Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tree-top ‘cemeteries’ custom long extinct, say floating villagers

Tree-top ‘cemeteries’ custom long extinct, say floating villagers

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Part of Prek Toal floating village on Tonle Sap Lake in Battambang province. Hong Menea

Tree-top ‘cemeteries’ custom long extinct, say floating villagers

Eng Oeun has lived all 66 of his years in the floating village of Prek Toal, Koh Chiveang commune, Ek Phnom district, Battambang province on the surface of the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Over the course of his long life, he has seen many changes to the lifestyle and culture of the villagers, some good, and some bad.

One of the most curious practices – which has now come to an end – was the “burial” of coffins in tall trees during the rainy season.

Oeun did not know the exact year of the village’s formation, but believed that the storing of bodies in trees began during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era, in the 1950s or 60s.

“During the rainy season, people would store coffins in the trees above the water. When the dry season arrived, they would be retrieved and cremated,” said the village chief.

It was believed that it was disrespectful for a body to be submerged in water, he added.

“People did not want their parents or grandparents to rest in the water, but they could not dig graves during the wet season, so they stored the bodies high above the surface of the lake, in the trees,” he told The Post.

He explained that this practice was no longer common. Severe forest fires in 2016 burned out the trees that were traditionally used to store coffins, and the village has developed since, with a crematory and several pagodas.

The curiosity of the tree-top mortuary had not been remarked upon for several years, but a recent Facebook video has rekindled people’s interest.

The video “Corpses in the trees: The haunted forest of Prek Toal” has been viewed more than 410,000 times and shared more than 4,000 times in less than a week.

The creator of the video, trips with 1 Ty, said that he and his video team had rented a boat from the floating village of Chong Kneas in Siem Reap province.

“This year there are fewer corpses than there were last year. During the monsoon season, some of the coffins fell into the lake below,” he said.

The creators of the video allege that the area is haunted by the souls of the dead, although the area is rich in fish.

Both Oeun and Koh Chiveang commune chief Pum Chen were skeptical of the contents of the video, saying that there was no longer a mortuary in the trees.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Social media users claimed to have seen coffins in trees in the Prek Toal area of Tonle Sap Lake in Battambang province in October, but the authorities denied the claim. FB

“I do not know where the video was shot. When somebody passes away here, they are cremated at the pagoda,” said Oeun.

Chen agreed, saying that there is no longer a place where coffins could be stored. People take bodies to be cremated at their local pagoda, nearly all of which have crematoriums, he explained.

He was familiar with the old practice, explaining that during the wet season, people were unable to dig graves or make large fires, so they would keep the coffins high in the trees.

“During the dry season, when the surface of the Tonle Sap Lake began to recede, people would collect the coffins and take them for burial or cremation,” he told The Post.

He added that the former burial forest, a 20-minute ferry ride from Prek Toal village, has become a floating village.

He said the almost 3,000 families living in the commune no longer wished to continue the practice, as they had access to crematoriums.

Village chief Oeun viewed the video and revealed the source of his skepticism.

“The coffin in the video is not the style that we use here in Cambodia. In all likelihood, the coffin is Vietnamese. I cannot be sure of the location,” he said.

The producers of the video could not be reached for comment on the precise location where the footage was obtained.

Suon Sophal, a tour boat driver from the floating village of Chong Kneas, takes many passengers on trips around of the lake. He said that there used to be two such treetop cemeteries.

He said that before crematories were widely available, the trees would sometimes be full, with coffins on almost all of the largest branches.

“Tourists don’t normally ask to see the so-called ghost forest. Normally, I take them bird watching, around the villages or to a crocodile farm. Of course, I have no problem showing them the former cemetery – but only during the day time,” he added.

Despite the practice having ended years ago, he admitted that he would not enter the forest at night.


  • Ministry taking steps over Thai ‘replica’ of Angkor Wat

    The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has dispatched experts to inspect the ongoing construction of a temple in Wat Phu Man Fah, located in Thailand’s Buriram province. This temple appears to be a replica of Cambodia’s renowned Angkor Wat. The ministry said

  • Ream base allegations must end, urges official

    A senior government official urges an end to the allegations and suspicions surrounding the development of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, now that Prime Minister Hun Manet has addressed the issue on the floor of the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA 78). Jean-Francois Tain, a geopolitical

  • CP denied registration documents by ministry

    The Ministry of Interior will not reissue registration documents to the Candlelight Party (CP). Following a September 21 meeting between ministry secretary of state Bun Honn and CP representatives, the ministry cited the fact that there is no relevant law which would authorise it to do

  • PM to open new Siem Reap int’l airport December 1

    Prime Minister Hun Manet and Chinese leaders would jointly participate in the official opening of the new Chinese-invested Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport on December 1. The airport symbolises a new page in the history of Cambodian aviation, which will be able to welcome long-distance flights to

  • Minimum wage set at $204, after Sep 28 vote

    The minimum wage for factory workers in the garment, footwear and travel goods industries for 2024 has been decided at $204 per month, with the government contributing $2. Following several negotiation sessions, the tripartite talks reached an agreement during a September 28 vote, with 46 of 51 votes supporting the $202 figure.

  • Cambodian diaspora laud Manet’s UN Assembly visit

    Members of the Cambodian diaspora are rallying in support of Prime Minister Hun Manet’s forthcoming visit to the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA 78) in the US’ New York City this week. Their move is an apparent response to a recent call by self-exiled former