Samsara: the widow’s tale

DSCF2175Plong Chanthou is 79 years old and a widow. She was born in Battambang province and moved to Phnom Penh when she married. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge evacuated her family to Battambang, but to a different district from the one she was originally from. During this time she lost all her four children, three girls and a boy, plus her beloved husband, who had been a civil servant for the Lon Nol government. First he was forced to work, then he was killed.

Immediately following liberation in 1979 she ran into the forest and ate wild fruits and roots to survive. After three weeks she made her way back to her village, but found that her parents’ home had been appropriated by soldiers. So she walked all the way to Phnom Penh to look for the house she had owned with her husband, but that house was also now occupied by others.

She ended up living with relatives, but they treated her badly. She was suffering deep depression after the Pol Pot years and her losses and had no wish to find a job, so she helped in the house like a servant in exchange for meals. It was a bitter time. Eventually she went to live at Wat Champa monastery in Ken Svay district in Kandal and later at Dombok Kpuos, before finally settling at Wat Sampov Meas in 1993.

Wat Sampov Meas in Phnom Penh is now her home. She gets up at 4 a.m. to clean, sweep and cook breakfast for herself and the monks, then she prays and serves the monks breakfast, after which she washes the dishes. Breakfast is no sooner out of the way than she prepares, cooks and serves lunch and washes dishes again, and prays once more in the evening. She follows the Eight Precepts and never eats dinner.

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Funeral stupas at Wat Sampov Meas – they hold the ashes of important monks and laypersons. Copyright Amy Chang, Flickr.

She has her own room in the monastery, away from the monks, where she cooks her own food and boils her own water. She never eats her meals in the monastery as she believes that being able to live there is more than enough. She lives on donations and gifts. Her younger brother sometimes gives her money, and some of her old friends and classmates also help regularly.

She worries about old age. “When I get really sick and unable to help the monks, I will ask my niece in Battambang if I can live with her and ask her to look after me. I know that she is kind and will take care of me before my departure (death). I never want to bother the monks or anybody at the temple.” She believes that due to her good deeds her niece will arrange a good funeral for her when she dies.


18th century Cambodian Buddha image, found at Antique

Since 1979 she has had no other passion besides learning about Buddhism and doing good things to gather merit. “This life has been most unfortunate and lonely and miserable for me. My good deeds in this life should help me to avoid that fate in the next. People tell me I should file a complaint with the Khmer Rouge War Crimes Tribunal to seek justice for losing my family, but what use is revenge? I tell them I would only do this if it could bring my children and husband back to be life again.”


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: love and marriage

In the late 19th century an anonymous French army surgeon spent a few months in Cambodia investigating the sex lives of the inhabitants. His freedom of movement was hampered by war in the countryside, but nevertheless he managed to fit in a great deal of highly relevant observation. He was much struck by the chastity of Cambodian girls, especially compared to their Vietnamese sisters. Pre-marital sex was unknown, as was prostitution, and marriage, if not perhaps love, was the sole arena for sex. (I’m not entirely convinced he was right, but that is what he said).

The leisurely process of marriage began with the betrothal. A female go-between would informally sound out the family of the girl on behalf of the boy’s family. If the response were positive, a formal delegation from the boy’s family would bring presents to the girl’s parents. If the presents were accepted – no doubt there was informal negotiation beforehand – the couple would be considered betrothed. The boy would then move into the girl’s house as a kind of domestic servant. This was necessary because the couple would not previously have met (in theory anyway), and this period was for the young man to pay court to the girl. He would sleep in the kitchen, because the girl was, of course, a virgin, although ‘leaving a boy with a girl is like putting an elephant in charge of the sugar-cane’, says the Khmer proverb.

The Frenchman doesn’t describe the wedding, but an Englishman named Christopher Pym, writing a century later, does. In the 1950s, while still in his twenties, he crossed on foot from the coast of Vietnam to Angkor in search of a road built by Jayavarman VII, the great king of Angkor who brought the Khmer Empire to its widest extent in the 12th century (I’m writing from memory, so don’t quote me on the history). He spent a year in Phnom Penh beforehand brushing up his Khmer.


Symbolic items from a Cambodian wedding – betel box, comb and scissors, etc. Copyright Kate McElwee.

From a Khmer wedding that took place in California. Beautiful photos, and much useful information.

Marriage, Pym says, was not between two individuals but between two families. The marathon wedding took place over three days, and its main elements were a hair-cutting ceremony (symbolic rather than literal, and an occasion for bawdy jokes and songs), a meal offered to the ancestors, and the cotton ceremony, in which the girl’s wrists were bound with a white cotton thread. After the thread was tied the girl began to cry, and when Pym asked why he was told it was because she was afraid of her husband. Pym offers no further explanation. At dawn on the last day the achar (specialist in ritual) placed a coconut flower divided into three parts on an outside altar, the three sections being called the mother, father and child. The groom bowed to each flower section in turn and entered the house, where the bride was concealed behind a curtain. The achar brought the flower sections inside and the groom bowed again to them, and at the same time a musician began a bawdy song entreating the hidden girl to allow the groom to “open the curtain” (a double-entendre?) The curtain was drawn aside revealing the bride, and although Pym doesn’t mention it, she was dressed as Neang Neak, the naga-princess who met Preah Thong, the ancestor of the Khmer race, on their mythical beach at the beginning of time.


Khmer wedding dress – the costume of Neang Naga the naga-princess, mother of the Khmer race.

The girl knelt beside the boy and bowed to the three flower sections, the guests seated themselves around them and circulated popil and candles. When the candles had gone round three times the achar blew them out and wafted the smoke towards the couple. The boy and girl were now wed. The boy took the bride’s scarf and allowed himself to be led to the marriage bed like Prince Thong being led to the underwater naga kingdom, while the guests dismantled the mother and daughter flowers and threw them over the couple like confetti. Later in the morning the newlyweds would take the father flower to the village monastery, where the head monk would scatter its grain over them.

We move now to the late 1950s, when the pioneering anthropologist May Ebihara lived in a Cambodian village for a year. She found the girls in the village were afraid of sex and of being raped or abducted, which were apparently real dangers. Both Buddhism and the spirits disapproved of fornication, and chastity continued to be the overwhelming rule. Yet there were a few cases of a lack of chastity, including a girl four months pregnant at her wedding and another who was the mistress of a high official from Phnom Penh – the second girl faced considerable disapproval, as did her parents for having allowed this to happen.


From the website of the Khmer-Canadian Youth Association of Alberta – Their caption describes the role and significance of this section of the wedding ceremony, a recapitulation of the origin of the Khmer people.

In modern villages marriage is still the result of betrothal organised at family level, and young people con only hope to influence the schemes of their parents. Birth control is not much practiced, although STDs are well understood and condoms are used for health reasons. As a result families tend to be large. Infertility is regarded as the woman’s fault, and the kru (traditional healers and shamans) are consulted for causes and cure. Male impotence is also regarded as a supernatural problem rather than a medical one, although in fact there are several quite serious conditions that can cause it. Abortion is very rare, since taking life is the most serious of all sins.

All this is for the village, and my sources have been second-hand and unreliable. Perhaps I need to do like May Ebihara and live for a year in a village – I have one in mind, and the headman has invited me to stay, but I can’t help wondering whether my bowels could take it. And what about the cities? Cambodia is still overwhelmingly a village-based society (maybe 80% of people live in villages), but cities are growing rapidly. The village has a thousand eyes, but the facts of modern urban life have produced a new social and moral world.


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.

This post is adapted from my book Spirit Worlds, due out in October. This section of the book was one of the hardest to write, due to the subject matter – how do you ask young people about their sex lives? Margaret Mead had that problem in Samoa. I was struck by how little is available on the sex lives of young people in the cities. I did ask, though I doubt the answers are authoritative. But for what it’s worth, I was told that pre-marital sex is increasingly common among teens – maybe quite common. And I know for a fact that Valentine’s Day is a major event in the calendar of every hormonally-supercharged high-school boy. Someone really has to study this.

Samsara: childhood


Pinterest, Keith Pings.

For its first three or four years the child is surrounded by indulgence and immediate fulfilment, but the world becomes harsher with the birth of each younger sibling. The transition from infancy to childhood is not sudden, however, but a gradual increase in responsibility and socialisation. During this time also the father gradually turns into remote and authoritarian figure.

The basic lessons children learn are respect, obedience, and conformity, and by the time the child begins school it will have learned such basics as respect for elders and monks. Children’s games emphasise skill and cooperation rather than winning, and the child’s performance of its duties within the family – household chores for the girls, looking after animals and supervised farm work for the boys – attracts no praise or reward, although failure or incompetence will attract blame and scolding. The parents’ control over their children is absolute, and children do not conceive of themselves as autonomous beings.

“In ancient times, Khmer people usually shaved their children’s heads. … This tradition is called “Kaur Chouk,” which means “to shave the tufts of hair away when the child is old enough.” Copyright S. Phana

A village tradition – one rapidly dying out but not yet dead – is that a child’s head should be shaved except for a forelock. The ritual cutting of this forelock at some point between the ages of seven and eleven, in a ceremony involving the monks, an achar (expert in ritual), and the family, marked the passage to responsible late childhood.

For girls, this was traditionally followed by “entering the shade,” a period ranging from a few days to a few months during which she remained inside the house, avoiding all contact with men and boys, practicing household duties and studying feminine etiquette. There was no ritual for the entry into the shade, but the exit was marked by a ceremony in which, among other things, a man with a branch would announce himself to be an “arak (spirit) of the forest,” the achar would ask the arak not to harm the girl or to keep her pralung (soul) in the forest, and the arak would promise that the girl would be allowed to have children. The entry into the shade is rarely practiced today.

For boys, the end of childhood is marked by collective ceremony of entray in to Buddhist novitiate at about twelve years old. For a brief moment before the ordination the pralung of a naga enters the boy, and he’s referred to as a naga until the full ordination is complete. During his time as a serpent he wears a traditional female garment (the hul) decorated with scales and is made beautified with make-up, gold necklaces and earrings, bracelets and rings. Possibly this is meant to represent the costume of Prince Siddhartha as he renounced the palace, but there are also clear undertones of the naga princess who married Preah Thong, the founder of the Khmer race.

A boy gets his head shaved by his mother during an ordination ceremony. Kork Banteay village, Kandal province. Copyright Heng Sinith/AP

A boy gets his head shaved by his mother during an ordination ceremony. Kork Banteay village, Kandal province. Copyright Heng Sinith/AP


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.

Boys and girls rarely interact after the age of puberty. A major exception is the Khmer New Year, when mixed groups of adolescents join to play traditional games, but in general, contact between sexes in the village setting is very limited. Life for teenagers in the city is, of course, a different matter.

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, - 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:

Samsara: the wheel of becoming

Yama, central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The figure is also known as the Leper King.

Yama, central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The figure is also known as the Leper King.

Yama, god of death and judgement, attended the Buddha at his Enlightenment. He was there because enlightenment means an end to samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth over which Yama presides.

Yama is present when every man dies, holding up a mirror to the dying soul. In the mirror the soul sees the Six Realms – the three worlds of men, gods and asuras, from which rebirth into a higher realm is possible, and those of animals, demons and hell-beings (ghosts). Death therefore comes before birth, because death is not the end. The soul is about to undertake a journey to the realms of Yama.

What exactly is the soul? The Buddha’s answer is told in the Vacchagotta Sutta. The sage Vacchagotta asked whether the Buddha held that the immortal soul exists. The Buddha remained silent.  Vacchagotta then asked whether the Buddha held that the soul does not exist. The Buddha still remained silent. Vacchagotta got up and went away. Ananda, the Buddha’s favourite disciple, asked the Buddha why he had not answered Vacchagotta. The Enlightened one replied:

“If I had answered, There is a soul, would that be in accordance with my knowledge that all dammas are without Self?”

“Surely not, Sir.”

“And if I had answered: There is no soul? That would have created greater confusion in the already confused Vacchagotta, for he would have thought: Formerly I had a Self, but now I do not.”

The sage Vacchagotta questions the Buddha on metaphysics.Vacchagotta questions the Buddha about metaphysics: “Do you hold that the universe is eternal or not?  Do you say it is finite or infinite?” To each question the Buddha answers “no.” From Metta Dharma Refuge

Buddhism teaches that the cause of rebirth is vinnana, meaning consciousness, or more precisely still, consciousness of self. So long as this exists, rebirth continues, but consciousness of self is a false consciousness, and a self built upon it is a false self.

A popil, essential to many ceremonies. It's essentially a candle-holder - the cadle is stuck to the broad plate with its own melted wax, and the flame and smoke have both symbolic and magical importance.

Popil, a ceremonial candle-holder essential to many ceremonies – the candle is stuck to the disc with its own wax,

Vinnana is a rarefied notion. Ordinary Cambodians talk about pralung. Pralung is that which animates. It is not uniquely human. Animals have it, as do plants and even certain objects. Pralung is multiple – every individual has nineteen, according to the classic texts. Each night the pralung leave the body and each morning they return, and our dreams are the records of their wanderings. A person who has lost consciousness is said to have lost his pralung, and a folktale tells how some little girls lost in the forest are scared out of their minds “as if they had lost their pralung.”

The pralung seem to be rather simple-minded, even gullible. Evil spirits seduce them into the forest with lying promises of a life of luxury and ease, although in fact the wilderness is a place of great danger. If the pralung listen to the voices and wander off their human owner becomes psychically weakened, prone to bad luck and illness.

Hau pralung ceremony - an achar (specialist in ritual) is reading the hau pralung poem.

Hau pralung ceremony – an achar (specialist in ritual) is reading the hau pralung poem.

There is therefore a ritual for calling the pralung back to the body. It involves the incantation of a poem called the Hau Pralung (“Calling the Souls”), one of the oldest works in Khmer literature and the most widely-performed non-Buddhist work in the Khmer language. The poem itself is the most important ingredient in the ritual, but it also involves various symbolic props which appear over and over in Khmer religious ceremonies: balls of sweet sticky rice, cones made of rolled banana leaves, sticks of black sugarcane, and candles tied to leaf-shaped candle-holders called popil. Some of these, like the rice and sugar cane, are symbols of domestic life, but the popil, which is a modern version of the ancient Shiva-linga, is plainly phallic.


Tying threads to an infants wrists to keep its pralung in its body.

A full hau pralung is extremely dramatic. It begins by invoking the protection of the Buddha and all the gods and the tevoda in streams and hills, then warns the pralung of the ghosts and evil spirits in the forest. It appeals to them to come home to “silk mattresses and wool carpets, cushions and pillows,” and ends by welcoming them back to the family. “The nineteen pralung have arrived and are entering their home. After three days of calling I am tying strings around your wrists to unite you with your relatives, old and young, grandmothers and grandfathers. May you recover as of today.”

The two photos above are from Reyum, part of an article reviewing a publication on the Hau Pralung.


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.