Although more than 95 percent of Cambodia’s population are Buddhists, superstition, particularly belief in spirits and the paranormal, are deep-seated in its people’s culture. It is not unusual in the country to hear people speaking about their encounters with the supernatural. Meanwhile, a local radio station has gained huge popularity for a programme which aims to tackle the tricky topic of the supernatural, and functions as a platform in which people can share their paranormal experience. Are their stories true? It is debatable, writes Taing Rinith.
On a Saturday night in the studio of Vayo FM Radio Station, located on Phnom Penh’s Norodom Boulevard, most of the staff have already left work, but for Um Kosal, a well-known producer and DJ, his most important work of the entire week, also the most exciting, has just started.
At around 8:30 pm, Kosal gets ready in front of a microphone for the last show of the day, checking the system and adjusting his headset. He also dims the light and does a brief silent meditation, to brace himself for what he is going to encounter later. As the clock strikes nine, Kosal presses play, and the radio jingle announces, “Here comes the Horrific Night!” in a very sharp voice of a woman, followed by the eerie howls of a dog and a night-time creature. According to Khmer folk belief, dogs are the only animals with a special ability to see spirits of the dead, and when they howl, people believe that they must have seen one.
Once on air, Kosal briefly greets thousands of his listeners nationwide, who are listening to his show on radios or Vayo FM’s Facebook page, before inviting them to call in to relate their experience with spirits and the paranormal, a topic that spreads through Cambodian society.
The first caller of the night is a young man in Kampong Cham who wants to be anonymous. A few years ago, one of his cousins was hacked to death in a fight. He claims to have seen a mist in shape of his cousin’s figure in front of his aunt’s house, just a few days after his funeral.
“The ghost of my cousin appeared in my aunt’s dream,” the caller says. “He told her that he missed the family and wanted to enter but the spiritual guardian did not allow him.”
“It’s true,” Kosal replies. “Most houses have Preah Phum, or the spiritual guardians, who protect the household from ghosts and fiend.”
The next caller is Nou Viseth, a government official residing in Stung Treng and a dedicated listener who tunes in the show every Saturday and Sunday. Viseth says he was once almost killed by the “ghosts” while travelling along the road in front of Champa Pagoda, in Kandal’s Kien Svay district, which is well-known for being a place where hundreds of people died from traffic accidents.
“It was 10 pm, and I was on my way home from work,” Viseth says. “Suddenly, a bike ran into me. I avoided it and fell over. And then the bike just disappeared into thin air.”
Kosal has to listen to such stories every week. While some local radio stations in Cambodia broadcast fictional ghost stories, Kosal’s ‘The Horrific Night’ is the first and only one of its kind. It has been so popular that the listeners have requested Vayo FM to extend its broadcasting hours, from one to two.
Kosal, considered the “ghost expert” by his fans, usually asks the callers questions to try and unveil the truth behind their stories and often gives them sensible advice or cautious warnings. He does not take kindly to listeners who call in to make jokes, not pausing to unleash serious or angry comments.
“This is not a platform for ghost stories or jokes that people make up,” he says. “Spiritualism is not to be made a fool of, or you will eventually suffer the consequences.”
On occasion, he gets so interested in the callers’ stories that he has to leave his studio to investigate further. This mission often involves visiting the allegedly haunted houses all over the country, and Kosal always does whatever he can to help those who suffer from “being haunted”.
While the local belief in real ghost stories and their popularity motivated him to start his iconic radio show 8 years ago, Kosal says his personal experience also played a part.
Nearly 10 years ago, he says, he was hospitalised from a bad bout of bronchitis. In the middle of the night, he experienced feelings he describes as “exposure to the spirits of the dead”. Others in the ward that night said they saw ghosts.A few months later, he experienced it again, this time by seeing mrenh kongvea, the ghosts of the children, playing in front of him during a road trip to the countryside.
“These experiences should be enough to make me believe that ghosts really exist,” Kosal says.
Nevertheless, Dr. Ka Sunbaunat, a prominent psychiatrist and anti-spiritualist, insists that the stories told on the show do not reflect reality, and that neither ghosts or other kinds of spirits exist.
“They are just hallucination or even imagination,” he says. “Since people are afraid of what they cannot see, natural or physical phenomena scare them easily. More importantly, only those who are afraid say they have met ghosts.”
“Sometimes, it is caused by mental disorders, such as PTSD, which need to be medically treated,” Dr. Sunbaunat adds. “One of my patients is a schoolboy who told me that he saw the ghost of his dead friend on a tree near their school. While many believe this story, the fact is this boy was there when his friend was killed in a traffic accident. After proper treatment, he no longer sees it.”
Dr. Michet Tranet, one of the country’s leading anthologist support Dr. Sunbaunat’s argument, adding that ghosts and spirits are just the result of civilisation.
“People create stories to scare others from doing bad things or to gain any sort of advantage from them,” Dr Tranet says. “That is why there are ghosts or urban legends in all nations.”
In response, Kosal, the producer, says people have the right to or not to believe, and they can explain any phenomenon in accordance with their beliefs. Yet, his belief is steadfast.
“We have to bear in mind that science still cannot explain the phenomenon of ghosts,” he says. “Anti-spiritualists usually do not believe until they encounter it themselves. I used to be one of them.”