As part of our CIYA team work, aiming to recognise and preserve cultural heritage, and just through living and working in our communities, we’ve becoming aware of certain traditional buildings called love shacks. Less potentially seedy than the B52’s 1990s hit song suggests, these love shacks provide a space for young indigenous adults to live apart from their home, and a chance to get to know a future spouse without the pressures of an accompanying family.
Existing in several of the minority indigenous groups in Ratanakiri (there are 7 in the province, including Tampoun) they stand out (or more accurately, stand ‘up’): small huts, around 3m2 at their maximum, that sit apart from home dwellings, and on much higher supports than the average house. Where comparably aged indigenous homes are around 1.5m off of the ground, a love shacks can be anywhere from 2.5m to 5m high. Those I’ve seen are also more distinct in their colouring, and are painted according to traditional colours and patterns, often representative of crops, rivers and other natural features, and the important gong music.
The shacks are delineated according to gender, with the male huts being the taller forms, and the girls huts being closer to the ground (I try not to extrapolate too much on this – I’m sure it is just for convenience). Indigenous youth might move into the shacks around the age of 16/17/18, sometimes alone (sometimes a family builds a shack in their back garden for a particular child), and sometimes as a group of a few girls or a few boys.
Male youths are able to visit the female love shacks (although the girls have the power to turn them away at the door) as an opportunity for courting outwith sociable hours. I’ve noticed here how little time there is in the day for unscheduled free time, and I don’t even have the same cooking and farm work responsibilities as the teenage children! After 8pm is the only time one could go to see friends or sweethearts (the term for a significant other), and without lighting on the roads or within the villages, homes are the only places to socialise. However, most traditional houses consist of a single-room layout, with a sleeping corner for all members of the family. Any late night visitors would disturb the whole (typically large) family, and would probably prove quite unpopular quite quickly! The huts provide a space for the teenagers to get to know each other, without being under the watchful eyes of their parents (quite literally and immediately).
I know what you’re thinking, but it appears that the indigenous groups aren’t too worried about pre-marital sex: they don’t have the same kind of taboos as exist in Khmer culture (quite a strict system, where typically you meet someone you like, you introduce families, if the families say that it’s okay then you get married) or even those still somewhat embedded within the UK mindset. Reports as to how common it is vary (different minority groups have different rules, and community discussion emphasises the couples ‘talking and getting to know each other’), but sometimes it is seen as evidence of successful relationship, and a pre-cursor to a successful marriage. Suitors are normally from the same village or surrounds and everyone knows everyone’s families. There is an extremely low separation and divorce rate.
However, love shacks are all but disappearing from Ratanakiri, and I’ve seen more ‘example’ love shacks than those genuinely existing. The loss of these spaces is driven by changing economic conditions and greater assimilation into Khmer culture.
As the income of indigenous groups grow, so does their ability to change and adapt their housing styles. Just like drive for property investment in the UK, the indigenous families (like my own host family) are trading in traditional woven bamboo homes with a 5 year duration, for concrete supports, solid wood walls and an iron roof. With these changes also come alterations to the interior: it is now more common for families to build an extra room in their new house to serve the privacy purpose that a love shack might have fulfilled in the past. The practice may still be present, if not quite so visible.
However, Khmer-style housing also betrays the extent of cultural assimilation that the region has experienced in a relatively short time. The conservative nature of Khmer romantic relationships has likely altered the behaviour of the indigenous people working in Ban Lung or neighbouring farms. Growing mobility and schooling has led to more mixed indigenous/Khmer marriages, with the disruption of traditional courting patterns and marriage ceremonies. Furthermore, HIV is a recent and growing problem for the communities, with greater fear surrounding fidelity and young people leading to stricter familial control, the promotion of abstinence, and the cessation of love shacks.
I was really interested by the love shacks when I first heard about them – particularly the level of trust, respect and understanding that they require of the parents, and the maturity and independence they require of the teenagers. I can’t help but feel that the loss of the buildings signifies a shift towards a more conservative, more covert culture, which might not improve the lives of the indigenous groups, and which might reduce self determination in romance!