I met Neary through her boyfriend John.* The eldest of four children, she grew up in Ponhea Leu village, a rural area on the edge of Phnom Penh that has now been absorbed into the semi-industrial fringes of the city. There was nothing remarkable about her childhood, and even her father’s desertion of her mother when she was about seven or eight wasn’t particularly traumatic – he continued to live nearby with his new wife, remained friendly with his ex, and saw his children frequently.
One day her mother cooked snake for the family. Neary got very, very sick, although nobody else in the family was affected. That night a spirit came in a dream and grabbed her leg and tried to take her down from the house to kill her. Next day her mother made an offering to the spirit and asked it not to punish her daughter and Neary promised never to eat snake again.
She first saw the spirit when she was around fifteen or sixteen. It was about eleven in the morning and the family were sitting in the house when she saw a huge snake in the room looking at her. Nobody else saw it, and her mother said this was not possible, but she continued to see the snake. Eventually her mother took her to see a kru, and the kru explained that this was a spirit. The kru told Neary and her mother to burn incense for the spirit and to ask it not to harm her. After this the serpent-spirit no longer frightened her. It came to visit her at night in dreams. She and the serpent would sleep together, and she would ride on the serpent back to its palace, where there were many serpents, and they all treated her serpent as king of the serpents.
The neighbours in Ponhea Leu asked her to be their kru. She asked the serpent-spirit for advice, and the spirit gave her a choice, to become a kru or to become a neak kanseul, “a person serious about religion”, for three years. She chose to be a neak kanseul, because she felt she wasn’t ready to be a kru. Being a neak kanseul meant she had to follow the five precepts, and also to obey the spirit – for example, if she wanted to go somewhere and spirit said no, and if she insisted on going, she herself would have to take the consequences.
She left school at 18, having completed grade 9, and went to work in one of the new garment factories around Ponhea Leu. She quit after four days: “I was standing all day and my ankles and legs were swollen and I was exhausted”.
When she was 20 she moved to Phnom Penh to sell clothing at Sorya. Her salary was $80 a month and she paid $30 a month for her room, but she brought her two younger sisters with her and so the three weren’t badly off. The serpent-spirit also came with her to Phnom Penh. After a year or so her sisters went back to Ponhea Leu, but the spirit stayed. She’s very glad to have the spirit with her, because it looks after her and tells her what will happen and what decisions to make. She burns incense for it every day, and offers food and water, and asks it to continue to support her.
There’s another spirit in her apartment in Phnom Penh, the chum neang pteah, the spirit-owner of the house. Unlike the serpent-spirit, the house-spirit appears when she’s awake as well as in dreams. What she sees is “not a man, but like a shadow of a man, tall and with dark skin.” She sees it almost every week, and especially on the days before the holy days of the month, the 8th and 15th.
The chum neang pteah owns and protects the house. One night she heard a voice telling her to wake up, and when she woke up she heard a burglar trying to break in. The burglar ran away, but he left the stick he’d been using to break the lock on her door. She was too scared to think of a word to thank the spirit but she called John, her barang boyfriend, and told him and also told the landlord and her friends who came and kept her company for the rest of the night.
The chum neang pteah will give her what she asks for. For example, on one occasion she needed rent money and she told the spirit, “if you don’t help me I’ll leave the house and leave you”, and the next day someone who owed her money paid her back. She has asked that an application for a job should be successful, or to meet somebody, and everything she asks from the chum neang pteah comes true.
She has a shrine for the chum neang pteah on the floor, and one on the wall for her serpent-spirit, her personal protector. She burns incense and makes offerings of bananas and fruit, jasmine flowers and water to both spirits, and these must be refreshed every holy day. The chum neang pteah tells her what he wants to eat or drink on the holy day, and she’s always very careful to follow his wishes. If she hasn’t seen the spirit for a while she can ask to see him on the holy day, and will see him.
Recently Neary broke up with John. She was hurting badly, so badly she thought of suicide. She stood in her kitchen looking at the knife on the table. She reached out her hand, but a spirit grabbed her hand. “The spirit told me, every problem has a solution and if I stay alive he will stay with me forever and help me find me a boyfriend who will love me, but if I kill myself he will never help me again.”
This spirit was a prahlung, the spirit of a person who had died. It was the first time she had known this spirit, and it seemed to have experience of suicide. The next day she thought of suicide again, but thought of the prahlung’s advice and gave up the idea. In three or four days she got back together with John. The prahlung came to her afterwards in John’s room and told her it had spoken the truth, it had promised to help and it had helped, and it was better not to kill herself.