Life in jail, Cambodian style

Watchtower at Prey Sar

Watchtower at Prey Sar

On Khmer440, that gift that keeps on giving, we have a poster currently serving a term inside Prey Sar, Phnom Penh’s unlovely jail. An inside source. (I do love a good pun).

Some background: Prey Sar (“White Forest”) opened for business in 2000, replacing an older jail dating from colonial times called T3 (meaning prison number 3, T being the initial for the Vietnamese word for jail – T1 in Vientiane, T2 in Saigon, T3 in Phnom Penh). If you folks out at Prey Sar think that’s bad, be grateful, be very grateful, that T3 has closed.

So anyway, our man in the forest came online and was promptly disbelieved – nobody is supposed to have access to the Internet at Prey Sar, said the scoffers. True, they’re not. Signals are jammed.

[T]he whole area is heavily jammed. First test they did was a joke. Their first generation of jammers where sending waves that were bouncing on the walls and we could still easily get a signal by moving patiently a modem around until finding a good spot. They installed new jammers a while ago and it got much worst. Close to impossible to get a 3G signal. But still, some days the signal goes through : strength of jamming seems to be highly irregular like anything in Cambodia.


No connection to the poster, just a random photo from the Internet. The blue uniform is out of date – current ones are orange.

What really interests me is his description of life behind the walls. Prey Sar was built to accommodate a few hundred prisoners and now has four thousand. Problems with water, food, and money. And he mentions, without being asked, the Nigerians:

Loads of Nigerians here. Advice to the black population reading me : get out of the country or you’ll end up here. The basic cambodian have no more respect for the proles farmers than for the blacks. Basic dumb racism. They arrest one drug user or dealer and put all his friends and family in jail even if they did nothing wrong. The prison was built for a few hundred prisoners and we are close to 4k now. Living in 40×175 cm at best. Non stop noise, dirtiness like you can’t even imagine it. Insect the size of thumb dead in the “soup”. Dirty rice served in stinky buckets filled with a shovel, etc, etc. Paradise on earth I tell you.

But still, I’m here for 9 years and things got better. We have very little water, but clean. Electric power for 5 to 20 $ depending on the bloc chiefs (prison is a huge dirty business and after stealing your house, your land, your bank account, your freedom, etc. they suck you dry every month of everything your family or wife can send to help you, literally : survive. And believe me, it’s not easy.

The Nigerians are in for drugs. Westerners are in mostly for sex crimes I guess, though some are rather unexpected – one for bag-snatching. They say that in Western jails a quarter of the prisoners are sociopaths.
The poster says he’s a Khmer who travelled abroad – from a good family, apparently. For a given value of “good”, of course. I have no idea what he’s in for, and I suspect it’s the sort of question you don’t ask. I sort of hope he’ll find this blog and give us a comment…
Also read Save A Life: Foreign – but what about the Cambodians?

Tinder is the night: the sex lives of young Cambodians


Hong Menea/Phnom Penh Post, 21 August 2015

Fascinating article in the Phnom Penh Post about the impact of dating apps on Cambodian boy-meets girl. Every kid in PP has a smart-phone, social death not to have one. So what impact is Tinder having? (“Tinder is how people meet, it’s like real life, but better. Get it for free on iPhone and Android” – so says their google lead).

Short answer: not much. It’s in English, which sort of limits the market penetration. But now someone’s brought out a Khmer version. It’s called Matchstix, it was launched 1 August, and already it has maybe 10,000 users.

In the West, Tinder is being blamed for the death of romance – any boy wanting a girl for consensual nooky can forget chocolates and movies and just open his phone. Girls too, presumably. But in Cambodia?

Cambodia is different. Boy is it different. Not that I’m into Tinder, or even into dating Cambodian girls, but I do know, for example, that Khmer girls have the mentality of 12 year olds even when their 20. Fluffy bunnies and romance is where it’s at for them.

Trude Jacobsen, a history professor at Northern Illinois University who researches Cambodian gender and sexuality, said she wasn’t surprised that Tinder hadn’t taken off amongst Cambodians.

Sex outside of wedlock tended to be something that men engaged in with sex workers at specific times in their lives, she said. Usually, these activities were undertaken with a friend or group.

“So it’s not really the notion of an app for sex that is problematic, it’s the notion of hooking up for sex that is not a commercial transaction.”

Unmarried young women, in contrast, were supposed to be asexual.

Cambodian kids use Facebook and other social media in a Cambodian way – making friends, swapping stuffed animals, getting highly emotional. But no sex.

“An app like Tinder would be handy for young people looking to meet someone special that they can then identify as their boyfriend or girlfriend, in that sense; but it would not be used for sex.

“In fact, I can see a lot of cultural confusion occurring as Westerners used to the overt hookup culture of Tinder get on it in Cambodia and are dismayed to find their ‘acceptable swipes’ suddenly sending them emojis of teddy bears and hearts!”

The girls, presumably, live lives of Victorian rectitude. But what about the boys?

“…men would not only have sex with sex workers but anyone who was willing. “Why do they do this? Because they have their male friends who always say: ‘How can you have sex with your wife when you don’t know anything about sex? You have to try it.’ And this is a cause of gang rape in town as well. Then they want to find a virginal wife…”

The evolution of the gods


20th century fairy. The older version was very different – no wings, malevolent, and more inclined to baby-snatching than wish-granting.

How god evolved. Almost all cultures believe in simple spirits who are responsible for the unexplained; only some believe in a “High” or “King” god who takes an active role in the world as the source of human morality. To put that in a Western context, spirits like the fairies would turn your milk sour or replace your baby with a changeling (a good explanation for Downs syndrome children), while God with a capital G threatened you with eternal damnation for coveting your neighbour’s wife.

Did moralistic “high” gods evolve to enforce cooperation within the group? (“do as we say or God will get you!”) Or were they a tool of the rich and powerful to control the plebs? (“God made me your leader, so you better listen up!”) The idea in either case is not that the High God was invented, but that he arose naturally, was found useful, and so thrived. (He was, in fact, a “meme,” the cultural equivalent of a gene, and subject to the same laws of natural selection).


Jehovah, the great I AM

Two anthropologists set out to test the first of these alternatives (that “high” gods foster cooperation). They examined 178 cultures to see whether larger and more complex ones were more likely to have “high” gods than smaller and simpler societies. For their purposes, “large” meant more than 1,000 individuals, and “complex” meant farming and pastoralism, since these require high levels of cooperation, although pastoral communities are typically smaller than farming ones. The results turned out as follows:

Amongst foragers – who can easily gather enough food with minimal co-operation between individuals – 88% had either no “high” god or a “high” god which did not bestow morals and did not interact with the world. At the other extreme of the scale, ~40% of groups dependent on intensive agriculture had a “high” god who interfered with the world and gave morals to the group.


The relationship between group size and belief in a high god.

To put that a different way, only 12% of egalitarian (foraging) groups had a “high” god who insisted on morality and intervened in human affairs, but 40% of societies with a class system/wealth distinctions did, rising to 80% among pastoralists (looking after animals requires even more cooperation than growing crops).

Conclusion: large societies dependent on cooperation give rise to “high-god” religions because they’re socially useful.

The article then touches very briefly on the evolution of religion in the present and future:

Co-operation will likely remain the foundation of civilisation but a “high” god may not. Secularity is rising in many countries – arguably for good reason – but we mustn’t forget that religion once played a key role in many societies. We must be sure that we do not loose the glue which binds us together and be sure to develop secular ways of ensuring humanity continues to work together.


The British bobby, suspected of complicity in the death of God.

I’m not sure that secularism is really so universal in modern societies, but I think it might be said that where the “high” god of European culture (commonly called simply God) has withered away, it’s when his function has been usurped by the rule of law and an efficient bureaucracy – in other words, in those Western countries where the citizens can rely on a police force and a public service that between them will provide the social and personal benefits once enforced by God. The one major Western society which more or less missed out on these two things is the United States. You might object, but compared to Europe, American police are violent and untrusted (think Ferguson) and the government provides nothing like a reliable social safety net.

And what about Cambodia? Some 80% of Cambodians live in villages, and the villagers rely on wet rice, which requires high levels of cooperation, which would predict the presence of a “high” god. But the villages are also pretty egalitarian, with little distance between rich and poor (this is changing with the rise of a class of villagers with urban connections – urban subsidies produce rural inequalities), which would tend to undermine “high” gods. So Cambodian village religion should be somewhere in between the “high god” model and the “spirit religion” model.


Pchum Ben at Wat Langka, Phnom Penh.

And, without having looked too closely at the evidence (meaning I might be wrong), it seems it is. The Buddha is not, of course a god, but in practice many Cambodians treat him as one. People worship and pray in front of his image, and he’s the source of a sort of morality – do good in this life or else you’ll have a bad reincarnation in your next with a nasty stint in hell in between. But his moral authority is pretty weak – it operates at the level of the individual, not the group, meaning that there’s no organised religious authority, like the Church or whatever the Muslim equivalent is called, to enforce this god’s decrees. If you disobey Buddhist morality you’ll be punished by karma in the next world or life, not by the priests in this one.


Village neak ta shrine – the neak ta are the ancestral spirits.

But the entire spirit world, or almost all of it, is equally moral – the village neak ta, the meba (family ancestors), the araks (more generalised village ancestors), even the little fairy-like mrieng kongveal who look after animals, all enforce morality. They do it very effectively, too – girls won’t have sex before marriage “because the meba are watching,” and farmers forebear from mistreating their cows for fear of being struck down with a stomach-ache by the mrieng kongveal. The monks might not come and get you in this life, but the spirits will.

And if I’m right about the link between secularism and the rise of impartial law and bureaucracy, then religion is likely to endure in Cambodia, because one thing Cambodia does not have is a police force and bureaucracy that work. But whether that religion will continue to be Buddhism, I cannot tell. All I can say with some confidence is that God and the gods will continue to evolve, as they have always done.


Cambodian nativity setting – from Global Christian Worship. The five figures from right to left rear (three wise men and two angels?) wear the traditional costume of Cambodian gods.

Peter Alan Lloyd – interview with a Khmer Rouge


“Boy punished, Khmer Rouge Crucifixion style, for stealing food in a Khmer Rouge refugee camp … Before this he’d been beaten and would have been killed had third parties not been present in the camp.” Uncertain copyright, found on

I found this interview with Nin Noy, a former KR village police chief (and village headman now, forty years later) on the blog of Peter Allen Lloyd, a freelance writer and author living in Thailand with a special interest in the Vietnam War. The setting is Ratanakiri province, in the far northeast corner of Cambodia.

Nin Noy says he acted only on orders from higher up – failure to act would have been fatal, and though he doesn’t say it, acting without orders would doubtless have been equally fatal. He denied that the KR had a plan to kill anyone – it was all the doing of the Chinese! He had never killed anyone himself. He was evasive and untrustworthy and possibly deeply troubled.

Nin Noy had been in his early 20s when he was organising killings for the KR, and in that capacity he presumably murdered anyone with an education. Lloyd found it ironic, to say the least, to be sitting with him in his current role as village chief under a banner proclaiming “Together, we promote the protection and safety of children both at school and in the community.”


“A disturbing image of what looks to be a Khmer Rouge murder in progress, with a prisoner held at gunpoint while another Khmer Rouge soldier swings a hoe.” From

Nin Noy had fought against the American-backed Lon Nol forces in the early 70s. He said that the American bombing of eastern Cambodia had certainly helped the KR with recruiting, but not nearly so much as the overthrow of the beloved King Sihanouk. “Nobody but America supported Lon Nol.”

At the end of the interview the old KR reprobate had the nerve to ask if a tip might be possible. “[N]o fucking way was I going to allow a Khmer Rouge official to profit from his time in that genocidal organisation, even though he’d apparently done ‘nothing wrong’ during his completely innocent period as a Khmer Rouge Police Chief.”

The post, and the blog, are well worth reading. He’s written a novel, too – it’s linked on his blog.


Khmer Rouge rape, Wat Somrong Knong, Battamabang. (

The first ghost’s tale

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 11.42.59 AM

Copyright Tang Chhin Sothy, Getty Images

The path of reincarnation is determined by the state of the conscious mind at the moment of death. This is why the dying man surrounds himself with monks, achars and proper ritual. Through these he dies with a collected mind and goes to the ‘peaceful place’, where his stay will be short and followed by rebirth good into a good family.

Pity those who die without the chance to compose their minds, the suicides who take their own life, the victims of murder and traffic accidents, women who die in childbirth, and all others like them. They are doomed to become kmouch.

Kmouch aren’t even aware that they’re dead. They stay in the world of men and come to the living in dreams, bewildered and confused, asking what’s happened to them and why they can’t continue with their lives as before. The sun freezes them, the moon burns. They become malicious, haunting the place where they died, trying to trick pregnant women into giving them rebirth, causing accidents and disasters that will bring a similar fate on the living.

The ghost is a being with a huge distended belly, a tiny mouth and a long thin throat like a straw. It is constantly hungry. It feeds on pus, blood and filth, but can swallow almost nothing, and what does get into its mouth turns to ashes and dung. This is not punishment for past sins but because it continues to cling to the world. In a metaphysical sense the ghost is hungry for the conscious mind’s stream of awareness.


Hungry ghosts at Wang Saen Suk, Thailand

The First Ghost’s Tale

The Hungry Ghost for Sandwiches is a modern story for young adults by Dawn Dim.[1] It tells of 16-year-old Davan, ‘a stubborn and lazy boy’, not fond of study and addicted to pleasure. He takes drugs, hangs around in shopping malls with his friends, and rides his motorbike fast and without a helmet. One day just before Pchum Ben, riding dangerously as usual, he has an accident and is killed.

For six days his soul whirls around looking for food, growing hungrier and hungrier. On the seventh day he returns to his house and sees his mother crying. The Guardian of Hell (the god Yama) is waiting. “Boy!” cries the Guardian. “What are you doing here? Time you went to hell!”

Davan tells the Guardian he misses his parents, and he’s hungry.

“Hungry for what?”

Because Davan is a modern boy he has modern tastes. “I want to eat sandwich! I’m dying for sandwich!”

The Guardian takes pity on Davan, who never intended to hurt anyone and was foolish rather than wicked. “Very well, I’ll let you stay on Earth and you can ask living people for food. But there is one condition: you must never seek pleasure!”

Pchum Ben begins and Davan sees his parents preparing food. He follows them to the monastery and finds the preah vihear filled with candles and incense and the smell of noodles, curries, cakes and soup, but there are no sandwiches, because nobody offers sandwiches at Pchum Ben.

Davan leaves the preah vihear and sits weeping by the boundary wall, the place where ghosts gather, remembering his happy hours at KFC and feeling sorry for himself. He thinks of the friends in life who have deserted him in death, and then of Lekhena, a kind girl who had always advised him to be good.

Davan goes to Lekhena’s house. The dogs start howling, because dogs can see ghosts, and Davan howls with them, calling Lekhena’s name.

Lekhena comes to the window. “Davan!” she cries, not realising he’s a ghost. “What are you doing here? Your clothes are ragged and you look so thin and hungry!”

Kind-hearted Lekhena takes Davan to the kitchen, where the lids fly off the pots, the refrigerator opens by itself, and a plate and spoon and fork tumble out of the cupboard and land on the table. Lekhena is oddly unperturbed and starts preparing a snack. “You can eat if you’re hungry. What do you want?”

“Sandwiches!” says Davan. “I want sandwiches!”

“I don’t have the ingredients, but I’ll prepare it for you tomorrow, just let me know what time you’ll come.”

Davan agrees to come back the next day. “Don’t forget me,” he says as he walks out the door – and Lekhena sees that he has no feet. “I’ll be back!” – and Lekhena sees a skull instead of a face.

“Kmouch! Kmouch!”

Lekhena’s mother comes running. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“It was Davan! He died two weeks ago! He came to me in a dream and told me he wants sandwiches!”

Lekhena’s mother knows what to do. “Tomorrow morning you have to prepare food and buy sandwiches. Take the food to the monks, and in the evening put the sandwiches in front of our house on a banana leaf with three incense sticks and make an act of volition to offer it to him. That’s what you must do.”

Next morning Lekhena takes the food to the monastery, where she prays for Davan and a monk ties a cotton thread around her wrist, then she goes home and offers the sandwiches and incense as her mother told her.

The ghost of Davan, fed at last, is happy and freed from his whirling. After Pchum Ben he reports to the Guardian, who takes him to hell and teaches him to give up pleasure and drugs and to study and have a good character, and in due course Davan is ready for rebirth.


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.