A new book sets out to give outsiders a basic understanding of Cambodian religion and spirits
Both religion and spiritualism permeate Cambodian society. Every house and workplace has at least one shrine, every suburb and village a pagoda. Monks are everywhere, but so are kru khmer.
For outsiders, this important aspect of the culture can be intriguing but hard to come to grips with.
Who are all these shrines for? And why do these Buddhists also worship spirits? Why are Cambodians so obsessed with gaining “merit”? And what do those squiggly spires on the pagodas represent?
It was questions like these that prompted former Australian diplomat and UN worker turned freelance journalist Philip Coggan to write Spirit Worlds: Cambodia, The Buddha and the Naga, which is being launched at the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, which kicks off this week.
The book provides a readable history and overview of Cambodia’s particular brand of Buddhism, before touching on topics ranging from the diversity of spirits and ghosts to the nature of kamm (karma or luck), the role of the King, bong thom (big brother) culture, and how it came to pass that the Khmer Rouge genocide took place in a culture that values non-violence and abhors killing.
“I think the biggest surprise for foreigners in Cambodia is when they find it isn’t a Buddhist country,” Coggan said via email from Australia this week.
“Sure there’s Buddha, but there are also lots of gods, the same gods you find in Hinduism, like Yama the god of death and Indra and Brahma, and Vishnu, the god of the royal household. Buddhism is the religion for dying – when you die, you absolutely need the monks. Hinduism is for magic, and the spirits are for everything. You’re never far from the spirits.”
Coggan – who first came to Cambodia in 2002 and has written two fiction novels set in the country – spent six months researching the book, travelling the length and breadth of the Kingdom interviewing everyone from monks and kru khmer (traditional healers) to high-ranking officials in the religious bureaucracy. Along the way, he had many interesting encounters.
“One of my favourites is the girl who has a serpent-spirit that looks after her,” he said. “Her barang boyfriend told me how she shocked him one time after an argument by telling him she’d intended to kill him, but her spirit had told her not to.
“The story she told me was that she’d been about to kill herself, and the spirit prevented her suicide. I give her the benefit of the doubt.”
Coggan said he was most fascinated by the neak ta – powerful spirits in charge in specific places, from villages to whole provinces and regions.
“The little shrine down by the flagpole on the Phnom Penh Riverside, for example, is dedicated to the six or seven most important region-al neak ta in the country,” he said. “They’re very popular – huge crowds on major holy days.
“And of course the shrine to Yeay Mao on the road between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville with the phallic symbols, including some quite big stone penises.
The custodians of the shrine are quite sensitive about those, people keep leaving wooden phalluses and the custodians collect them and burn them every month or so.”
He said that despite exploring the subject deeply, he didn’t believe he had any real encounters with spirits.
“Spirits tend to ignore me for some reason,” he joked. “But I did see the chumneang pteah, or house guardian, of my apartment one night.
“She was a bit concerned because I hadn’t put out the offerings that are meant to be made every week. She didn’t actually speak, but I knew that was why she was there.
“She had very white hair, and wore a tight black blouse with slits on the arms. Of course, unlike my Cambodian friends, I know perfectly well that this was a half-dream state induced by my research or something, and not real. I do. Honest.”
But he said the biggest challenge writing the book was dealing with Cambodian concepts that don’t translate easily for Westerners. There were some concepts he just could not get his head around.
“For a long time I was under the impression that the dead were thought to go to hell, all of them. But then I discovered that there’s something called literally ‘the good place’ which isn’t hell at all, and which all Cambodians aim or hope to go to,” he said.
“Another thing I never got to grips with was the extent to which the king is still regarded as a god – an incarnation of the god Vishnu. I just don’t know about this, though I read about it. Possibly older villagers still believe this. I didn’t have time to find out.”
The book is very much a snapshot of how things stand at the moment. As Cambodia rapidly becomes more modern and urbanised, Cambodian spirituality was changing too, Coggan said.
“Cambodian religion is essentially a village religion,” he said. “The monasteries, the spirits, they all come out of the tiny village world and serve to tie it together.
They provide community and law in a society that really has very little of either – the Cambodian village is a collection of households, not a unit in its own right, and the gods and spirits, not the police and government, traditionally punished wrongdoing.
“Now that’s all changing, and very quickly. People are physically moving to the city, roads and television and market economics and land-grabbing and political parties are breaking down the old self-sufficiency.
“And there’s the challenge of Christian missions, very well funded, creating Christian communities that refuse to mix. Can the old Cambodia survive? I really wonder.”
Spirit Worlds: Cambodia, The Buddha and the Naga from John Beaufoy Publishing is available from Monument Books for $19.50.
Philip Coggan will launch the book during the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival on November 7 at Baraca restaurant. Details: kampotwritersfestival.com.