from the Cambodia Daily, August 21-22, 2004

In Search of the Spirits

by Michelle Vachon and Kim Chan

A pagoda layman blows smoke during a Buddhist ceremony to call in a person's spirit.

An exhibition, opening with this week at the Reyum Institute, illustrates rituals based on "what is the most profound in the Khmer soul," said anthropology expert Ang Choulean.

Cambodians believe that a person's body is animated by 19 vital spirits that may flee in difficult moments such as illness or accident.

Those "pralung" are called back during "hau pralung" ceremonies so that the person can be whole again.

Numerous people in Southeast Asia share this belief in pralung, which differs from the Christian notion of the soul, said Ang Choulean, an ethnologist who teaches historical anthropology at the Royal University of Fine Arts' Department of Archeology. But Cambodians have developed their own particular interpretation and rituals, he said.

A man puts the finishing touches to a likeness of a human skeleton made from offerings or a coconut shell, sugar palm stalks and bananas, in a ceremony to prolong a person's life. Photos, taken in Siem Reap province, courtesy of Ang Choulean


The concept of pralung is so deeply rooted in the country's culture that it has become part of daily language, said Ashley Thompson, a specialist in Cambodian cultural history who lived in Cambodia from 1994 to 2001.

To describe a person who has lost conscience, people will say that "he has lost his pralung," she said ."People tell me all the time that my 6-month-old baby 'has pralung,' meaning that she is healthy."

Thompson added: "A very common expression for dreaming is 1 saw my pralung go out and do [such and such a thing],' which refers to the unconscious. But if you ask people what is a pralung, they will say they don't know.

"It is an abstract entity, like the unconscious. By definition, the pralungs are undefinable, like the soul in Western culture."

The exhibition consists of photos taken during hau pralung ceremonies on various occasions such as birth, a child's illness, puberty, a boy's Buddhist ordination, wedding, and cremation.

They were taken as part of a research on Cambodian traditions conducted by Ang Choulean and his team of the former department of culture and research at Apasara Authority, which manages the Angkor temples. Their initial goal was to document those rituals in Angkor Archeological Park's villages.

The exhibition catalogue written by Ang Choulean in French, English and Khmer explains the rituals with photo illustrations showing the passing of the popil, or ceremonial leaf-shaped object, as well as banana and sugar cane offerings, the making of rice balls, and other traditional elements of hau pralung.

A person who has lost some of his pralung oscillates between health and sickness, Ang Choulean writes in the catalogue.

In popular belief, this condition may occur "when spirits of the forest lure some of the pralung out of the body and into the forest by conjuring up false and seductive images of their domain which is, in reality, wild and harsh."


(Left) A woman ties cotton threads around a baby's wrists to keep his spirits, or pralung, in his body. (Right) Friends and relatives walk through the forest, in a ritual designed to bring back a sick person's spirits.

of a family and how busy family members are, he said. In the case of sickness, it will vary according to the gravity of the illness, said Sak Kosal. Hau pralung are performed by achar or lay pagoda officiates, and they tend to specialize, with some doing mostly weddings and others funerals, he said.

Hau pralung ceremonies continue to be performed for different occasions throughout Cambodia, although some of them such as the "Entering the Shade" ceremony at a girl's puberty are rarely practiced, he said.

About 65 percent of the population has kept the tradition, especially in remote areas and villages, said Sak Kosal.

With the spread of scientific knowledge, more people turn to medicine rather than hau pralung when they are sick.

The "Calling the Souls" or "Hau Pralung" exhibition will open with lectures by Ang Choulean and Thompson in Khmer on Wednesday at 4 pm and in English on Thursday at 5:30 pm.

The exhibition and book publication are supported by The Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation and by The Friends of Khmer Culture.