“Lucky Guy”: a short story

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.46.50 AM This story appears in the current Phnom Penh Weekly at restaurants, cafes and hotels throughout Cambodia (but not online).

Yama, the god of death and judgement, holds up a mirror to the dying soul. In it the soul sees all its past actions, and how they lead to the present.

This is only the case if the man dies a peaceful death, mindful of his own passing.

The man who dies by violence has no such good fortune. Unable to collect his mind, he becomes a haunting ghost, a khmouch, tied to the spot where he died.


Doug had a hard time getting settled in Cambodia. The work was ok, an accountant is an accountant no matter where, but outside the office nothing was like home.

His second Monday in Phnom Penh he had a bit of bad luck. He rented a motorbike, had an accident. Another bike, young kid looked like he couldn’t be over fourteen though they said later he was seventeen, ran into a car at an intersection. Right next to Doug. Wasn’t Doug’s fault at all, kid just whizzed past just as the lights changed and swerved and the car hit him. Police took Doug into custody, well, good thing, saved him from the mob, they would have lynched him, everyone at the office said so and the Country Director was on his side, just advised him to take tuk-tuks in future. Kid died, but it was ok for Doug because the kid’s father was so mad and making threats and everything but the office paid compensation to him and it was ok. Every man has his price.

Everyone told Doug he’d been lucky, but still, he felt bad. The guys at work tried to help. On Friday after work they took him to street 104, street 136, and street 51, finishing up at Pontoon.

Doug woke up with a girl in his bed and he couldn’t remember how she got there. She told him she was his for the weekend, a gift from his friends. “You lucky guy, such nice friends. Today I take you some places.”

At the Russian Market they found a stall selling lucky charms. The girl picked up a green naga and slipped it over her head and down her cleavage. She stroked the spot and said, “You like?”

“You buy, you buy,” said the stall lady. “Is jade. Good luck for you. Cheap-cheap!” It was getting to the end of the day and she hadn’t sold a thing all afternoon.

“I don’t believe in luck,” said Doug, because the charm looked like plastic and anyway accountants believe in logic not magic.

The girl pouted. Her lips were full and moist, her breasts were large and soft, and Doug’s belief melted like ice-cream. He paid the lady and the girl gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek while her nipples pressed against his shirt. “Now we eat,” she said.

At the restaurant Doug got sentimental and held the girl’s fingertips across the table. She slipped her hand out of his and pulled the lucky naga out for one more look. “We have good luck, sure,” she said.

They took a taxi to the casino. Doug had never been in a casino in his life before, and he was surprised at how tacky it looked, in an expensive sort of way. The lobby had red carpets and crystal chandeliers and there was an indoor fountain with a cardboard apsara. There were uniformed attendants, and Doug was sure they were looking at the girl’s bum tight as two onions in her jeans. He felt underdressed himself, and wondered why he had come here. He decided they’d leave when they’d lost fifty dollars.

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.46.26 AM

An attendant showed them the gaming rooms, full of grim-faced men taking their pleasure like pain. They scared him. He decided to ease his way in with the slot machines. The machines stood in long rows in a huge dim room, flashing and buzzing. There were many people, men in polo shirts and women in pastel blouses with lots of bling, but nobody spoke, each saw only the screen in front of him, and there was no joy in the room.

But the girl was excited. “I never come before,” she said, skipping around like a little fawn. The attendant explained that the machines took notes, and when they wanted to collect their winnings they should call her and she’d take them to the cashier

Doug gave his girl a dollar note and the symbols whizzed round and she lost. Her face fell. “No good!” Then she brightened. “Ok, you turn now, you lucky too!”

Doug fed a dollar in. He wished it were larger, so he could lose faster and they could leave. The lights flashed and music played. “You win, you win!” cried the girl, jumping up and down like a kid on a trampoline. “Again one more time!”

Every time Doug pressed the button he won, whee-whee-whee. He used bigger notes, and kept on winning. People were starting to stare. A man in a suit spoke into his lapel and two very tall girls appeared. Identical twins, Chinese, so beautiful that, when Doug noticed them (his eyes were on the screen), he gasped. They looked like a dream of princesses and magicians, skin like ivory, long glossy hair, aristocratic noses. One wore a dress of ruby silk, the other a dress of emerald.

“Hello,” said Ruby.

“Hi”, said Emerald.

“Beat it,” said Ruby, to Doug’s girl, in Khmer.

The man in the suit escorted Doug’s girl out of the casino and helped her find a tuk-tuk.

“You’re a lucky guy,” said Emerald as she took the seat Doug’s girl had vacated. “You come here often?” Her English was perfect, and charmingly accented.

“No,” said Doug.

“Sure,” said Ruby. “Maybe some of your luck can rub off on us, huh?”

It was uncanny. Every play Doug made, he won. Ruby and Emerald had to take him to the ATM in the lobby for more money. After a while the man in the suit spoke into his lapel and Emerald suggested they try the roulette table. On the way they stopped off at the cashier and Doug collected his winnings, in cash, in a bag.

Doug felt a little bit happy about moving to roulette – surely now he’d lose faster and be able to go home, because these girls and this place intimidated him. But also he had begun to feel a little excited. So he took a chair and started placing five-dollar bets.

Pretty soon they were twenty-dollar bets. He just couldn’t lose.

The man in the suit followed them, keeping discretely in the background. He muttered into his lapel and Emerald suggested they try a private room.

They went to the private room. Doug played poker with three serious men in polo shirts, two Khmer and one Thai. Ruby and Emerald gave him instructions on the technicalities, but he placed his own bets. He won. They played again, and this time he decided to bet everything. One big bet and he’d either go bust or … or what? He wasn’t sure any more.

He won.

The Thai stood up. “Finished,” he said. The two Khmers stood up. “Finished,” they agreed. One of them patted Doug on the shoulder. “You very lucky, my friend. Take care.”

Ruby and Emerald escorted Doug to the cashier, who counted the money out in bundles of hundred-dollar bills. The man in the suit was standing nearby, and when the money was all counted he coughed discretely to attract Doug’s attention. Would our honoured guest like a complimentary night in our Naga Suite?

“Yes,” said Ruby, and smiled.

“Oh yes,” said Emerald.

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They took the elevator up to the top floor, the man in the suit and Ruby and Emerald and a room-boy with a bottle of Champagne in an ice-bucket. The man in the suit opened the door and showed them how the Jacuzzi worked. He opened the drapes and Phnom Penh was spread out below them with the river like a black dragon. Nothing like home.

The room-boy placed the ice-bucket on a low table by the window and stood at attention next to it. Ruby put the bag of money on the table, took two hundred-dollar bills from it, and gave one each to the room-boy and the man in the suit. They bowed and smiled and expressed their hopes that the honoured guest would have pleasant night and shut the door as they left.

Doug was alone with Ruby and Emerald and the little old man, pot-bellied and naked from the waist up, who had been sitting in an easy chair next to the window all along. Doug had thought that was pretty strange from the moment he’d come in.

The second strange thing was that nobody seemed to see the little old man.

At least, nobody mentioned him. They didn’t even glance at him. When the man in the suit opened the drapes the little old man got up and stood aside for him, and then sat down again. Emerald and Ruby too had ignored him, likewise the boy with the ice-bucket. So Doug decided not to mention him. Perhaps he was the casino masseur. He looked like a masseur.

“Drink?” said Ruby.

“Jacuzzi?” said Emerald.

The little old man gave the three of them a little wave as they went into the bathroom. The ruby and emerald dresses were a tangle on the bathroom floor, and the girls looking better than ever.

The little old man was still there in the chair by the window when they came back to the bedroom. Doug was sure now he must be the masseur. Yes, they’d have some kind of complicated massage, for sure.

“Champagne again?” said one of the twins. Doug could no longer tell which was which.

“I’ll get it,” said the other twin.

“Cheers,” said one twin when they sitting together on the bed. She raised her glass.

“Chin-chin,” said the other, raising her glass.

The old man raised a hand and gave an ironic salute. He seemed to be looking straight at Doug.

Doug woke up. Sunlight was streaming in the open window. For a second he wondered what place this was, and then he remembered. He looked around for the twins, but there was nobody in the room.

Nobody except the old man sitting in the chair by the open window.

“Good morning,” the old man said. His voice was dry and rasping, and he spoke perfect English, with an accent not unlike Stephen Fry dealing out jokes on QI.

Doug, who wasn’t thinking clearly, stretched his neck out and put his head under the bed until it came out the other side. There were no twins, but the old man was still there.

“They’re gone,” said the old man.

That wasn’t all that was gone. The table where the money had been was now bare.

“There’s been an accident,” said the old man, raising one knee and placing a fist on it, in the manner of a man holding a stick. “The plan was that you’d be drugged and robbed. The casino would have apologised and offered you compensation, maybe a thousand dollars. Most customers are happy enough with that – they get a nice evening to remember and a thousand dollars. And if they don’t like it, they have to explain to their wives.”

“Wives?” said Doug, who wasn’t married.

“Even if they’re not married, it’s pretty embarrassing explaining it to their friends. Every man has his price, or so it seems. So that was the plan.”

“Whose plan?” said Doug. Then he said “Ouch!” because he’d just bumped his head on the ceiling.

The old man sighed. “Their plan. It’s a scam they’ve been working for years. Come down.”

Doug realised that he was standing with his feet on the ceiling. He turned right way up and drifted gently back to the floor. What astonished him most was that this didn’t astonish him at all. It seemed perfectly natural.

“But the girls slipped a little too much into the Champagne,” the old man went on. “Dreadful mistake, as they’ll find out in an hour or two when the room-boy brings your complimentary breakfast. Are you feeling hungry yet?”

Doug realised he was feeling hungry. Ravenous, in fact.

“It’s normal for someone in your situation to feel hungry,” said the old man. “Get used to it.”

Doug looked down. On the rumpled sheets he saw himself, peacefully sleeping, except that his eyes were wide open and staring at nothing. He tried to scream, but found he couldn’t open his mouth beyond a small hole.

“You can’t open your mouth properly,” said the old man. “That’s part of your condition. Long neck, tiny mouth, huge hands, huge pot belly. Situation normal.”

Doug cupped both huge hands over his new pot belly, which had begun rumbling with hunger. “Why?”

“Have you forgotten that boy you killed?”

“I never,” Doug screamed, so far as he was able. “It was an accident! Everyone said so!”

“You mean that’s what you told everybody. The truth…”

“No!” squeaked Doug.

“The truth is you swerved in front of him without warning, he swerved to avoid you, and, well, you know what happened. You killed him.”

“No!” Doug whispered. “I wasn’t responsible!”

“That’s what they all say. Makes me sad. But don’t worry, I’m not here to punish you, I’m here to hold a mirror up to your soul. We’ll be spending a long time together in a nice deluxe hotel room. Not like that poor boy, wandering up and down the street at this very moment. You’re a lucky guy.”

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.

Samsara: birth

An unborn baby is an old soul. A woman might dream that a man asks her if he can come to stay, or she might be visited by her dead grandmother asking to be reborn. She should generally say yes, unless she has witnessed a fatal accident recently, in which case the visitor is probably a ghost trying to be reborn before its time.

When she becomes pregnant the village midwife and elders advise her about diet, medicines, and activities. She should avoid spicy foods, as they make the baby aggressive and bad-tempered. Goose eggs will make the baby intelligent, and rice wine, herbal medicines, coconut water and beer, will all make it healthy. She should not drink milk or bathe at night, as these make for a fat baby and a difficult delivery. As a cure for morning sickness she should step over her husband, with his permission, which transfers the sickness from her to him. (For a woman to step over a man would normally be a major breach of protocol). The gender of a yet-unborn child can be predicted by standing another baby on the pregnant mother’s stomach and watching the reaction, or by the morning sickness (bad sickness predicts a boy).

Nomad RSI -

Nomad RSI – “90% of [women] give birth at home as health facilities are usually too far away, too expensive or unfriendly. Traditional midwifes, though highly regarded in their communities, are not recognized by authorities [and] are therefore denied access to training and knowledge, such as to recognize complications, and so maternal/child mortalities are far above [inter]national rates.

Most Cambodian babies are delivered at home by the village midwife, assisted by female relatives and friends – men and unmarried girls are not allowed to be present at a birth. For a period after the birth, varying from a few days to a full month, the new mother will lie on a bamboo bed with a fire constantly burning beneath her in a clay pot. This is because she is “cold”, and her heat must be restored. Drafts, which would be cooling, are excluded, and a heated tile or stone is placed on her stomach. During this period she also eats “hot” foods, which were avoided during pregnancy. A wet-nurse will feed the baby for the first three days, but after that breast-feeding is favoured as this makes the baby intelligent and strong.

Great care is taken to ensure that the baby, its mother, and the midwife, all have their full pralung (souls). Prior to the birth a popil will be turned around the pregnant mother to call the baby’s pralung, and after the birth the mother and midwife tie cotton threads to each other’s wrists and ankles to attach their own pralung to their bodies. After the baby is born the midwife will “open the eyes” and “cut the wild hair” of the newborn and call its pralung to leave the forest and enter its body, after which she will tie a cotton thread with a gold ring to one wrist and a plain thread to the other – again, this is to tie the pralung to the body. After this is done the proper offerings will be made to the ancestor-spirits and the child can be given its name.

Nigel Dickson, Photoshelter.com - Yu Sokna and her baby undergoing

Copyright Nigel Dickinson, (for his website click on the image) – “Yu Sokna and her baby undergoing “Ang Pleung” – Postpartum heating procedure: After giving birth a woman is carried by her husband to a wood or bamboo bed under which a fire has been built. The women has a bag of ice on her navel. Meanwhile a Traditional Healer or Birth Attendant recites Buddhists texts while walking around the bed to protect the woman from evil spirits. In the past it was considered important to use a certain mix of woods to protect against supernatural forces and produce a smoke that eased the pain of childbirth. …[M]ost women appear to prefer to use charcoal as it is smoke free, but may be more toxic.”

If the birth takes place in a hospital the newborn will be given a spirit-kit of scissors, knife and other objects, and incense will be burnt to call the spirits. When the new parents take the infant home they can draw an X on the wall or on the baby’s forehead to deter evil spirits. One or two weeks later they will take it to the wat, where the monks will say prayers and sprinkle it with holy water and tie a red thread round its wrist, all for its protection. If the infant becomes sick the parents will take it back to the monastery for further blessings and perhaps an amulet to be worn round its neck. This will be in addition to, not in place of, taking it to a doctor or clinic. In both villages and cities the infant’s fontanel will be painted with rice-flour for several months after birth to close up the skull.

World Vision -

World Vision – “Better and more readily available prenatal healthcare in Cambodia has led to a significant drop in deaths from childbirth.”

When the baby is a little bigger its mother from its former life will probably come to play with it. She will be invisible to the new parents, but when she’s present the baby will laugh and smile at nothing, and when she leaves the baby will be sad and cry. The former mother is generally harmless, but sometimes she loves her baby too much and makes it sick, and the new mother will need to make a prayer and ask her to spare the baby because she loves it. If the illness continues or worsens it might mean the previous mother wants to take the baby back to the spirit world; in this case the parents can hold an adoption ceremony with a third party, tricking the former mother into thinking that the infant is not hers after all. This period of supernatural visits and dangers ends at about the twelfth month, and the child enters the next phase of its life.


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.

Old traditions are cute, but not necessarily desirable. From the World Vision site: “Sreymao Kun, a midwife at the health center where Sreynin delivered, explains what used to happen without care by a skilled provider.

“Before, most women followed old practices,” she says. “They showered their newborn baby with beer and put paper wasp nest dust on the baby’s navel. And the women were kept warm after delivery with hot coals. And what scared our pregnant women is that there are some women in the community who died because of improper delivery practices from traditional birth attendants at home.”

She continues with a sigh of relief. “But now, pregnant women are more keen to access services at the health center.”

– See more at: http://www.worldvision.org/news/cambodia-more-moms-survive-childbirth#sthash.Kz3NgPeb.dpuf

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.”

Why Cambodians never get depressed


This extraordinary story on a blog from American National Public Radio called Goats and Soda.

Yes, of course Cambodians get depressed. But they don’t have a word for it. Instead they have an expression: thelea tdeuk ceut, “the water in my heart has fallen.”

When the water in your heart has fallen, you not only have a description (depression), you have an explanation (water in the heart). It makes a difference in how you view what’s happening.

Therefore it makes a difference how the condition should be treated. For us, depression is a mental condition, for Cambodians its a physical one (water in the heart).  The article points out that American-style mental health clinics aren’t necessarily the right way to go in Cambodia:

Simply setting up mental health clinics identical to the ones we have here in the U.S. isn’t necessarily going to help anyone, says Dr. Devon Hinton, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, who works with Southeast Asian populations in the U.S. and abroad.

Now we get on to a phrase I’ve heard used about ghosts – they spin. A newly-dead ghost “whirls around,” and only when it stops whirling can it leave the physical world and go to the world of the dead as a “praet” – a ghost which has not done this is a “kmouch,” and stays here with humans as a haunting ghost. But why do ghosts spin and whirl?

Take for instance khyal attacks, or “wind attacks.” Cambodians who suffer from anxiety disorders often experience the quick onset of heart palpitations, blurry vision and shortness of breath. Like panic attacks, khyal attacks can happen without warning.

In other words, the newly-dead soul is experiencing a panic attack.

There’s much more. Recommended reading.