Ghosts are frequent visitors in the dreams of Prak Vanna. Or at least they have been since she moved next to a graveyard about six years ago.
“From the first day that I moved in to my new house, I felt scared and dreamed about ghosts,” she said while chopping firewood.
“But I always tell myself, don’t be afraid.”
Hundreds live among and around decades-old tombs, only a 20-minute drive south of Phnom Penh, across the Monivong bridge in Meanchey district’s Doeum Sleng village.
At least one grave dates from the 1920s.
Houses crowd the area, leaving it hard to tell where the cemetary ends and the neighbourhood begins.
People can often be seen sleeping in hammocks between the tombs.
A few hundred Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese graves lie amongst the dust, decorated with colourful tiles, chipped blue and faded yellow paint.
A coat of sky blue with red crosses and lettering remains bright on a pair of headstones from the 1980s.
About a dozen are scattered just off the doorstep of Prak Vanna’s home.
“I’m really afraid of the ghosts and those graves. I am sickened by them, but I don’t have a choice to move from here because I am poor,” the 46-year-old grandmother said.
“My children would be homeless if I didn’t live here.”
When her daughter was married, she said guests refused to come into her house, apprehensive of the graveyard.
When she first moved in, she became sick. It took her about a year to get over her fear of the ghosts, and she even went to a local church to pray for help.
She says the tombs don’t really bother her anymore.
Prak Vanna used to live along the Bassac river, but she said her house collapsed in 2005 after sand-dredging eroded the bank.
She then bought a house for about US$500 in Doeum Sleng, named after a local tree bearing orange fruit with poisonous seeds.
No rest for the dead
The dead may not like the arrangements any more than the living.
Children play near the graves and sometimes run on top of them.
In one of Prak Vanna’s dreams, an old man chased after her and told her to move away.
“None of you take care of my grave,” he said. “You piss and defecate on my grave. I am disgusted!”
Afterwards, Prak Vanna said she told her children not to make messes around the graves and has no longer received visits from the angry ghost.
On Chinese New Year and ahead of the Pchum Ben holiday, relatives of the dead leave gifts of food, including fruit, treats and sticky rice.
Prak Vanna said, however, that it is the living who accept and eat the offerings.
“We always receive the food and fruit that rests as a sacrificial offering to the dead every year,” she said.
Another resident, Chan Pov, came to Doeum Sleng in 1995 and set up a small business selling groceries from her home.
She said she never goes near the graveyard at night, though her children play there sometimes during the day. Once, she had to get to the commune chief’s office, only a 10 minute walk away. She chose to run.
“I took only about 2 or 3 minutes because there were so many graves built along the way,” she said, laughing.
Chan Pov said there were few families and about 200 graves in the neighbourhood when she arrived, but relatives have been moving several of them each year, seeking more peaceful burial places.
Uncertainty for the living
The local commune chief said the state plans to move residents away from the tombs.
“We will move them from this area in the future, but we don’t know the exact date yet,” Yin Vuth said.
“The state has the right to move them from this place in order to maintain good order.”
He does not give out land titles in the neighbourhood and no longer allows people to move in or build new homes.
“There will be more people coming to build houses there if I don’t prohibit them, because they don’t need to pay any money to buy land, they can just go and find a place to build a house,” he said.
Yin Vuth said people were actually stealing land that belonged to the state.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, Huy Nareth moved to Doeum Sleng.
There were about 20 to 30 graves then. He estimated that close to 3,000 families now live in the neighbourhood.
The 72-year-old said the government should clear the area in the name of “development”.
“My idea is that the authority, the village chief, can order the owners of the graves to move them to another place, because we should develop the area to be better,” he said.
“Most people who live here cause problems in society, like drinking alcohol and fighting each other.”
Yin Vuth said, however, that there are no development projects planned for the area.
Prak Vanna said she would move if the government or NGOs offered her a new home.
But for the moment, she’s tried to make peace with her close proximity to the dead.
When her niece and nephew came to visit her home, they laughed at her for living in a graveyard.
“I told them, don’t be afraid, sooner or later you all will die and become ghosts as well.”