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Calling For Love: A Modern Romance in Cambodia

Calling for Love is a photo essay that follows a young indigenous couple living in different rural Cambodian villages. Their relationship dating by phone, illustrates changing indigenous culture, and traditions such as Kreung “Love Huts”,  which have now become redundant due to modern technology. As a National Geographic Explorer telling the story of changing indigenous culture...

Calling for Love is a photo essay that follows a young indigenous couple living in different rural Cambodian villages. Their relationship dating by phone, illustrates changing indigenous culture, and traditions such as Kreung “Love Huts”,  which have now become redundant due to modern technology.

As a National Geographic Explorer telling the story of changing indigenous culture in Cambodia, I researched how conflict impacted their world, as well as documenting how modern technology impacts the lives of minority people as part of my photo project.

I followed a young indigenous couple between rural villages, showing their separate lives apart, and how they stay connected through the use of mobile technology.

An indigenous Kreung man, uses a leaf as an umbrella whilE walking through a Rainy field in a nearby village in Ratanakiri province. Once dense in forest, the province is rapidly changing and now filled with plantations.

Cambodia is home to just over 20 ethnic minorities, with an estimated 200,000 people spread across 15 provinces. The Kreung are one of the countries largest groups, part of the Khmer Loeu highlanders in the northeast provinces of Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, and Stung Treng  residing in Ratanakiri Province. Ratanakiri, one of the most sparsely populated provinces, is also home to the highest number of indigenous people in the country. More recently, many of these communities in Ratanakiri have had their ancestral lands grabbed for economic land concessions (ELCs) leaving community members working in rubber and cassava plantations for large companies.

The Kreung once lived off the land, but now with Economic Land Concessions, most villages no longer own communal lands. Now most young people have to work in cassava and rubber plantations, owned by international companies. 

“Bride and Groom huts”  often incorrectly referred to as “love huts” were once an indigenous Kreung custom, where young girls and boys approaching adolescence were given their own private huts outside the family home. Here they could live independently, court the opposite sex to find the correct life partner, as well as experiment with premarital sex without judgement or social stigma.

With villages being so sparse combined with bad road conditions, traveling between villages was exhausting and could easily take days. After the labor of travel,  it would be common for visitors courting from other villages to stay for the night and be accommodated within young peoples private huts. Often women chose their partners, inviting inside whom they wished.

the REMANENCE of one of the last “love Huts” in a village, belonging to a village chief, which has not been used since 2008. before huts were common practice, as parents wanted their children to be independent. around 2008, parents stopped building the huts as there were rape cases in other villages. the chief thinks young people are changing because they have phones and are interacting with khmer people who are coming into Kreung villages “Things are not as they were beforE”. 

Now this tradition which was once a key part of Kreung culture no longer exists. These huts have not been used for the past 10-15 years, being made redundant within indigenous society due to technology and better road conditions. As people are increasingly more exposed to Cambodian culture, their traditional practices are being altered and viewed as “taboo” in contrast to Khmer society.  From their growing exposure to mainstream Khmer culture, the youth are developing a new perception of what’s “right and wrong”. 

The boys in the village prepare to go to work in the cassava field, after a late night of drinking.

Dating has become easier with the use of mobile technology, as well as traveling to neighboring communities being cut significantly due to better road conditions and infrastructure within the province making it faster and simpler to communicate with potential love interests. Now there is no need for young people to stay overnight in personal huts, as they may have previously done before like their parents and older generations.

For young indigenous people, mobile technology plays a key role in dating, and keeping youth connected between villages. Many young couples meet and communicate first by phone, speaking for lengthy periods of time before meeting in person. Or brief encounters are followed by a number exchange, and mobile courtship.


Channy, now 15, goes back and forth to her hut in the dark, eagerly checking her smart phone on charge. Villages away, Ra sips on cheap rice liquor, playing with his friends old beat up Nokia phone.

Channy and Ra, 17, met one month prior, as he briefly visited her village to plant cassava on a plantation. A month later, they speak almost every day on the phone. Young and thinking about the future, they are thinking about getting married. Coming from different indigenous Kreung and Tampeun villages, it is now normal for different minorities to marry.

Walking through both villages, there are no traditional bride and groom huts in sight.

Ra takes a break from work to use another workers phone.

Channy, an indigenous Kreung, lives in Samross Kem village. Like many young girls in the village, she is eager to find a boyfriend and to get married. Young and in love, she misses Ra. Only seeing him once or twice per week if she’s lucky at the end of the day after laboring, picking cassava and collecting rubber on the plantation.

Channy works from sunrise to sunset, to help support her family. She works on both rubber and cassava plantations. Most young people living in the villages do not have time to attend school, as they are obliged to work to support their families.

At sunset, after she finishes work on the rubber plantation, she baths in the open well, eats with her family by an open wood fire, then eagerly heads into the village to watch television with the other girls. Playing with her friends and ducking out from the group, she speaks with Ra on the phone. Owning a phone is important for Channy to keep in contact with other young people. Like most youth in the village, Channy has owned her own phone for over a year and would be lost without it.

Despite her age, Channy wishes to marry Ra, but would first like to find another job outside the plantation so she can support her family. Now she wakes up every morning at 4 to collect rubber from the trees on the plantation site where her family live and work. As village life changes, young people are more aware of opportunities that are available outside the village.

Following traditional views, Channy says with little romance, that marriage is important, as you can find someone to support your family.


Ra, an indigenous Tampeun, lives in Ping a few villages away from Channy. Unlike the other young people in the village, Ra does not own a phone of his own as he cannot afford one. Instead, he constantly borrows the phones of other workers and villagers, throughout the day and night.

Like most young indigenous boys in the province, he enjoys drinking strong locally made liquor at night, getting drunk and traveling around different surrounding villages, visiting different girls of interest.

Ra speaks with A girlfriend living in Samross Kem village.

Ra met Channy when visiting her village to work. He says she was very pretty, and continued speaking with her by phone after he left.

Despite speaking to three other girls in three different villages, he claims he loves Channy, though he does not want to get married soon.

Having access to mobile technology, Ra does not have to directly see the women he is dating and can stay connected and in contact with them via phone.

As young people were able to experiment with partners in the past, like before, Ra also experiments … Instead of using huts, Ra experiments through technology.

Ra drunkenly falls asleep in a hammock whilE his friends continue drinking.
Traditionally, the kreung make their own rice wine in large jars. It is seen as an offering and CONSUMED regularly. Now young people are drinking locally brewed rice wine, as well as other alcohols which are available in all villages.

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Meet the Author

Charlotte L. Pert
Photojournalist Charlotte L. Pert has a National Geographic Young Explorer grant  to tell the story of Changing Indigenous Culture in Cambodia- from War, to Now." The southeast Asian country is known in the West for its spectacular Angkor ruins -- and for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century. Cambodia is less known for its 22 indigenous groups, which to this day still remain largely undocumented. Indigenous minorities were particularly targeted by the Khmer Rouge. Having lost their cultural identities 40 years ago, these communities are now trying to recover and survive in their changed world, whilst also overcoming modern-day issues. In a country where the entire nation was traumatised, how are these minorities surviving? Charley Pert plans to photograph and document these remaining groups, and present what has been recovered, and lost, in the wake of the genocide. She is attempting to source old colonial photographs, and compile stories from elders who were about at the time, or who remember the stories of their parents who lived through colonialism. In this way she hopes to build an image of what has been lost, as well as what has been preserved. Looking into the changes that have occurred over time,  from pre-war to modern day factors (like access to electricity and communications) that are influencing the youth, she hopes to also showcase how the indigenous way of life is being adapted by the next generation. As these indigenous cultures are changing so rapidly, it is important to capture what is left and look into how they are retaining their identities. Charley's photography has been published by The Guardian, Daily Beast, and Phnom Penh Post.