Cambodian Ghosts

In Cambodia, The Ghosts of Yesterday Help Explain the Evils of Today

By Andrew Lam

The “tragedy of Cambodia” has been the subject of much comment and analysis, but few have considered what might be called the “spiritual” dimensions of the problem. For those who live in Cambodia — 9 out of 10 of them in the country, 7 in 10 illiterate — history, recent and remote, involves the active participation of ghosts. PNS editor Andrew Lam is a short story writer and journalist who lives in San Francisco.

In the summer of 1992, while staying at a friend’s home outside the town of Siem Reap, Cambodia, I woke in the middle of the night and saw fire outside my window — or rather, to be more accurate, several balls of fire moving in a slow dance at a distance. For half a minute, I stood transfixed, watching those balls of light flutter and flirt with each other before they abruptly disappeared.

To this day I do not know what I saw, though I reasoned that they were torches carried by very fast runners. When I talked about the fire to soldiers, servants, housewives, and even politicians, however, many simply nodded their heads knowingly and said, “ghosts.”

“So many ghosts here, you know,” one woman remarked in a matter-of-fact way, “their souls have not gone to heaven. They are still very angry.”

It is risky for a journalist to talk about ghosts — it has taken me almost five years to tell this story — but I suspect ghosts and spirits and myths provide a crucial window to the Cambodian psyche. After all, modernity has little sway in a country where nine out of ten people live in the countryside, without electricity, where 7 out of ten are essentially illiterate, and where there is only one true urban center — the capital, Phnom Penh.

To explain the cause of their country’s suffering, most Cambodians are more likely to provide a ghost story or a legend than political analysis.

From notebooks I wrote while traveling the Cambodian countryside —

An old woman named Srong said this about the Khmer Rouge. “The old monks used to say, ‘One day there will be a war where the demons come and blood will rise to the elephant’s stomach,’ and it came true.” Srong is blind. Her face is strangely serene as she explains she had witnessed the Khmer Rouge murdering her own children and then found she could no longer see. She spoke of the years under the Khmer Rouge as “Cambodia’s Punishment Time.”

A man named Hott Nguong explained the Khmer Rouge. “The Khmer Rouge soldiers are possessed by demons who came from hell. They have no souls. You can tell by looking in their eyes. If you are a human being how can you torture children to death?”

Bonn Srey, a woman who cannot read or write, explains Cambodia’s tragedy by saying the country is cursed. “A long time ago, the Cambodian king was powerful and cruel to neighboring countries and those people curse Cambodia. Now Cambodia is full of demons and ghosts.”

Intellectuals are not immune. Reasay Poch, a Cambodian American with a graduate degree in Asian Studies from Cornell was doing research at Tuol Sleng, the infamous Khmer Rouge prison where some 20,000 people were incarcerated, tortured, then systematically killed. Poch was working on the second floor of the building, reading and photocopying written confessions left behind by Khmer Rouge victims when he heard screaming and the sound of clanking metal. He rushed out to the balcony overlooking the torture chambers on the first floor, but saw nothing. “I had to tell myself even if there were ghosts, they wouldn’t harm me,” he said. “After all, I am here to help tell their stories.”

The past — both the mythic and the immediate — has such a strong grip on Cambodian life, I suspect, because it is also the present. While neighboring countries — Vietnam, Thailand, even backward Laos — are now progressing technologically and economically, Cambodia remains an agrarian society whose people continue to lead a life not so different from that of their ancestors.

One need not look far to see the symbol of the past in contemporary Cambodian politics. All warring factions during the early 1990s had the image of the ancient capital, Angkor Wat, imprinted on their flags. Paintings of these stone ruins hang on the walls of every government office, every restaurant and every classroom. They are a testament to an ancient empire that once st………retched westward across Thailand to Burma and eastward to include much of the Mekong Delta and South Vietnam. “Bangkok” and “Saigon” are both Cambodian words.

It was an empire that at one time understood intimately the power of war and destruction. Cambodia was once a Hindu nation that worshipped Shiva, the Destroyer God. When he danced, it is said, he set in motion both the creative and destructive forces in the world.

Those who know the story say Shiva remains a potent and angry God. One Cambodian guide at Angkor Wat explained, “We failed to worship Shiva and he punished us by sending his Monkey Army in the form of the Khmer Rouge. Shiva promised to protect those who worshipped him and destroy all unbelievers. And we were punished because we failed to worship him.”

Shiva’s four faces with their eerie half smiles can be seen all over the stone ruins. Each represents a different aspect: Creation, Preservation, Incarnation, and Destruction. As I write, I can still see in my mind’s eyes those stone faces, smiling their mysterious smiles.

And I think of Kall Kann, the doe-eyed teenager who stared at the stone faces, trying to decipher the past: “The stone faces belong to a King, maybe a God, but it’s too long ago,” he said. ” I don’t remember the name. My father knows the name for sure but, you know, my father is dead.”