“Animal cries” - samrek sat សម្រែកសត្វ

Last update: December 6, 2023

The highlight of the Khmer funeral is the lighting of the funeral pyre men មេន, sometimes accompanied, for families who can afford it, by fireworks and extraordinary sounds generated by powder-filled bamboos called samrek sat សម្រែកសត្វ, literally "animal cries".

While popular belief has it that these sounds imitate animal cries, the original reality may be quite different. In fact, these sounds resemble the long cries of funeral lamentations that can still be heard among Ratanakiri's ethnic minorities, notably the Tampuon. In our opinion, the Khmer term samrek sat is not sufficient to define their inventor's intention. We know that in Southeast Asia, selected musical instruments have replaced or superimposed verbal utterances, singing and weeping. Professional mourners have, for centuries - and still today, albeit rarely - officiated at funerals to mourn the deceased in place of the family.

A recent analysis, based on our research into the kantoam ming repertoire, shows that these are soothing melodies - sometimes called "lullabies" - played to the deceased; before the Khmer Rouge, and in a single example recently discovered at Vat Trach, a singer takes the place of the family to sing and lament the untimely departure of the loved one. Samrek sat fireworks could therefore also be a civilizational substitution for the lamentations of family and loved ones.The more modern societies become, the more death is concealed and the more the funeral process is delegated to professionals.

We don't know how long these fireworks and "animal cries" have existed in Cambodia, but given the technology, limited to bamboo and gunpowder, we can assume that they may already have existed in Angkorian times.

A first, albeit very recent, account comes from Adhémard Leclère*, who attended the funeral of King Norodom (Noroudam). He writes:

"At five o'clock in the evening, everything was ready.Sentries have been placed everywhere on the straw huts in case the menagerie goes up in flames, and fire pumps are ready to operate. On all four sides of the catafalque, fireworks known as sâmrék-satv, 'animal cries', are attached, which will groan when the fire is lit and the firecrackers will explode."

Earlier, at the end of the 13th century, the Chinese chronicler Zhou Daguan** 周達觀, reports the following:


"These people (the Khmers) always make the tenth Chinese moon their first month. (...) In front of the royal palace, a large dais is assembled, capable of holding more than a thousand people, and is entirely decorated with lanterns and flowers.

Opposite, at a distance of twenty toises, by means of [pieces of] wood placed end to end, a high platform is assembled, of the same shape as the scaffolding for the construction of the stupa, and over twenty toises high.Every night, three or four, or five or six are built.Rockets and firecrackers are placed at the top.These expenses are borne by the provinces and noble houses. When night falls, the sovereign is invited to attend the show. The rockets are set off and the firecrackers lit. The rockets can be seen from over a hundred stadia away; the firecrackers are as big as stones, and their explosion shakes the whole city."


This testimony, outside the funerary context, demonstrates that the ancient Khmers were familiar with gunpowder and its use. Reference is made to its powerful light and sound.


* Adhémard Leclère,  La crémation et les rites funéraires au Cambodge. Crémation de Sa Majesté Noroudam Roi du Cambodge (1907), p. 144.

** Zhou Daguan et Paul Pelliot, Mémoires sur les coutumes du Cambodge de Tcheou Ta-Kouan, vol. 3, Adrien Maisonneuve, coll. « Œuvres posthumes », March 1, 2003, 71-03 éd. (1re éd. 1951), 178 

At the origin of the funeral lamentations

Throughout the world, people sing collective funeral laments in the form of random polyphony, like wolves.

Their striking resemblance is at the origin of this imaginary text from our creation (Patrick Kersalé): 


"Once upon a time, when humans still lived by gathering and hunting, there was a man, the father of a large family.His children were so numerous that every night, before going to bed, he wondered how he would manage to feed them all the next day. This man was certainly a good hunter, with efficient weapons and plenty of magic charms, but he spent so much time hunting down game that nightfall often got the better of his tenacity.

One day, while stalking a wild buffalo weakened by disease, he focused his attention on the attack strategy of a pack of wolves also coveting this huge prey. The buffalo was weak, but nervous. Dust rose all around him. Its nostrils exhaled an air made hot by fever. The wolves, many in number, surrounded him and managed to put him down despite the rushes.

The wolves aroused a certain admiration in the hunter.

He said to himself, "If I could just get these wolves under control, I wouldn't have to worry about feeding my family! So he came up with a timely idea, since it was mating season for wolves. And so he did.

Day and night, he tracked the wolf pack and observed it with the trained eye of a hunter: intimidations, submissions, fights, bites, nothing escaped him. He spotted one pair dominating all the others. For weeks, he concentrated his attention on this one. One day, he noticed that the dominant she-wolf's belly was beginning to round out. So he decided to dress himself in foliage and smear his body with wolf dung, so as to get as close as possible to the pack.

One afternoon, he spotted the big-bellied she-wolf but, exhausted and inattentive, he lost sight of her. His tenacity remained unaffected. Such is the soul of the hunter, trained in patience.

For days, he waited for her. One evening, she reappeared, but with a flat stomach: her cubs had been born! Our hunter took advantage of one of his absences to break into the den and steal the cubs. He grabbed them one by one and plunged them into his bag. The trick was done. All he had to do now was make his way home, tired but happy.

In the rock shelter where his family lived, there was a natural pit where he deposited the cubs.

The hungry children took a different view of this strange game than their father. Poor hunter, he now had to satisfy the appetites of both his own children and the cubs! As far as the cubs were concerned, it was agreed that his wife would nurse them at the same time as their youngest son.

The night after this event, the hunter's family heard long wails from the edge of the forest.

These weeping songs were undoubtedly those of a bereaved family. In such circumstances, all witnesses had to attend the funeral. And so it was. The next morning, before dawn, part of the family set off, guided by the sound of weeping. But strangely enough, even though they were walking straight ahead, they seemed to be drifting. The family stopped and listened. The crying was changing places. The forest was large and echoing. It wasn't easy to pinpoint where the sound was coming from. Such a thing had never happened before. The hunter's family set off again, altering their route according to the location of the crying, when suddenly they encountered another family coming from another direction. They exchanged long, ritual greetings before discovering that they had heard the same mobile wailing. Where could the bereaved family be? With so many unanswered questions, everyone decided to go home. The following nights, the same mournful wailing continued. The hunter and his family found themselves in a quandary. Perplexity gave way to anxiety. The spirits had struck all the families living in the forest. When would it be their turn?

The hunter decided to unravel the mystery.

On a full-moon evening, taking advantage of the best lighting, he set off alone in the direction of what seemed to him to be the focal point of the previous nights' lamentations. Once there, he stopped, took cover under a rock and waited. What if this was an attack strategy by an enemy clan? Although he recognized the melody of the funeral songs, he couldn't understand the words because of the distance. He hoped he could understand the language... When all of a sudden, the chants were heard, more present than ever. Cautiously, the hunter set off, fear in his belly, all senses alert, spear in hand.

The songs became even more distinct. His heart began to beat faster. If the melody was familiar, the language was unknown. It was then that he made out a few moving shapes, dimly lit by the moon filtering through a thick forest. Astonishment! A pack of wolves was singing at the top of their voices. He stood there, dumbfounded. He'd never seen anything like it before. He knew perfectly well the characteristic growls of wolves, but he had never heard them sing like humans.


From that day on, the wolf howls day and night to remind man of his misdeed.

Since that day, the wolf has fled from man, stealing his sheep and sometimes even his children.

Since then, the dog has been the descendant of the cubs stolen by the hunter.

Even today, the dog howls like a wolf to teach its descendants about its lupine origins.

Even today, the wolf barks to remind the dog of its genesis and man of his sacrilege.

Even today, wolves and men on every continent continue to mourn their children in a similar way.

Since ancient times, man has cherished the dog but hunted the wolf to the point of exterminating it from its natural territories.

Will the wolf ever awaken man's compassion?

Will man ever be able to understand the wolf's pain?


Audiovisual illustration

To illustrate this point in an audiovisual way, we propose a video sequence made up of :

  1. Howling wolves recorded at night in September 2009 in the Parc du Gévaudan (France), where some 60 Mongolian wolves were living at the time.
  2. Tampuon funeral lamentations recorded in March 2010. This Mon-Khmer-speaking population lives mainly in Ratanakiri province. These laments are mostly sung by women in front of the grave, but men also take part. In all, the wailing lasted around two minutes. Once finished, all participants got up and immediately returned to the village.
  3. Animal cries recorded at Vann Molyvann's funeral in Siem Reap in 2017.

The sound is that recorded live in all three situations and published without any special effects. Note that the wolves' howls, like the Tampuon's mournful lamentations and the Khmer's "animal cries", don't last much more than two minutes. All the more reason to theoretically amalgamate the three and perhaps imagine a common origin?

What we can say is that funeral lamentations have a pre-Angkorian origin, given their wide worldwide distribution and similar sound result.