About 15 kilometres outside Battambang town on National Road 57 stands a metal gate without a fence that once supposedly provided access to a palace that has long since disappeared. Despite this, visitors often still come calling.
From the portal’s bars hang strings of colourful beads and ornaments, and nearby, several large pots prickle with used sticks of incense. Bunches of bananas are piled on altars next to two spirit houses. A few metres away under an umbrella, a small stall sells incense, candles and fruit.
According to Som Touch, who opened the shop in September, people seeking good luck or help winning money in illegal local lotteries come from far and wide to pray to the spirits at the gate.
Sometimes after making an offering, the supplicant will rub powder on the gate, and a number will appear to them.
“It is true that a lot of people have won the lottery,” she said. “I am one of them, too.”
The gate has been a sacred site drawing people to pray as long as locals could remember, said Toul Ta Ek commune chief Kea Thavy, though no one was sure exactly what building stood there before.
“It’s not only this gate that we believe is sacred; there are many other places in Cambodia as well. For example, there is an old gate at Bakan commune in Pursat province where people do the same thing,” she said.
Matthew Trew, an anthropologist who has been working in Battambang for the past seven years, confirmed that the metal and concrete portal had been revered for many years. It was known as the Damnak Loung gate or “royal gate”, because people believed it was once the location of a royal residence for kings when they visited Battambang.
“The most likely scenario is that King Norodom [who reigned from 1860 to 1904] lived in that residence during his exile from Phnom Penh, but as Sisowath was also born in Battambang, it is possible that [Sisowath’s father] Ang Duong also lived in the residence or nearby,” said Trew.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, cadres impaled the heads of traitors and enemies on the gate’s spikes, he said.
“Many parts of the gate that the Khmer Rouge utilised for that purpose have since been removed, but the main section is revered, because ghosts, particularly of dead ancestors closely related to people alive today, are greatly feared and respected,” he said.
“Many old sites of death, such as the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau, become important shrine sites because the ghosts of dead ancestors can still influence the lives of people today.
“So not only do people go to pray for their dead, but also to ask them for help – usually with things like winning the lottery or conceiving a child.”
Trew, who is a PhD candidate with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, highlighted that there was a difference between dead ancestor spirits and neak ta spirits, which were like extra powerful spirit gods that resided in specific places.
“The most famous example of a neak ta is Ta Dambong, the patron god of Battambang (for whom the province is named),” he said. “But in general, dead ancestors can be prayed to for help in a similar manner.”
There was a surge in visitors to the gate in August last year when work on the road passing by was completed. A rumour had circulated that several construction workers died when they tried to knock the gate down. People got the idea it must have a powerful guardian spirit, said Thavy, and they came in great crowds.
She said the rumour was false – no one had died building the road – but she did believe the gate was a powerful, sacred site. “We believe that the gate is special, which is why we don’t knock it down,” Thavy said.
Trew said stories such as that of the dead construction workers were common.
“Someone tries to destroy or corrupt a revered site and dies for their efforts in a display of anger from the spirits,” he said. “Many places in Cambodia have similar tales, such as the temple of Ta Keo in Angkor, which has a legend about a Khmer Rouge trying to deface the temple and being struck by lightning (or at least witnessing lightning strike the temple).”
Phnom Penh-based historian Vong Sotheara said he didn’t know when the “royal palace” at Battambang was built or knocked down, but he said he believed that royalty must have lived there at some point.
As far as people coming to the gate to make offerings to the spirits, the Royal University of Phnom Penh academic said it was normal for Cambodian people to be superstitious – as they had been for a thousand years.
“It is not only Cambodian people, but in Vietnam, Thailand, China and Malaysia they also believe in spirits in each place, because they believe in real spirit depending on their praying,” he said.
“I think the belief could help people to stay mentally strong. It helps to release what they pray for,” he said.
Trew said that while it might seem strange for places such as the Damnak Loung gate to become sacred sites, when the history of the location was taken into account, it made sense.
“A royal residence would be considered powerful, because kings are considered magically and spiritually powerful to begin with,” he said.
“When you add the many dead spirits from the Khmer Rouge period, you have a recipe for a space where the separation between the human and spiritual worlds is blurred, and thus it becomes a space of reverence and spiritual solicitation.”
Additional reporting by Will Jackson.