Northern Khmer

  • Pre-Entry
  • Pre-Evangelism
  • Evangelism
  • Discipleship
  • Phase-Out
  • Completed

About the People

The Northern Khmer people of Thailand are a 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 greatest population is concentrated in the middle province of Surin where it is reported that 80% of the people are Northern Khmer. They take pride in the fact that they are Thai citizens, but they enjoy speaking their own Northern Khmer language. It seems like the children’s knowledge of Northern Khmer, however, 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 Buddhist by religion. 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 and say “no problem” in the face of problems and stresses. Along with a major 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, and severe poverty hovers close by as well as 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 was given international acclaim when in 2003, APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) delegates were brought to Surin to visit 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 a day. And many people work 6 or 7 days a week. With so much economic hardship, many parents feel that it is necessary for them to make whatever sacrifices necessary in order 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’ main social security, and are raised to take up 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 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 sin, but the N. Khmer, and most of Thailand for that matter, don’t really regard that Buddhist precept, except a few who quit drinking during Buddhist Lent. Smoking is rampant here among the men. Betel nut is the vice which mostly 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 kind 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

Frontier Stories


As the summer draws to a close, so does one of my favorite sports of summer—baseball. Believe it or not, as I look at baseball, I can see some parallels with what it takes to be successful in missions.

By: Robbie Doss
September 01 2009, 9:25 am | Comments 0

Student Missionary

During my first year as a student missionary in Thailand, we would go to the mountains and visit the Mien people the Wilson family was working with.

By: Kelli Doss
August 01 2009, 9:20 am | Comments 0

Alligator Blood

We were listening to a Christian radio station the other day when we heard an interesting fact: Alligator blood contains factors that fight off severe infections.

By: Robbie Doss
June 01 2009, 9:14 am | Comments 0

Introducing Robbie and Kelli Doss

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jer. 29:11).

By: Robbie & Kelli Doss
April 01 2009, 9:10 am | Comments 1

What To Take

Packing has always been hard for me, but when you’re thinking about the next six plus years of your life and ministry what do you take?

By: Christopher & Shannon Sorensen
September 01 2004, 7:15 pm | Comments 0

Spiritual Battles in the Land of Nan

“We have to go—now!” said Brian, tears welling up in his eyes. I apologized to the realtors and tried to set up another appointment with them as we ran out the door, not sure why we were running so fast.

In the truck, Brian explained that the call was from the province of Nan where he and Duang had lived and worked for many years. Lai Jiem’s mother had just died in an accident. He didn’t know any details. They would have to break the news to her.

By: Christopher & Shannon Sorensen
June 01 2003, 7:42 pm | Comments 0

Our Strange Job and the FBI

As we visited, he asked if he could see our passports. I didn’t think anything of it. People are often intrigued with this little book that gives a person license to travel to faraway places. But then he proceeded to copy my full name, my passport number, its place and date of issue, expiration, etc. into a notebook. This made me nervous.

By: Christopher & Shannon Sorensen
April 01 2003, 7:37 pm | Comments 0

Peace For My Fear

One of my biggest fears was confronting me. What if my husband were to die in Thailand? He’s not sick. But Adoniram Judson lost two wives and three kids, J.N. Andrews lost a daughter, Hudson Taylor lost a wife and daughter, and then AFM missionary Brad Jolly recently died.

By: Christopher & Shannon Sorensen
December 01 2002, 7:31 pm | Comments 1

On the Move

“Where’s home for you?” the man asked. “Good question!” I replied. We have parents in Pennsylvania and Utah, our church membership is in Tennessee, our mail goes to AFM in Michigan, and we have stayed with six families in the past four weeks.

By: Christopher & Shannon Sorensen
November 01 2002, 7:27 pm | Comments 0

Frustrated But Hopeful

My heart is burning right now! I’m excited! I’m frustrated! I feel inadequate! And at the same time, I’m hopeful!

By: Christopher & Shannon Sorensen
October 01 2002, 7:23 pm | Comments 0

Back to top