• River Wetlands

Spirited Away: The Centrality Of Religion And Spirits In Team Leu

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

Nestled in the rural area of Ratanakiri along the Sesan River lies a small living area for a group of ~ 400 people: Team Leu with their exact coordinates at 13°58'47.5"N 106°51'25.5"E. What we noticed during our stay was their retention of age-old village traditions. It involves their belief in the Khrung religion and their respect for the natural world, such as the spirit forest, which they center their lives around.

We conducted in-depth interviews with the villagers to find out the Khrung religion’s sphere of influence on their everyday lives and adopted a framework of animism to better understand their belief system. This framework can be used to comprehend the origins of religions and/or its nature of religion in both a literal and figurative sense[1]. By making an inference to ’‘Anima’, the animating force of life[2], we learnt about Team Leu’s interpretation of the natural environment. We found that the human spirit resides within their body, thought system, and their physical selves! Imagine how fascinating that is to us!

A glimpse into the village life at our homestay


Unsure of when we came back to the forest and live in this village. Difficult to start anew 2 or 3 years after the war. - Tawang Sala
During khmer rouge, we live in the mountains without food and medicine. After a few years, we came (back out of the forest) and live here and start all over again. - Karang Ow

Based on the interviews we conducted, Team Leu existed before the Khmer Rouge in 1968. After its end, Team Leu may have settled in their current location in around 1979, 2 to 3 years after the end of the Khmer Rouge.

Team Leu is one of the many villages located along the Sesan River

The Village Lore

The villagers shared with us several intriguing village lores, with one depicting the religion’s origin. The lore revolves around a former village chief, Ron Team, who had a lucid dream when the village was facing turmoil. This is where Animism comes into play through relying on senses and stark influences by visions when describing the spirits residing within the natural environment[3]. Team Leu had a conflict with another village when they refused to sell their musical instruments and war was imminent. It was then when Ron Team, the communal chief dreamt of the spirits who mentioned 4 items: the Asian water monitor, giant gourami, taro leaves and pumpkin.

4 taboo items (from left to right): Asian water monitor, giant gourami, taro leaves and pumpkin

Acts or Village Taboos That Can Anger The Spirits

In return for the Spirit Forest’s protection, the villagers have to abstain from certain acts that may provoke the spirits.

  1. No consumption or sale of the Asian water monitor, pumpkin, taro leaves and giant gourami within or outside the village

  2. No loud noises at night especially around the river

  3. No fighting

  4. No pregnancy before marriage etc

While the villagers did not go into extreme details about all the taboos, it was clear that should anyone in the village commit any of these acts, the spirits will be angered. They can and will cause deaths in the village. The affected villager need not be related to the offender. To prevent such mishaps from happening, the villagers are required to request for forgiveness from the spirits. This can be done through a myriad of ways, from praying in silence individually to seeking help from the spirit medium who will communicate with the spirits directly.


There are 3 main rituals conducted in the Spirit Forest: the beginning and end of the farming season, the 7-year Protip (ខ្មែរលើ) festival and rituals to ask for forgiveness or healing. These rituals are conducted by 2 village elders who may have significant symbolic authority in the village[4] which gives them the power to conduct rituals. A major celebration, Protip takes place between March and April every 7 years. If you’ve been to Thailand’s Loy Krathong festival, you will feel like it is deja vu!

Today, celebrations for Protip are held in conjunction with the harvesting period, allowing them to conserve time and resources. This is a stark difference from how it was previously held on separate occasions. Under the supervision of the village elders, the festival involves releasing leaf boats down the Sesan river, carrying offering items such as rice, wine and cigarettes. A common belief is that should the villager’s boat sink, it is the spirits warning them that their family will suffer hardships in the near future. A community boat will also be released at the port to pray for good health, and a bountiful harvest with no damage from the floods for the village.


Cannot practice two religions at the same time” Karang Ow
When some people practiced two religion, spirit make some people die because Buddhism and spirit cannot live together” - Kamban Lin
it is okay for Buddhism to come. The spirits won't be angry with two religions.” - Sing Kamban
People do not care about this. It’s part of choice. Other villagers can also choose between Khrung and Buddhism so they do not complain about religious choices.” - Tawang Sala
Buddhism does not affect. Local people sickness not because of this.” - Rang Ao Puang

There are 2 religions coexisting in Team Leu: Buddhism and the traditional Khrung belief. Christianity has been introduced before, but unlike Team Kroun which has almost completely converted to Christianity, Team Leu does not practice it at all. During our stay, we noticed the presence of both religions in multiple households where they stated that they believe in spirits but are also offering incense to a Buddhist altar. There were many contrasting perceptions of what the addition of Buddhism to the Khrung religion can result in. Our interview with one villager revealed his thought of the fusion of religions as a taboo, possibly offending the spirits. He rationalised that this was the reason why villagers who practiced both religions were sick. However, this was contradicted by other villagers who practiced both Khrung and Buddhism.

One of our interviewees, Tawang Sala, believes that Buddhism and Khrung religion and coexist together

Spirit is the original religion. All local people must go back to this practice” -Kamban Lin
Do not allow Christianity.” - Chom Chopek
“Younger people are moving along with the times, influenced by external environment as seen in Team Kraun. Christians only join celebration but don’t pray to spirits anymore” - Karang Aov

The one thing that was agreed on within the villagers was the fact that Christianity was shunned upon. Unwilling to be like their neighbouring village, they refused the introduction of the religion as Christianity only condones the worship of its own God. Adopting it would mean that they would have to disregard their own traditional beliefs, resulting in a drastic change in their worldview and belief system although some acknowledged that younger villagers are influenced by the external environment and favouring Christianity over their roots.


After spending 3 days in the village, we observed how the Khrung religion ultimately underlined the importance of social responsibility. From not making loud noises to not randomly cutting down trees, Team Leu’s villagers preach religion and spirits as a way to carry out their preferred way of life. Whilst it was interesting to understand and rationalize it from an outsider’s perspective, it was also captivating to learn about the sanctity of religion in the village. Not only has it shaped the area, but it has also shaped the mindset of the villagers, and in turn, their culture.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the taboos mentioned above may have cultivated a sense of social conscience within the villagers by maintaining peace and quiet since acts of violence are deemed as disruptive to their lives. We noticed how Team Leu’s villagers were rather reserved and hardly produced any ruckus. When probed, many stated how they did so out of respect for not just the spirits but also their neighbours.

Furthermore, labeling the home of the spirits as Spirit Forest not only allowed them to give respect to the generations-old beliefs, but also deterred villagers from partaking in deforestation. We learnt from the village elders that this is one of the ways the village emphasized the importance of environmental conservation. Today, with the inception of modern know-hows through organizations such as the Simat organization (who was involved in the clearing of landmines and rendered help with assistance from the government), the villagers are able to combine elements of both traditional and modern knowledge. Consequently, this allowed them to better appreciate the world around them, and even improve, their present livelihoods.

the sacred Spirit Forest located about 30m away from the village

That is not all! Exploring the religion also gave us a glimpse into their everyday geographies, and to discern the reasons behind them. Despite the slow (but ever-present) influence of modernity, the introduction of Buddhism into the village and the youth’s shifting mindset, the Khrung religion still plays an integral part to the villager’s lives and we believe that it will persist in the years to come. Whatever lies within the spirit forest is emblematic of Khrung cultures and its distinctive identity among the innumerable ethnic groups in Cambodia, making them a one of its kind.



  1. Harvey, G. (2014). The Handbook of Contemporary Animism. doi: 10.4324/9781315728964. Macwilliams, M. (2008). Animism: Respecting the Living World - By Graham Harvey. Religious Studies Review, 34(4), 265–265. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-0922.2008.00315_1.x

  2. Bird-David, N. (1999). "animism" revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology. Current Anthropology, 40(S1), S67.

  3. Harvey, G. (2005). Animism. Kent Town, S. Aust.: Wakefield.

  4. Hughes, C. (2001). An Investigation of Conflict Management in Cambodian Villages [Ebook] (pp. 6-13). Phnom Penh: Centre for Peace and Development, Cambodia Development Resource Institute. Retrieved from