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AP PHOTOS: Cambodian village prays for good fortune, prosperity, and rain in ‘He Neak Ta’ ritual

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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.

Known in Khmer as “He Neak Ta,” the ritual was held in Phum Boeung village some 25 kilometers (16 miles) northwest of the national capital, Phnom Penh. Young men painted scenes from folklore on their faces and bodies, dressed up as spirits and donned grass skirts while the young women donned traditional clothes.

Cambodia’s population is mostly Buddhist, but people also subscribe to animism, a belief that spirits can inhabit all sorts of living and inanimate objects.

The ritual celebrated annually during the beginning of the rainy season was widespread in ancient times but is rarer now. Phum Boeung has held the ceremony for several hundred years.

“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 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) 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 asked for time off from work to participate.

“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 heavily relies on agriculture, fishery, and forestry, and more than 60% of Cambodians live in the countryside. The ritual coincides with the monsoon as farmers prepare for planting rice, one of the most water-intensive crops.

According to the Cambodia Rice Federation, the country exported more than 656,000 tons of milled rice last year, a 3% increase from 2022.

Associated Press