Eng Oeun has lived all 66 of his years in the floating village of Prek Toal, Koh Chiveang commune, Ek Phnom district, Battambang province on the surface of the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Over the course of his long life, he has seen many changes to the lifestyle and culture of the villagers, some good, and some bad.
One of the most curious practices – which has now come to an end – was the “burial” of coffins in tall trees during the rainy season.
Oeun did not know the exact year of the village’s formation, but believed that the storing of bodies in trees began during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era, in the 1950s or 60s.
“During the rainy season, people would store coffins in the trees above the water. When the dry season arrived, they would be retrieved and cremated,” said the village chief.
It was believed that it was disrespectful for a body to be submerged in water, he added.
“People did not want their parents or grandparents to rest in the water, but they could not dig graves during the wet season, so they stored the bodies high above the surface of the lake, in the trees,” he told The Post.
He explained that this practice was no longer common. Severe forest fires in 2016 burned out the trees that were traditionally used to store coffins, and the village has developed since, with a crematory and several pagodas.
The curiosity of the tree-top mortuary had not been remarked upon for several years, but a recent Facebook video has rekindled people’s interest.
The video “Corpses in the trees: The haunted forest of Prek Toal” has been viewed more than 410,000 times and shared more than 4,000 times in less than a week.
The creator of the video, trips with 1 Ty, said that he and his video team had rented a boat from the floating village of Chong Kneas in Siem Reap province.
“This year there are fewer corpses than there were last year. During the monsoon season, some of the coffins fell into the lake below,” he said.
The creators of the video allege that the area is haunted by the souls of the dead, although the area is rich in fish.
Both Oeun and Koh Chiveang commune chief Pum Chen were skeptical of the contents of the video, saying that there was no longer a mortuary in the trees.
“I do not know where the video was shot. When somebody passes away here, they are cremated at the pagoda,” said Oeun.
Chen agreed, saying that there is no longer a place where coffins could be stored. People take bodies to be cremated at their local pagoda, nearly all of which have crematoriums, he explained.
He was familiar with the old practice, explaining that during the wet season, people were unable to dig graves or make large fires, so they would keep the coffins high in the trees.
“During the dry season, when the surface of the Tonle Sap Lake began to recede, people would collect the coffins and take them for burial or cremation,” he told The Post.
He added that the former burial forest, a 20-minute ferry ride from Prek Toal village, has become a floating village.
He said the almost 3,000 families living in the commune no longer wished to continue the practice, as they had access to crematoriums.
Village chief Oeun viewed the video and revealed the source of his skepticism.
“The coffin in the video is not the style that we use here in Cambodia. In all likelihood, the coffin is Vietnamese. I cannot be sure of the location,” he said.
The producers of the video could not be reached for comment on the precise location where the footage was obtained.
Suon Sophal, a tour boat driver from the floating village of Chong Kneas, takes many passengers on trips around of the lake. He said that there used to be two such treetop cemeteries.
He said that before crematories were widely available, the trees would sometimes be full, with coffins on almost all of the largest branches.
“Tourists don’t normally ask to see the so-called ghost forest. Normally, I take them bird watching, around the villages or to a crocodile farm. Of course, I have no problem showing them the former cemetery – but only during the day time,” he added.
Despite the practice having ended years ago, he admitted that he would not enter the forest at night.