After hours of parading around Phnom Penh in an elaborate Chinese costume and repeatedly slicing his tongue with a large metal spear to lick blood onto sheets of paper, Sok Mean said he was not tired at all on Sunday.
In fact, Sok Mean said, he remembered nothing of the afternoon because he had been possessed by the Chinese spirit Kung Pheng—a regular occurrence since his youth.
Still in a trance-like state, Sok Mean returned to his Chamkar Mon district temple for a final flurry of bloodletting and rhythmic pacing before the spirit of Kung Pheng finally released him.
Collapsing into the arms of followers, his headdress was removed and the encrusted blood was wiped from his chin.
Sok Mean’s procession, which began and ended at his temple, wound through the neighborhoods around O’Russei market, with trucks decorated as floats, men running with blades and people sprinkling water on the crowd with tree branches to cure illness and ward off bad luck.
Sok Mean considers his form of worship to be in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, although spirits in different countries inspire ceremonies tailored to local beliefs, he said.
At 70, Sok Mean is now used to this Bon Hay Neakta ceremony. His first possession, however, had worried both him and his family, he said.
When he was 14 years old, Sok Mean started studying to be a tailor. But he was acting strangely and always wore white for reasons he did not understand, he said. It was not until a ceremony in his 20s that he finally learned the identity of the spirit that possessed him.
To determine who were truly blessed among those believing themselves possessed by spirits, a group went through a series of deadly tests that included walking on hot coals, showering in sizzling oil, being cut with blades and biting red-hot metal, Sok Mean said.
Not all of the men survived the annual event, Sok Mean said. But he was among the lucky ones, and he continues the tradition to this day, he said.