Deth Sovatha is on a mission to preserve an ancient tradition. The 65-year-old artist, professor, and Ministry of Culture official sits in a comfortable chair in his bohemian loft, surrounded by statues and traditional Khmer masks. He shows off a binder filled with sketches and designs.
“There are so many styles,” Sovatha says. “Cambodian history is filled with different types of building and construction.” For nearly four decades, Sovatha has volunteered to train Cambodia’s next generation to build pteah tevoda, the golden spirit houses that grace doorways across the Kingdom.
The houses are used as miniature shrines where people leave offerings and occasionally call on ancestors to protect their homes and business ventures. The rituals combine old animist beliefs, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
But for Sovatha, the spirit houses are an integral part of Cambodian culture, one he hopes young people will maintain in its original form.
It’s important that the houses are painted in gold and dark colours, he says. Gold is used because Cambodia was given the name sovanna phum, or the land of gold.
“They originated around the time of King Jayavarman VII, and I’ve been teaching people to make them since the fall of the Khmer Rouge,” Sovatha explains. “As an artist, I want to maintain the aesthetic tradition.”
The motivations for making pteah tevoda are multifaceted. While Sovatha focuses on preserving tradition, others make spirit houses for the money. But it is above all based in superstition, with wealthier families replacing old houses as often as once a year to placate the spirits they believe dwell inside.
Crouched in plastic sandals while sanding a piece of cement for the spirit house he’s constructing, Ban Phearith says it took him just two months to learn his craft. He started when he was only 15 years old.
“My uncle brought me to his workshop in Kandal, but I wasn’t very interested at first,” Phearith says. “But then my family had no money to pay for university and I wanted a profession, so I learned how to make these.”
Now Phearith lives and works in a spirit house workshop in Phnom Penh, where he collects a fee for each house he makes.
The price of the houses themselves ranges from $35 for the smallest to $600 for the largest, he says. Most are made from cement set in plaster moulds for 12 hours. But he’s also learned to make custom designs for customers with special orders.
“Normally, people just buy houses made from moulds, but sometimes I have to think about measurements and the number of floors,” he explains as he dabs the cement structure with a wet paintbrush. The skills he picked up allowed him to try his hand at constructing residential homes, too. Building spirit houses is, in fact, more difficult, he says.
“The work is harder, because you need to be more focused. There is a lot more detail in a spirit house,” he explains. One day, he’d like to open his own workshop. Phearith didn’t believe in spirits when he started constructing the houses. But the faith of his clients, especially the elderly ones, gradually changed that.
“When I’m building the house, I don’t think about spirits,” he says. “But I do believe in them, even if I’ve never seen one.”
Leng Senghorng says different types of spirit houses are used for different prayers. “Flat-roofed houses are used to hold pictures of the Buddha or ancestors, while the ones with a pointed tower are used to burn incense for the spirits and to welcome the angels,” she says.
Both types are placed outside of people’s homes. Senghorng’s parents sold spirit houses in Kampong Cham, and she began painting and selling the houses for them when she was 21. Now she runs her own small shop in Phnom Penh, where she says she makes $1,000 to $2,000 a month.
Business booms around Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben, when families typically come to buy new homes for the spirits. “Sometimes customers ask me what they should buy to make the spirits happy, but often they already know what they want,” she explains.
For Senghorng, her relationship with customers has also sparked her belief in the spirits. “Poor people come and they buy a small spirit house, and then they pray to the spirits, and the next year they do well in business and have enough money to come back and buy a bigger house,” she explains.
Looking at the rows of golden spirit houses for sale, Senghorng says she doesn’t believe spirits are living in the houses before they’re sold. “People buy the houses and then pray to invite the spirits in,” she explains.
Sovatha is worried that people are losing touch with the rules of the tradition. “People are confused . . . Young people today are just trying to make money, they paint the houses whatever colour they want, sometimes people use the houses to hold the remains of their ancestors,” he complains.
People living along the border with Thailand often confuse the name pteah tevoda with preah phum, which is a long stick with a basket used to attract or ward off spirits. Farmers use preah phum to conjure evil spirits who would scare illness and wild animals away from the crops, Sovatha explains. In a preah phum, the fruit and fish left as an offering are mixed together.
Spirit houses are different. People should leave fruit and other offerings neatly on a plate in front of the house, he continues. But despite his sharp focus on tradition, even Sovatha, who says he’s “not obsessed with belief”, thinks spirituality is a fundamental part of making pteah tevoda.
“Without belief, I would never have been able to learn to build spirit houses or teach others to build them,” he says. “If you don’t believe, you shouldn’t build it . . . You have to respect it.”