When Cha Bai was 15 years old, in the early 1960s, she stopped sleeping in her parent's house. A few strong boys from her village, Krolah (in Ratanakkiri, Cambodia) had gone into the forest, where they gathered brown leaves, split bamboo, cut branches, and then built her a small sleeping hut within the protective enclosure of the village. For the next five years, before she married, Cha Bai slept in the hut. Some cold nights, her sisters or a friend would join her to keep warm and gossip. Some nights she slept alone. And some nights, if she felt like it, one of the young men in the village would sleep with her instead.
Kreung young people are different these days, says Ha Youen Thong, a village elder in Krolah. They streak their hair red and orange. They wear jeans, and they listen to popular music. They've stopped learning to hit the gong or play flutes. Even more worrisome to him and others in Krolah, they're getting married earlier than ever before.
"These days, girls at twelve or thirteen are married already," says Cha Bai. "They sleep together early—then they have to marry. It's not like before. Mothers and fathers don't know much about their children, and they don't have ways to restrain them."
"We try to tell our children, 'Don't walk so much like the Khmer,'" says Thong. "But they don't listen."
To those who live in the high blue mountains of Cambodia's northernmost province, Khmer culture often represents material modernity: money instead of bartered goods; motor scooters from Thailand and Japan; colorful, mass-manufactured fabrics to use for clothes and wedding tents. But, as the elders of Krolah are quick to affirm, it brings with it a set of values as well.
Khmer culture can be fastidious about cleanliness. The words for "beautiful" and for "clean" are the same, perhaps because in a nation where so many are vulnerable to the elements, dirt reeks of poverty. Khmer culture is even more fastidious about purity—at least when it comes to women. A Khmer saying goes: Men are gold and women are silk—only one can be wiped clean of a stain.
In the days of Cha Bai's youth, the Kreung people did things differently. Every girl who came of age left her parents' house to sleep in a small, low hut nearby. Kreung people call the huts the "maiden huts," or "houses of the young women." They've been building them for as long as anyone can remember, long before the decades when Khmer people came to settle the far reaches of Ratanakkiri.
They build them to allow young people to experience courtship on their own terms, says Cha Bai. "We were shy of our mothers and fathers! They knew young men were coming over to sleep with us!"
Back in those days—the late 1960s—the village would fill with music and conversation when night fell, as young boys from nearby villages sat on the steps of the girls' maiden huts. They'd pipe wavering love songs on flutes or sing and pluck stringed gourds. If the girl wasn't interested, the two would chat for a while, and the boy would eventually meander on to other huts in the village. If she was, though, she'd invite the boy in to talk privately for a while. "The usual stories of men and women," Cha Bai laughs, remembering what it was like.
If the girl fell in love, she and the boy would sleep together, says Cha Bai. She is delicate about what this means.
Sometimes the affair—"sleeping together"—would last a few nights, says Yan Vuy, the village chief of nearby Kacheung. The couple would come together, then part without blame. Sometimes, though, it would last weeks or months. That's when the parents came in.
"They'd wake in the morning and see the boy coming out of their daughter's house, and they'd know: 'Oh, that young man there is sleeping with my daughter!' Then they'd ask themselves, 'What's he like?'" says Vuy.
No one blamed them if they loved and left! It was according to their hearts.
In the years of the maiden huts, Kreung girls could freely take boyfriends and leave them without judgement. And they kept their huts as long as they wanted to, sometimes into their late 20s.
"No one blamed them if they loved and left!" says Vuy. "It was according to their hearts."
From all accounts, girls in those days went through a fair few sweethearts; Cha Bai says she had six at least. Her friend Maoy, now in her late sixties, laughs when she remembers her boyfriends. "We could have ten, twenty if we wanted!" she says. "We could stay in our huts until we were 25!"
When they were truly in love, says Cha Bai, or when they felt like getting married, they'd consult their parents. If the boy was suitable—"if he had good ideas," Ly Sam Oeun, a community leader in Krolah, explains, "if he could raise chickens"—the two would prepare for the wedding.
The couple would raise pigs and chickens for sacrifice and ferment sweet wine from the husks of dry rice.
When they married, the woman would abandon her maiden hut. She and her husband would move into her father's house. The two would sleep together there until they had children and enough money to build a home of their own. When they had daughters? The young boys of the village would tempt them, building them maiden huts when they consented; the cycle would start again.
Anthropologists love to write about free love. Margaret Mead wrote famously of the "loose" sexual mores of the girls of Samoa—later to have a number of colleagues claim that she'd been wholly taken in by a few raunchy Polynesian teenagers. Westerners have written starry-eyed accounts of the Kreung maiden huts as well, highlighting the freedom of sexual choice allowed by the custom. They've renamed the maiden huts "love huts."
Against Khmer culture—which prizes virginity and can offer young women little choice in whom or when they wed—the highlander's traditions can seem astonishing.
"Stories of women in undeveloped countries being dominated by men have been told so often that it can almost seem as if this is the 'default' human state. Yet in Kreung culture, which has remained virtually unchanged for centuries, women are not judged on their virginity and the rules of sexual conduct are determined by teenage girls as much as by male religious, social or political leaders," writes Fiona MacGregor.
It's possible these Westerners are right. Perhaps the Kreung's sexual values are revolutionary; perhaps they represent an extent of human possibility to which progressives should aspire. Then again, perhaps not. It's unclear what exactly happened in the huts, after all. And Westerners weren't the only people looking at them.
When I first heard of the maiden huts, it was from a Khmer tour guide. We were at Kachang waterfall, a popular tourist destination in Ratanakkiri. The huts, which had been woven for the purposes of display and left at the corner of the parking lot, were labeled 'bride huts' and 'groom huts.' "The Kreung girls sleep in the bride hut once they're married," the tour guide explained to me. Then and only then, he emphasized.
Later on, I heard the other stories—from a man who gave me a ride from Voen Sai to Ban Lung, from government officials over dinner. "They let their girls sleep in there, with any boy they want," said the man as we drove past a Kreung village called Kalai II. "It's why they're still so poor—they get pregnant young," said the official.
There were consequences to the opinions of outsiders. History and memory have been revised, and meanwhile, the maiden huts have gone from Ratanakkiri. No one builds them anymore in Cambodia, says Ly Sam Oeun. The few that remain are in the farthest villages, tenanted by shy 19- and 20-year-olds soon to be wed.
Some say that the reason for the disappearance is practical. Khmer influence has changed village houses. "The fathers of the girls have big houses now," says Yan Vuy. "There's enough room in these houses [now] for the girls to have privacy." But most people in Ratanakkiri give a different reason. In Krolah, Cha Bai and the other elders can remember the years when the maiden huts were lost. They have trouble speaking about it. "The Khmer who've lived here a long time—twenty, thirty years, they understand us," says Ly Sam Oeun from the Kreung village of Krolah. "They asked about our customs when they came, too. They asked, and then they learned."
A number who came later didn't understand. "They looked down on us. They looked at us wrongly," she recalls. "They asked, 'Why are you letting your daughters sleep away from her mother?'"
"They said—sleeping together to do what?" says Ha Youen Thong.
It's hard to say, after all, what exactly transpired between men and women in the days of the love huts. Some say sex. However, Ly Sam Oeun says that pregnancies were rare. "Before, yes, the young people sometimes have children together. There weren't a lot, though. There could be one in a village a year. One didn't want children before marriage—it was taboo."
Kradih Julang, another village elder, explains, "When there weren't Khmers to come and affect things, it was different. Our people—we could sleep together and not break the woman. Khmers? When they sleep together? They do things differently."
There's a price to misunderstanding. The Kreung weren't just mocked. In the early 2000s, Ratanakkiri was a frontier. It took two days to reach its capital, Ban Lung, from the nearest big town. Men came alone in large numbers, to cut rosewood and mine diamonds in the province's red hills. Some of them heard certain things about the Kreung culture.
"The men would come from outside during our sacrifices, during our festivals," says Ly Sam Oeun. "Lots of them. And they'd follow our girls around. They'd try to take them away."
In 2003, a Khmer businessman raped an indigenous girl from a village near Krolah. It was about then that most in Ratanakkiri decided to stop building the maiden huts. "We stopped. All of us, we stopped. We couldn't do it anymore," says Ly Sam Oeun.
"We regret it, but we can't," says Cha Bai.
Now, in the Kreung villages of Ratanakkiri, maiden huts gather red dust in front of wood houses, and decay with the seasons. None are being built anymore, says Sam Oeun. Only a few girls still sleep in the ones that are left. Most of them have grown shy.
Nang Thom, who is 19 years old, loves her hut. Its walls of packed leaves enclose a space just wide enough for her and another person to fit comfortably. She turns away when asked about her nights. "Men don't sleep with me in there. Only my brothers and sisters," she says.
As Khmer settlers move closer and the Khmer government builds schools in villages, traditions and memories are revised. Many Kreung now refuse to talk about the huts or what went on inside. If they do, they emphasize the girls' independence and don't mention men.
Cha Bai and Maoy say that it's a loss. The maiden huts were private, but they were also communal. There was safety and music in the circle of a village in the woods. "There weren't ugly stories like today," says Cha Bai. "There weren't rapes, murders, sweethearts getting kidnapped."
Without the maiden huts, they say, their girls find other ways to socialize. They call boys at night and walk miles in the dark to meet in secret or to attend Khmer concerts in Ban Lung. Sometimes they come back pregnant.
And, like young people in all the far reaches of the world—as development brings with it promises of cleaner lives, better education, and more universal ethics—sometimes they simply come back with different ideas. Sometimes, they look down on the rough arrangements of simpler times. Sometimes, they just have no desire to speak their parents' language, or to learn how their grandparents fell in love.
"We were happier before," says Maoy. "We didn't think much in those days."