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The villages between life and death

In Thmor San village, young residents live, eat and play atop tombstones.
In Thmor San village, young residents live, eat and play atop tombstones. Eliah Lillis

The villages between life and death

Walking through the narrow alleyways of Trea village, in the capital’s Meanchey district, it is nearly impossible to tell that it once held a large Chinese cemetery. The last trace is the temple in which bodies were stored between death and burial.

The temple is now the home of Nob Vann Darith and his family, who took up residence in 1992. Before, it was used as the village administrative office. “The staff experienced being haunted there,” says village chief Pho Vanna, though he officially attributes the move to fears that the structure might collapse.

“I believe in ghosts, but so far as I’ve lived here, it is not a problem. I used to hear that people did not dare walk by here for fear of being haunted,” says Darith, who works as an electrician.

He attributes his amiable relationship to the spirit world to his parents, who called upon the services of a Chinese medium when they moved in. So that the ghosts would accept the intrusion, he recommended the family make regular offerings – a spiritual rent of sorts.

“We sacrifice a chicken, pouring out its blood; we slice its neck and then apply the blood to our wooden shrine, and we offer six types of fruits, and also Chinese [fortune] paper,” Darith says.

While Darith is ethnically Khmer, he says he makes a point of offering both Khmer and Chinese prayers, especially during Chinese New Year and Ching Ming, the tomb-sweeping festival. “We are living at their house, so we pray to ask for harmony,” he explains.  

Village chief Pho Vanna keeps a map of the old Chinese cemetery in Trea village.
Village chief Pho Vanna keeps a map of the old Chinese cemetery in Trea village. Eliah Lillis

Vanna says the cemetery was once surrounded by a thick wall and held a pond inside. But the last traces were covered over in 2004, and rapid development of the village means that few residents now know there ever was a cemetery. For those that do, the ghosts have moved on.

“It’s too crowded now for ghosts,” says 64-year-old Pech Samnang, another village chief.

A few streets away from the temple sits the home of Deab Hourt, who settled there in 1979. At that time, her home was surrounded by farmland and the cemetery, which she says was built much earlier by a “rich Chinese businessman” named Tang Pa. But by the late 1980s, Hourt says, the Chinese had stopped coming altogether.

Historian Sombo Manara recalls that when he was a child in the 1960s, the place was viewed as “the most well-known cemetery” for Phnom Penh’s Chinese residents. Urban expansion plans called for the cemetery to be destroyed.

“People say they sent the ghosts away, and the ghosts are gone now that the people live there,” Manara says. But Hourt, who is half-Chinese, half-Khmer, says that it’s wrong to have built on the graves of others. “I feel very sad, because it is an important thing for Chinese people,” she says.

Hourt doesn’t fear the spirits: “The ghosts used to haunt the road to the cemetery, but I am not afraid, this is my home,” she says.

Across the Bassac River in Chbar Ampov district, a Chinese and Vietnamese cemetery has more recently faced a similar fate. Thmor San village is a community of about 20 families that moved into the cemetery following the collapse of their riverbank homes due to sand dredging beginning in 2001.

Here, the tiled cement and brick graves are still plainly visible, though many are now the foundations of small homes. Locals say relatives still come to pay their respects during the Ching Ming and Chinese New Year holidays.

Villagers bring offerings for the spirits of the dead. They also gamble on their graves.
Villagers bring offerings for the spirits of the dead. They also gamble on their graves. Eliah Lillis

Klang Sokhorn, a mother of five children, says it took months for them to adjust to their new surroundings. “When we first arrived, we cried. At night, if we wanted to go to the bathroom, we were too scared to go,” she says.

The cemetery, which she says had over 100 gravesites when the community moved in, has shrunk substantially, with relatives coming around five times per year to dig up graves and move them to a more peaceful resting place.

Sokhorn says the spirits never caused much trouble: “They just make loud sounds, like a tree falling,” she says. Weekly offerings are made to keep the peace.

“We make offerings and pray to them, [so that they] let us live happily and in harmony,” she says, adding that asking the spirits to leave altogether would be akin to a tenant kicking out a landlord.

“It is just wrong . . . because we came to live at their place,” she explains.

As for the children in the village, her neighbour Na Maneth says that those born in the village are not scared, in contrast with those who were brought to live among the graves.

Some of the residents of Thmor San are more bothered by tourists attracted to the sight of people settling in with the tombs, says community leader Soun Ramaly, who mentioned that photos of locals gambling might negatively impact the help offered by local charity organisations.

But Soun Sinnoun, who lived with her family in a home adjacent to the cemetery before the arrival of the displaced villagers, says she’s bothered by neither ghosts nor tourists.

“We committed to living here, so there is nothing to be scared of,” she says.

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