Eileen McCormick attends a temple ceremony and encounters a sage who parties with the spirits in an animistic ritual filled with music and colour.
Here I am standing at a table with 200 pig heads with traditional Khmer trance music playing in the background while devotees start to enter into a trance-like state. I did not end up in this situation by accident. In fact I set out on a journey over a decade ago thanks to my then new found obsession with Ram Dass, an American spiritual teacher.
Part of Ram Dass’s own life story took him to India where he met his guru Neem Karoli Baba. I think it was the fact he had travelled far and wide that I also felt my own path would take me on a global awakening which would eventually put me at the feet of my guru.
Since my early 20’s I sort of picked up a little side hobby of seeking out mystics, shamans, gurus – anyone that would help awaken me. I can now share with you a little secret. None of these people I met could actually awaken my consciousness – only I could do that myself, as the Buddha has always pointed out.
But as most people, I was a seeker instead of a finder. The truth being just like Ram Dass kept repeating over and over – we are all God, Buddha and Krishna and it’s only when we think that we are alone does insanity arise (the ego).
So here I am, now, 40 kilometres outside Phnom Penh, in Kandal province’s Kien Svay District, with a bunch of devotees that I never knew existed in this magnitude. It’s a three-day event that lasts all day and night. I arrive on the second day and already I feel that the ground of this once tranquil pagoda has turned into an environment you would expect at a summer music festival.
Vendors and monks are mixed with devotees and it is a flourishing community of people who are all here because of their love for Venerable Kong Lun at his Prasat Pimean Phos An Deth temple complex.
Venerable Kong Lun or Khru, as I call him, invited me to a spiritual dance festival at the end of February, during the full moon, and while I have read stories and seen YouTube clips of similar events happening in Thailand, I was curious what one would be like in Cambodia. I did however suspect that this would definitely not be a low key event.
Khru likes to wear animal or sequence print shirts and adorns himself with massive gemstone necklaces and amulets. The sage also has an insatiable craving for betel nut causing his mouth to be permanently stained bright red. Some might mistaken it for blood but to me at first sight it just looks like a bad lipstick job.
But like all gurus he can take on many forms and maybe what I am about to describe is just the form he took with me or what I saw. That’s the cool thing about any spiritual teacher. You never know what you will get because they are always there to challenge you in why you think it ought to be that way.
So around 5:00 PM, I am free to walk around the grounds and take in the vibes. I notice that a new shrine has been erected with white string tied around it. I later find out that this is a ceremonial way to provide the shrine with magic and protection. Across the way from the shrine is a big tent filled with monks giving blessing and providing what I deemed as traditional Khmer Buddhist prayers and blessings.
As the sunset and night sets in, the crowds begin to grow. Part of me can’t help but observe how on one hand you have these very spiritual devotees while on the other, there are just normal vendors and villagers from around the area enjoying the vibes and the food. It’s almost like a mystical veil that divides the two worlds – yet it allows everyone to feel each other’s presence no matter which side they are on.
The twilight gives way to the beginning of the rituals that would take place for the rest of the night. Kru had set up a large table of offerings from fruits to pig heads and gold plates. He sits in his big wooden chair attended to by his sons and others. The first hour or so is spent lecturing the predominantly Khmer audience not to fight and harm each other. He worries about the state of materialism and gives advice over the upcoming election, urging everyone to deal with it peacefully.
After Khru’s lecture, the night’s intoxicating air takes over. Men and women in rainbow colours mingle with the sage and he sprays them with perfume. Soon they are prostrating before him and enter into a trance, with some mimicking animal movements and slithering like snakes.
Some of the women are dancing like Apsaras and a few men have the Hanuman spirit – jumping around, screeching and chattering like monkeys.
This goes on for some time until 11:00 PM when food is offered. We then enter Khru’s temple which is cramped with large traditional musical instruments. It’s time to make offerings and I notice devotees giving Khru large amounts of cash. Venerable Kong Lun has quite a reputation for his magic in helping people sell land or get back money owed to them. In return I think it’s a polite gesture in Khmer culture that you give a cash offering to the person whose magic helped you get what you want.
The musicians then play the instruments and the spirit Yeam enters into Khru’s body. Yeam is the high spirit guide who helps Venerable Kong Lun daily to meet and read for people. I am not sure personally if Yeam is a Khmer land spirit or comes from some other part of Asia.
Devotees then run to him, touching his feet begging for blessings. At the same time, Khru with the spirit Yeam in him asks for more betel nuts while he throws candy to the crowd. I’m wondering whether this is a ritual for the child spirits. It could be that we are all his children so Yeam is offering us sweets or maybe this spirit is also a child?
Around 2:00 AM, I finally call-in the night. I’m worn out by the overwhelming trance energy and the cornucopia of sound and colours. It’s been an assault on all my senses, but I enjoyed it.
Taking a note out of Tarot I can say this festival allows the fool to become the magician, hierophant and more because the trick is to understand they are all the same person out to experience life’s great wonders. How else could I end my adventure but telling you the reader that I bow to the God I see in you.