“Do you believe in ghosts?” is a question sometimes asked after conversations about rice and money have been exhausted. “Believe!” is the emphatic answer. When prodded on the subject further, the admission is usually “Believe, but never see……”
If pushed, I may treat them to my own tale about how I saw a man walk across my yard one moonless night and disappear behind a tree- never to be seen again. Admittedly I had been drinking cheap Sir Edwards whisky, and it was only from the corner of one eye that I saw it. Yet, something happened and it’s a lot simpler to cry ghost than accept that a combination of half a bottle of blended Scotch, a trick of the light and a brain pushed hard by ‘happy trippy hippie’ came up with the apparition.
Cambodians can basically be divided into two groups – the urbanites (who, depending on the length spent away from the countryside are, in general, considered better educated and more used to outside stimuli) and the country bumpkins (seen by the long term city residents as stupid, uneducated who get to stare at cows and rice fields all day long).
Of course this line is becoming blurred as town and country merge, but remains essentially true. Superstitions are rife in both town and country, but, away from the neon and noise, where the nights are long and dark, the fear of one particular nocturnal monster strikes fear into the hearts of children and grownups alike.
The Aap (អាប) has to be one of the greatest ways to scare the young ‘uns shitless before bedtime. As with most oral folklore the details alter from person to person, but essentially the Cambodian countryside is terrorised by a dung eating, blood sucking, floating head of a woman, with entrails flowing around it. Oh, and it glows an ethereal green.
As Khmers are often fond of pointing out, anything good in neighbouring Thailand was originally from Cambodia before the dastardly Siamese pinched it and the Aap is no exception, although nest door it’s known as the Krasue. The origins of the Krasue are different from the Aap, as in Thai mythology a Khmer princess, betrothed to a Siamese big shot, was caught indulging in a bit of boom-boom with a common soldier. Understandably peeved, the lord decided that burning to death the girl he was sweet on was the only course of action. We’ve all been there.
The princess somehow managed to get a Khmer sorceress to whip up a bit of black magic to save her from the flames, but alas, in those days of yore locals timekeeping was similar to now, and the spell arrived a bit late, only working on the head and some of the bowels. Now immortal, the Khmer Krasue was born and free to fly about drinking blood around Thailand and Laos.
Cambodians have a different story, where the Aap is not the one entity, but contagious through either dabbling in witchcraft (when black magic goes wrong), passed down from mother to daughter, or from drinking water an Aap has spat in. Men can rest easy on this one, as only the fairer sex can become infected – blood and woman, there seems something Freudian in that.
Therefore, any lady, young or old might be an Aap, and, come evening, cut loose from the body and get up to no good. In a similar way that harmless crones were persecuted as witches back in Europe and the USA, Khmers will still denounce woman as being Aap.
The Aap is said to be highly attracted to blood but when it cannot satisfy itself, it will eat shit, frogs and sometimes chickens found in the rice fields. Some also say that Aaps have a taste for young babies. When yet one more bundle of joy is dropped into a village shack, it is often custom to bury the placenta deep beneath a thorn tree and place thorn branches around the windows and doors of the house to ward off those ladies in the village who might turn into Aap at night time.
Mrs Pedro told me a story of a local woman thought to be Aap. As a kid, when Papa was at work, her own mother popped out another one of the 7 kids in the one room hut (by itself, a testament to the hardness of village ladies). The first visitor to this happy scene was an old girl, rumoured to be involved in a bit of sorcery (love potions, healing herbs and the like). She had already been labelled an Aap by others, and, as she had walked a whopping 1.5km just in time to witness the natural bloodbath….. it was if she could smell it….. The prosecution rests, Your Honour. Throughout her childhood, Mrs P and most of the village were convinced this lady would take nightly jaunts away from her torso. “Believe but never see.”
Let’s get critical. As much as I “Know what I saw” with my own supernatural spooking, I can readily admit that the brain makes mistakes. Cambodia, like much of SE Asia, has a deep rooted tradition of animism and spiritual belief beneath a thin façade of Buddhism. With the not so distant history of mass slaughter, it would be reasonable to suppose that, should ghosts exist, then Cambodia would be a paranormal nirvana.
In a conservative culture, much is gained by fear of the dark – your daughter can’t get knocked up and your son won’t become a hoodlum if they are tucked up in bed by around 8pm. A couple of decades of war and subsequent banditry also made Cambodia a pretty dangerous place – out in the provinces rapes, murders, savage beatings and traffic accidents are still commonplace. A bogeyman detracts from the real problems of society and functions as a face saving nod to the fact that it’s fucked up outside, whilst not naming or dealing with the real causes.
As for the Aap, I have a theory or three. First is cultural – a ghost story told to kids, which has become the subject of several ghost movies filmed in Thailand and Cambodia and has been viewed by Cambodian youth almost as a documentary. To a susceptible bunch of people, it’s already ingrained as fact.
Next is the science- the Aap is said to glow fluro green, perhaps the same hue as burning methane – known as marsh gas, which is also attributed to the will-o-the-wisp phenomena in Europe. Then comes the witnesses and geography.
Your average Cambodian/Thai/Laotian rice farmer is pretty short, and rice can grow to about shoulder height of a pretty short rice farmer. These guys like nothing more than to drink quite powerful hooch and have not so happy wives waiting for them back at home. Could it be that a peasant, with an overactive imagination, trippin’on moonshine, could see a natural blaze of marsh gas, and perhaps glimpse another equally pissed up farmer stumbling about, with only his head visible above the grass?
“No love, I was just coming home, when I was chased by the Aap” is probably a plausible excuse for returned shite-faced and covered in filth.
Whatever the source and propagation, the myth of the Krasue in Thai, Krasu in Laos, Hantu Penanggal of Malaysia and Phillipines, Leyak in Indonesia, Mai Lai to the Vietnamese and, of course the Cambodian Aap is widespread across the region and taken seriously. As a fairly educated Khmer said to me, as I was researching the topic “How can something known to so many people in different countries not be real?”
Just remember, the Aap can be killed by fire, joining the wrong headless torso, or not getting back to its own body by dawn. Knowledge is power, my friends, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.