Ghost stories


A family whose children attend the same pre-school as Tash was struck by tragedy last week when their nanny, Ma Pheap, was killed in a motorbike accident.

PP spirit shrine St 278 2We were invited to attend a ceremony at their place on Sunday to banish Ma Pheap’s spirit from the house and to enhance the family’s luck. The more people who attend, the better it is for the karma of the deceased, we were told. Plus, everyone stands to benefit from better luck. So Tash and I went along.

I have one Cambodian friend who doesn’t believe in spirits but he’s in a minority. Scratch the surface of most Cambodian Buddhists — and Christian converts for that matter — and you’ll find an animist, someone who believes in, if not fears the spirit world.

The objective of Sunday morning’s ceremony was to ask Ma Pheap’s spirit to leave and refrain from haunting her employer’s family, and to ease her transition into the next life.

Holy water showerAlthough I didn’t understand the chief monk’s words, it was clear when he reached the point of evicting the nanny’s spirit. His voice was loud and firm as he dipped a hairy brush into bowl and sprinkled us with water, took handfuls of jasmine from silver trays and peppered us with flowers.

He also blessed a bundle of the nanny’s belongings, which her employer would later return to Ma Pheap’s family home, all the while telling Ma Pheap in a loud, firm voice, ‘There’s nothing of yours left in the house, so don’t come back here.’

For the part of the ceremony to bestow luck we were encircled with a thread of white cotton. Up to that point, the children had been allowed to wander; but it was important that everyone stayed inside the circle for this part of the ceremony.

The host was draped in a red scarf and protective words written on either end in biro – roughly translated as ‘Long life by grace of the Buddha’.

At the very end of the ceremony, the chief monk went from room to room, scattering more water into every corner of the house to make sure Ma Pheap’s spirit wasn’t hiding anywhere.

It is interesting to reflect on how differently we deal with death and loss in Australia. I know of people who hang on to a dead person’s possessions for years, even until they themselves die. Many others talk to their loved ones, and take comfort from thought of being watched over, of feeling someone’s presence.

Such feelings would be likely to have Cambodian people sending for the nearest monk or Khmer Kru (shaman).

We assume ‘good people’ leave behind ‘good spirits’ without malicious intent. Ghosts in the Anglo-European tradition tend to be the spirits of people who suffered violent deaths and haunt the material world seeking vengeance or justice in order to finally be laid to rest.

BKK Market spirit shrine 2When you believe in reincarnation, as most Cambodians do, it’s more complex. Spirits are unpredictable, mischievous at best, malevolent at worst.

To distract the spirits, people display little red clothes and children’s toys like mobiles in front of their homes or businesses, giving the spirits something to play with.

Others ward off misfortune by hanging amulets around their children’s necks and sacred strings around the waists of pregnant women.

And then there are ceremonies like the one on Sunday to dispatch the spirits on to their journey into the next life.

How frightening it must be for people who hold such beliefs to contemplate the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge period, whose restless spirits wander the land, deprived of ritual comfort.

No wonder Cambodian people feel haunted.


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