In search of a neak ta

Every village has a neak ta, the spirit-owner of the village. This is my report on my search for the neak ta of Prek Luong village, across the Mekong from Phnom Penh.

_DSF5810Ferry cross the Mekong

My interpreter Socheat and I crossed by the ferry about 2 in the afternoon. We’d visited this village before, talking to people about spirits in general, but this time we were specifically looking for the neak ta. We were told there were two, the more important being Lok Ta Dam Bo – a name that means Grandfather Buddha Tree. It’s simply a description – the lok ta (alternative name for neak ta) lives under a Buddha tree (fig tree) in the eastern section of the village. Buddha trees are rather interesting – they tend to be infested with spirits, including evil ones, and so are never planted anywhere except monasteries, where spirits can be controlled by the Buddha. Or, in this, case, by a powerful neak ta.

_DSF5816Lok Ta Buddha Tree. One hand on his knee, curled to hold a rod, the symbol of authority, the other in the earth-touching position of a Buddha, but with the palm turned out inside of in – I have no idea what significance this may have. His lips have a little hole for cigars – this lok ta likes to smoke.

The shrine is quite simple, just a little concrete shed, open at one end, with the neak ta statue inside, facing West. Buddha statues always face East, but I’ve never paid attention to the neak ta shrines so can’t tell if this is significant or an accident. Beside the shrine is a dining hall (that’s the literal translation of the name), open on two sides with Buddha images at the West wall, facing East in the proper manner. The walls were covered with murals showing scenes from the Buddha’s life, very well done – the artist was good! There were children playing in the hall and we asked them to explain the scenes on the wall, but they had no knowledge at all.

_DSF5818Children playing in  the dining hall beside the shrine. The game is kick-the-slipper: you kick a rubber thong at your friend’s thong, or at a pile of riel notes.

We were directed to a house across the street, where we were welcomed by a very friendly old man. He told us he was 81 years old and the former commune chief, a commune being a collection of villages – so he was a local VIP. He also told us all he knew about Lok Ta Dam Bo. The lok ta is as old as Prek Luong village, which is probably very old – the name means Royal Canal, and apparently there was once a royal palace here, before Phnom Penh became the capital, which means before 1864. The canal connected the palace to the river, which suggests quite a substantial presence, not just a small royal holiday home.

_DSF5833The retired commune chief, aged 81.

Lok Ta Dam Bo was originally represented by a stone, and wasn’t at his present location. The Khmer Rouge removed the stone and nobody knows where it is now. They also destroyed the original Buddha tree. After the war the old man, then commune chief, noticed that cows weren’t eating a little clump of three banana trees in a field. On investigating this he discovered a Buddha tree sapling. Realising that this place was special he organised the correct ceremony to invite the neak ta to take up residence in this new home. Later, the village’s own artist, a local boy who’d studied in Phnom Penh, had a dream in which the neak ta came to him, and so the artist knew how the statue of the spirit should look.

_DSF5829Painting in the dining hall: At the top, Buddha achieves Enlightenment, while under him Thorani the earth goddess destroys the army of Mara (“Illusion”) by wringing water from her hair – and the hair turns into her crocodile, who supports the earth. To the left, Buddha shelters under the hoods of the naga-king, another earth god. So that makes three earth-gods – Thorani, the naga-king, and Krong Bali the crocodile king – to one Buddha and one defeated demon-king.

Lok Ta Dam Bo has to be informed of all weddings and other major events in the village, and every year a major festival is held in the dining hall beside his shrine, attended by the monks. (Note the way the spirit has been integrated into Buddhism – the monks are quite happy to preside at a neak ta festival, provided the Buddha gets pride of place). The old man has never been sick in his life, and he puts this down to the neak ta, who is a powerful patron for those who respect him. Those who fail to respect him he strikes down with illness. The major reason for having the image made was in fact to deter small children from using the empty shrine as a play-house, as he didn’t want them unwittingly bring the neak ta’s anger down on their innocent heads.

_DSF5852A portrait of the artist

We went to visit the artist, and found him more than slightly drunk. He was a very talkative drunk – we couldn’t shut him up. He said that, as a local boy, he’d been seeing the neak ta, in dreams and waking, all his life, and so was very well aware what he looked like when asked to create the statue. As a young man he’d asked the neak ta to protect him in his life and bring him prosperity, and so it had – he was now a rich man. In return he did whatever he could to help the villagers by producing holy talismans, and his wife was the local kru baromey (spirit medium), so in this way they both served the community. There was also a kru arak in the village, this being a different kind of spirit medium; this lady is very old, 90 years old, but still very strong.

_DSF5847Another portrait of the artist

Finally we visited the second neak ta, whose shrine is located in the grounds of the village monastery beside the Mekong. The villagers were all there by the shrine when we arrived, seeking the blessings of the neak ta for the forthcoming Water Festival boat races. We were told that the Prek Luong boat always wins, year after year, and the knees of other crews turn to jelly when they see the black hull of Prek Luong on the water and hear the chant of the men of Royal Canal, because the neak ta of of this place is riding in their boat.

_DSF5857The second neak ta shrine – no image, and it has obvious Chinese connections. This is the neak ta that blesses the village boat in the annual boat races.

And then I watched some men washing their cows in the river, and then I went home.


Village spirits

This Saturday I went to a village called Chu Luom, about an hour from Phnom Penh on the highway to Sihanoukville, in search of it neak ta, or guardian spirit. My informant was Yeay Tan, an old lady of 90, and this is what she told me.

_DSF5521Yeay Tan

The village neak ta is Kramorm Kor, Grandfather of the Red Neck. This was a surprise for me, as Red Neck is one of the “national” neak ta – unfortunately Yeay Tan had no information on how her village had such an august resident protector.

Krahorm kor is useful mostly for curing sickness. People who pray to him have to make a promise to provide him with the offering he likes best, which is a pigs’ head or chicken’s head. If they fail to do this he’ll punish them with further illness. If someone falls sick in the village, the person has to find out how he’s offended the neak ta – possibly by speaking bad words to a parent, or about the neak ta himself.

I asked how the villagers provided the pig’s head, given that the First Buddhist Precept is to refrain from taking life. She said the head could be purchased in the town market, it wasn’t necessary to kill the pig oneself. The villagers don’t kill their pigs themselves, they sell live pigs and buy prepared meat. Chickens are killed in the village, but by little boys, not old enough to be held morally responsible. All little boys in the village become monks for a short while at around 13 or 14, during which they learn morality.


Yeay Tan isn’t very optimistic about the general state of morality in modern Cambodia. Earning a living is difficult, young people are unable to practice morality (meaning observing the precepts about not lying, not stealing). Monks also have bad morality today – “we read in the papers how monks have their girls.” Only old men should be monks, she says.

We talked about arak, a rather dangerous class of spirits. There are two types, the tame and the wild. Tame arak will come into the body of a human vehicle, the kru,and answer questions about things such as the whereabouts of lost objects. The village kru died about ten years ago and there’s no successor. Yeay Tan thinks they may be dying out.

The “wild” arak (the correct term is “forest arak”) don’t inhabit human kru and are never seen. (I think she meant that a “tame” arak shows itself when it enters a kru ). They inhabit the fields and stands of trees. Farmers have to share their food with them, leaving a little of every item for them on a a square of banana leaf, never on the dirt. If this is not done the farmer will fall sick.

We talked about village medicine. The villagers go to the clinic when they can afford it, but for broken bones they prefer a traditional healer – this is because the hospital in the town will cut off their arm or leg. (I find it difficult to credit that this is true, but apparently it’s believed). The healer, the kru khmer, will cure the broken bone with incantations and by “blowing.” Yeay Tan has often seen this done, and watched as the distorted limb slowly but perceptibly regains its proper shape.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia

HSCHun Sen’s Cambodia, by Sebastian Strangio (blog here), published by Yale University Press and Silkworm Books, will be available at Monument Books from 27 October. It’s an evocation and explanation of contemporary Cambodia, a country synonymous with its leader, Hun Sen.

The first half traces the history of the country from the end of the Khmer Rouge regime to the present; the second half investigates at the reality of life in and under what the author calls “the mirage on the Mekong.” Presiding over all is strongman-President Hun Sen, who has dominated the last three decades as Sihanouk dominated an earlier age.

Hun Sen was born into a comparatively well—off peasant family, the son of a former monk who left the Sangha to join the anti-French resistance, but the family lost their money and he was forced to become a temple-boy in Phnom Penh. This remains a very common pattern today, so common in fact that it makes me wonder which of my local temples might be sheltering Cambodia’s future leadership at this moment.

Hun-Sen-e1349252427677The young Hun Sen, early 1980s

  Exactly how the young Hun Sen became a communist – if indeed he ever did embrace the cause in any meaningful way – remains extremely murky. Sihanouk’s call for all patriotic Cambodians to join the anti-Lon Nol maquis following his overthrow in 1970 seems to been the catalyst, although nothing is certain. It’s clear, however, that he was a young man of great ability, rising to become a KR commander in the Eastern Zone before the Party’s collapse into self-destructive purges forced him to flee to Vietnam in 1997.

470_ap_hun_sen_091008Hun Sen now (AP photo)

In January 1979, aged just 26, he returned Cambodia’s new Foreign Minister. He impressed visitors with his intelligence, hard work, and uncanny ability to sail with the changing political winds. These abilities, and possibly a certain ruthlessness, enabled him to see off his decidedly less talented colleagues; by 1985 he was Prime Minister, a position he’s held ever since. (Strangio gives a fascinating account of how Pen Sovan, the first post-KR prime minister, tried to resist Vietnamese direction and ended up in a cell in Hanoi; Hun Sen in contrast made himself indispensable).


Cambodia in the mid-1980s was a tangle of patronage networks – the Khmer word is “strings”, conjuring up the not inappropriate image of a bowl of spaghetti. No one was better suited than Hun Sen to bring order to the chaos.

Patronage is deeply rooted in Cambodian culture, and always has been. Gifts are passed down and generate loyalty which then confirms the authority of the giver. The system is, of course, deeply destructive. “Government posts [are] valued according to their potential to generate income, while the power of higher officials depend[s] on their ability to distribute those positions.” The task of making himself the ultimate source of all influence and power was to occupy Hun Sen for the rest of his career, and still continues.

Cambodia Rolls RoyceRolls Royce dealership, Phnom Penh

Modern Cambodia has unquestionably benefitted from Hun Sen’s subtle approach to the age-old role of patronage boss. The country has an open market, a democratic constitution, and a vibrant civil society. Guns have just about disappeared off the streets (the average Cambodian runs a far lesser risk of being shot than does the average American), the press is freer than in many other countries in the region, foreign investment is booming, and the tourism and garment industries are diversifying employment opportunities.

cam-photo-front5Striking garment workers (photo by John Vink, Magnum)

If only the reality were so bright and shiny. Strangio gives Hun Sen his due – in 2004 one in two Cambodian’s lived in poverty, by 2011 the figure had dropped to one in five and falling – but as he makes clear, the commitment to Western ideas of the liberal society is both limited and pragmatic. Partly this is because Hun Sen has seen that the West’s talk of the virtues of freedom is hypocritical – these were the countries that kept Pol Pot in the United Nations and isolated Cambodia through the 1980s for their own cynical purposes. And partly, of course, they can’t afford to hand over the keys to the patronage machine.

power-to-the-peopleForcible eviction at Borei  Keila (Asiapundits)

And so it continues: land seizures in the provinces, “slum” clearances in the capital, unionists and other opponents shot dead or jailed, media taken over and controlled by those the elite can trust, a compliant judiciary, etc etc. Even the CNRP opposition offers no more than a change of faces, and Sam Rainsy’s racist Khmer chauvinism hardly seems like something to long for. Strangio’s book makes depressing reading.

Cambodian National Rescue Party2013 election (

And yet, for all this, he ends on a note of hope. Cambodia has not stood still for the last thirty years. A new generation has grown up, one more educated, more exposed to outside values, less willing to accept patronage politics and a society of inequality. The results were seen in the 2013 elections, when the CPP lost a massive number of seats, obviously to its own surprise. Cambodia is changing, but Hun Sen is not. We live in interesting times.

Preah Ang Doung Kar – Phnom Penh Riverside spirit shrine

_DSF5101The Riverside shrine from the Royal Palace. It’s Khmer name is Preah Ang Doung Kar, meaning Sacred Royal Flagpole. The pavilion in the centre is NOT the shrine – it’s for the king and invited guests to watch the boat races over the three days of the Water Festival in November. The shrine is the small building on the far right, and the steel mast between that and the pavilion is the royal flagpole – it has the royal flag flying from the top

_DSF4936This is the image inside the shrine. The shrine custodians have twice told me it’s a Vishnu, but the experts say it’s Avaloketishvara, a type of Buddha. The Khmer Rouge destroyed both the shrine and the statue some time after 1975, but the shrine was rebuilt in 1991 and a copy of the image installed. In any case, he’s never called by any other name but Ang Doung Kar.

The main Avalekotishvara image - the "blisters" on his torso are tiny Buddha images, signifying how he filled the Universe and encompassed all past and future Buddhas.

The main Avalekotishvara image – the “blisters” on his torso are tiny Buddha images, signifying how he filled the Universe and encompassed all past and future Buddhas.

He has six arms because he’s very old – the original, the one the the KR destroyed, dated from the 11th/12th centuries. It was in the possession of King Norodom when he transferred his capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh in 1866. I’d love to know why he brought this with him, and what significance it had, but I haven’t been able to find anything.

_DSF4958At the back of the shrine is a small image of Yeay Tep. She’s a neak-ta, an important guardian spirit. I’m not sure where she’s from – there’s one from Siem Reap and another from Pursat, and I don’t know whether these are two Yeay Teps or one.

That completes the first shrine. The second is identical, but far less popular. It contains seven images, all of well-known neak ta from around the country.

_DSF5103The seven are arranged in two rows, the front row hiding the second. On the far left is  Lok Ta (means the same as neak ta) Red Neck, who got his neck from a battle with a naga. He’s from Takeo province. Next is Lok Ta Strong Iron Rod. The guardians told me that he’s from Takeo too, from Mount Chisor (site of an ancient Angkor-period temple),  but I always thought Iron Rod was the protective neak ta of Battambang. On the far right is Lok Ta Commander of Cambodia. This is new to me. The guardians said he’s from Wat Phnom, which suggests he’s the companion of Daun Penh, whose home that is.

I don’t know whether being in the second you means you’re less important, but the images there are a bit smaller.

_DSF5104On the far left is Yeay Mao. Her area is the coast, and she has her main shrine at Pich Nil on the road to Sihanoukville. She’s quite a fearsome lady, and I don’t think her statue here at Preah Ang Doung Kar does her justice. She causes whirlpools to swallow the boats of people who displease her, and is said to be the modern version of the goddess Kali.

_DSF5105Next is Daun Penh from Wat Phnom. I asked why she’s here when she has her own shrine on the hill just a tuktuk ride away, and was told it’s just to make it easier for people to pray to her.


After her comes Lok Ta Eisei from a place that sounded like Phnom (meaning mount) Serong. I’ve heard of Eisei but never of Phnom Serong, so probably I have that name wrong.


Finally, on the far right, Lok Ta Khleang Moeung from Pursat province. He’s famous for sacrificing his life for his king in order to call up an army of ghosts to defeat the Siamese.

_DSF5108Preah Ang Doung Kar on a Holy Day

As I said before, the flagpole shrine is the more popular . People come especially on the Holy Days of each month, the 7th/8th and 14th/15th. (It’s to do with the waxing and full moons). Students pray for success in exams, lovers pray for happiness, business people for success. Striking workers gather here to ask the god for help in wage negotiations, and at the funeral of the late king this was where the procession formed.

_DSF5142People also release birds, which they purchase from vendors at the shrine. The idea is to buy two birds. If they fly away together, your relationship will be happy. The ones in this cage seem to be swallows, which seems cruel. The one thing I’d like at the shrine is to have this thing with birds banned.

_DSF5111Kids around the shrine have empty coconut shells filled with melted candles with a burning wick. For a small fee you can get them to light your incense. The incense must never be blown out, always shake the sticks.

Coconut-shell candles at Preah Ang Doung Kar on a festival-day

Coconut-shell candles at Preah Ang Doung Kar on a festival-day

When making your prayer, you should promise something to the god in return for his help. Often this is music: “I promise seven songs if this is granted.”