UNLIKE scarecrows in other countries, the Cambodian variety, known as ting mong, often come armed, usually with machetes and toy rifles, although the occasional wooden RPG launcher has been sighted.
And if a scarecrow with guns wasn’t creepy enough, the weapons aren’t there to frighten away birds, but rather a far more dangerous pest – ghosts.
The scarecrows are common in rural areas around Cambodia, and photos of some of the ghoulish-looking stick men have set off minor internet crazes on travel blogs, with many users curious about just what these scarecrows signify, and just why exactly they carry guns.
In Siem Reap, large clusters of ting mong can be found in the Banteay Srey district, including at the home of Kosh Chhrom villager Soum Rith who said she installed one earlier this year after consulting a fortune teller about a wave of illnesses sweeping the village.
“People were getting sick and at night the dogs were whimpering a lot,” she confided. “All of my neighbours and I went to a fortune teller in the next village who told us it was happening because ghosts were going into the village and causing illness. It’s an old tradition that if you put a ting mong in front of your house the ghosts will see it and be afraid of it, but it has to wear clothes like a human, or have weapons, so the ghost thinks the house is being guarded by a person.”
As soon as the ting mong went up, the dogs stopped whimpering and the illnesses soon vanished, said Soum Rith, who was previously sceptical about their effectiveness.
“Everyone believes in ghosts. If they get into the villager they will make us suffer. I just didn’t think a ting mong would be enough; why would a ghost be frightened of a human? But now there is no illness so it clearly worked.”
The link between illness and ghosts is also old news to Som San and Ngan Thea, Soum Rith’s neighbours, who said installing a household ting mong is just another hassle of living in a heavily haunted area.
“The people that live in the city don’t believe in ghosts but in the forests near the temples it’s common to believe. The forest is a quiet place so strange things always happen at night,” Ngan Thea said. “We put clothes on it so it looks more frightening to the ghosts. That’s why so many have weapons. But we don’t put any weapons on ours because sometimes the kids like to play with it, like it’s part of the family.”
According to Ngan Thea’s husband Som San, another reason for having a ting mong handy is the old maxim that prevention is better than cure, with illnesses caused by ghosts being expensive to treat.
“When we get sick we either use a fortune teller to find out what caused it or use traditional cures. There is no hospital here so it’s better not to get sick,” he said.
But if a ghost-induced malady is meted out, one home remedy is koe chob, or fire cupping, involving the placement of a heated glass cylinder onto various parts of the body to stimulate blood flow.
Som San demonstrated the technique, heating a glass vial with a flaming stick before musing about the contradictory advice he has heard regarding dealing with ghosts.
“I’ve never seen a ghost. Most older people say that only animals, like dogs, can see them properly. But if you do get sick from one you can use koe chob for a lot of things. I just put it on for five minutes and it’s OK. Backache, headache and stomach ache, it works with all of them.”
Next door, Sok Sam An explained that her status as the only villager without a ting mong is only temporary, and assured us not to worry as she has tangled with ghosts in the past.
“My house has none right now as they were washed away in the rain, but really I’m not afraid of ghosts. Usually only the dogs see them and bark, but I saw one once when I was 13. I couldn’t see the face, as it was running across a field like a shadow, but I noticed half of its body was black and half was white, and afterwards I was sick for two months. I’m not afraid of seeing another but I’d rather not get sick, so I will make a new ting mong soon.”
During our local ghost busting investigation, we had stopped by the side of the road to admire a particularly creepy ting mong specimen. A car pulled over to check us out as we checked out the statue. The driver was Siem Reap businessman Bun Try who, in addition to running the Angkor Palm Restaurant, owns a home and business in the Banteay Srey area.
He informed us of the practical differences between good and bad ghosts.
“Normally, people living here aren’t so afraid of ghosts that it affects their everyday life,” he said. “But if there’s a funeral near the house, that’s not good and you should do something. If you live in the city then going to a shrine or pagoda to sacrifice to a neak ta there can be effective.
“I had an incident where I had a spirit enter my body while I was asleep and [it] started talking to my wife. So it always pays to be mindful of the supernatural.”
The neak ta Bun Try mentioned are another form of protection against harmful spirits. Neak ta are stone or wooden totems designed to keep bad spirits out and good ones in.
A 2004 booklet on Cambodian folklore published by UNESCO and the Cambodian Fine Arts Ministry explains that neak ta are shrines built to honour, and sometimes house, local spirits that inhabit formations in nature such as streams, mountains and forests.
In exchange, the spirits protect villagers against disasters like crop failure, ghosts and “forest people”; Khmer-style bogeymen rumoured to butcher and eat the internal organs of those unlucky enough to be outside in remote areas after dark.
While chhom neang, the more common variety of domestic ancestor shrines, typically protect a household, neak ta are found mostly in villages where animist beliefs in the power and danger of nature still prevail.
Francois Bizot’s book The Gate, an account of his capture and release by the Khmer Rouge, contains a passage about neak ta, which the French ethnologist first noticed while studying local folklore in the Siem Reap area during the 1960s.
“At places where narrow pathways intersected the perimeter of the villages – beside a termite mound, in a sacred wood, at the foot of an aged tree – we would find little altars dedicated to divinities of the soil. Sometimes the guardians of the bounds would be ancient sculptures, exhumed by the rains; sometimes they would be crudely carved of wood; sometimes they were simply a stone. The passing peasants would pay their homage with a handful of fresh leaves.”
If homage isn’t paid, neak ta spirits are wont to turn nasty, striking down villagers or, if housed in a pagoda, monks and worshippers, with illness and misfortune.
On the other hand, the spirits of villagers who lead virtuous lives can be adopted by local nature spirits after their death, and help to play a role in protecting the community against hostile forces.