring of his traditional Chong home as he gathered a few of the instruments that would be played later that morning – the kloy (a traditional Cambodian flute), the skor (a traditional Cambodian drum), and the tro (a traditional Cambodian fiddle).

“There are so many more indigenous instruments,” he said, as he whittled a flute carved out of bamboo and that could imitate the mating call of a small bird he was hunting that season. “But they’ve all been forgotten. No one knows how to play them any more.”

His hands were dry and well worn like the instruments and probably knew not a moment’s rest, always plying and pulling and carving and working. His gestures were slight, his answers short but always polite, accompanied either by a snort or a smile. And as he blew into the flute, I wondered how long it would be before that particular sound would be lost to the world forever. As if reading my mind, he laughed, “The children these days don’t even know how to make this flute.”

By late morning a crowd had gathered in an open area in front of his home and the homes of other elders. There were villagers from Prolay and other villages in the area, foreign tourists and local tourists and even a group of university students who were studying tourism and interested in promoting Areng Valley as a tourist destination. One young woman stood in front of the crowd, tears streaming down her face. She spoke of the natural beauty that she witnessed and had never seen anywhere else before in Cambodia and of the importance of protecting that beauty.

After she spoke, I went up to her and we held each other tightly, tears brimming in my eyes. We acknowledged each other not with words, but with an understanding that there was hope.

After the gathering we marched, trotting through the dry dirt past homes and then through dense forest to the site of the first ceremony, a spirit forest protected by a large majestic tree. The elder men and women laid out all the offerings – incense lit on elaborately hand woven candelabra made of banana stalks and leaves, a whole steamed chicken, and strong rice wine. As the elders made the offerings, they prayed to the tree that stood above us and the music played echoing the chants of the elders. Capfuls of rice wine were offered to every guest, to every visitor, and even to me as I held my camera trying to film every detail of the ceremony. I respectfully gulped down a small capful and could immediately feel its potency. But what I found most fascinating was that the wine was also served to the tree that towered above us. The same drops of rice wine that had touched our mouths trickled and absorbed through the roots of this magnificent tree. This reminded me of growing up lighting incense and praying at the altar of my ancestors and later of making small offerings of food to my father who had passed away and all our ancestors who had come before us. The offering, my parents told me, is to give thanks, but it is also to remember who we are and where we come from.

Our roots are intricately connected to this tree and to the land that gave it birth and to the water that nourishes and sustains its growth. Like the tree we are also rooted in the land and the water, without which we cannot survive. But what has compelled us to forget our ancestry?

The Khmer Rouge regime, which claimed the lives of nearly two million people, tore families apart, uprooted entire communities, forced many of us to live in distrust and fear of one another, and in doing so called into question the very roots of our cultural and national identity. Many of us remained in Cambodia, but many of us, like my family, fled our home country and resettled in distant, far away lands. Whether we fled or remained, each of us continued to be haunted by the psychological trauma of war, our spirits floating like unsettled ghosts.

Today Cambodia is in the grips of another mass displacement crisis as we rush to move forward, develop, and catch up to fellow Asian tigers in the region but with complete and utter disregard of the impact on people’s lives and to the land and water that is our home.

In August, three of Mother Nature’s brave activists, Sim Samnang, San Mala, and Try Sovikea were arrested for attempting to stop the sand mining activities of two sand mining companies in Koh Kong Province. Since 2006, sand mining in Cambodia has become a major export industry, chipping away at Cambodia’s landmass while increasing the landmass of island nations like Singapore and raking in hundreds of millions of US dollars in revenue annually for interested groups and individuals. Sand dredging has also proven detrimental to the local environment causing pollution, riverbank collapse, and the destruction of what is considered one of the most pristine mangrove forests in Asia. These mangrove forests are not only Cambodia’s natural protection against storms and tsunamis, they provide nurseries and feeding grounds for endangered species of birds and mammals as well as fish and crab, whom local fisher families in Koh Kong depend on for their livelihood.

By fighting sand mining, the three heroes Samnang, Mala, and Vikea are literally fighting to protect Cambodia’s land and water, its people, our cultural and national identity, and the very ground that we stand on, which is quickly shifting beneath our feet.

I have spent months now in Areng Valley trying to understand who I am and who we are as a people. What I realized is that we are not lost and cannot be lost if we can return to a clear understanding of who we are. How do we retrace, recapture and reclaim our roots? This video, urges for the protection of our ancestors – our land and our water - as the answer to finding ourselves again.


Kalyanee Mam is a Cambodian-American filmmaker. Her debut feature-length documentary, “A River Changes Course,” about the struggles of three Cambodian families amidst a rapidly changing world, won the grand jury prize for world cinema documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.