Planet Diversity World Congress on the Future of Food and Agriculture

The Rice Spirit

– a folktale of the Kroeng and Tompoun peoples of Cambodia

This story concerns the inter-generational transfer of the rice cultivation ceremonies belonging to indigenous peoples (IP) in Cambodia, the Kroeng and Tompoun peoples. The story describes the past beliefs related to the ceremonies, which are still performed within the IP society in Cambodia, where people continue to make annual offerings with the aim of showing devotion to their ancestors’ spirits.


There was once an indigenous family with two children, one son and daughter, who lived in the middle of the jungle. In daily life, they ate yam and manioc tubers that are found with difficulty in the thick forest. These kinds of food are mostly the wild pigs’ food and the major problem for this family was that it was hard to compete with the large number of wild pigs in the forest. In their day to day life, the parents started to have great difficulties to feed their children.

The forest spirit felt great pity for this isolated family and changed into human form as a very old lady and intended to live with them. She looked very wicked and had a very ugly face. One day, this wicked-looking lady came to stay with the family for a while. Immediately, the family reacted very badly to the old lady. They did not want her to live with her, because she was very dirty and very old, and this family was very poor.

The second and third time the old lady came, she was still neglected by the poor family. The old lady felt that ‘It might be because of their livelihood, and I am too old. It might be they that don’t really know who I am’. The old lady was the forest spirit who wanted to live with them to give them some advice to support the family to develop so that there was no need to encroach into the animal area, struggling to get food for themselves. The old lady decided to go back and discuss things with them.

Later on, she decided to help them in terms of the rice spirit as a strong helper to overcome the family’s rejection. At every opportunity, she went again and again and tried to negotiate with them until they agreed, but she still kept it a secret where she had come from. She was provided with a very small cottage nearby.

In a few days, the parents went in the early morning to find food away from their house and let the two children stay with the old lady. They boiled yam and manioc tubers in the pot by putting it on the fireplace made from three stones. The old lady understood that the two children were still asleep, and she went to check what was in the pot. She saw small pieces of yam and manioc and thought that, ‘Ah! this kind of food is not suitable for supporting human beings. I will do magic to turn these into rice, and then when the children get up they can taste it.

When the children got up they walked straight to the pot, because their parents always instructed them to have breakfast before playing around in the backyard. They saw a different thing to eat from what they usually have and suddenly started to cry. Right away, the old lady came to soothe them and tried to persuade them to taste this new kind of food. The children were satisfied with her persuasion and tried to eat the rice. They told her that; “It is very delicious, we never tried it before.

The sun is nearly setting, and their parents did not come home yet. The old lady told the children to go to bed and she herself went to bed too. A couple of hours later their parents arrived home in the darkness and quietness. They lit a torch and saw their children were sleeping. They tried to wake them, but they would not get up. They went into the kitchen and found the rice that was different from the food they were used to feeding them. They thought that it might be that the old lady had killed them. Suddenly, their father ran to the old lady’s cottage and asked many questions but got no answers. The father became angry with her and said rude words to her and expelled the old lady from the house and yard.

The pitiful, lonely and wicked-looking lady was willing to go, but left the father with a smooth and soft message: Tomorrow you might not be able to meet me again, and you might be really short of food. If you want to have enough food, you should prepare an offering ceremony for me and then you will definitely be able to escape from the shortage. There will be no need to for you to dig up roots and tubers to eat as you used to. Before she left, the old lady made an incantation to provide the family with a full store of rice, and a lot of cooked rice.

The parents talked about this during the time while children still did not get up. They kneeled down near their children and cried loudly together. They regretted their children losing their lives when they were still small and very lovely. They were unsatisfied with the old lady because she should not kill their children. In fact, because of the delicious food that they had never tasted before the children had become full and slept as if they had died. Because the parents cried very loudly, it disturbed their sleeping. The children seemed to wake up very slowly. Then, they saw their parents were crying with great sorrow without any reason. Right away, the two children got up together and hugged their parents, telling them that they did not die. They told them the whole story about staying with the old lady and that she had taken care of them, providing them with a very good and tasty food.

The lonely parents felt that she was a magic woman, and then they rushed to the kitchen and saw the very good pot of cooked rice that their children told them about. They rushed into the store and saw many kilograms of rice in it. They were so happy and remembered the old lady’s words. The rice was kept for rice seed, and they ate some of it too. When they met their people who used to forage for food in the jungle, they told them that they were the lucky family which was assisted by the magic woman. Also they shared the seed with them for eating and planting. But, what they did not forget was to celebrate the rice annual offering devoted to the old lady who was recognized as the rice spirit who helped them. They also tell this story from generation to generation to teach them about the original cause of the coming of rice.


Note: During 2004, the Lao authorities repatriated a family of indigenous people who had evacuated to the Laotian jungle from Cambodia during the war in Cambodia in 1979. According to the local bulletin, the family had lived in the jungle along the range of mountains on the Cambodia-Laos border. The family were interviewed about how they were able to live in the forest for twenty-four years. The main point quoted by the interviewer was that, “One day, after the family moved to a very isolated area in the forest, they started to hunt for food, as they had no rice to eat. They hunted and killed a kind of forest pigeon using a handmade crossbow. When they arrived home, they opened up the pigeon’s stomach and found a few rice seeds in it. They picked out the seeds and planted them in one place and took very good care of them while struggling to eat yam and manioc in place of the rice that they were used to eating. Year by year, they extended their rice plantation from those seeds, based on their knowledge of shifting cultivation.”

In the indigenous people’s traditional ways the rice offering is carried out seven times:

1. Before planting

2. When the rice is growing

3. During tillering and developing

4. Before the harvest

5. Before putting rice into the rice store

6. When taking rice out of the rice store

7. Before starting to eat the new rice

Written by: The IK transfer workshop 3-4 October, 2007 in Cambodia.

Edited by: Mr. Ek Yothin, ICSO Capacity Building Coordinator, CIYA and IRAM.

This folktale was contributed by Mr. Ek Yothin and Mr. Sokunthea Nun.


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Local Organising Committee