Cambodians gather for "He Neak Ta," praying for good fortune, prosperity, and rain

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PHUM BOEUNG, Cambodia (AP) — Hundreds of Cambodian villagers on Tuesday took part in a rare traditional guardian spirit ceremony praying for good fortune, rain and prosperity, as they aimed to preserve this ancient tradition.

Better known in Khmer as “He Neak Ta” the ritual ceremony was held some 25 kilometers northwestern of capital Phnom Penh. Young men painted scenes from local folklore on their faces and bodies, dressed up as spirits and donned grass skirts while the young women donned traditional clothes.

The mostly Buddhist people of Cambodia, also subscribe to animism, a belief that spirits can inhabit all sorts of living and inanimate objects.

This ancient ritual ceremony has been celebrated annually for several hundred years by Phum Boeung villagers during the beginning of rainy season. Though marked in almost every village throughout the country in ancient times, the ceremony has become rarer.

“The ceremony has been held every year since I was born. I saw my grandfather and my father celebrating and we did it today because we wanted to preserve our ancestors’ traditions,” 35-year-old Sem Pum said.

Villagers, both old and young, congregate about three kilometers away from the monastery of a guardian spirit. With traditional music being played, the group then walk towards the site, some on horseback.

At the shrine, villagers light incense sticks and offer several kinds of fruits, food, soft drinks and alcohol while praying for good fortune, enough rain, prosperity and to prevent diseases upon their entire community. The half day ceremony ends with the spraying of holy water to cheerful participants.

Meth Sokry, 30-year-old blacksmith, who painted his face and body as a spirit and clothes in leaves, said he has asked his supervisor for time off since a month ago because he wanted to make sure he would participate in this ritual.

“When I asked permission from my supervisor, I told him that today’s ceremony is important for me so even if he did not give approval for my leave, I would take the day off.” Meth Sokry said.

Cambodia is a country that heavily relies on agriculture, fishery, and forestry for livelihood with more than 60 percent of Cambodians are living in the countryside. The ritual coincides with the summer monsoon as farmers prepare for a season of planting rice, one of the most water intensive crops.

According to data from Cambodia Rice Federation, in 2023 Cambodia exported more than 656,000 tons of milled rice to the international market, marking a 3-percentage increase compared to 2022.

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