In a remote corner of Preah Vihear province, an identity shift is under way. Here on the border, where the Mekong river spills over rocky falls from Laos into Cambodia, a younger generation is increasingly adopting a Lao way of life.
“Their parents only speak Lao with them,” said Neang Phann, an eldery villager in Kampong Sra Lao II commune, in Chaep district. “Some parents aren’t even able to speak Khmer.”
In a village 100 kilometers north of the provincial capital, Neang Phann sat on the wooden stairs of a stilt house, surrounded by grandchildren who were likely unable to understand what she was saying.
“Even though I try to use Khmer with my grandchildren,” she said, “they don’t follow me.”
Kampong Sra Lao II consists of four villages with more than 380 families, nearly 2,000 people living along the Mekong.
For decades, Cambodians here have been much more isolated from their fellow countrymen than from their Lao neighbors to the north. Goods and services are exchanged across the border, as are nuptials.
That has meant heavy influence of Lao culture and language, from weddings and funerals to house styles and currency.
Lao has become the lingua franca of the area, said Thou Ham, a 42-year-old farmer and deputy village chief. “It has already become a habit,” he said. “Every village in the commune is accustomed to Lao, every household, every person, speaks that language.”
“I do it with my kids,” he admitted. “They don’t like me speaking Khmer.”
Each of the four villages has a primary school, but classes are irregular due to a shortage of teachers. Technically, Khmer literacy is a requirement, but Lao is more commonly spoken in everyday life.
That has Khuon Pann, the deputy commune chief, worried.
“If our people continue to speak Lao, this area will become part of Laos,” he said. “We’re losing both our family name and our identity now. So we’ll become Laotians.”
Chaep District Governor Ung Vuthy says the government is planning to build a road to connect the area to the province and to bring in Khmer concerts and cultural forums.
“We can no longer keep them quietly isolated,” he said. “Otherwise, it will be more difficult for us in the future.”