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Villagers place their trust in tradition

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081202_18.jpg

Villagers in Kandal province erect scarecrows to ward off disease and evil spirits after their livestock begin to die

Photo by: THOMAS GAM NIELSEN

Sam Soeun has placed a homemade scarecrow in front of her house to protect her buffaloes against diseases and evil spirits.

SVAY RIENG
IN Kandal province's Svay Rieng village, locals have begun to call on an old Khmer tradition to protect their animals from disease and evil spirits.

The area near the Vietnamese border is rural, dirty and scattered with houses made of mud, but a plague of ghosts and disease  does not discriminate between the rich and the poor.

Late last month, buffaloes and cattle started to die on the outskirts of Svay Rieng village and to ward off the evil spirits, villagers started erecting ting mong - the Khmer version of a scarecrow - in front of their houses. Dressed in old clothes and decorated with paint, these jar-headed scarecrows  are truly a frightening sight to behold.

Sam Soeun, 32, was one of the first villagers to put her trust in the Khmer tradition and erected her scarecrow after three out of her eight buffaloes died suddenly and another fell ill.

"I have placed ting mong in front of my house because according to traditional religious belief it can protect the rest of my animals against any kind of disease, such as cholera, that might infect them," said Sam Soeun, adding that she believes the scarecrow can also ward off ghosts and evil spirits.

Better safe than sorry

When asked about the effectiveness of her scarecrow, Sam Soeun said that, even though she suspects her ill buffaloes have received some less-than-spiritual treatment from the local vet, she has stuffed her scarecrow with extra hay to make it look stronger and continue to protect her cattle.

I have placed ting mong in front of my house because ... it can

protect the rest of my animals against any kind of disease.

Further down the muddy path, 45-year-old Hun Sophal still has her whole herd intact but has put up a scarecrow as a preventative measure soon after hearing about the death of nearby livestock.

"I follow this old Khmer tradition of placing a ting mong in front of my house to protect against any disease, evil spirits or ghosts that may harm my buffaloes, cows, pigs and chickens," she said.

While Hun Sophal said she is unsure whether the scarecrow actually protects her  numerous  animals, she admits that so far it seems to have worked.

Word from the experts

Som Trapey, research supervisor at the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, explained that the use of scarecrows in Cambodia is neither rooted in Buddhism nor the Khmer version of Brahmansim called Promanh, but said that the tradition of using scarecrows to ward off evil spirits comes  from ancient times. 

In 2006, Som Trapey began researching traditional Khmer culture and found the widespread use of scarecrows in many rural areas of Cambodia. While most villagers use scarecrows to protect their livestock from disease and evil spirits, others would use them to protect their rice fields, he said.

"The use of ting mong is a traditional belief that has been used for a long time in Cambodia," he said. "Most villagers in the provinces still believe in the use of ting mong to protect their animals and family members, and they often combine putting the scarecrow out with prayers to gods."

Som Trapey found that in the by-gone era, scarecrows were displayed without attire because the cost of clothes was too high.

In 1999, villagers in Kampot province's Kampong Trach village started erecting scarecrows after a rumour spread that "all Khmers would die in the year 2000".

The townsfolk put up the scarecrows in this distinctly Khmer brand of millenarianism, which apparently worked with no reported deaths in the area at the turn of the millenium.

A more modern version of the tradition was seen in several places around Cambodia in 2005, when rumours were circulated that ‘bei sarch chunh chuk chheam' - evil spirits that suck blood - had been seen in the country hunting virgins.

To prevent the blood feast, villagers from several different villages hung plastic bags containing fake blood on their front gates, sometimes combined with a scarecrow.

No virgin-hunting vampires have been reported in Svay Rieng village, with only animals the victims so far, but when dusk arrives in Kandal,  the villagers strengthen their defense by drumming out all evil.

"All of us make loud noises by hitting on drums each evening from 6pm to 7pm," Hun Sophal said, explaining that the drumming is meant to  "expel the evil spirits and warn them not to come and hurt the animals".

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