6 June 2024

“When we go to Thailand, we are known as Khmer. When we stay here, we are known as Thai. So, it turns out that we are Koh Kong people. Not exactly Thai or Cambodian.” Vichet Bunchoo said about being Thai in the Koh Kong province of Cambodia.

Koh Kong, the most southwestern province of Cambodia, was once under Siamese administration and many Thais are still living there, especially in the border sub-district of Bang Kayak.

Koh Kong in Cambodia and Trat in Thailand were ceded to French Indochina in 1904. Three years later, Trat was returned to Siam, in exchange for the Siamese province of Inner Cambodia, while Koh Kong remained part of French Cambodia.

In addition to Thai people who were born in Koh Kong, there are also some Thais who have moved from Thailand to live there, Vichet Bunchoo is among them.

Vichet Bunchoo (left), Thai fiserman in Cambodia’s Koh Kong

Vichet was born in Trat and moved to settle in Koh Kong as a fisherman because of ‘love’.

His wife is his sister’s friend. When his sister wanted to travel to her friend’s house in Koh Kong 20 or 30 years ago, they did so by boat from San Chao beach. Back then, he said, there were only long-tail boat services to cross the border as there was no road.

Vichet married a Cambodian woman, who was the headwoman of Bang Kayak sub-district, and moved to Bang Krasaop village in Koh Kong 22 years ago. The place was in the middle of the open water and had a flourishing fishing economy.

Things changed in 1990, the fish industry in Bang Krasaop village declined after the amount of shrimp, mussels, fish and crabs dramatically reduced. The situation got worse, to the point that Tid, the sub-district headman at that time, had to relocate both Thai and Cambodian people in Bang Krasaop village to the mainland in Bang Kayak sub-district in 2000.

Uncle Tid, Former headman of Bang Kayak sub-district

Tid said he had to think about sustainability before moving people. So, he led the development of the sub-district to support the locals and the people who were relocating.

“Before relocation, we had to look at the economic situation. We had to study mangroves in the southern part of Thailand. After we brought knowledge back to develop the area, we moved our people to live here. There were also westerners, who came to offer support by giving funds for mangrove planting. Then, I started Ecotourism by offering boat trips, which generate income for locals,” Tid told Thai PBS World.

Tid is the first Koh Kong born generation in his Thai family. He was trusted by the Cambodian authorities to be the Bang Kayak headman, a job he held for 33 years. He had a big role in turning the area into one of the best known seaside attractions in Cambodia.

Bang Kayak pier

He said most of the tourists are from Phnom Penh. “They don’t know about sea water. So, when they come here, they fill a bottle with it and take it back to show their children. They live with freshwater, such as rivers and lakes. They didn’t believe there is salt water. They were excited when they first witnessed the sea and sand.”

Today, Bang Kayak has one of the largest and most flourishing mangrove forests in Asia, which is located in Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary. This is also the place where Thais and Cambodians live together in harmony. Most people here earn their income from fish and tourism.

Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary

According to Vichet, around 20% of the people in Bang Kayak are Thai and his life here as a Thai man is going well. For him, it’s better to live here as a fisherman, because he didn’t have a profession when he was in Thailand.

“I saw that, if I stayed here, I would have many ideas for earning a living, such as exporting fish, shrimp, crabs and mussels to Thailand. The seafood resource was abundant. That was the beginning of my livelihood here.”

By Kitipat Chuensukjit