Smoked Beetle and Getting Lashed on Rice Wine in the Cambodia Jungle

Posted: January 8th, 2011

Secrets of the Love Huts

A journalist friend of mine, Fiona MacGregor is writing a book about cultures where mainstream patriarchal views on woman are surprisingly subverted and something more refreshing is revealed, a kind of girl power if you will. She came across this tribe in Ratankeri called the Kreung tribe where the girls, on reaching adolescence have their own small houses or ‘love huts’ built for them by their family and are then given the opportunity to have boys stay over as part of their quest to find a husband.

This kind of sexual empowerment was intriguing, especially as no-one got called ‘slag’ or ’tart’ in the process. After a little wrangling with Marie-Claire I had myself booked on assignment to join Fiona in Phnom Penh and then on a bus to Ban Lung to do a study, working title “ The Secret of the Love Huts” .

Cambodia is very much a third world country and is still recovering from years of war not to mention the genocide years of Pol Pot. The people considering their history, are surprisingly open and lovely. There is a warmth and hospitality that completely belies the hardship they have been through. The roads don’t however belie the years of turmoil and the bus ride to Ban Lung takes 13 hours, for a large part along dirt roads where in some places a
four- wheel drive would have problems not to mention a full size cruising bus. On the plus side, riding on motorcycles through the jungle, after a burst of monsoon rain is great fun, if you can stay vertical.

Highlights of the trip include sleeping in hammocks and “hanging” with the very hospitable Kreung tribe members. Drinking rice wine ( vat of rice, fermented) with the tribal elder on a Saturday night is a refreshing alternative to my usual night out down the local. It was not completely dissimilar to my student days. The chief decides how much each of us has to drink and then we all follow, be it a pint or a half or a pint and half, yes you guessed right, drinking games in the jungle. That was unexpected. Low lights of the trip: eating beetles, even fried they are just too crunchy.

The Kreung lifestyle is a mixture of old and new. Their culture is being assaulted by the modern world at an increasingly vigorous pace. On one level nothing has changed, they get up before dawn, walk two hours to their farms and return at sunset 12 hours later. They hunt with bow and arrows and their sanitary system is a walk in the woods. Dish of the day is wild pig and vegetables cut from the jungle. On the other hand, there are motorcycles, mobile phones and TV and the teens are starting to resemble extras from MTV videos even though 10 years a go they were wearing traditional clothes.

You can’t help but notice a deep inner (and outer) beauty of the tribal folk. that I like to think comes from the simplicity of their life, the cynicism that comes from our modern world has not yet reached them. The stresses that come from such things as: trying to reach a human in customer service at British Gas; avoiding bank charges or hanging on to your job when your boss is an idiot does not concern them. I know however this is a fanciful notion, their life has its own much worse stress levels mainly in that there is no organised health care and often the wisest person in the village is the doctor.

For better or worse this culture, like many in the globe, is changing and changing fast. One of the most poignant pictures I took was this guy, merry on wood alcohol , dancing nostalgically to a tribal dance broadcast on TV. The clothes shown were traditional and the images shown representing a time that was only a decade old. Quite tragically ironic I thought. No time to talk in depth about the main story but the piece is out now in Marie Claire, Feb edition, 2011.
Its been published both in the UK and US editions and will be available in the US IPAD edition, You never know how much space you will get and sometimes the pictures can be squashed so if you want to see the whole thing with copy and space to breath please email me for a pdf:

Fiona MacGregor is a writer and journalist specialising in gender issues, women’s lives, traditional cultures and wildlife stories. She is currently writing a book about powerful women in tribal and traditional cultures across the world. Editors or other media researchers interested in her work are welcome to contact her at

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