The ashes shrine

Ancestor shrine, Kampong Phnom village, Neak Leoung 1_DSF7371.JPG“Rean dam-kal teat” (phonetic spelling), “shelf to raise up the ashes”, or the ashes shrine. I’ve seen this in villages before (never in cities), but in the village of Kampong Phnom in Kandal province, where I went to a wedding last week, every house had one.

The shrine holds the ashes of departed family members – usually mother/father grandfather/grandmother, but I’m told it can be any family members. Traditionally these ashes are taken to the monastery and kept in the sala chan (monks’ dining hall), where they’re protected by the merit of the monks (protected from evil spirits, that is) and gain merit themselves through “participation” in major village festivals involving ritual meals for the monks.

So putting them in special shrines outside houses is a major departure from tradition. I’m told this is a fairly new practice, only a decade or so old. The ashes shrines of Kampong Phnom have driven out the traditional tevoda shrines, so as they spread through the country there’s likely to be asignificant change in religious practice – what will it mean for the poor tevoda, those heavenly messengers who are present at weddings and funerals as the intermediaries between men and gods?

Traditionally, one of the things that happen at weddings is that the ancestors (the meba) are offered a portion of food to include them in the ritual meal that unites the two families (weddings are more between families than between individuals). This offering is simply thrown on the ground. At the wedding in Kampong Phnom the offering was made nicely plated up on the plinth of the ashes shrine. Much more satisfying, I’m sure.

The architecture of the shrine is a little unclear to me – there’s the tiled plinth, which is utilitarian (it’s for kneeling on while praying and for leaving offerings); more or less in the centre is a small pond, mostly circular but not always (the circular ocean that surrounds the world?); and the shrine itself in the form of a room that mimics the sala chan of the monastery, or at least I think that’s what it’s meant to look like. It has glass doors which are normally locked (the ashes are highly important, after all) but opened when the ancestors are present at family occasions.

rean domkol teat to raise ashes.JPG

Achar (the man in the white shirt, a specialist in ritual, and the equivalent of a priest – monks are not priests) makes the ritual offering of food to the ancestors at the ashes shrine.



The flip-flop game


The shoe game, in a village near Neak Loeang, Kandal province.

The quintessential Cambodian children’s street game is a group of kids kicking their flip-flops at a little pile of dirty riel notes. And today, for the first time, I decided to find out what it’s all about. (You’ll have to excuse the phonetic spellings here – the English alphabet was never meant to carry the weight of Khmer sounds).

The game is called leang cheu (“play-kick”, the kicking game), or leang cheu sbai-cheung (“play-kick-shoe”, the shoe-kicking game), or even cheu si-loy (the money-eating game, which it certainly is).


Situation just after the first kick. Starting line and vong in black; the first to kick went as far as possible, the second tries to block him, the third tries to block both.

These are the rules of the game as explained to me by three boys, Ratana, Seiha and, so help me God, a boy called Him.

The game usually has two to seven players. The top age is around 20, and interest drops off rapidly after the mid-teens – this is a game for children.

There are two forms, easy and hard, and both begin with the same set-up, a starting line for kicking and a vong for the stake-money. I believe vong means circle, but it can be a circle, square or rectangle. It’s the target where the money goes. In the version Seiha and Him and their nameless friend were playing the circle was a square (I know, I know) with one side touching the starting line, but it can also be inside the playing area at a distance set by the players. Small boys will understandably have a much closer circle than a group of 18 year olds.

The game is won by kicking money out of the circle, but each player’s first kick must not touch the money. The first player will probably try to kick his flip-flop as far as possible, because the next round of kicks will be led off by the player whose flip-flop is furthest from the circle.

Later players have a choice: they can either try to kick the flip-flop further than the first player, if they think they can still kick accurately, or they can try to put it just beyond the circle in a position to block more distant players.

In the “easy” version the player whose flip-flop is furthest from the circle takes a direct aim at the money and tries to knock it out of the circle, and whatever money he knocks out is his to keep. The remaining players then follow in turn. Any money knocked out can be replaced if the players agree, and the game continues until everyone runs out of money. Players who fail to hit the circle at all can place their flip-flop on the starting line for their next shot; alternatively, he might deliberately land short of the circle in order to block another player.

In the “hard” version players cannot kick directly at the circle but have to ricochet off another player’s flip-flop – either flip-flop can then hit the money. Any player who fails to hit another flip-flop is eliminated from the game, and if all players fail to hit a second flip-flop the last player gets a free kick directly at the stash.


Situation near the end: one player is inside the vong, which seems not to matter; this was a bad position, as it helped the brown slipper knock the money out of the vong.

Any player who winds up on the wrong side of the starting line is eliminated. There is optional rule that allows the game to revert to direct kicks after a certain number of ricochet shots.

The shoe-kicking game may be a fairly recent invention. My friend Socheat is now 37 and spent his childhood in Sihanoukville and in Kandal. Instead of leang cheu sbai-cheung he played a game called kup vong, “circle-throwing”. Kup vong was a game for festivals, especially Khmer New Year, which is still a time for playing traditional games, and was typically played in the grounds of the village monastery.

The rules were very like the “easy” form of the flip-flop game, but instead of being kicked the flip-flops were thrown. Everyone could aim at the target stash from the first throw, which could be “strong”, with an over-arm delivery, but subsequent throws had to be “weak”, delivered under-arm.

My personal theory is that leang cheu sbai-cheung has evolved from kup vong. It also seems to me that the flip-flop game is slowly dying out – there seem to be far fewer kids playing it now than there were ten years ago. That, of course, is just an impression. It might be a good thing if it does die out – walking or running around barefoot on bare earth is a great way to get hookworm.

Prisons of Old Phnom Penh (T3 and PJ)


Children playing outside T3 prison. Source unknown, found on Dermot Sheehan’s K440 article.

The main jail for Phnom Penh is at Prey Sar in Meanchey district in the southwest – it was outside the city when it was built 15 years ago, but Phnom Penh has grown and now it’s suburban. Conditions there are pretty bad, but before Prey Sar there was T3:


Imagine a place so filthy, infested and decrepit that the Khmer Rouge didn’t want to use it as one of their torture chambers, so used it instead as a pigpen…


Site of T3, Wat Ounalom at top-right corner. Courtesy of Khmer 440 user Lord Lucan.

It was built in 1877, on street 154 between the National Museum and Kandal Market. I can’t work out exactly where, but apparently right behind Wat Ounalom – you turned off the Riverside at Wat Ounalom and followed the yellow walls of the monastery until you reached walls covered in green slime in a dirt street where gutters ran with raw sewerage. It was dire.


T3 – courtesy of K440 user Lord Lucan

Bad as T3 was, not far up the street, on the corner of 154 and Pasteur was an even worse place. Part of a larger police headquarters, this was PJ Prison, from the French Police Judiciaire.

PJ I can locate more precisely: it was on the corner of streets 154 and 51, just a few blocks up from T3, on the site now occupied by Golden Sorya Mall. To be even more exact, it was on the northern half of the Golden Sorya, the southern half of which occupies the space of an old police building. Read about them in this 2012 article by Dermot Sheehan on Khmer 440.

“Herb Trader”, by Arthur Torsone, is a Westerner’s story from inside T3. According to Torsone he was the patsy  in a covert US operation designed to rig the  1998 Cambodian general election, the one that saw Hun Sen win a convincing victory. This was not Uncle Sam’s desired outcome. Things went wrong, and Arthur ended up in T3. Here’s the Amazon blurb:

41mDgtiQGUL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In 1998,U.S. Agents orchestrated a mission to alter the national election in Cambodia. To secure this victory, one of the biggest marijuana smugglers in the world was drawn into the mission, only for it to go awry when things got personal. Given the authority to alter the election, a pair of Green Beret twins used deception and betrayal for their own gain. The U.S. finds itself at a loss and in a desperate last attempt, they make a sacrificial lamb out of Max, a reefer smuggler from Woodstock. In spite of their efforts to kill him, Max survived and is now exposing the truth in his new book. This riveting true story tells of corruption and treachery at the highest level.HERB TRADER exposes how secure top level government agencies were infiltrated and used by diabolical, self-serving criminals.


T3 around the time Chris Moore’s Vinny Calvino visited. Courtesy of K440 user Lord Lucan.

In Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, Christopher G Moore has Vincent Calvino visit T3. He gives a very atmospheric description, “a huge colonial cage” built to terrorise and brutalise a subject people, and still serving its original purpose. Women inside with their children (as is still the case at Pray Sar), a hundred shirtless men crammed into a concrete room stinking of urine, decaying food, smoke and sweat (as is also the case at Prey Sar).

T3 was torn down in 2000 after the site was sold to Sokimex, the petrol firm (it also runs the Angkor tourist zone, or did until recently). There was talk at the time that Sokimex would build a hospital on the site, but so far nothing at all seems to have been done. PJ and the complex of police buildings it was part of was also sold off to make way for Golden Sorya Mall; I understand that Golden Sorya itself is now likely to be knocked down and redeveloped in its turn.


Golden Sorya Mall – PJ prison was at the end nearer the camera. Source unknown, found on Dermot Sheehan’s K440 article.

Ghosts, ghosts. Here’s Bronwyn Sloane, a journalist (journalists are rational types), writing in Tales of Asia in 2006:


Courtesy of K440 user Lord Lucan.

…[W]e drove past the site of the old T-3 prison one night. Long demolished, the once infamous prison is now a vacant lot in the center of town and the prisoners have long since been transferred to the new Prey Sar prison, miles away from the city.

My daughter, who was born long after the grim, century old, French-built T-3 had been expunged, started to stare very intently out the window. Then she turned to me and asked: “Why are all those sad men in blue pajamas working so hard?” I couldn’t see anyone. To me, the lot was empty. But I broke out in goose bumps and prepared for another round of 20 questions being put to her from curious Khmers.

The Cambodian prison uniform worn by inmates of T-3 consisted of a simple medium blue smock and pants with a white stripe around the edges. And that uniform, I have to admit, looks a lot like a simple set of blue pajamas.



T3 prisoners participating in the 1993 elections, showing their voter ID cards.



Launching Spirit Worlds in Kampot

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 5.52.21 AMLaunched Spirit Worlds at Baraca cafe in Kampot today. Quite a nice turn-out, and a good q&a session and some interesting people to get to know. Many thanks to John Fengler who took the photo, to Elke and the rest of the folk at Baraca, and to all who so kindly turned up and listened and even bought copies!