A Spirit House in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Spirits can be mischievous and troublesome or they can be Guardians -but in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, spirits are to be taken seriously.  Hence, spirit houses or Rean Theivoda (RT), which literally means angel houses.

Spirit houses are homes for the spirits and living spaces for the dead ancestors. Khmer people are Buddhists and they believe in life after death and this is one way of appeasing the departed souls. Rooted in ancient animism, spirit houses are in almost every home and business. Spirit Houses honor the spirit of the property and keep them happy by providing them shelter. Considering Cambodia’s recent genocide there is likely to be an abundance of wandering souls needing living spaces.

The spirits are given an abode to live outside, so that they would not invade the homes of those who’re alive. Spirit houses will be in an auspicious place on the property and a priest may have been called to select the best spot. Offerings are kept in the spirit houses in the form of incense sticks, fruits, flowers, water, beer and an occasional chicken head. Regardless of a Khmer’s financial status, a spirit house is likely to be in their courtyard.

Some are quite auspicious and enormous while others can be purchased at the market and carried home. Yet they all share spirits which must be honored with offerings and petitions for assistance in business, gardens, and the protection of family, waters, military forts, animals, storehouses, mountains, and always temples.

Expats who come to live and work in Cambodia frequently honor the local tradition and purchase a hand-carved wood or cement spirit house, as well as pay for the monks to come and bless it with a ceremony. Cambodians have a staunch belief in ghosts and expatriates are wise to honor it.

While many Christian missionaries in Cambodia consider spirit houses a pagan practice they miss the generative ethical benefits. Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian Christian communities have spread rapidly and new believers have frequently been encouraged to destroy their spirit houses before accepting baptism. For obvious reasons, this creates consternation and conflict, and from my perspective, a blatant disregard for the Cambodian people.

Spirit houses have a long history and were adapted by various religions, including the Hindu empires of Chen La (505-802 AD) and the early Angkor (802-12th c.) Under the reign of King Jayavarman VII around AD 1181, spirit houses were dedicated to Buddha by royal decree. The daily prayer and practice of spirit houses reminds Cambodians to care and respect their elderly; to have empathy towards those marginalized by poverty, disease and disability; and to seek protection of the community as a whole.

I find spirit houses quite comforting and enjoy watching the offerings of food, flower petals and libations, as the burning incense ascends with countless prayers to the heavens. I seek them out where ever I roam…and I smile when they are in view.

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