He speaks with spirits. They come and fill him and he knows the future, present, and past. They come, then they go. He can’t tell me why. He says, “Some people are born like this.” The faded Chinese characters on his shoulder read, “No Fear of Death.”
Thoat Thim, 82, has been listening to the neakta since he was a teenager. He knows their language. He eases troubled minds. He can find what’s been lost. He exorcises evil. He can help you commune with the dead. In Khmer, he is called a spirit grandfather. Lately, though, they haven’t been speaking—not since his left leg gave out three years ago. His devotees now seek solace elsewhere. Thoat Thim keeps the misshapen limb folded under his frail frame.
Born in Sichuan, China, Thoat Thim followed his work-seeking mother to Cambodia nearly seventy years ago. Under the Khmer Rouge, his house, his shrine, was destroyed. Like everyone else, Thoat Thim was evacuated from the city to labour in the fields. When he returned in 1979, he discovered that only his idols remained. Thoat Thim collected money to rebuild his bombed-out temple. “It is my responsibility,” he says, “to share the spirit world with others.” None of his seven children have inherited his gift. Thoat Thim has no protégé.
He never moves from his thin mattress. Hunched. Bare sunken chest. Usually, he’s sleeping. His pug-faced dogs are vicious. Thoat Thim doesn’t mind that I come to pray.
Light comes through the window; light illuminating wisps of white hair. Face framed in a halo. His eyes are piercing black. He chokes on all his words. His voice: high, coughing, then low. Speaking is a struggle. He tries. A lone incisor flaps from his lower jaw. When he loses words, he smiles at his cluttered shrine: photos and signs, peeling red paint, mirrors, drums, Chinese gods and demons, plastic flowers, melted candles, and a large cement Buddha serene above all. The house reeks of incense and urine. The spirit grandfather offers me a warm cup of tea.