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Delicious Spirituality: the Spirit Houses of a Phnom Penh Ice Cream Parlour

August 6, 2012

Walking in from Phnom Penh’s sweltering heat, Jenny and I feel overcome by the frosty air of the ice cream parlour and its beautiful ornate spirit house strategically placed as the first point of contact before the friendly staff adds their own greeting.
The majority of guests in the cafe are young students who have just finished the school day. My watch reads three o’clock but we have viewed that this wonderful buzz remains even later into the night.

We order our ice cream and sit down with the manager who has agreed to answer a few of our questions. Armed with note books and fueled by an appetite for both the ice cream and more information about this odd venue, we ask her about the history of the shop.

The manager explains that the initial idea for the café came from a Cambodian who had tasted ice cream all around the world and felt disappointed by the lack of quality ice cream in Cambodia: “In other parts of Asia, you could get good ice cream, like what you can find in Europe, or Singapore, but here in Cambodia he found that the ice cream was powdered and containing many chemicals, artificial colors and flavorings. The ice cream was not fresh; he wanted a quality ice cream so the fruit is bought from the supermarkets, not from the local markets.”

We then inquire about the main object of our curiosity—the strikingly beautiful, unique, and centrally featured spirit house. “It is very important that we have this spirit house,” the manager tells us, turning to look over her left shoulder to take another quick glance at it. “My father told me that the house for the spirit must always face the door, because it must be the first thing you see as you enter the room. My father also told me that it must always be supported by something,” she says leaning her hand on the pillar which is directly behind the spirit house.

The house fits comfortably into the shop, waiting to greet each customer from its low vantage point. The manager tells us that the spirit that dwells inside the house is called the ‘Lord of the House,’ and that there is a second spirit that lives outside called the ‘Lord of Land and Water.’ “This spirit is more powerful. If a ghost from outside wants to come in to the shop, they must first obtain permission from the Lord of Land and Water. And then when they are allowed to enter, the ghost must then ask permission from the Lord of the House to be allowed to stay. It is very important for the staff to maintain and look after the spirit houses both inside and outside the shop. So on each Buddha day we offer incense, tea and usually a sweet treat or fruit.”

We all get up and stand in front of the spirit house for the Lord of the House and I am immediately struck by its perfect symmetry and tasteful, decorative ornaments of gold and white miniature trees, figurines of two lions and two Chinese statues at the back, just behind the china pot bulging with used incense sticks. Jenny inquires about what happens to the used incense sticks when you can no longer put new ones into the urn. The manager replies that on the day before Chinese New Year, the used sticks are removed from the spirit house and thrown into the river. “The river is cool and takes away any remaining heat from the incense sticks; the river is natural and they can be given back to nature and are swept away. We then have to clean the spirit house for the New Year when we will provide lots of offerings to ensure luck and success.”

We all sit back down to our empty bowls of ice cream and the manager reiterates the importance of caring for the spirit house in the shop, maintaining that the same need and attention should be given to the shop and to the family home: “It is very important that we have both spirit houses; we even have another in the kitchen, and it is very important that we look after all of them. If we do not pray, bad things will happen. We will not have good business and our staff may fall ill.”

Some members of the staff have even seen a ghost at the shop, but the manager laughs, telling us that only a few say this. She adds that “sometimes they say there is a lady who appears at night and tells staff that she would like something particular to eat; sometimes a chicken or just something completely different.” Thinking that this might suggest the practice of animal offerings, I comment that I have never seen a chicken left as an offering at any spirit house in Cambodia, and that it would look out of place in a shop. The manager replies that the customers do not see it because the chicken offering is removed when the incense has burnt down completely. “We must look after both the customers and the spirits that dwell in this house.”

We thank the manager for the time taken for answering our questions and the staff for the delicious ice cream. We then take the time to find the house for the Lord of the Land and Water outside before diving into the tuk tuk, away from the intense heat outside the frosty, fabulous café.