Svay Chrum village, Google Earth.
Eng Sok, of Svay Chrum village in Kandal province, is 71 years old and has been a farmer all his life. He sits on a blue plastic chair in the front yard of his house to answer questions about those inhabitants of his village who are neither human nor animal. Some are spirits, some are ghosts, and some are monsters. Some are benign, but most are not.
First come the dead, who exist somewhere on the border of the natural world. Family members one has known all one’s life have to be eased into this other world gradually. For this reason, after death and cremation, their ashes and bone fragments are collected and kept in the family home. (Eng Sok didn’t mention it, but there’s a new fashion of constructing a large shrine in front of the house for the storage of ashes, with a broad plinth where prayers can be made and offerings left). But the elderly are crotchety, disliking noise and liable to be annoyed by children, and children in turn are likely to be frightened by the dead, and for this reason the ashes should be taken to a monastery after a certain period.
Next come the spirits. The mrieng kongveal are children, and live in the trees around the village. They are always boys. The mrieng kongveal are naked, but they wrap a red cloth around their heads, or else shave their hair leaving a lock at the forehead, in the traditional way with human children.
Like many villagers Eng Sok keeps a shrine for the mrieng kongveal under his house, because when they see human children in a house they come and play with them. Eng Sok and the rest of the villagers know these spirits are real because they see their own children and grandchildren talking and laughing and playing games with them, although they’re invisible to adult eyes. Sometimes they play too roughly, in which case the human child will get a fever or cough. Then the parents will offer food and water and sweets to the mrieng kongveal and ask them to remember that human children are more delicate than spirits.
A house can do without a shrine for the mrieng kongveal, but not without one for the chumneang pteah, the protective spirit of the house. It lives in one of the house pillars, and this is the best place for its shrine if people can discover which pillar it is. If this is not possible then any pillar will do, but it should always face the door. The house spirit will bring prosperity and happiness for the family, but the shrine has to be kept clean and incense should be burned and offerings made every holy day, the full moon, dark moon, and quarter moon days of each lunar month. If this is not done the chumneang pteah will come in a dream and ask why not, and perhaps become angry and cause illness in the family.
Eng Sok rarely sees spirits, but once when he was walking home one evening when he saw a woman standing on the roof of his house. The woman launched herself into the air and flew towards him, vanishing at the last moment, and he knew at once this was the chumneang pteah.
The tevoda are the third of the domestic spirits. In status they come first, because these are the heavenly devada who appear on the walls of Angkor. Their role is to watch over the house and its inhabitants and guard them from the dark forces that inhabit the village, and they figure prominently in Khmer New Year celebrations.
The arak are spirits of natural features (arak of the forests, arak of the water, etc). Some anthropologists describe them as ancestor-spirits, but Eng Sok didn’t say this. They are sometimes willing to help humans, but are unpredictable and potentially dangerous and should be approached only by an experienced kru. Eng Sok is not sure he believes in them, but he keeps an open mind because of the testimony of people from the village who have been cured of illness by the arak after the hospital was unable to help.
The arak can be broadly divided between “tame” arak, those willing to speak through a kru, and “wild” arak of the forest. The name is a little misleading, as the forest arak don’t necessarily live in the forest but in nature in general. Farmers working in the fields always share their food with them, a little each of whatever they have, placed on a banana leaf on the ground, but under no circumstances should an offering to the arak be placed on the dirt.
Typical Cambodian village house – from http://awsassets.panda.org/img/original/home_stay1.jpg, a village homestay website
Older anthropological studies speak of communication with the arak through the village kru arak at an annual festival, but this seems to be dying out. Prek Luong’s kru arak is still active ninety years old, and no successor had been trained; in another village I was told that the local kru arak had died about ten years ago and no new one had come forward.
The mrieng kongveal and the chumneang pteah and the tevoda are friends to man, although they shouldn’t be crossed, and the arak are neutral but potentially helpful. Utterly different is the bray. The bray manifests at night as a large green light. Eng Sok and other villagers have seen it flying from tree to tree or coming from nowhere to land in a tamarind or Bodhi tree, both, like the koki tree, charged with supernatural potential. The villagers never allow a Bodhi tree to grow in a house yard, and only monks or kings would plant a koki tree, but tamarind trees are useful and are grown by everyone despite the danger. If a villager finds a bray in his tamarind he can get rid of it by hammering a nail into the trunk, but if this fails the tree has to be destroyed.
Equally evil, but not exactly a spirit, is the arp, a malevolent being found under various names in every country in Southeast Asia regardless of religion, language or ethnicity. In Thailand she’s the krasue, in Malaysia and Indonesia the penanggalan, and in the Philippines the mananaggal. The word is frequently translated as vampire, but she’s really quite different. Eng Sok says she’s a woman who learnt magic in order to have a “charming face” that no man can fail to fall in love with, a woman addicted to pleasure who wants to stay young forever.
In her human form she can be recognised by her sunken red eyes. She sleeps by day, when good housewives are caring for house and family. She’s a slovenly housekeeper, and her home will be dirty and untidy, trash scattered across the house-yard, nothing done properly and nothing in its proper place.
By night she detaches her head from her body and flies around, viscera dangling from her neck, spreading disease in the entrails of sleepers by means of her immensely long tongue, the cause of nightmares, abortions, and infertility, feeding on kitchen slops under houses and on the corpses of dead dogs left on the street. She manifests herself as a red light, and farmers going out early to the rice paddies sometimes come across her before the sun rises, chasing her breakfast of frogs across the fields. She has a particular appetite for the afterbirth of newborn babies, and for this reason a pregnant woman should have protective amulets at the entrance to her bedroom, and cactus or thorns should be placed under the bed when giving birth to protect both mother and baby.
Eng Sok has never seen an arp himself, but he heard this story about a man who discovered that his wife was an arp. The man woke very early one morning to find his wife’s body beside him, minus the head. He concealed the body, then hid and waited. Sure enough, at dawn his wife’s head returned, innards dangling down from its neck. Enraged to find her body no longer lying where she had left it, she flew around the house like a whirlwind, and when she it found it the two parts joined together and became the man’s wife again.
(Eng Sok’s story of the man and his arp-wife ended on a cliff-hanger, and I never found out what happened next. The arp is by far the most popular monster in Cambodia: the first film made after the fall of the Khmer Rouge was a horror movie called Kon Aeuy Madai Arp, “My Mother is an Arp.” Many more have followed).
Then there are rare monsters such as the smir, or were-tiger. A woman anoints herself with corpse-oil (grease from the body-fat of a human corpse) over which appropriate incantations have been made, runs into the forest, joins the tigers, grows fur, and becomes a tiger herself. Eng Sok has never heard of such a thing happening in Svay Chrum.