That’s the Spirit!

Each year, Hei Neak Ta ushers in welcomed guests

Pen Ratha moonlighted at an unusual job last weekend: translating for a spirit.

“Sometimes our spirit speaks Vietnamese and sometimes he speaks Chinese. So I’m his Vietnamese translator, and he has another guy who does the Chinese,” he explained.

His spirit–a bone-thin local teenager–sat nearby in a chair, shaking himself out of a religious trance that had engulfed him for the past few hours. When the boy is not possessed, he speaks only Khmer.

Mr Ratha and the rest of the spirit’s extensive entourage hovered protectively over him, offering water, towels and sports drinks as he came to.

The spirit declined to be interviewed, citing exhaustion.

Mr Ratha, his spirit and hundreds of others were celebrating Hei Neak Ta, or the spirit parade, an ebullient Sino-Khmer affair that paints the streets of Meanchey district red and yellow for three days every year and slows traffic to a crawl.

About two weeks after Chinese New Year, residents line National Road 2 south of the Monivong Bridge, setting up elaborate makeshift home altars heaped with fruit, candy, incense sticks and bowls of water.

Then the spirits come.

They parade up and down the road, enthroned in dozens of bedizened floats sponsored by different Chinese groups and associations. They stop at every altar along the way so that the crazed-looking spirits, flanked by an advance team of swordsmen and whistle-blowing traffic controllers, can rush up, sprinkle the worshippers with water, mumble a blessing, distribute a few yontras, and rush away again.

Each Neak Ta is embodied by someone who has formally offered himself up to the spirit world for possession. Once possessed, the spirit-men cut their tongues and faces and smear the ensuing blood on lucky scraps of paper called yontras, which are distributed to the excited throngs. The most daring Neak Tas pierce their mouths and cheeks with large spikes.

No wonder they look a little woozy by the end of the three-day festival.

“Being possessed by a spirit is like when we are asleep,” said 26-year-old Vibol, who was emerging from a trance on Saturday afternoon as his crew rubbed down his limbs and fanned him with a towel. Sleepy-eyed and sluggish, Vibol said he had been possessed by the spirit of a young boy named Ly Nacha Santhaichiv for the past few hours.

“I don’t know how long it’s been, but before the spirit comes out of us he tells us he will come out,” he said.

Ouk Sothsen, chairman of the Cambodian-Chinese Association of Meanchey district, said this year’s Hei Neak Ta was the largest ever, some 50 percent bigger than last year’s.

“It’s a Cambodian-Chinese citizen’s custom which is conducted annually,” he said. “I have seen it since I was born. The major reasons for it are to keep us gathering together, keep unity and help each other.”

“We’ve stood here two hours now for the spirits,” said Lim Thor, 65, gathered in front of her family’s shop with three generations of women, all dressed in red blouses. “It brings us happiness and good luck.”

They kneeled behind their altar with grins and closed eyes every time a Neak Ta pranced by and sprinkled them lavishly with water. After five or six blessings, they were happily soaked.

Across the street, Huy Ay was carefully counting her yontras, setting aside the ones marked with particularly garish streaks of blood. Those are the luckiest.

“These yontras with the blood from the mouths of the possessed are especially lucky, and we can put them above our doors or just keep them with us when we’re traveling to keep us safe,” she said.

“I heard there are around 60 possessed spirits this year, and I have at least one from each spirit,” she said. “I haven’t counted exactly how many came here, but it’s a lot.”

In addition to the household altars, a larger “spirit house” (usually a big tent) is also erected in every neighborhood to pay tribute to the resident Neak Ta. Every spirit is expected to make a stop there and give a special performance to the dozens of locals cramming the tent and peeking through every crack in the fabric. The bigger the spikes implanted in his face, the more enthusiastic reception a Neak Ta receives.

As the evening wore on, Nguyen Tam, 30, a member of a Vietnamese spirit’s entourage, rested on his haunches outside a Chinese temple. His shirt was streaked with rust-colored stains. One of his jobs that day had been to help smear hundreds of yontras with blood from his spirit’s tongue.

“My job is to help the spirit prepare to go around to everyone’s house,” he said. “I have done this for several years now, and I like it a lot–it’s a very crowded and very happy time.”

 

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