Gods, ghosts and demons

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Offerings to the spirits on a major feast-day

A little dictionary of some of the more important Cambodian supernatural beings (my preferred spelling first, followed by alternatives I’ve come across):

Araks (areaks): Ancestral spirits that live in fields and trees around the village. Traditionally a village shaman, the kru araks, would enter a trance during which villagers could ask them for advice, but this seems to be dying out – I only came across one in six months of searching and she was 90 years old. Nevertheless, farmers will still leave some of their midday meal in the field for the araks. They are easily angered, and punish those who cross them with illness.

Arp (ap, arb): A witch, although often called a vampire. By day an ordinary woman, though identifiable by her haggard face and bloodshot eyes, at night her body waits at home while her head flies around spreading sickness and bad dreams. She has parallels in many other Southeast Asian cultures – how did this cultural meme spread so widely?

hqdefaultBoramey: High spirit-beings who help humans with their problems. Many villages and towns have kru boramey, shamans (usually women) who enter into a trance and are possessed by a boramey. They seem to be replacing the village araks and kru-araks throughout Cambodia.

Bray (priay): A female demon (almost all the demons seem to be female), the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth. She is the most malevolent of all demons, but can be tamed by those who understand the correct ritual, in which case she becomes a powerful protective spirit. Buddha images and the boats used in the annual Water Festival boat races are protected by bray.

Chumneang pteah (in Phnom Penh dialect, ch’neang teah): The protective spirit of the house. One of very few spirits who are wholly benevolent. Her shrine is always placed on the floor, and offerings of flowers and fruit (and cans of coke) should be left there on the four holy days of each month (these days are marked on religious calendars, and every house will hang this calendar near the shrine). In village houses she inhabits a particular pillar, usually the main house pillar, and there’s a special ceremony to ask her to protect new houses.

Chumneang pteah shrine - despite the Chinese appearance, it's Khmer.

Chumneang pteah shrine – despite the Chinese appearance, it’s Khmer.

Kmouch (kmout): The ghost of someone who died a violent or unexpected death. The kmouch is not aware of its status and wishes to return to the world of the living. Monks and kru know the ritual for sending a kmouch away, but it should never be destroyed, which would be the equivalent of murder – it’s capable of going to hell and eventually returning to another life.

Meba: The family ancestor-spirits. They take a particular interest in marriages and births: they have to be offered some of the wedding feast, and should be informed when the new bride becomes pregnant, and again when she is delivered. They are highly moral and highly conservative, and will punish any girl (but not boy) who has sex before her wedding (my informants were of parent-age – somebody really should study this in detail from the viewpoint of teenagers). An interesting point that I came across in interviews, and have never found in written sources, is that I was repeatedly told that the meba are ancestors by birth, not blood – they’re reincarnation-ancestors. This video plays meba-music from a Khmer wedding (after the ad). https://www.youtube.com/embed/_heYQhcZL8Y” target=”_blank”>

Mrieng kongveal: Little child-spirits, the protectors of most domestic and some wild animals (domestic animals destined to be killed and eaten get no protection, nor do wild animals that are hunted). They normally live in the trees around the fields, but they like to play with human children, and they have the useful ability to give gifts to adults. For this reason they often have house-shrines, in the form of a flat-bottomed basket with a little bamboo house. The shrine should hang from a bush or nail in the wall, and should never touch the ground. Their offerings are toys and sweets.

_DSF2041Mrieng kongveal shrine

Neak ta: The village ancestor. Almost every village will have a neak ta shrine, often with a statue of the ancestor, or possibly a rock or shiva linga (the neak ta is the only spirit who is represented in physical form – the shrines of the tevoda and chumneang pteah are empty, and although the mrieng kongveal shrine often has little toy children in it, these don’t actually represent the mrieng).  He represents fertility and social order, and once a year he has a village festival at which the village boundaries are rehearsed and his blessings invoked.

Neak ta shrine on an Ankorian brick platform Siem Reap - from Alison in Cambodia https://alisonincambodia.wordpress.com/2009/08/08/surveying-in-takeo-province-part-2/

Village neak ta shrine, Takeo province – from Alison in Cambodia

In addition to the village-level neak ta there are also “wild” neak ta who own the hills and forests and other unsettled places, and anyone entering their lands must ask permission. And finally there are the “great” neak ta who have charge of entire regions and provinces. Unlike the “wild” and village neak ta these have names and histories – the one pictured below is called Red Neck. The red colours (his turban and scarf) and his beard and moustache mark his Indian/brahmanical origins – the colour or Buddhism is yellow, and Buddha and Buddhist deities are clean-shaven.

Neak ta Neak ta Red Neck at the Angkorean temple of Chisor, near Phnom Penh.

Praet: A ghost that died a good death and is now in hell. Hell is far from pleasant, but it’s the right place for ghosts and the only place where they can prepare for their next life. Praet, like kmouch, are eternally hungry – they have tiny mouths and huge stomachs, and can eat only filth. Once a year they return to the world of the living and their relatives feed them at the temples – this is the festival of Pchum Ben, the most important in Cambodia.

Hungry-Ghosts-768x1024-1

Hungry ghosts from Thailand – they look the same in Cambodia.

Preah phum: The name means something like “holy earth,” and it represents the entire village, including its fields and ponds and groves. Its shrine is a little house on a pillar, very like the tevoda shrine but with one significant architectural difference: the tevoda shrine has a roof with a spire, indicating that this is the home of a goddess (compare to the spire on the roof of the monastery prayer-hall and on the royal palace), but the preah phum roof does not, as preah phum is not a god. Phreah phum is extremely important to the psychic health of the village, and there are special ceremonies to “centre” him in times of trouble, such as epidemics or droughts. This village preah phum involves quite a different-looking shrine made of four posts in a square with a fifth in the centre.

004_bigThe shrine of a village preah phum ceremony, constructed when calling the spirit of the village land. From Khmer Renaissance

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Tevoda: Like the chumneang pteah,  a protective house-sprit, but unlike the chumneang she’s a goddess. Associated particularly with the annual New Year festival, her shrine is the little toy temple on a pillar outside the house. This should be placed in a corner of the house-yard, facing the door of the house but not in front of it. The offerings vary from year to year, as there’s a new tevoda each year. I’ve also heard of what seems to be another sense of tevoda, a sort of messenger of the spirit-world, but have no information about this. The shrine itself is called rean tevoda, a “tevoda shelf.”

Traffic police to keep 70% of fines

traffic_fines_vireak_maiPhnom Penh Post reports that from January next year traffic fines are to increase five-fold and traffic police will keep 70% of what they collect. Some great discussion of this on Khmer 440, although nobody seems to pick up the fact that the cops are already allowed to keep 50%. Some points made there are worth recording:

  • This policy is a result of the inability of the government to pay decent salaries, which is in turn a result of its inability to collect taxes.
  • There’s a danger of cops imposing illegal fines. Dash cams would be a great idea. (Actually I’m not sure – whenever I’ve been stopped for jumping a red light – which seems to be my only sin – it’s been a fair cop).
  • Somebody asks if there’s going to be a system for tracking number plates so that scofflaws who accelerate away can be traced. I half-recall reading something about traffic cameras being introduced in Phnom Penh, so perhaps it’s already under way.
  • “Every copshop funnels a lot of cash up the chain to the head guy, who then channels part of that directly to CPP.” Very true. And I’d just add that after every Pchum Ben festival, when senior cops have to sponsor events at their home-town monasteries, there’s an outbreak of fine-collecting in Phnom Penh.
  • “All pyramid schemes eventually collapse. How long before the Cambodian pyramid topples?”

And what about seeing this from the other side? Back in 2011 the Post ran a story with some interviews with traffic cops. I almost feel sorry for them. For more read here.

STANDING in the shade along a busy intersection in Phnom Penh, a traffic police officer takes a moment to answer his mobile phone amid the sounds of horn blasts and chatter from his Motorola hand-held radio. On the other end of the line his children eagerly await his voice.

“My family worries about my daily activities, especially because they know I stand in the middle of the street and can get hit,” the officer explains, adding that his kids typically phone twice a day. He cites three police officers from his department who have broken their legs or had their toes crushed after being struck by vehicles, highlighting the inherent danger of enforcing traffic laws in the city. He says the job is becoming more difficult because of the increasing volume of traffic on the streets which, according to The Ministry of Public Works and Transport, grows each year by upwards of 20 percent.

“Some drivers don’t respect the traffic laws. They don’t stop or try to obey checkpoints, particularly one-way roads where people go against the flow. Some drivers hurt us but I try to tell my family not to worry about me,” he says. “If I tell my wife it is a dangerous or risky job she’ll only worry more.”

The temple boy’s tale

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Temple boy with pet, Wat Sarawan, Phnom Penh

Temple boys occupy one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder, but they can rise to great heights. Hun Sen’s family were very poor, and when he was 13 he was sent to Phnom Penh to become a temple boy at Wat Neakavoan. Today, as everyone knows, he’s the Prime Minister.

Souleang Keosupha is 21 years old and in the first year of a law degree at Build Bright University. Originally from a village in Ratanakiri province, he has two brothers and a sister and is the third in his family. His father is a farmer but his mother passed away in 1997 following the delivery of his youngest sister. The baby survived, but the neighbours were convinced the mother’s death was because an arp* had eaten the afterbirth after they failed to bury it correctly.

Keosupha was 7 years old at the time and in the second grade.  A monk from his village noticed Keosupha studying hard, and took pity on him because he was motherless and his family was extremely poor. Four years later the monk took Keosupha to stay with him at Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh, where he was registered in Grade 2 at Preah Norodom Primary School, a kilometre from the monastery.

“Unlike other kids who cried when they were away from their family, I did not indulge in self pity but determined to return home a success, with pride.

“Every morning I was woken up at 4am by the monk, who sometimes punished me or sprayed water on me if it took me too long to get up. When you are 11 years old, you know how difficult it is. Later I needed the alarm clock to wake me up, but now it’s a habit to get up early.

“As soon as I got up I started to learn Pali straight away, then my public school homework. All the temple boys were the same. After that we would sweep, clean, water the plants, boil water, cook and prepare the breakfast and serve it. We ate after the monks had eaten, then we took turns washing the dishes. Only then could we go to school.

“After school, we prepared the food that the monks got from begging, then served them lunch and finally we ate. Then we were allowed to take a nap. Sometimes we were taught English by the monks during our spare time, then we prepared our own dinner, using the leftover food from lunchtime.

“During the rainy season we all had to participate in chanting from 8.30 a.m. to 9.00 a.m. We also chanted every time before we had meals. This merit-making was expressing gratitude to the donors for what they gave us to eat.

“The monk supported me with clothes and study materials, using money that people gave him. Sometimes he asked people directly to buy me things.

“My father has remarried now and has other two children. I only visit once a year, at Khmer New Year.

“I am now doing a degree in law. I could have chosen to study technical skills but while these would be useful to me personally, by studying law I will be able to assist my community as whole, as there are innumerable disputes and conflicts in our province, and the villagers there really need my support.

“The monk isn’t able to support me financially, so I pay my own university fees with support from my parents and relatives. Plus, I supplement this with a part-time job as an assistant to a cameraman, and I’m able to earn around $50 a month.

“In the future, I want to be a civil servant in Ratanakiri Province. I want to work as a lawyer or in fields related to the law.

“I will always remember the words of the monk who, despite having so little, helped me to pursue my education up to tertiary level. I owe the monk and my family so much. I have to go back and help my village.”

*Arp: vampire that preys on pregnant women.

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Temple boys in the grounds of Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh

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Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

The first nun’s tale

yd3c1439A nun (daun chi) presents food to a monk. Photo by Nick Shippen, travel writer and photographer – part of a photo-essay on nuns and their relationship to the monkhood in the context of Angkor and the tourist industry.

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Women who wish to follow the Way face a major obstacle: there are no nuns in Theravada Buddhism. I’ve called them nuns for convenience, but ordination in Theravada has to be part of chain stretching back to Buddha, and the chain for nuns died out long ago. Women may, however, become helpers to the monks and follow the eight precepts rather than the ten. These women are called yeay chi or daun chi – yeay and daun are both terms of respect for an older woman, with daun chi being more formal.

_DSF1987Chan Sopheap started living in Wat Phnom Orderk (“Turtle Mountain Monastery”) in Battambang province when she was not yet twenty years old. This was in the time of Lon Nol, who overthrew king Sihanouk in 1970. Not many years later the Khmer Rouge took control and sent her to a labour camp. After the Khmer Rouge were driven out she returned to the monastery in Battambang and lived there until she met the man who was to become her husband, a former monk who had been forced out of the Sangha by Lon Nol. (Lon Nol, concerned that too many potential soldiers were escaping conscription by putting on the robe, had decreed that no one under fifty could be a monk).

For the next twenty-five years Sopheap lived with her husband and children in Battambang and later in Siem Reap. About 2006 or 2007 she became very ill, and her husband agreed that she should return to Wat Phnom Orderk, where their second son was a monk. “By serving the monks as a daun chi I would build up kamma to overcome my illness.”

So she went back to Turtle Mountain, serving the monks and studying the Way, until her daughter asked if she would come with her to Phnom Penh where she wanted to do a ten-month course at the National Institute of Education. Naturally she agreed, as she could not send the girl to the city alone. She originally intended to take a room for the ten months, but rents in the capital proved too expensive and so, with the help of the abbot of Turtle Mountain, she obtained permission from the abbot of Wat Lanka to stay in this, one of the most prestigious monasteries in the capital.

I asked Sophea about the spirits, as I was curious to know what an intelligent and learned woman would have to say about the spirit world.

“Boramey and neak ta are not part of Buddhism (preah put sassana). These things don’t exist. Spirits come from Brahmanism (prumman sassana), which is all about the unseen. Brahmanism is about magic. I know of some people who came and asked a monk to sprinkle their new motorbike with holy water for good luck. That same day they were killed in an accident on the way home. Who can believe this? No pure monk will do this thing with magic water. Buddhism is about good and bad deeds. Your lot in this life reflects your deeds in your previous life. Everything that happens to you is due to the karma that you’ve built up in your previous life and this one.”

Sophea will return to Battambang when her daughter’s course is finished. The daughter will probably stay on in Phnom Penh as a teacher, and after a few years will apply for a scholarship to study for a Masters degree in English in Australia.

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Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds, an investigation of religion and belief in modern Cambodia – due out in October.

The reincarnation of Penh the beggar boy

agent-orange1Penh is a beggar on the Penh Penh Riverside, but a beggar with a certain claim to fame, because when he was very young the Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths included his picture in a book about Agent Orange. The photo was taken in 2000, long after the Vietnam War ended, but Agent Orange lingers through generations.

Griffiths says Penh is 14 in the photo but he looks younger, gazing up at the camera with big eyes, a handsome and intelligent little boy with no future and no arms or legs, because Agent Orange causes mothers to give birth to monsters.

Penh was born in Takeo province on the Vietnamese border, and his parents brought him to the capital at an early age because there was no support for his condition there. There’s very little in Phnom Penh either, but an NGO provides a wheelchair and he begs along the Riverside, taking cash between the stubs of his flippers and pushing it into a special pouch sewn into his shirt.

Some years after that photo I interviewed Penh for a magazine, and asked him if he could explain his deformities – I was looking for evidence, in the form of family memories, of American planes spraying the village with defoliant. What he told me was quite different:

“I don’t know why I was born this way. I never did anything wrong, never harmed anyone. People in my village say I must have done something very wrong in my previous life, but I don’t remember my previous life. I used to try to remember when I was little, but I never could. I don’t think about it any more. I try to be good in this life, and I hope I can be reborn to a good body in my next.”

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Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds – the interview was conducted in about 2006 for Southeast Asia Globe magazine. Philip Jones Griffiths’ photo of Penh appeared in his 2004 book Agent Orange.