An Exploration into the Spatial Impact of Spirituality within Khmer Dwellings

The paper presents what is understood as Khmer traditional spirituality as practiced in the twenty-first century by giving a brief historical overview of Cambodian spiritual influences. It explores how this impacts a Khmer person’s spatial spirituality on a domestic scale. This is scrutinised through an observation of the construction and spiritual appropriation rituals of the shophouse, the most common house typology in Phnom Penh.

Paul D. C. Robinson practised as an architect for several years before moving to Phnom Penh where he taught Urban Design at the Royal University of Fine Arts. He recently completed his PhD in Architecture and Urban Design through the University of Liverpool (UK). He is currently working as the OMF UK Director of Mobilisation and Media.

An Exploration into the Spatial Impact of   Spirituality within Khmer Dwellings

Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2020): 22-29



For the first four years my family and I lived in the city of Phnom Penh, we rented a home in a street of shophouses. The neighbours—three university students who lived opposite our house—seemed never to use the second or third floor of their residence other than to dry laundry. Eventually I learned that this was because they were afraid of the spirits that lived up there. I was shocked that such a belief was so prevalent throughout twenty-first century Khmer culture. This revealed not just my own extensive ignorance but also the presence of significant spatial impacts of spirituality within a Khmer house. I started to wonder what would happen to domestic spaces if Khmer people, living in urban settings like shophouses, became Christians. How would their personal Christian spirituality impact the traditional Khmer expression of domestic spatial spirituality and what would happen? For when people become Christians they experience change. The nature of this change is complex and multi-layered and one of the layers that is changed is one’s personal spirituality. Before someone becomes a Christian, they believe and practise a spirituality that does not recognise Jesus Christ as Creator, Saviour, and King. Once they become a Christian, their spirituality changes as they recognise Jesus Christ in this way and as much more. This change in belief transforms many areas of a person’s life, including the way they live, their priorities, values, and worldview. One of these areas is the domestic space within which a person daily inhabits their dwelling. Their spatial spirituality on a domestic scale changes to “Christian”. But what does this look like? Is it merely hanging up emblems—like crosses or icons—on the wall or is it more nuanced than that?

In order to understand the extent of this “change” in a Khmer context, it is important to initially determine what is being changed. The first layer of change is from Khmer traditional spirituality to Khmer Christian spirituality. The first part of this paper will present what is understood as Khmer traditional spirituality as practiced in the twenty-first century by giving a brief historical overview of Cambodian spiritual influences. The second part of this paper will build upon this to explore how this impacts a Khmer person’s spatial spirituality on a domestic scale. This will be scrutinised through an observation of the construction and spiritual appropriation rituals of the most common house typology in the city of Phnom Penh—the shophouse.[1] Drawings, photographs, and diagrams created and gathered during several years of ethnographic participant observation of the city of Phnom Penh and data mined from doctoral research interviews will help detail and define the character of a pre-“change” domestic spatial spiritual context. The final part of this paper will then consider what happens when a Khmer resident becomes a Christian. It will analyse the impact that this change of personal spirituality could have on the spatial spirituality of the dwelling. Five leading responses will be discussed and analysed to suggest certain practices and/or rituals that are available to the Khmer Christian to facilitate an alignment between their personal and domestic spatial impacts of spirituality into the future. The most applicable and realistic of these will be summarised in the paper’s conclusion.

Khmer traditional spirituality

Animism is the belief that the entire world, human and non-human, living and non-living, forms a single spiritual whole. Just as people have souls, so do animals; and just as humans and animals are inhabited by a living spirit (“animated”), so too are streams and hills and every other object.[2]

Figure 1: Animistitic shrine in Kampot (Photo by author, 2014)

Figure 2: Khmer script today (left) similar to Angkor Sanskrit (right) (Photos by author, 2010)


Prior to the Indianisation of Funan[3] (Cambodia) at the start of the Christian era, the dominant spirituality of the region was Animism.[4] The culture and settlements of Funan were near water: coastal plains, deltas, and river valleys. Territorial spirits[5] dwelt in the unsettled wild and its high places: forests, lakes, caves (see Figure 1), and mountains.[6] People built shrines to appease the spirits, ward off evil, and to gain favour, health, and prosperity. From around 1 CE, the sporadic arrival of merchants and immigrants from India into these settlements in Funan soon became a steady flow[7] “that resulted in the founding of Indian-influenced kingdoms practicing the arts, customs, and religions of India, and using Sanskrit (see Figure 2) as their sacred language.”[8] One of the impacts of this Indianisation was the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism to a region that had only known Animism. Hinduism includes “the ritual and teachings of the Brahmin priests, the insights of philosophers, the visions of hermits and ascetics, the worship of nature and ancestor spirits … cults such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism … Jainism and many other traditions of which Buddhism is one.”[9]

Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and spiritual practices based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha—Siddhartha Gautama. It originated in ancient India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE before spreading through much of Asia.[10] The peoples of Funan found, in the peaceful infiltration of Indianisation, an opportunity to integrate new ideas and develop their own culture, society, and belief systems. This “coming together” of Buddhism and Hinduism with the local Animism created a type of hybrid spirituality (see Figure 3) which primarily affected the ruling classes of the states where it spread.[11]

Figure 3: Origins of Cambodia’s hybrid spirituality and its perpetuity (Drawing by author, 2016)[12]


Although it emerged in the pre-Angkor era (1–800 CE), this hybrid spirituality has continued to be very much present (albeit with varying emphases) until the present day, when according to Marston and Guthrie, “Cambodian scholars describe their religion as a mixture of Animism, Brahmanism and Buddhism.”[13] The grey shaded area of the diagram in Figure 3 shows this hybrid spirituality that has been practised over time. Each of the three leading strands of spirituality are present, but the extent of their practice in Khmer culture has changed. In addition, none of them are practised independently of each other as each has influenced the belief and ritual practise of the others.[14] In my doctoral research, over half the Khmer people I interviewed specifically referenced this hybrid spirituality: recognising a blend of Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism in the prevailing spirituality of Phnom Penh today. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that a type of hybrid spirituality has been present in Cambodia for over 2000 years, throughout which an enduring Animism has underpinned every spiritual shift.[15] Today in the city of Phnom Penh, the ascendant Buddhism is evident within the city’s urban layout where over fourteen pagodas are located within the inner city. However, their decoration references this hybrid spirituality with paintings of the life of Buddha, the Hindu Ramayana, and different types of animals adorning the walls.[16] The following quote succinctly summarises this twenty-first century condition of spirituality.

If you ask the question to a Cambodian. “what is your religion?”, even to me, I would say, I am Buddhist. But in reality, in the Buddhist practice, you can see … the reminiscences of Hindu[17] and especially of a belief system called … Animism.[18]

The shophouse housing typology

This hybrid spirituality has been commonly present throughout Khmer history and influenced settlement and housing construction rituals throughout the centuries. Its prevailing impact is present in the three leading housing typologies of twenty-first century city of Phnom Penh: the shophouse, the semi-detached villa, and the apartment block. As there is not room to discuss each in detail, this paper will focus on the most common typology: the shophouse.

These buildings were originally built on narrow and long plots and grouped as urban blocks in Chinese districts … a representative typology of urban housing developed by Chinese merchants and immigrants who moved to colonial cities and built their dwellings as a grouped community.[19]

Figure 4: Typical 1930–50s shophouses in the Chinese quarter (Photo by author, 2008)

Figure 5: Typical twenty-first century “apartment type shophouses” (Photo by author, 2008)


The shophouse typology evolved from the late nineteenth century colonial era. A vernacular architectural typology, it characterizes many historical urban layouts throughout Southeast Asia and southern China. There is a long history of Chinese presence in Cambodia, and in the early twentieth century, during the French protectorate era, they were granted a quarter of the city of Phnom Penh by the French colonial urban planners that surrounded the future site of the Central Market. Here they constructed shophouse residences.[20] Typically, these were two or three stories high with mercantile activity on the ground floor and a residence above (see Figure 4), similar to the European townhouse typology. This design favours the gridiron type of urban layout where plots are long and thin (approximately 12m by 4m). The shophouse footprint is extremely efficient as it shares a masonry wall with houses on both sides that allows for an increased density of development, as each storey can also become an apartment. The following exploration of the shophouse will describe a typical twenty-first century shophouse construction, observe its spiritual appropriation, and analyse its ongoing spatial spiritual agency within current Khmer domestic architecture.[21]


Figure 6: Typical shophouse ground floor plan to show multi-function space in grey with 6 varied uses suggested above (Drawing by author, 2014)


Figure 7: Typical shophouses (Photo by author, 2014)
Figure 8: Shophouse development (Photo by author, 2016)

Typical shophouse construction

Shophouses are constructed on both green field and brown field sites.[22] Initially, the site is cleared, but it would not be necessary to demarcate a specific sacred zone as these have already been established in the urban layout by the temple complexes throughout the city of Phnom Penh. In urban projects, none of the site’s natural resources would be utilised, but a spirit house would be erected on the site’s boundary to house the spirits of the land that are displaced. Urban land can be quickly developed through the construction of multiple terraced shophouse units (see Figure 8). These are easy and cheap to build with modern materials (such as reinforced concrete), as the longest span is only four metres. Today, modern materials allow shophouses to be built up to six stories high (see Figure 5), so they are flexible enough to allow for single- or multiple-family occupancy. Its form allows for multi-functions such as retail, office, storage, leisure, restaurant, parking, etc. (see Figures 6 and 7). The dominant materials of reinforced concrete and minimal glazing to the front and the rear (see Figure 7) allow for easy expansion and repair. This cheap flexibility escalated the popularity of the shophouse typology throughout the city of Phnom Penh from the mid- to late twentieth century as it engaged well with developing technology, enabled capitalism to flourish, and allowed for a swelling population through its flexibility and affordable rents. The challenge for this typology was how well it could integrate the strong domestic Khmer tradition of housing as a spatial spiritual microcosm.

Figure 9: Ritual for construction project (Photo by author, 2014)


Figure 10: Long Section AA from Figure 6 through a typical shophouse to show locations of shrines and spirit houses A-F (Drawing by author, 2014).

Typical shophouse spiritual appropriation

House construction rituals are significant as they spiritually appropriate the regional shophouse typology to create spatial impacts of spirituality in the Khmer tradition through construction. Once a site is cleared, the typical Khmer foundation ceremony ritual is followed, directed by an achar (see Figure 9).[23] The design and construction team attend, and incense, food, and drink are offered to the territorial Animistic guardian spirits (Neak Tha), so that the spirits are respected. The historical role of wise man on the construction team, who would advise on local planning law, is often replaced in urban projects by an architect or building contractor because in the twenty-first century they are better suited to navigate the relevant building codes and cultural design constraints. The extent (and presence) of the role of guru in the project would be subject to the client’s level of belief in traditional Khmer spirituality.[24] Rather than a master carpenter, today a building contractor and/or an architect (with associated construction engineers) will design and build the house. In a continuation of the main column and ridge beam/pole construction rituals of traditional wooden Khmer houses, once the main reinforced concrete structure is in place, both male ancestral spirits and the female guardian spirits—Jumneang Phteah—are intentionally invited into the building structure to possess and bless it for perpetuity. A yantra—a piece of decorative cloth, usually red, inscribed with spiritual symbols for protection—is hung in the top of the stairwell (see Figure 10 location A and Figure 11). Offerings are placed at the side of the property entrance (see Figure 10 location C and Figure 12), and a separate spirit house is sited at the edge of each domestic property at its perceived property boundary line (see Figure 10 location E and Figure 12).[25] Upon completion, a ceremony is performed to celebrate the house’s existence and to pray to the spirits for good fortune. Once more, it is subject to the client’s belief whether an hora—fortune teller—is involved in the ceremony.

Once the shophouse construction is complete, people are often scared to dwell in the upper floors as that is where it is believed the spirits dwell. A Khmer colleague spoke of his regular interaction with spirits on the first floor of his shophouse dwelling, saying that they physically pulled his legs whilst sleeping and eventually the pain would wake him up.[26] He alone amongst his family does not seem to mind the discomfort; the rest of the family sleep on the ground floor where most of daily life is conducted. Ongoing spiritual protection is maintained by a number of internal (and regularly maintained) shrines:[27] one facing the door[28] (see Figure 10 location F and Figure 13); an ancestor shelf usually about two metres from the floor (see Figure 10 location D); voluntary subsidiary shrines throughout the rest of the house; and a regularly updated yantra (see Figure 11). If the shophouse was of multiple occupancy, an additional spirit house was often erected at the edge of each of the resident’s legal boundaries on their balconies (see Figure 10 location B and Figures 14 and 15) to counteract the differing levels or types of beliefs adhered to by neighbouring residents. In this way, the horizontal and vertical spaces of the shophouse continue to remain spiritually appropriated, as well as the hard edge (the “possessed” structure and the “blessed” foundation), through the Khmer house construction rituals. Today these rituals are practised extensively, though not in the completely orthodox way of tradition, revealing a continued commitment to appease the spirits and create spatial impacts of spirituality at a domestic scale.

Figure 14: Multiple occupancy shophouse (Photo by author, 2016)
Figure 15: Enlarged picture of the portion in the yellow box from Figure 14 to show the spirit house on balcony

What happens when the resident of a Khmer shophouse becomes a Christian?

Traditionally, Khmer people intentionally engage with their lived experience of hybrid spirituality as they continually practice both construction rituals and domestic rituals. So, when Khmer people become Christians, they experience a fundamental change in their personal spirituality, which means they will face a domestic schism. This is because their dwelling and its physical and spiritual condition have been consecrated in three dimensions according to traditional Khmer spirituality. Spirits have been invited into the fabric of the building (the foundations, structure, and eaves) and they (in addition to ancestral spirits and territorial spirits) are regularly appeased through offerings at established shrines, ancestral shelves, and spirit houses. Once the Khmer resident’s personal spirituality changes, it no longer aligns, physically and spiritually, with the space in which the person dwells, and a disruption occurs. There are five main responses to this disruption available to the Khmer Christian: conflict, relocation, demolition, dismantling, and expulsion. Each of these will be discussed and analysed to determine their potential effectiveness and spatial impact of spirituality on Khmer dwellings, as well as their feasibility within the urban context of the city of Phnom Penh.

The first response for the new Khmer Christian is to do nothing and live in a space of spiritual tension and conflict. There is an ongoing conflict between their personal spirituality and the spatial spirituality of the shophouse that they inhabit. Often, this choice is driven by economic or social reasons. The person may be the only Christian in a family that continues to adhere to traditional Khmer hybrid spirituality. The new Khmer Christian cannot afford to relocate, expel the spirits, or demolish or dismantle their home. An enduring conflict occurs which is unsustainable, and the longer it endures, the higher the likelihood that the Khmer Christian becomes overwhelmed and “choked” by the conflicting spatial spirituality within which they reside (cf. Mark 4:18–19). This can result in the person returning to their previous spiritual beliefs that comfortably align with that of their dwelling.

The second response is to relocate. Upon recognising the spatial spiritual schism within their dwelling, the Khmer Christian can choose to leave the shophouse and rent or buy a dwelling that is more in line with their personal beliefs. This would be one that has been constructed (or re-consecrated) without the traditional Khmer hybrid spirituality rituals and has none of the shrines, ancestral shelves, or spirit houses that invite the presence the spirits. The Khmer Christian can now physically live without domestic spiritual conflict and experience rest as personal spirituality and domestic spatial spirituality are aligned. This choice is only available to those with economic capacity, social mobility, and a viable spatial spiritual opportunity to relocate.

A further response is to dismantle the dwelling that has been consecrated according to traditional Khmer spirituality, relocate, and then reconstruct it according to the new Khmer Christian spirituality of the resident. There is a precedence of house dismantling within Khmer culture. Historically, Khmer houses were of timber construction. Should the resident experience significant bad luck or misfortune, it was considered a spiritual issue and the construction rituals—related to the land and spirits—undertaken for the dwelling’s construction were questioned. To change one’s luck, people would sometimes dismantle their home, relocate, and reconstruct the home with the existing materials and perform devout rituals in the hope that good fortune would follow. This process of dismantling is also a choice for someone who becomes a Christian and finds their personal spirituality in conflict with the spatial spirituality of their domestic space.[29] Theoretically, this is a viable approach should the dwelling be made of timber and rurally located. In an urban setting, however, there are three problems that make it an unlikely solution. Firstly, it is very difficult to dismantle a shophouse due to its materiality—predominantly concrete—and terraced character (see Figure 8). This would compromise the structural integrity of other connected shophouse dwellings and is extremely expensive. In addition, finding a suitable location to relocate and then reconstruct is economically prohibitive within urban contexts. Finally, there are currently no established, orthodox Khmer Christian construction rituals that would supersede the hybrid spiritual rituals described above.

Another possible related response is demolition. This is a clear and emphatic rejection of the previous home and its traditional Khmer spirituality. Following the demolition, a new home could be constructed with new materials and rituals on the same site. Or the land could be sold and the person relocate to another space. Like the approach of dismantling, there are similar concerns with this process in the urban context. This method is only available to people with significant economic means and opportunities and is highly unlikely to be widely used.

Perhaps the most reasonable response to the domestic spatial spiritual schism facing the new Christian is expulsion. This compels the Khmer Christian resident to engage directly with their spirituality and how it conflicts with the traditional Khmer spatial spirituality of the existing dwelling in each of its spaces and built form. It is important to clarify that Christian spirituality is not a synchronistic (or hybrid) spirituality. In Exodus 20:3, Yahweh demands of his people, “You shall have no other gods before me.” This is commonly known as the first of the Ten Commandments and emphatically states that within a person’s spirituality and, by extension, their personal space, other spirits will have no standing or presence (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14). This starting point allows the Khmer Christian to systematically engage with the traditional Khmer home through the following three suggested expulsion procedures/rituals. Firstly, the superficial emblems and structures in and around the dwelling—such as spirit houses that house the Neak Tha, shrines, ancestor shelves, and yantras—could all be physically gathered. The sovereignty of God can then be proclaimed over them in prayer and they can be destroyed (usually through burning). This act/ritual symbolically, physically, and spiritually expels and rejects the previous spiritual inhabitants of these items from the domestic space.[30]

Figure 16: Mango Tree with offering highlighted in red circle (Photo by author, 2016)
Figure 17: Close-up picture of area marked by red circle in Figure 16 to show the offering to Neak Tha (Photo by author, 2016)

Secondly, each space within the home and around the dwelling (including the legal boundary) could be re-consecrated to the Christian God through prayer(s) in each identifiable space. The content of these prayers should recognise the sovereignty of God (Ephesians 1:20–23) over all spiritual presences that have been or are resident within the domestic spaces. These other spiritual presences can then be intentionally rejected and expelled from each of these spaces by the authority of Jesus Christ and the space cleansed accordingly. During the years that my family lived in the city of Phnom Penh, we experienced this first hand in 2016. At the front of our semi-detached house was a mango tree within which, our neighbour believed, dwelled the Neak Tha for the housing estate (see Figure 16). Regular offerings of food were made to appease the spirit and bring our neighbour’s family good fortune (see Figure 17). Once we realised what was happening, we recognised the conflicting spatial spirituality of our dwelling—between Christianity and hybrid spirituality. Rather than chop down the tree and burn it (we were renting the property), we prayed over the tree, quoted the Bible, declared Jesus Christ’s sovereignty over the tree and our dwelling, and commanded the Neak Tha to depart. We thus re-consecrated the tree to the creator God of the Christian Scriptures. Subsequently, the neighbour ceased making offerings and told us some time later that the Neak Tha had left that tree for another residence elsewhere.

Finally, the structural fabric of the building could be intentionally engaged with. It is not necessary to destroy or dismantle the dwelling’s built form. This is because Christians believe in a creator God (Genesis 1) who crafted the world and everything in it (Psalm 24:1). Thus, all the material elements (such as clay and water used to make bricks) that together become the built form of the dwelling’s structure were originally created by God. It is only later, through the traditional Khmer house-construction rituals, that the built form became inhabited by the guardian spirit—Jumneang Phteah—like a tenant. Now that the human resident has a new spirituality, an expulsion/restoration prayer and/or ritual is/are necessary to declare the Christian God’s sovereignty over the building’s built form, expel any conflicting/guardian spirits, and cleanse it accordingly (Luke 16:13). Once these three steps are taken, the dwelling can be considered to be re-consecrated according to Khmer Christian spirituality. Ongoing spiritual protection and consecration of the residence should continue if the Khmer Christian maintains an active belief in the Christian God through conducting regular prayer and obedience to the Christian Scriptures. This expulsion approach to re-consecrating the dwelling is the most cost-effective, sustainable, and accessible response to a resident who has changed his spiritual alignment.


This paper introduced traditional Khmer spirituality as a type of hybrid spirituality that includes Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This hybrid spirituality is common in twenty-first century Cambodia and its impact and presence has been clearly identified in the ubiquitous housing typology of the shophouse. Through a series of construction and domestic rituals, this type of Khmer dwelling can be considered a significant place of spatial spirituality which “comprises broader ontological territories that transcend the common assignation of home to the secular.”[31] It has been observed that when a Khmer person changes their spirituality from the hybrid spirituality of tradition to Christianity, their personal spirituality becomes incompatible with the spatial spirituality of their dwelling. Inaction is not a viable response, as living within a continued state of conflict between personal and spatial spirituality is not sustainable. A change is required to align personal and domestic spatial impacts of spirituality.

The responses of dismantling or demolishing the home were also not viable primarily due to prohibitive cost. The responses of relocation and expulsion were identified as the most reasonable. The expulsion practices/rituals suggested are not new and are practised in piecemeal fashion by Khmer Christians. However, they have not yet been gathered together to form a construction ritual that is widely practised and considered orthodox within current Khmer Christianity. The content, procedure, style, and method of these rituals need to be determined by Khmer Christians who can best navigate their symbolic culture and theology rather than outsiders like myself. I would, however, be so bold as to suggest that developing these procedures should be a priority for the Khmer church as this would reduce some difficult dilemmas and disruptions that new believers may face due to their new religious worldview. It would also create more plausible domestic choices and variety for the rest of the urban Khmer community, who, though not yet Christian, are uncomfortable with the spiritual appropriation of dwellings according to the traditional Khmer hybrid spirituality.

Though the change from traditional to Christian belief is spiritually and ritualistically dramatic for Khmer people, a Khmer Christian shophouse dwelling will structurally look very similar to a shophouse consecrated in alignment to traditional Khmer spirituality. The spatial impacts of traditional Khmer spirituality on a domestic scale are predominantly characterised by fear through the appeasement of spirits, as evidenced by shrines, spirit houses, and yantras. People become enslaved to the Animist spirit world that masters and controls their domestic space (2 Peter 2:19). In contrast, the spatial impacts of Khmer Christian spirituality on a domestic scale are characterised by freedom. Through Jesus Christ, people and their domestic spaces can be liberated from slavery to fear of the spirits (Galatians 5:1). So, in the Khmer Christian home, on the boundary line, there may be a row of potted plants. At the entrance, there may be wooden shoe rack. On the internal walls, there might be a cross, a family photo, or a painting. Facing the front door, there may be a comfortable chair, and in the eaves, there will probably be nothing at all. The possibilities are so endless; there is not room enough to expand on them all.

[1] The small domestic scale of the shophouse is a core part of the large urban scale of the city. When grouped together they are known as communities or neighbourhoods and when these are gathered together they constitute a large influential part of the city. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that spatial expressions of the hybrid spirituality on the domestic scale of the shophouse can be used as a measure of a city’s relationship with spirituality: the shophouse becomes a spatial spiritual microcosm of the city itself. See François Tainturier, ed., Wooden Architecture of Cambodia: A Disappearing Heritage (Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Center for Khmer Studies, 2006).

[2] Philip Coggan, Spirit Worlds:Cambodia, The Buddha and The Naga (Oxford: John Beaufoy, 2015), 25.

[3] “In Cambodia, the Chinese place the founding of the Kingdom of Funan by the Brahman Kaundinya in the first century AD.” George Coedes, The Indianized States of South East Asia, ed. Walter F. Vella, trans. Susan Brown Cowing (Honolulu: The University of Hawaii, 1968), 17.

[4] Animism (also known as folk religion) and its “beliefs in spirit worship and the supernatural existed in Cambodia long before the Hindu influences.” Seanglim Bit, The Warrior Heritage: Psychological Perspective on Cambodian Trauma (El Cerrito, CA: Seanglim Bit, 1991), 16.

[5] “An array of guardian spirits (both benign and more malevolent) called ‘Neak Tha’ inhabited the mountains, rice paddies, trees, etc. of the physical environment. Others were ancestral spirits, and still others are composites of mythological heroes.” Bit, The Warrior Heritage, 16. Belief in these spirits is still common in Cambodia today.

[6] This expression of Animism has similarities to certain Old Testament practices in which high places were used for spirit worship, contrary to the commands of God. Thus, the statement: “For the message he declared by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel and against all the shrines on the high places in the towns of Samaria will certainly come true” (1 Kings 13:32).

[7] This was due to both technological reasons—maritime architecture developed that allowed larger boats to travel further—and religious reasons—the development of Buddhism abolished caste purity restrictions, thus allowing foreign contact. Coedes, The Indianized States of South East Asia, 21.

[8] Coedes, The Indianized States of South East Asia, 15.

[9] Coggan, Spirit Worlds, 22.

[10] Today, two major branches of Buddhism are generally recognized in Cambodia: Theravada and Mahayana.

[11] The sixth-century Chinese text—History of the Liang—writes of people worshiping the sky spirits—an Animistic practice—and making bronze images with two “faces and four arms … Harihara … Vishnu and Siva united in a single body.” Coedes, The Indianized States of South East Asia, 61. In addition to these Animist and Hindu practices, the same text writes of Buddhism flourishing in sixth-century Funan, where it posits that “a Chinese embassy was sent to Funan between 535 and 545 to ask the king of the country to collect Buddhist texts and to invite him to send Buddhist teachers to China.” Coedes, The Indianized States of South East Asia, 60. A thriving, hybrid spirituality was in place.

[13] John Marston and Elizabeth Guthrie, eds., History, Buddhism, and New Religious Movements in Cambodia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2004), 4. Seanglim Bit corroborates this when he writes that “the merging of classical Buddhist thought with Animistic and Brahmanist traditions produces patterns which are quite atypical of Buddhism as practices elsewhere.” Bit, The Warrior Heritage, 21.

[14] This “cross fertilisation” between the three leading strands of spirituality is also suggested through the term “hybrid spirituality”.

[15] Marston and Guthrie, History, Buddhism, and New Religious Movements in Cambodia, 7–12.

[16] Danielle and Dominique-Pierre Gueret, The Khmer Pagoda (Phnom Penh: KAM, 2017), 53.

[17] In 2012, a sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesha was unveiled at the junction of Monivong and Russian Boulevards, spatial evidence of the enduring Hindu belief within Khmer hybrid spirituality.

[19] Sokly Yam and Seo Ryeung Ju, “Transformation of Shophouses in Phnom Penh, Cambodia: In the Aspect of Spatial Organization,” Family and Environmental Research 54, no. 1 (2016): 13.

[20] Penny Edwards, Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2007), 48.

[21] This is based, in part, on the shophouse where I lived for four years between 2008 and 2012.

[22] These terms distinguish a new building site from one where there has been earlier construction.

[23] Achars are experts in all kinds of rituals, not just construction ones. They also conduct funerals and weddings. Today the Khmer government is intentional about training both men and women for this role. Coggan, Spirit Worlds, 71.

[24] In my doctoral research, I interviewed a locally recognised guru who shared some of his experience and status. He believes that he is possessed by a spirit who he must daily appease through acceptable behaviour and worship. Robinson and Cheung, Conversations with Khmer, 199.

[25] Today, a number of spirits are thought to dwell in spirit houses. They include the displaced spirit of the land as well as the tevoda (angel) from the Hindu pantheon. Coggan, Spirit Worlds, 77. All residents of the spirit house need to be regularly appeased; particularly at significant annual rituals.

[26] This same person proceeded to say they were more afraid of thieves who steal, than spirits, because thieves are real/physical people. Robinson and Cheung, Conversations with Khmer, 28.

[27] Daily prayers and offerings must be made by the homeowners to appease the local territorial spirits.

[28] This is for the Jumneang Ptheah, the wholly benevolent spirit who protects the dwelling from all enemies: supernatural and human. Coggan, Spirit Worlds, 80.

[29] In the Cambodian province of Ratanakiri, some Khmer people who became Christians were forced to relocate to the edge of the village because their neighbours were afraid that the new believers’ non-compliance with the spirits would have negative consequences on the whole village.

[30] A precedent for this approach is found in the Old Testament where several texts (cf. Exodus 20:4–5; 34:14; 2 Chronicles 14:3; 1 Kings 15:11–14) advocate that idols, shrines, stones, and poles consecrated to other spirits and deities are not to be worshipped or appeased, but must be destroyed because Yahweh is a jealous God.

[31] Thomas Barrie, Julio Bermudez, and Phillip James Tabb, eds., Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality (London: Routledge, 2017), 105.


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