Portraits of ancient Khmer kings

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Faces representing nearly 700 years of ancient Khmer history (6th-14th centuries AD)

Six hundred years of Khmer kings disguised as gods. All were done during the lifetime of the king. They represent the king as devaraja, god-king, so that the king could be represented as Shiva (the god with a third eye in the middle of the forehead) in a statue in a Shivaite temple, Vishnu (four arms) in another temple, and as Buddha in Buddhist temples (Buddhism was not regarded as a distinct religion).

Devaraja statues had two purposes, to identify the king as the legitimate source of power, derived from the god, and, through copies set up in temples throughout the kingdom, to mark his domains. Hence the need for recognisable portraits – they were identifying individual kings. If the kingdom fractured, as it sometimes did, rival claimants to the throne would set up their own statues, but these would be destroyed when the kingdom was reunified.

The devaraja cult lives on today – the king is still an incarnation of the god Vishnu, which accounts for the popularity of the Vishnu shrine on the Riverfront in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.


Portrait Statues of the Ancient Cambodian (Khmer) Devaraja or Divine Kings, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, 8 January, 2009 (pdf file)


The tek-tek and the tiger

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.08.25 PM.pngThis is a tek-tek, as it’s called by the  tribal people of Ratanakiri; in Vietnam just across the border it’s the Nguoi Roung, and in Borneo it’s the Batutut.

When I first heard of it I thought it was a version of the neak-ta, the Cambodian spirits who own specific forests and hills and so on, but it’s far more physical:

 American soldiers in Vietnam had encounters with what was described as “an orangutan-like creature” … A veteran of the war, now a special investigator for the U.S. Customs Service, who was in Bangkok to investigate the illegal reptile trade, told us that 2 men in his platoon had had their heads torn off by the powerful beast.

(From “The Soul of the Tiger”, in Save Virachey National Park on Face Book).


Tribal children caught on the Habitat ID camera-trap in Virachey. This was four days away from the nearest village – an expedition of over a week, then. An adult in the background, but their approach to child-rearing is markedly different to ours. Possibly these are the tek-tek-makers, although more probably the carving was done by tiger-poachers.

So it’s a cryptid, which is another way of saying nobody knows. The carving was photographed by Greg McCann, a conservationist, who saw it in a remote corner of Cambodia where the borders of Laos and Vietnam meet. “Remote” means days away from the nearest village, the nearest human. There was more than just the carving, too – this is the Phnom Penh Post’s write-up:

It was a loud evening deep in the jungle, the crickets, frogs and odd cicadas were busy playing their usual nighttime symphony. A group of trekkers were getting ready to bunk down for the night.

“My friend was zipped up in his hammock and beginning to doze off, when he noticed that all of the insects had stopped making sounds: the jungle went completely silent,” said Greg McCann, a field coordinator for Habitat ID, a conservation group working in Virachey National Park, where the trekkers were camping.

A few moments later, a horrid smell engulfed the camp – the trekkers all emerged from their tents to find its source. A minute after that, the smell had gone and the insects and frogs returned.


Virachey National Park is one of Cambodia’s last wild places, and Greg McCann’s task is to set camera traps to discover what it holds. Someone has said that Virachey might as well be ground zero for the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event (100,000 species every year), so it’s important:

McCann and his team have been able to document populations of iconic mammal species on the brink of disaster: Asiatic black bear, sun bear, gaur, dhole, stubbed-tail macaque, sambar deer, clouded leopard, and binturong among many others.


In Virachey

The jungles of Laos and Vietnam have been largely hunted out, and Cambodia isn’t far behind – Here’s Our Mr Nixon describing a visit to the pepper plantations near Kampot in the early 1950s:

We took the same road leading to Kep … turned left at a fork onto a dirt road … the road narrowed down to a mere path … made our way on foot … the jungle was thickly populated by tigers and wild boars…”

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 4.36.10 PM.pngNot any more it isn’t – now it’s simply thickly populated. People are the problem, they refuse to share and won’t play nicely. But they can also be the solution:

Habitat ID is hoping to create an ecotourism model around Virachey to incentivize the local populations away from the illegal logging, poaching, and mining that is decimating the ecosystem. … “Virachey is truly one of the last bastions of wildlife in Indochina [says McCann]].  And with its upland savannah hills it is one of the most beautiful places in Southeast Asia.”


Kevet tribal house – expeditions into Virachey set out from and return to this village.

Whether the tek-tek still roams those hills I do not know, but Virachey is worth saving even without head-ripping cryptids. It’s getting late – in the 1990s there were tigers in the forests, but they’ve go the way of the tigers of Kampot. If you’d like to learn more, visit the Save Virachey National Park website – updates, videos, stories, invitations to join forthcoming expeditions, and a donation button towards the bottom of the page.


Save Virachey National Park

• Chelsea Chapman, Tek-Tek, the Yeti of Cambodia, Phnom Penh Post, 8 November 2014

• Save Virachey National Park, Facebook.com

• Aaron Lowinger, Fundraiser for Habitat ID in Virachey National Park, Dailypublic.com

Our Mister Nixon

The last white elephant


King Sihanouk in his Cadillac, white elephants at the palace gates, 1952.

White elephants are only theologically white. To the average eye they look like any other elephant. They get their whiteness from their resemblance to the white elephant which impregnated Maya, the mother of the Buddha, when the Buddha wished to assume human form at the beginning of the present age.

In Theravada Buddhism the possession of white elephant is a mark of divine favour given only to kings, and a sign that a wise and just ruler reigns over the kingdom. In other words, if you’re a king, you just gotta have one.


One of the King of Thailand’s royal white elephants

The King of Thailand has six males and four females, which he keeps in considerable comfort at the Royal Elephant Stable, but segregated, because white elephants are not allowed to breed. The generals who ruled Burma had five and were always looking for more. (They kept them in a compound near Mingaladon airport – I saw them a few years ago but I don’t know if they’re still there). The king of Laos had some, and although the communists starved him to death in a re-education camp there they now keep their own in a special enclosure in Vientiane zoo, where visitors can stroke his trunk to gain gifts of power and strength. So what about Cambodia?

First, you have to know that white elephants are a very delicate subject. Only kings are allowed to own them. When the king of Cambodia was subordinate to the king of Siam, having a white elephant would have been very close to treason. No Cambodian white elephant before King Norodom switched from being a Thai puppet to a French puppet. The French wouldn’t have cared or even understood.


Joachim Schliesinger, in volume 3 of hisElephants in Thailand” (surely the last word on the subject) says that the last time a white elephant was seen in Cambodia was during Jackie Kennedy’s visit in November 1967.  Schliesinger also mentions, and dismisses, a story that Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice-president, presented the doomed Lon Nol with a baby white elephant during a visit to Phnom Penh in 1970. Jon Swain mentions the same story in his River of Time  and seems to accept it (“In the circumstances, it was an absurd gesture“), but it seems to be untrue. Agnew showed no sensitivity to Asian cultures (indeed, his Secret Service bodyguards trained their guns on Cheng Heng, the titular Head of State, when he tried to welcome them to the royal palace), and it seems improbable that he would have had any notion of the significance of elephants in Asian diplomacy. So, take it as read that the last royal Cambodian white elephant disappeared sometime between Jackie Kennedy’s visit in 1967 and the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. And now there are none.


Royal (but not necessarily white) elephants outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, date unknown. From the excellent blog called PhnomPenhPlaces (click on the image for the link).

But there is one interesting factoid that deserves a mention, and it might be the origin of the Spiro Agnew story. In 1951 Sihanouk, to show his appreciation of America’s strong stance on decolonisation in general and Cambodia’s bid for freedom from the last vestiges of French rule in particular, presented a white elephant to US President Harry Truman. Ok, so Truman was a Democrat and Sihanouk was sending him a Republican icon, but it’s the thought that counts. The elephant was named Harry, a home was prepared for him at Washington zoo, and all seemed to be going well until …  Harry died in Cape Town and was buried at sea. High hopes laid low. It could have been an augury for the future of Cambodian-American relations.

(P.s.: it seems Harry wasn’t a white elephant at all. The original intention was to send a white, but then some pedant pointed out that a white elephant could only be given to a supreme ruler, which a US president was not, and Harry was downgraded).



Review of Spirit Worlds


The author signing copies of Spirit Worlds for awe-struck waitresses at the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi guesthouse and restaurant, Kampot. Trying to look cool in Panama and rolled-up long-sleeves shirt. Photo by John Fengler.

Reviewed on Thailand Footprints. “Spirit Worlds by Philip Coggan (John Beaufoy Publishing 2015) is a spirit catching and spirit explaining book which also catches the eye.” Saving this for putting between quote marks on the cover of the 2nd edition.

Dear reader, please visit Goodreads and Amazon and leave a review and a star or two – they say it helps.

Deathpower (Erik W. Davis)

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.31.15 AM.pngErik W. Davis’ Deathpower is being hailed as a major work on Cambodian Buddhism and Cambodian religion. See this review in the Phnom Penh Post, which makes it sound quite accessible. (All quotes are from the Post’s review, which is by Brent Crane):

Drawing from three years of field research … Deathpower: Imagining Religion in Contemporary Cambodia, published earlier this month by Columbia University Press, expounds on Cambodian ritual dealings with souls beyond the grave – how individuals, mostly monks, interact with and interpret the spirit world and how communities respond to those interpretations.

Buddhism is overwhelmingly about death. Weddings are mostly for the achars, the specialists in ritual, and the ancestors – the monks attend, but their role isn’t crucial. Same for birth – birth practices are all about protecting the new-born infant and the mother from the attentions of malicious spirits. But at the time of death the monks are indispensable.

Being in charge of death gives the monks immense power. Which of course is not so dissimilar to traditional Christianity – the Church tells you you need the sacraments in order to die right, and who can say they’re wrong? Oscar Wilde repented on his deathbed.

Davis is arguing against the idea that Buddhism is all about seeking nirvana. A religion that spent all its time sitting with its legs crossed and muttering mystic syllables wouldn’t have much hold on anyone outside southern California. Yet this is what many Westerners think – so many times I’ve been told that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion. It’s a religion.

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Californian Buddhism

It has long been the prevailing academic view that folk beliefs within Theravada Buddhist practices throughout Southeast Asia, such as spirit worship, were “accretions” or additions to “real” Buddhism, based on a strict adherence to original Pali scripture.

The Post is slightly wrong there – there’s no “spirit worship”. Nor is there any Buddha worship, at least in theory – the Buddha was a man, not a god, and he achieved nirvana, which is the extinction of the self, and therefore he no longer exists, and so there’s nothing there to worship. My own take is that there’s no worship at all in Cambodian religion – people ask the gods and spirits for favours, and they thank them for favours given, but they don’t give praise.

And asking and receiving favours is, of course, the basis of Cambodian social relations – you have a patron who is wealthier and more powerful than you, you ask him for help when you need it, and you owe him a debt for what you receive. Religion mirrors society.

Cambophiles and Buddhism scholars alike have praised Deathpower. Renowned historian David Chandler deemed it “very pleasing” and a “reader’s feast”; Anne Hansen, a Buddhist Studies Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, went so far as to call the 320-page book “the most perceptive, meticulous, informative, and important study of contemporary Cambodian Buddhism to date”.

High praise indeed. Hansen points out that the idea that the spirit world is not Buddhism is distinctively Western. It comes from the Western preconception that religion is the Word – religion is what’s written, whether in the Bible or the Koran (Islam is a child of this same mindset, and Protestantism takes it to an extreme). Buddhism, like Christianity, has written scriptures, and Westerners, academics and Californians alike, have instinctively preferenced the scriptures. Non-Westerns have no such preconception. Death is real, the spirits are real, and the monks know how to deal with both.


Cambodian Buddhism. Interesting article in PPPost from 2013 explains the importance of death and funerals (click on the image)

Deathpower is published by Columbia University Press and right ow is priced on the university website at $36, which seems reasonable. That’s the hardcover. The same website lists the e-book at $59.99. On Erik Davis’ personal website there’s a code that allows you to get a 30% discount.