Gods, ghosts and demons


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 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


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.”

Village of spirits


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.

urlThe mrieng kongveal are the spirit-guardians of village animals, punishing anyone who mistreats them or fails to take proper care of them.

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).

Photo-64908-LMy Mother Is An Arp

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.