Spiritual Geographies Of Koh Peak Village
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Nestled along the Sesan River (below) in Veunsai District, Ratanakiri, the remote village of Koh Peak has become a peculiar regional attraction, occasionally drawing the intrepid excursionist to its burial sites and nearby spirit forest.
After a 1-hour boat ride, the sight of a long, dirt slope leading up to the village, closely mirroring those in videos and images we had seen, brings feelings of apprehension and anticipation.
Despite the village’s dynamic history- relocating several times due to diseases and the Khmer Rouge regime- the burial sites have remained in situ. Kachok animist beliefs, observing spiritual forces embedded in nature, have also endured, influencing understandings of all aspects of local life from birth till death.
COMMON RITUALS AND PRACTICES
The village chief, Mr. Om Doi, explained that rituals before home-building or farming on virgin land are typical commitments among villagers. Without regular institutions governing land ownership and access, permission from land spirits guide the use of all unoccupied land outside the sacred forests.
Fathers take responsibility for rituals in their families. Before a home is built, rice grains representing each family member are placed in a hole dug at the centre of the desired plot of land. Missing grains by the next day could mean the land spirits’ disapproval and continuation of the plan could lead to the death of a family member.
Similarly, villagers pray to land spirits before starting a new farmland. If a deer or a pew bird appears en route to the new plot, or if a chicken, pig or buffalo appears in dreams after the prayers, villagers would refrain from using that chosen plot. Conversely, dreams with plantations, a large rock or sand could mean fertile land and bountiful harvests.
Disobeying the spirits can spell trouble for the family, resulting in death or illness. Unsurprisingly, diseases are also considered omens through which spirits communicate with the living. Diseases are interpreted as a person’s soul being possessed by a spirit, and a person will be fully recovered once their soul is restored.
Our host, the former village chief, recounted his son’s recent curing from malaria. According to him, the illness’ supernatural causes became apparent after more than US$1000 on hospital treatment had been spent.
Observing strict traditions, he had to ensure his son’s absence from the ritual procedures. A buffalo was sacrificed: first by cutting its hind legs, then its forelegs before beheading. A village shaman led the family in prayers whilst circulating a lerving totem, crafted from carved bamboo, on the homestead’s front yard. Eventually, the spirits were appeased and the son recovered.
INTO THE JUNGLE: BURIAL SITES
We were eager to experience the tompuon burial grounds and their esoteric, ancient stories.
On the cloudless, scorching second morning of our visit, we visited the burial forest with a local guide, taking care to heed respectful decorum. Visiting without a guide would be trespassing and could offend both the dead and the living.
Silently, we trekked into a dense forest, hidden behind a primary school southwest of the village. Then vivid colours amid the lush foliage appeared. As if to ceremoniously mark the tour’s introduction, our guide hacked his machete into the bark of a nearby tree, before explaining a grave belonging to a recently-deceased young woman (below).
The young woman’s grave. After the mathy ritual, a shrine-like structure is built above the grave. The grave is highly personalised to reflect the deceased’s life.
He told us that the woman’s mathy rituals and burial is typical of Kachok traditions. The coffin is 0.6 metres below ground. Her personal belongings: a basket, handbag, bicycle and large loudspeaker have been left inside the quadrangular fence. Plok effigies are placed to guard the resting place and to prevent the dead from escaping and haunting the village.
In our short tour, we could only observe a small section of the newer burial ground. We later learned that some of the burial grounds are usually flooded and inaccessible to tourists.
INTO THE AFTERLIFE: MATHY
One village shaman, Nan Yin, generously answered our questions about the mathy- the elaborate, traditional Kachok burial rituals.
After death, the deceased’s soul is still believed to reside in the body. A viewing ceremony is organised for villagers to pay respects. The interim period between death and mathy, lasting up to 18 months, depends on circumstances: the sarcophagus of a recently-deceased former village chief remains in a temporary shrine in the burial forest, for visitations and tributes from villagers. For less affluent families, the period is used to save up for the mathy and burial expenses.
A temporary shrine dedicated to the former village chief
The mathy represents the final sending of the deceased’s soul toward reincarnation, joining the spirits of nature. The family makes arduous preparations: an artisan is contracted to build the grave structure; two sculptures and buffalo horns, representing servants and livestock to serve the deceased in the afterlife, are placed on the grave. After the mathy, the deceased is considered to have fully reincarnated if vegetation grows thickly around the grave, signifying a slow reclamation back into nature. Families rarely return to the burial site at that final point.
SPIRITUAL SPACE, TRADITIONS AND MEMORY
In Koh Peak, we observed that dreams and illnesses are connections between the living and the spiritual realm.
The accounts of supernatural dreams (of animal symbols of the dead) exerting influence over decisions in the village (land use, mathy) suggest dreams as a form of haunting, connecting history with the present. Supernatural dreams are never abstract but are either connected with cultural/ancestral understandings of nature (rituals for land-use) or memory of deceased family members (mathy).
Future research on spirituality and cosmology in Koh Peak would benefit from understanding its oral traditions and connecting with its villagers more intimately.
ASSOCIATING SPIRITUAL PLACES WITH EXTRA-LOCAL LINKS AND MODERNISATION
The woods are not exactly how it has been. The tour took us along a section of barbed wire fences for a short period of time. What was perplexing is that the fence was not a barrier into the burial grounds. For the sacred place has no true boundaries. Rather, the fence was a border for a piece of land that was sold away by the village for the loans they couldn’t payback. While trees were previously conserved to provide shade for the souls in the burial ground, the bought over land has been completely deforested.
Fences around a piece of land that was previously a burial ground for Koh Peak Village.
The area of the left-hand side of the fence has been completely deforested.
On the right is a path along the fences to other parts of the burial forest.
Forms of traditional-modern hybridity are also evident in the burial sites that we have visited. With designs encompassing modern armouries like the Assault Rifles and traditional tint roofs, this combination opens up cultural diversification and exploration of ideas of modernisation. Possible explanations leading to this hybridity could be external influences through media platforms, tourists visiting the village or the locals travelling out to city centers.
Aeroplane, Assault rifles and teddy bears
- An unexplainable design with modern artistic elements
Concepts of spiritual place and space can guide further discussions of Koh Peak’s spiritual geographies: place referring to particular locations (burial sites, homes, farmland) where sacred meanings are inscribed by the local community; whilst spiritual space, a more abstract concept: delineates the ways in which metaphysical space (dreams and clairvoyance) have determinism over everyday geographies. It is crucial for further research studies of Kaoh Peak to document these practices to understand and ensure cultural preservation.
Hybridity refers to going out of the modern binaries and exploring greater social imaginaries beyond the norm (Sayegh, 2008)
The transformation of culture that includes new ways of thinking and new technologies (Oxford University Press, 2018)