Along a roadside in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov, Theang Pheap, a 38-year-old market vendor, is waiting excitedly on a visit from the spirits. She has been preparing a table of incense, flowers and food, as well as free water and fruit for passersby, all Saturday morning.
“I have been joining this ceremony every year since I was a kid,” she says. “I do not care about the expense. I consider it charity and I prepare it every year.”
The ceremony is hei neak ta, or “procession of the spirits”, and comprises a thousands-strong parade that includes bloody, but beloved, displays of devotion in the form of sliced tongues and spikes through cheeks.
The procession makes its way from the Sam Orng Chinese temple along the banks of the Tonle Bassac river to the Monivong Bridge. Marking the 15th, and final, day of Chinese New Year festivities, the festival is held here, in Meanchey district, as well as near O’Russey Market and in Takhmao – and versions of the festival also take place in countries around Asia. Participants are hoping for good fortune in the coming year, as well as to remove demonic influences from their homes.
Pheap can hear the parade long before she can see it. Drums, music and excited shouts begin to drift down the street, before its full scale and complexity comes into view.
Teams of people in elaborate costumes sit and stand on open-bed trucks and remorques, with excited marchers escorting the vehicles on foot. Seated as if on a throne on each truck – or walking purposefully in a throng of followers – is a person who the community believes has taken on the personality of one particular Chinese spirit.
The “spirits”, many dressed in ornate robes and wearing towering headpieces, disembark at each house that has put out an offering. At some, they take out a ceremonial sword, which they rake over their tongue until blood is drawn. They then lick yellow envelopes known as yantra, passing them out as crowds extend their arms to grab them – a talisman they believe will bring good luck and protection from evil.
Each spirit is also surrounded by a group of followers, wearing matching colours to show their support. The more prominent the spirit, the more followers they have.
Heng Chouly, 68, is the committee leader at the Sam Orng Temple and a key organiser of this branch of the festival. Sitting under the hanging branches of a tree a week before the parade, he explained what was to come. People will gather at the temple, where around 90 spirits – including a monkey known as Ou Khong and several dragon spirits, among others – will inhabit the bodies of selected locals, who will “feel” the spirit move through them. Each spirit has a different nature and comes from a different area of China. Chouly said the ritual was brought over with Chinese migration and has been practised here for generations.
“Sam Orng is considered the biggest Chinese temple in Cambodia because the three most important spirits all come here,” he says.
“Each year, all the spirits come here to gather and take on human form.”
The temple was built in 1929 and renovated in 2004, and is now a space for prayer and religious and cultural education among the local Chinese-Cambodian community. Visibly upset when asked about the temple’s fate during the Khmer Rouge years, Chouly will only say that it was abandoned and that soldiers threw the temple’s most important statue into the river.
“Just say they are bad people,” he said with a sigh.
The next Saturday, the different nature of the spirits he described is apparent – some run from side-to-side, pausing outside houses to jump, twirl swords or dance. Others sit stoically on thrones atop trucks, quietly surveying the scene.
Most keep their mouths firmly closed, save for the periodic swiping of swords along tongues and licking of yantra outside selected houses. One, walking the street in bejewelled red robes, leaves his tongue sticking out, bloated and purple, with a line of blood trickling down his chin. Several have long spikes sticking into one cheek and protruding out of the other. They will leave these in all afternoon until the close of the festivities, when they pull them out before passing out into the expectant arms of supporters.
Other spirits sit on chairs covered in tiny spikes – the ability to undergo these rituals a mark of spiritual possession. Around each is a person holding a ceremonial sword aloft.
On the street, crowds gather around the tables of offerings in front of homes and storefronts, hoping for a visit and to receive yantra. The street is alive with energy – young people dance while being sprayed with hoses, and groups shout out in happiness as certain spirits approach them.
By 4pm, homemaker Seang Thavy has spent two hours kneeling by the table outside her house with her husband. Both soaked from head to toe, she smiles broadly as another spirit approaches, flanked by around 20 followers who shout and sing in encouragement, handing her a blood-smeared envelope.
The spirit drinks water from a bowl in front of them and then sprays the couple with it, to the excited cheers of the followers, before moving on to the next house.
“My parents used to tell me that if the spirit comes to the house, it means there is a demon inside the house,” Thavy said. “So the spirit is trying to chase them away.
“If the demons inside our house see the blood from the spirit’s tongue, they will run away.”
Around 30 spirits have visited her today, and she is happy that they have chased out potential bad forces.
“When the spirits come to our house, it also means they will bring us luck for the whole new year,” she says.
Along the river the following day, little evidence remains of the raucous parade and outpouring of faith that filled the street the day before.
People sit quietly in cafes or tend to their stalls. Standing on the roadside, mirror-maker Lum Ty explains that people hand out money during the festival in envelopes to the spirits that visit them, with the amount dependent on how much they feel able to give.
He is half Chinese, but says that many people in the community join in with the event even if they are of Vietnamese of Khmer ancestry, and it has become part of local culture.
Ty said he was glad that many spirits visited his house yesterday, and believed it will bring his family luck in the coming year. But despite the throngs of excited people on the street the day before, not everyone was swept up in the excitement.
“I don’t believe in all that stuff,” shrugged Lum Ty’s neighbour, a shopkeeper who declined to give his name. “For a lot of people it’s tradition. I was just trying to focus on my business.”