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.
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.