Northern Khmer

The people are very friendly and seemingly open to the Gospel. They love to visit and have fun, and they value one’s ability to control his/her emotions.

AFM has ministered to the Northern Khmer people since 2003.

About the People

The Northern Khmer people of Thailand are kind, humble and fun-loving people. They live in a territory along the Cambodian border, which used to be controlled by the Khmer empire up until about 500 years ago. Today, they live mainly in the lower half of the modern-day provinces of Buriram, Surin and Sisaket. Their largest population is concentrated in the central province of Surin, where approximately 80 percent of the people are Northern Khmer.

They take pride in being Thai citizens, but they enjoy speaking their own Northern Khmer language. However, it seems like the children’s knowledge of Northern Khmer is decreasing since the government has ordered all schools to teach only in the Thai language. It could be that in the future, Northern Khmer will not be so commonly spoken.

Eighty percent of the over 260,000 people of Surin province are Northern Khmer by ethnicity, and nearly 100 percent are Buddhist by religion. The people are very friendly and seemingly open to the gospel. They love to visit and have fun, and they value people who can control their emotions and say “no problem” in the face of worries and stress. Along with a significant drug and alcohol problem, AIDS is also spreading among them and producing an increasing orphan population. A large casino sits on the Cambodian border some 40 miles away, while severe poverty hovers close by and in other outlying areas of Surin.

The people in smaller villages are primarily rice farmers and cattle and water buffalo herders. But many people try to make money in other ways, too, like silk weaving, peddling homemade cakes, or some small trade. Surin silk is now famous as it achieved international acclaim when in 2003, APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) delegates visited Surin and viewed silk weaving villages. But it is generally agreed that money is not to be made in the countryside. So nearly every household has at least one family member who has left the village to find work in Bangkok or some tourist area. Some families are so poor that both father and mother feel compelled to leave their children at home alone or with grandparents.

The average daily wage around here is $7 day, and many people work 6 or 7 days a week. With so much economic hardship, many parents feel that they must make whatever sacrifices are necessary to see that their kids can receive a higher level of education and, thus, a better job and income. Kids here, especially the daughters, are considered their parents’ primary social security and are raised to embrace that responsibility. It is normal for at least one daughter to stay with her parents, and if she marries, her husband must move in with her family or at least into the same village.

Smoking, drinking, and beetle nut chewing are the main vices here. There’s a popular saying in Thailand that uses a fancy play on words which, in essence, says, “If you come to Surin, you must drink wine. If you don’t drink wine, you must be a Surin dog.” All Buddhists regard drinking alcohol as a sin, but the Northern Khmer, and most of Thailand for that matter, don’t have much regard for that Buddhist precept, except a few who quit drinking during Buddhist Lent. Smoking is rampant here among men. Betel nut chewing is the vice that primarily middle-aged women and a few middle-aged men pick up and is thought to be rather harmless and even beneficial. Many old ladies swear that they have what remains of their teeth only because they chew beetle nut, which makes their teeth “strong.”

About the Project

The vast majority of Northern Khmer people call themselves Buddhist, like most of the country of Thailand. Buddhism is so foundational in Thai society that a person who switches from Buddhism to another religion is often thought to have sold out on their family and country. But in addition to Buddhism, the Northern Khmer have some of their own beliefs and unique practices. They have many spiritualistic ceremonies which honor their dead ancestors, and they have spirit doctors that perform many different kinds of healing sorcery. I once saw a man called in to do some sort of sorcery on a baby who had kept her parents up all night with continual crying. He took a bunch of ginger and chewed it up, chanted something under his breath, and then sprayed his gingery saliva through his teeth on the baby’s feet and hands. There are many alternative spiritual healing practices here. But these are now done more as a last resort. Even the Northern Khmer have more faith in modern medicine.

AFM missionaries began working among the Northern Khmer in January 2003. In early 2014, they merged with the AFM Central Thai project and relocated to Khon Kaen, Thailand. They left behind a thriving Adventist church among the Northern Khmer that included a radio station outreach.

People-Group Facts

  • Population: 220,000
  • Language: Northern Khmer
  • Religion: Buddhist

    Project Update

    Entered area in 2003.

    Incorporated into SDA church in 2011.

    The Sorensens started a radio station, then later moved to the Central Thai project.

    • Churches planted — 1

    2022 Summary

    • Churches — 1
    • Members — 30