William and Mary Law School

Interlude: Kroo-bong-ree-un (teacher)

As I mentioned in a previous entry, I have many teachers in my attempt to learn Khmer. My co-workers and I constantly exchange language lessons throughout the day. I learn a lot of words concerning babies (two of my co-workers have brand new ones) and criminal law. At one of my favorite restaurants (Chandrea, meaning “moon”), the old man that owns the place sits next to me as I eat fried rice and we chat about our languages. He’s learned English by reading Cambodia Daily, a newspaper that prints Khmer in one column and English in the other. I also have many Westerner friends that have worked in Banlung for years, and they are always willing to help with pronunciation, placement, etc.

I have many friends that are helping me learn the language, but I also have an official kroo-bong-ree-un, teacher. My “kroo” is a 21-year old Khmer man whose father is Laos and mother is Tompuon. He speaks seven languages: Khmer, Laos, English, French, Krung, Tompuon, and Kaval, and he’s learned most of them on his own; he plans to study Chinese next. 

My kroo’s father is a traditional healer that’s famous throughout the province. I recently visited his rice, cassava, and fruit farm. After I met the family, several patients came by to receive medicine. My kroo’s father chanted and sang to the spirits as we sat around drinking medicinal tea made from various types of wood, rocks, and leaves. His father wants to teach him the trade, but my kroo is hesitant. He’s not sure if he believes in it, although he always participates out of high respect for his family and culture.

Besides, my kroo is busy with his job translating for an NGO around Yek Lom Lake to speak with the Tompuon people. The Tompuons have owned Yek Lom Lake for several years now, but their “lease” is running out and the government is closing in on the land. They want to build a casino on the shore. Yek Lom Lake is one of Cambodia’s natural treasures: it’s a huge, 50 meter deep, perfectly round lake surrounded by lush green forests and Tompuon villages. I often wonder what’s lurking at the bottom. No tributaries run in or out of the lake, but I’ve been told that it was created by 1. magic, 2. a massive crater, or 3. a natural spring. My kroo loves the lake and his people, and he’s working hard to ensure the Tompuon people are not stripped of their land. Whenever he’s not working, he paints portraits of Tompuon men and women in traditional dress or sketches maps of the lake and surrounding landmarks.

He loves language learning, artwork, and the lake, but my kroo’s biggest love is cooking indigenous foods. His dream is to open a tree-top restaurant next to the lake for tourists and locals. He is trying to figure out a way to earn enough money to cover the start-up costs.

His life is at an interesting fork, and he will soon make a decision that demonstrates a tension in this province. In two months, my kroo’s contract with the NGO will expire and he’ll be presented with an interesting choice. He could sign another contract with an NGO, or because he knows nearly every indigenous language, he could apply to the Vietnamese or Chinese rubber companies, the businesses that are constantly working to strong-arm indigenous people into selling their land. Like many Cambodians, my kroo is always worried about money. He just wants enough to buy a car, a nice house, and of course, to open his restaurant. Since NGO’s are perpetually underfunded, he would probably receive a much larger salary from the rubber company. His decision represents the constant tension between the local people and foreign companies. And the companies are often working in conjunction with the Cambodian government.

I’m not sure what he’ll choose, but I am grateful to my kroo, for teaching me more about his country’s problems and culture along with the language. Hopefully his story helps you gain a better understanding of the region as well!