The Edge of Cambodia’s Wilderness


Banlung is the far-flung capital of Ratanakiri Province, bordering Vietnam and Laos. It is over 600 kms north east of Phnom Penh and while the red-earth roads suggest an outback town, this is a lively commercial centre.

The Tampuon people have lived for thousands of years near the crater lake, Yeak Loam (‘Giant’s Lake) at the edge of town. For the locals, this lake is home to the spirits of the land, water and forest and a sacred feature of Indigenous identity.

During the time of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) up to 60% of the Indigenous population were killed. Less than 60,000 Khmer Leu (Hill Tribe people) now remain in Ratanakiri and their livelihoods are under threat.

The arrival from the South of ethnic Khmer (Cambodians) has tripled the Banlung population in the last 20 years. This is a land of opportunity for developers keen to take advantage of cheap farmland and natural resources. Logging, particularly illegal logging, has become a major problem. Banlung is now a boomtown rich on rubber, gems, logging, cash crops and tourism. Adventure tourism has increased from 6,000 visitors in 2002 to 105,000 in 2008.

Indigenous people in Ratanakiri have traditionally had little contact with the cash economy relying on barter exchange. But now many farmers are shifting to cash crops such as cashews, mangoes and oil palms. While the average income is round $5US a month, possessions such as motorcycles, televisions and karaoke sets have become extremely desirable.

The Big Stories team, Martin & Smey, ran film and photography workshops in Banlung and assisted local people to produce stories and images about their lives - from traditional weaving methods to their dreams and hopes for the future.

As filmmakers, they focused on the conflicting impulses of migration driven by enterprise and efforts to maintain cultural identity.

Filmmakers in Residence

Martin & Smey







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