Strange Sights in the Cambodian Jungle: A Jarai Cemetery.
Above Photo: a Human image in an overgrown Jarai Tribe Cemetery in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia.
We were in remote Ratanakiri Province, not far from the Vietnamese border with our guide, motorbiking up a dusty road in the middle of nowhere on our way to visit a Jarai Tribe cemetery – if we could find it.
Ratanakiri is where I based my book BACK, both in 1968 and in the modern day chapters, when ill-prepared backpackers enter the jungle looking for something left behind from the Vietnam War and find more than they bargained for. Strangely this scenario also relevant to the plot of our film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil too.
We stopped the bikes and plunged into the bush, where we eventually came across a Jarai tribe cemetery. Strange carvings of men and women, unusually-painted roofs and indigenous art that reminded me of Polynesian cultures, soared out of the bushes as the cemetery came into view through the trees.
We had previously obtained consent in the village to visit the cemetery, which had until recently been strictly off-limits to outsiders. But as the Jarai had recently moved on, deeper into the jungle, the remaining elders in the nearby village had become more relaxed about outsiders visiting and disturbing the repose of the spirits.
Jarai are buried in wooden coffins hewn from one tree, and buried beneath these graves. Reminders of what the wealthier villagers did in life, or what they liked, are either painted, or physically represented, on the tombs.
After the burial, the graves are then left untended, and never gone back to by the surviving members of the family. They quickly become overgrown and forgotten.
We also saw some unusual grave goods in the cemetery, where the grave offerings and carvings are intended to show the wealth and status of the occupants when they were alive.
Besides the lavish graves, buffalo are often killed in the celebrations (not mourning) that accompanies a Jarai death, and the Jawbones and horns of buffalo sacrificed in these festivities are also often left at the grave.
I was particularly interested in the representations of guns and helicopters in some of the graves. I can’t believe that remote Ratanakiri Province has seen much helicopter action since the Vietnam War, and certainly not enough to ingraine the image into the consciousness of people so deeply that the representation of choppers are frequently seen in their cemeteries. Guns, yes, for hunting, but surely not helicopters.
I saw them as a throwback to the Vietnam War, but I might be wrong.
I noted planes represented on one of the graves. Given Ratanakiri had seen mass bombing from the US during the Vietnam War, I also wondered if there could be a link here too.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2:
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