SOK SAN, Mondulkiri - The thick, sweet smell of rice wine clings to the celebrants
as they dance and beat gongs. Cows and buffalo graze on tethers nearby, unaware of
what's in store for one of their number.
Teetotalers and vegetarians beware - the Phnong are having a party.
It's a party for a sober reason, to be sure: to mark the one-year anniversary of
But the indigenous people of Cambodia's east have their own, merrier version of the
Khmer Bon Kmauch observance. Ba Tin, 45, has organized the three-day ceremony to
send her late father's spirit to a happy afterlife.
Her family built a bamboo fence in the forest around the grave and erected a pavilion-like
The canopy is decorated with gold-painted butterflies and topped with a carved bird
draped in tinsel and riel notes, symbolizing the spirit.
The enclosure also contains several seemingly bottomless vats of the countryside's
tipple of choice, rice wine.
Outside the fence, the entire adult population of the village - this hamlet of 200-odd
is known only as "Village Three" in Sok San commune - laughs, converses
loudly, or dances to the gongs.
At regular intervals people stagger to the vats and suck hearty mouthfuls through
bamboo tubes, eyes watering with the strength of the still-fermenting liquor.
They then join in the revelry with renewed gusto - or, alternately, collapse into
hammocks and pass out.
The Phnong do not live by wine alone, however.
"Last night they killed a pig and a cow," says Soh Suran, a Khmer census
official who was supervising the village enumeration and stayed for the party.
"Today they will kill one buffalo, to make sure the spirit goes to a good place."
Inside the enclosure, Ba Tin and her family sit on the grave.
She prays for her father's spirit in front of a makeshift altar, lighting bundles
of incense on a small kerosene flame.
Carvings stand guard atop the fence, representing important things in the dead man's
life: his wife, his children, his elephant.
Suran said that although this is a traditional Phnong ceremony, they are rare because
few families can afford to treat the whole village to such festivities.
But Ba Tin's family is rich, and they have gone whole hog: besides the animal sacrifices
and the elaborate grave-side pavilion, they have also made shade shelters of branches
and leaves to enable everyone to stay in the forest - and drink at their leisure
- all day.
However, the ceremony did not disrupt the census-taking.
Suran said the officials came to a simple solution: "The village chief informed
the people that they were not allowed to go until they were enumerated."