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,

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

Our Mister Nixon

Ancestral voices: the Leper King

js_phnom penh_national_museum_Yama_lord_of_the_dead

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King – the statue from the Terrace of the Leper King at Angkor, now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. From, which has some very nice photos from the museum (click on the image for the link).

In the late 19th century French archaeologists at Angkor discovered a statue of a squatting, bare-chested man, his right hand apparently once holding a rod or similar object, on a terrace next to the Bayon temple. Presumably it had been there for centuries, as the terrace was used in ancient times for royal cremations and perhaps for judgements. The statue, according to its inscription, was Yama, the god of death and judgement, but the local villagers were worshipping it as Sdach Kamlong, the Leper King, who, as legend has it, was Preah Thong, the Indian prince who married the naga princess and was first to rule over the Khmer people.

Preah Thong was warned by his wife’s father, the naga king, not to build a four-faced tower in his city, but he ignored the warning. Using the magical power of the four faces he captured the naga king and imprisoned him inside the tower, but the serpent escaped and sought to kill him. Each dealt the other many grievous wounds, but Preah Thong eventually dealt the fatal blow, although he was stained by the naga’s venom. The dying naga warned him not to remove the poison, but Preah Thong washed his body, and so was stricken with leprosy as a visible sign of his deed.

Seeking to cover up the murder from the naga’s daughter, Preah Thong killed a monk, thinking he could be reincarnated in the monk’s healthy body. This was a crime even worse than killing his father-in-law, and his outraged courtiers banished him to the forest, while his city became the haunt of monkeys and tigers. Eventually, after many trials, he was cured by the power of the sacred waters of the Ganges (the Siem Reap River) and restored to his city and throne.

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 10.23.07 PM

Base of the Terrace of the Leper King – there’s a modern copy of the statue on top of the terrace. From (click image for link).

The legend of the Leper King and the abandoned city is an allegory of the fall of Angkor and a hope for national salvation. However, the story is certainly older than the fall of Angkor, for the medieval Chinese traveller, Zhou Daguan mentions that a king of Angkor once fell victim to leprosy.

The statue is now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, where worshippers ask for health and prosperity and for protection from danger. It’s especially popular with students from the University of Fine Arts next to the museum, and special ceremonies with offerings of flowers and fruits and music are held at New Year and Pchum Ben (the festival of the dead).

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

According to popular belief the Leper King was Yasovarman I. This cannot be true, for the following reasons: (1) There is nothing to indicate that the statue represents a king or a leper or even that the terrace was its original home; (2) there is no evidence that Yasovarman or any other Khmer king was a leper; and (3), Yasovarman’s capital was somewhere else and the terrace wasn’t built till long after his death. (The acerbic note comes from my source, a rather mysterious but apparently well-informed pdf file by someone who goes by the single name of Sokheoun. Sokheoun is a stickler for facts, one of which is fascinating: it seems that, deep inside the Bayon temple at Angkor, there’s a series of bas-reliefs illustrating the Leper King story).

The myth of the Leper King is very much alive and well. Here’s some Cambodians discussing it on khmerconnection in 2009. The version of the legend someone gives here is slightly different from ine, but that’s how it goes with legends. Note the way they join the dots between the legend and modern politics:

Cambodia is curse until the true ruler of the kingdom reclaim his thrown and crowned king..

actual crowned king not select nor picked out…

Current king is king but has not wore the crown. It is said who ever wore the crown and not the true ruler lightning will strike you to death..Many high ranking politic and royal has tried but fear it. Even Hun Sen tried but the door close on him trying to enter…

(Yet another version of the story here – again an attempt to find “real” history hiding in a legend. Legends are poetry, the truth they contain is poetic truth, as the folks on khmerconnection have grasped).

(Last thing I have to say on the subject, promise There were once three Leper King statues in Phnom Penh, but now there are only two. Number One is of course the statue in the central courtyard of the National Museum, a national icon filled with magical powers. This is the original from the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor, Number Two is outside Wat Ounalom on Sisowath Quay, and receives worship on the four holy days each month as well as major festival days. This is a copy, donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodia Peoples Party. Number Three was nearby, on the Riverside on the other side of the road. It used to have quite a lot of worshippers, but it’s gone now, replaced by a sewerage plant. Like Number Two it was a copy, but it was donated by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a political opponent of the government).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

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).” 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

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.”

Neak ta: Preah Ang Chek, Preah Ang Chorm and General Dap Chhuon

neang chek and neang chom, famous boramey from Siem Reap_DSF6160

Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm

A neak ta is a guardian spirit. Some of them guard a patch of forest, others become domesticated and guard a village (every village has its neak ta), and some go on to greater things and guard cities and provinces. Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm are the neak ta of Siem Reap – their shrine is by the river and near the Royal Palace.

An article in the Siem Reap Post has background: the two were discovered at Angkor Wat in 1950 and later kidnapped by a local warlord named Dap Chhuon. This man was a fascinating figure – see here – he pretty much ran the northwest and sounds rather like Mr Burns from The Simpsons, “cadaverously thin with unblinking, deep-set eyes.”

The CIA thought he might be a good candidate to replace Sihanouk, but Sihanouk got to him first and he died in not-very-mysterious circumstances in 1959. (According to an official announcement at the time he died “of injuries” while assisting Sihanouk’s men with their inquiries). “One of Chhuon’s brothers, Kem Srey, was closely associated with him in his political activities and another brother, Kem Penh, was an international arms dealer.” Sounds like your average CIA plot all right.


Dap Chhuon surrenders to Sihanouk, 1953; by 1959 he was history.
Time Magazine from KI Media

When the pair returned they determined never to leave the shrine again, and when the Khmer Rouge tried to remove them they made themselves too heavy to lift or move. Today the shrine is constantly busy, and especially popular with newly married couples


Shrine of Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm

What are the statues made of? The Phnom Penh Post quite casually calls them “golden” – their colour is black, so is it saying they’re made of gold? Certainly they’re very heavy – 150 kg according to the Post, though Dap Chhuon had superhuman strength and could carry one on each shoulder. The Post continues, quoting a local official:

[A]ccording to Sem Tap, … “Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm contained great magic, to help protect Dap Chhoun from his enemies,” … “Dap Chhoun could foresee that the king would like to kill him.” Tipped off about [the] impending arrival [of Sihanouk’s troops], Dap Chuuon made plans to flee to the Thai border and attempted to take the statues with him.

“He swooped into his camp and tried to take those sacred statues with him, however he could not carry Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm on his shoulders as he could before. The statues grew heavier by the second until they reached such a weight that Dap Chhoun was unable to move them.”

With his powers gone, and insufficient men to transport the Buddhas, Dap Chhoun was reduced to breaking off five fingers from the right hand of the Preah Ang Chek statue and fleeing to his farm at Tbeang Kert, enroute to the Thai border. It was here that Dap Chhuon, accompanied by his wife, was cornered by Sihanouk’s soldiers.

They’re on You Tube:

Phallic symbols at Yeay Mao’s shrine

_DSF5967Yeay Mao (“Black Lady”) has shrines from southern Vietnam to the edge of Thailand, but the most important is at Pich Nil, in the hills behind Sihanoukville.  In the days of Angkor she was the Hindu goddess Kali, associated with fertility cults – you can read about her on Wikipedia. She’s black because Kali was black. Her consort was the god Shiva, hence the Shiva-lingas and the phalluses.Shiva has become Preah Eisey, the name taken from one of his attributes.

_DSF5945(Apologies for the poor photo, but I don’t have a better one). Her offerings are bananas, roast piglet or roast chicken, and carved phalluses. As the phallic offerings suggest, her main business is control of fertility. Women come to pray for a baby, men come for problems with sex drive or erectile dysfunction.

_DSF5960She also has a very important role as a goddess of roads – motorbikes and cars and trucks and buses always stop here to offer bananas, pray for protection, and bless their vehicles with holy water. The holy water is taken from a spring by the roadside, and this was the original place of her shrine (it’s now been moved to the far side of the road).

_DSF5965The phalluses are getting to be a problem. There used to be hundreds of them, stuffed into the secondary shrines next to the main one, but now there are none. The attendant showed me a cardboard box full of them behind the shrine. The one in the photo above I took from the box just for the picture. They’re all about to be burnt, like the thousands before them. The explanation I was given was that they clutter up the shrines, that more room is needed for offerings of bananas and roast piglets. I don’t think so. I think the authorities are just embarrassed. (Interestingly, the authority in charge of the shrine isn’t a ministry in Phnom Penh, as I’d expected, but the local army unit).


These haven’t been removed – there are just a few giant stone phalluses in the form of Shiva-lingas. Like all the rest, they’re donated by the devotees of the goddess, but these are extremely expensive and must come from very important people – cart these away and there’ll be questions.

Eyso lingaQuite a different question is raised by the face on this one. There’s an inscription underneath identifying the figure as  Eisoh in mediation. The guardian told me that some people have objected strongly. The correct god to accompany Yeay Mao is Preah  Eisey, who appears dressed as a hermit with a kettle and naga-staff.


Eisoh is a problem – who is he? There’s a Ream Eisoh who appears in legend as a stupid and wicked giant who attacks the beautiful Lady Mekhala (“Cloud”) with his magic axe, their eternal battle causing thunder and lightning. His title there is not Preah (“Sacred”), and he has no evident connection with phallic imagery – except perhaps that the rain that follows the battle with Lady Cloud connects the pair of them with fertility. Or perhaps the donor had private reasons for promoting the giant to godly status. Or perhaps he/she just got it wrong.

moni_reamMoni Mekhala and Ream Eyso, by Sojourn Foto – from the ballet by Toni Shapiro

The origin-myth for Yeay Mao as told to me by the guardian is that her husband, named Ta Kry (not Eisey) was a general who fought the Thais. Yeay Mao missed her husband (it was explained to me that “missed” means missed sexual relations with him) and took a boat to go look fort him. (Note the maritime connection). A storm arose, and the captain wondered aloud what he’d done to offend the gods. Yeay Mao admitted that she “had four eyes” – meaning she was pregnant. It’s strictly taboo to have a pregnant woman on a ship. Yeay Mao apologised to everyone and cast herself into the sea, at which the storm ceased. End of story. Except there seems to be a couple of non-Kali threads lurking here. Kali isn’t associated with the sea, for example. More, there’s a hint of human sacrifice, although no more than a hint. But the connection with sexuality (Yeay Mao “misses” her husband sexually) and fertility is totally in keeping with tantric thinking (Wikipedia‘s article is as prissy as the attendant’s burning of the phalluses – tantra was totally about using sex as a means of union with the god).


Tantric carving from India – Khmer art is never so explicit

Two minor points that are only notions of my own: first, it seems the “high” gods, meaning Buddha and the tevodas and such – any beings that are from the heavens – are worshiped with flowers and fruits, while “lower” divinites such as the neak ta (all the gods here are neak ta) have these plus meat offerings. Second, it seems that an awful lot of neak ta have self-sacrifice in their origin myths.