Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 5 – Sunday at the Field and the Spirit House

Donald returned to Cambodia on January 22 and after a few days spent in Phnom Penh we returned to Siem Reap where the hours slid by creating days and then weeks, approaching our departure date of February 13. My first idea, placing Tuit in school, had been accomplished leaving me with one last thought. Because we were no longer allowed to fly out of the field, I wanted to leave something in place that would serve as a memory to the time we had spent there and would honor the friendship that developed between the villagers and us. It seemed appropriate to set up a spirit house behind the police station, where they had parked the plane and where Donald had spent countless hours treating their wounds and other ailments. I just assumed the police would not object since Donald had once repaired their well, had employed them over the years to guard the plane, had provided them with countless packs of cigarettes, phone cards, and other small requests, and had even taken most of them flying.


By 100 AD, boatloads of Indian traders were finding their way to Cambodia, beginning the process of Indianization, which would profoundly influence the development of their culture. Buddhist monks accompanied the traders but when they tried to disseminate the tenants of Buddhism onto the waiting Khmers, they found the people more interested in the spirit world than in the teachings of Lord Buddha. Instead of denying the existence of the spirit world, these early monks made accommodations with the local belief system and as Buddhism gained adherents, a person could be both a Buddhist as well as an animist. Even today, while Buddhism is a state religion, animism remains an important part of a Khmer”s daily life.

The animist believes that as humans have souls or spirits, so does all aspects of nature, animate or inanimate. These spirits enjoy being consulted. For example, the supplicant can ask them for their opinion or for their help. In return, they must to be thanked which takes the form of various kinds of offerings. While these spirits can be a force for good, as protectors of family, soil, and business, they also have a tendency to be mischievous, especially if they do not receive the proper respect and attention. One way to propitiate them and to keep them happy is to set up a place on earth where they can dwell when they decide to check out of their hotel in heaven. In Cambodia, as well as Thailand and Laos, a spirit house is just the kind of place for which they are looking. To make it particularly attractive to the wandering spirit, the spirit house takes the form of a wat, a Buddhist temple, and includes an inner chamber and a surrounding courtyard. It is placed on a pedestal and located in an auspicious site outside the home or business office.

In order to empower the spirit house, a small religious figure has to be placed inside and incense holders, candleholders, and flower vases should be placed in the courtyard along with a bowl of water and some fruit, especially bananas or coconuts. In this manner, the spirits would be offered food, shelter, lights, and lots of attention. However, buying, equipping, and installing the spirit house is only the first step. The second step involves attracting the spirits, which is accomplished through certain rituals performed by monks. If monks were needed to send out the proper invitations, then we were lucky, as a monastery is located close to the village. All we needed was someone to speak to them on our behalf and explain what we wanted. The spirit house was for the general welfare of the village and it would take the village to be engaged in its proper installation. Cinnamon, our long time Khmer friend, volunteered to speak to the monks on our behalf and invite them to make a ceremony.


There were two Sundays remaining before we left Siem Reap. On the first Sunday, we had to buy the spirit house, have it delivered and set up, and then tell the people we would be returning the following Sunday to inaugurate the spirit house along with giving out the clothing and other items.

I contacted Cinnamon and she came with us to do the translating. Over the years, her English has been improving, not the best, but good enough. On Sunday, Eddie drove all of us out to the village. Eddie”s rented Camry boasted four semi decent tires but lacked a functioning air conditioning system. I grasp the perverse symmetry in driving over broken down roads in an equally broken down car and the desire to maintain a low profile, but my willingness to understand dwindles when I find all my energy consumed in rolling the window down seeking relief from an overheating sun and rolling them back up to avoid the air festooned with dust and grit. Eddie, Eddie, get it fixed.

Our first stop was a roadside stand, close to the village, specializing in spirit houses. When Eddie pulled in front, we all got out of the car to stretch and immediately we found ourselves being greeted by the entire establishment, the owner, his wife, his two young daughters, several workers, and a gaggle of geese. To be honest, after all these years in Cambodia, I am tired of being charged the barang price when I know there is a lower price for the Khmers. Barang in Cambodia, farang in Thailand, it all means the same, the foreigner who can pay more. For the most part, I trust Cinnamon and I asked her to negotiate for the Khmer price. I thought it would help if she told them we were almost neighbors, that we were giving the spirit house to the village as a gesture of friendship, and it was to be placed by the police station. Just because we are giving something away does not necessarily mean we should receive a lower price but I always think it is worth a shot and many times I have been successful, especially when dealing with market women who tell me they are Christian and not Buddhist. Eddie, Donald, and I stood around wearing our best smiles, while Cinnamon engaged them in conversation. It is times like this I regret not learning some Khmer and rethinking my approach, I was not sure if referring to the police was a good idea. We sat down on the side of the road while the conversation continued. Vanloads of villagers passed, we returned their waves. By now the sun, out of a pale blue sky, was beating down on us, heating up the morning while the humid air nested on our heads. I kept reminding myself we needed patience and it was the principle and not the amount which was in question.

Finally, Cinnamon approached us with the news. The best price was twenty-five dollars plus a three dollar charge for delivery and installation, all to be paid upon completion of the job. Tired of standing around, we agreed and they knew where to find the police station. Similar to most Khmer spirit houses, this one was constructed out of concrete molded in a form that copied design elements used on the Angkorian temples. I had many colors from which to choose and settled for the one painted red with pink trim and gold accents. You are right, the color was garish to our eyes but apparently pleasing to the Khmers.

Eddie and Donald loaded the pedestal, which stood about four feet high, into the trunk of the car while the owner and his helper arranged themselves, the spirit house, and a bag of cement onto a motor bike. I know how experienced they are in loading children, sacks, and chickens on to motor bikes but this stretched their level of competency. When they pulled onto the road, the owner, holding the bag of cement between his legs, was pressed up against the handle bars that had to be making a permanent imprint on his chest while the young man, balancing the house in front of him was hanging off the back. I am sure they were thankful that they were only traveling a few miles down the road.

When they arrived, we all gathered behind the police station and as their flock of chicken scurried around our feet, we had to decide where it should be placed. Then it occurred to me that I had never asked the police if we could do this because I just assumed it would be all right. Soon, my fears were put to rest when one of the policemen came out, saw Donald and ran to hug him. This little guy with the roving eye was one of Donald”s favorites and this Sunday morning we found him wearing only a krama wrapped around his bottom half. The krama, the traditional Khmer checkered scarf, is definitely versatile. I was happy he wanted to participate and we agreed to his suggestion that the spirit house be erected in the shade of the small tree directly behind the police station. He disappeared into the police station only to return with the often used plastic chairs and he loaned the project a shovel and soon a hole was dug. The police man offered up a pail full of water, which was mixed with the cement and a few bricks which were broken up , all placed in the hole to give extra support. Very soon the spirit house was erected in a very secure hole. I handed the man thirty dollars and instead of leaving, he entered into another big conversation with Cinnamon. Thinking I had not paid him enough, I asked Cinnamon what was wrong. She said he was concerned that he did not have two dollars to give me in change. Once again, Cambodia never fails to amaze, as it was only with big difficulty that he accepted the extra money as a tip.


By this time, we had collected the usual crowd of women and children, which included Tia and her mother, Lam. I hugged each of the women, after all, these were old friends I had not seen in a year. They were aware that we could no longer fly the ultralight and shared our frustration with Apsara. Lam pretended Apsara was a bad child and proceeded to give it a mock spanking. Donald pulled out his medical kit and did a few patch ups on the older women, nothing critical, but Donald enjoyed doing it and they enjoyed his attention. With Cinnamon translating, they were told we would be back the following Sunday for our annual distribution of clothing and they should tell all the people to come. I told Cinnamon to tell them that next Sunday we would bring monks who would dedicate the spirit house and make it official.

I had promised a spirit house and found one. Now we had to make arrangements with some monks. Not wanting this left to chance, I had Eddie drive to the nearby monastery and sent Cinnamon to find the head monk. The monastery was in a swirl of activities. Young monks with their shaven heads and saffron and red robes were walking around the compound while a Khmer family, who had arrived in an expensive SUV, was in the middle of a religious ceremony that required the monk to shower then with water made holy, either by a blessing or the offerings of money. Cinnamon found the head monk relaxing in a chair under a tree. We got out of the car while she spoke to him and watching from a distance, I thought it odd to find him smoking a cigarette. He agreed to help out and Cinnamon told him we would pick him up the following Sunday. Showtime would begin at 10:30 and we would bring him to bless a spirit house in front of a small tree behind the police station. We had made our monk reservations and with our mission completed, we returned to Siem Reap with the thought that next Sunday should be interesting.


Siem Reap tours – Explore Angkor, Discover Cambodia

1 thought on “Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 5 – Sunday at the Field and the Spirit House”

  1. Thank you for this. I have just returned from Cambodia and was researching Spirit Houses and came across your blog. It will help me explain Cambodian life to my daughters when they come to hear about my trip. I look forward to the rest of your story.

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