Despite being more eye-catching than spirit houses and weirder than eating duck foetuses (maybe), the Ting Mong has managed to stay a lesser-known aspect of Khmer traditional culture. Ting Mongs are kind of like animist scarecrows, made by villagers in order to ward away bad spirits that can make them sick or wilt their crops. A session of Googleing led me to pictures of these incredible, human-sized stuffed figures. Propped up by fences or slung on poles outside houses and fields, they lurk floppily around rural areas of Cambodia with a kind of deadpan nonchalance.
While the opening of Aeon Mall ushers a new shiny age of consumerism into Phnom Penh, the countryside remains largely unbothered by the modern world, and continues to erect the same Ting Mongs that are said to have originated in a pre-Buddhist era. Some Ting Mongs have painted-on faces. Some have AK45s and rocket launchers. Most have a recognisable personality taken from ordinary village life: grandmothers, soldiers, farmers. All looked amazing – I had to see them for myself.
The sleepy region of Chi Phat in Koh Kong province was said to be fertile Ting Mong hunting ground, so one Saturday morning, while everyone rushed to eat sushi in an air-conditioned megamall, a friend and I hopped on a motorbike and drove over to check it out.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this lacklustre Ting Mong was a harbinger of things to come.
The next Ting Mong we found was more promising. Wearing a pink jumper, a bra and long, hot pink lacy undies, she appeared at first to be some kind of Ting Mong temptress. A hose poked lopsidedly out of either side of her body, like arms. We approached, and had a sneaky peak under her shirt. Underneath we discovered an empty packet of dried squid, a pink flip flop, and a battery (for extra spirit repelling power?) tied to her midriff.
Overall, this Ting Mong gave off an attitude of sexy, existential angst. ”Why am I here?” she seemed to ask, as she drooped dejectedly by the side of the road. Her t-shirt summed it up: “Oh no!” it read, “Life is fleeting frow [sic]. A life of 20 years, take care of it”. We think this Ting Mong was probably French.
The next Ting Mong we came across was simply a shirt tied around a post with a flip flop stuffed into it. Was it a Ting Mong or the village lost and found post? We may never know. Regardless, the horrible yapping dog spraying rabies infected spit everywhere in the front yard would probably scare away any bad spirits without any assistance from the Ting Mong.
We came across a gang of Ting Mongs loitering by the side of the road like teenagers round a chip shop. One was made of an old cardboard box, another of an empty rice sack. The one made from a tree was carrying an empty sweet packet and wearing black sneakers: definitely disillusioned teenage Ting Mong goths, bored to death in rural Chi Phat and drowning their sorrows in sugar.
At this point, we’re on high alert, seeing Ting Mongs everywhere. ‘Is that a Ting Mong?’ I gasp as I see a vaguely person shaped thing standing in a field. ‘That was a basket on a stick’, was the reply. As we drive back through the tiny village, small children started to look like Ting Mongs, as did oddly shaped bushes. I’m beginning to understand the insidious power of these creatures, lurking in the peripheries of our vision and giving the countryside a witchy cast.
We think we see a Ting Mong outside a wooden shack by the side of the road made out of cooling talcum powder and a sponge, but it could have been just a place to store cleaning products in absence of a shelf. Nevertheless, there was something quite calm and spiritual about this maybe-Ting Mong, despite its overt OCD tendencies.
This was obviously mean to be a homeless hitchhiking mother and son. The mother Ting Mong was an alcoholic, as evidenced by the rusty cans and instant noodle packet tied to her waist. The son had a bandana tied around his head, and was clearly destined for a life of crime and destitution.
A businessman Ting Mong, on his way to work:
This was probably the most style-conscious Ting Mong duo. Check out the matching monochrome outfits, and diamante headband with an empty packet of dried chicken tucked inside at a rakish angle.
This conceptual art Ting Mong, tied to a CPP sign, was perhaps a metaphor for Chi Phat’s political disillusionment. The empty petrol barrel represented the draining of Cambodia’s natural resources, the bin bag a comment on the poor waste disposal infrastructure, while the broken children’s shoes spoke of a bleak vision of the future of Cambodia – drained and strewn with rubbish. If placed in the Saachi Gallery, it would definitely become worth enough to buy the whole of Chi Phat.
A racist Ting Mong:
By that time, we had joined the endless ranks of teenage boys and eBay shoppers who are bitterly disappointed to find out how things look in real life compared to how they look on the internet. We couldn’t even say that we had seen definite, irrefutable Ting Mong. Chi Phat is trying to market itself as a sustainable eco-tourism spot and has a little tourist info centre, so we asked the guy working there about the questionable quality of the Ting Mongs. He seemed understandably surprised that we had just driven for five hours through the rain to see old clothes tied to telegraph poles. ‘It’s not the season for them. When its rice harvesting time, people make lots of Ting Mongs to protect the crops’, he said.
So there you have it. although there is something ramshakley charming about the pathos of the off-season Ting Mong, if you want to enjoy some substantial Ting Mong tourism, its best to stick to peak season.