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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Sage and Spirit

by Bronwyn Sloan

October 2006

Even the rare Cambodian you meet who doesn't believe in the supernatural will usually have a deep and abiding respect of other people's belief in it. This is a country of magic, spirits and ghosts.

In eastern Kampong Cham province a chief monk is believed by many followers to cure mental illness with a blend of fire eating, hot oil and incantations. Queues of villagers form outside his pagoda to watch him breathing fire into the air before prostrating themselves to be subjected to him stamping on them after first dipping his heel in boiling oil. They believe bad spirits have made them insane, and that these spirits need to be driven out. With barely any mental health system in place in Cambodia, for a lot of his patients this is a last resort. Some even swear it cured them when all else failed.

In rural areas, an outbreak of illnesses or other bad luck can still bring accusations of sorcery and witchcraft. All too often these accusations end in the murder of the accused master or mistress of the black arts or even their entire family.

A story that made headlines around the world last year involved a couple from the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin "smoking" the bodies of their premature twins to preserve them after the woman had miscarried.

To foreigners it sounded like a macabre act with no justification, but it, too, had its roots in superstition and strong traditional beliefs. Some Cambodians still believe that the unborn, if properly preserved, become talismans which can speak to them through their dreams, guiding their decisions and helping them stay safe and grow in wealth. These talismans are known as Cohen Kroh, literally well-done babies'.

One of the country's most infamous modern bandits, Rasmei, was rumored to have been protected by a pair of these mummified fetuses. A pair, and especially twins, is believed to be the ultimate in power. Legend had it that Rasmei could outrun police and pull off his daring robberies without fear because the Cohen Kroh warned him in advance if he would be successful and told him when the police were getting close. They can even help the bearer become invisible, according to believers.

Rasmei was eventually shot dead resisting arrest, but the reason why his grisly accomplices failed to help him on this occasion remain unclear. Some say one of his men had stolen them the night before and left him vulnerable and bereft of his powers. Others say he had angered them and they were sulking and silent when police closed in.

But Rasmei is a world away from the grieving parents in Pailin, who almost certainly tempered the tragedy of the loss of their unborn children with an unwavering belief that they were sent by heaven to serve as spiritual guides and had never been meant to be born alive.

For others, however, this strong superstition will outweigh all morals. Recently a smalltime young criminal was arrested after trying to cut his pregnant girlfriend's fetus out of her womb. She struggled and escaped, probably saving both her own and her unborn child's life. To local police investigating the crime afterwards, his motive was obvious. The man had not wanted a child. He wanted a talisman to help him improve his criminal skills, and he had deliberately impregnated a young woman claiming he loved her to achieve that.

This Cambodian belief in spirits and magic doesn't have to be sinister, however. Most of the time it is just discussed in passing as a simple fact of life which doesn't raise an eyebrow or even a faint utterance of disbelief. Many Khmers just believe that supernatural powers are part of our world, and that's all there is to it.

When my friend went for a haircut last week, the barber went to work, chatting away as barbers are known to do where ever they might ply this trade. This was just a day job, he explained. Actually, he was a sorcerer—but one of the good ones—and people often came to him for help and advice.

As I watched one of the less skillful haircuts I have seen anywhere in this country of blunt razors and tin mirrors unfold before me, I thought to myself that it was lucky he had another trade to fall back on. After it was over, I teased my friend, asking why he wasn't afraid of the sorcerer keeping some of his hair and making magic with it.

"Oh no—he doesn't know my real birthday or my animal sign. He can't make magic against me without those," he said. "But I think he cuts hair not so well…"

Animist beliefs run very deep. The ubiquitous shrines to Neak Ta, or local spirits, can be seen everywhere. It can be a small shrine or a few sticks of incense in a termite mound or under a grand old tree. It can be a temple inside the grounds of a Buddhist pagoda. Neak Ta are wherever people feel a particular power or beauty.

At Pich Nil, on National Route between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, shrines and temples to the Neak Ta Ye Mao line the road for hundreds of meters, and only the foolhardy or the ignorant fail to stop to make her an offering of bananas and incense if they use the road. She is a powerful local entity thought to assist travelers. The popular belief is that she is a lustful spirit who lost her husband at a young age and she craves bananas as a sort of phallic substitute.

On the way to Sihanoukville for Pchum Ben, a carload of young hoods in a souped up sedan screamed past, overtaking everything in their path dangerously fast and leaning on the horn.

But when we pulled up at Ye Mao's temple, I was amazed to see that they had stopped too and were respectfully bowing their heads and making their offerings. I expressed my surprise to my Cambodian partner, who barely glanced at them.

"Just because they are gangsters doesn't mean they are stupid," he said. And I suppose that when you are going to drive like that, it makes sense to ask for divine protection at any chance you get.

Smaller spirits also abound. Often ordinary homes will have a small basket hung with miniature clothes, usually in red, and candy or small toys are placed inside the basket. These are child spirit traps—ingenious little devices that catch and then entertain little spirits that might otherwise get bored and spitefully inflict illness on the human children of the house.

In some areas, blood colored water is hung out the front of the home. This happens in places where a type of pree-yay, or demon, has been on the rampage. The pree-yay attracted to this treat are the ones who resemble our vampires, and who bring sickness to a village by sucking the blood from those who sleep. The first warning that this sort of pree-yay ching chook chiem (demons who suck blood) has visited is often the illness. Those lucky enough to have escaped its appetite leave the colored water outside their homes to sate its appetite so it will not be tempted to cross their threshold. The bottles serve a similar purpose to the "dengue dolls", or ting moung, which are effigies, sometimes dressed in items of clothing from the family of the house, and meant as proxies to attract illnesses brought by bad spirits before they see the real tenants. Although usually associated with the mosquito-borne dengue fever, these almost life-sized scarecrows are versatile. After the first outbreaks of bird flu hit Cambodia, many people who had never entertained the idea of ting moung before decided one outside the front door couldn't do any harm. 

Cambodian soldiers from some factions and areas in particular can be recognized by their traditional tattoos. These they firmly believe will keep them from harm on the battlefield, and there are various tattoos to keep them safe from landmines, bullets and other dangers. But these beautiful and intricate patterns and spells come with reams of conditions and rules in order for the magic to work. These conditions range from the obvious ones such as avoiding "unclean" foods such as dog meat and refraining from overdrinking to more obscure ones such as not walking under washing lines.

When I interviewed an old man famous in Battambang for his tattoos, his faith in his work was so strong that he said in this modern age of drugs and crime he screens his clients. "If they are robbers and I give them one of these tattoos, it makes the job of the police much harder because they can run faster and they are much stronger than before. If I think someone is a delinquent I don't give them a tattoo," he said. Potential customers are encouraged to bring character references and must undergo a strict assessment before he consents to work with them, he added. "There is no war here any more so now I am always asking 'Why do you need protection? What are you afraid of?' I always want to know first if it the law they are afraid of, or if they respect it."

Fortune tellers are another staple of society. People will consult fortune tellers for any number of reasons, including aid in selecting an auspicious wedding date or even come to decision on their bride or groom in the first place.   

Cambodian police recently issued a warning against a gang of Chinese fortune tellers who were conning old Chinese-Khmer women out of their life savings. The 'fortune tellers' approach likely targets and tell them they have a premonition of impending doom for their children that can only be overcome by leaving all their valuables in a black bag at a pagoda for a week. Naturally, when they return the bag, and the fortune tellers, are gone. Most of the victims were suspicious from the beginning, but the faith and fear combination was too strong to resist. One woman left more than $10,000 in jewelry and cash for her fraudulent fortune tellers.

When I returned from overseas recently, my partner made me drop everything to travel to the Banon district in Battambang to meet a fortune teller who had dumbfounded him and a friend while I was away by telling them that his wife was not Khmer was also not in Cambodia, but was returning soon. She had further thrown them by waving away their protestations of poverty, even though they had arrived at the house in a banged up rental. "You both have nice cars and nice houses. You have good family. Don't tell me you are poor," she chided them.

Sitting in a wooden shed by herself next to her family's simple house, swathed in incense smoke, I was surprised to see a girl of not much more than 20 when we arrived at the home of such a revered fortune teller. She explained that her father had passed down his gift of palm reading, and when she held out her own hands, they were wrinkled and rutted like those of an old woman. Without fuss, she accurately told me how many kids I had, told me ages and how many friends I could really trust (and within a month I was to find out she was incredibly accurate). She laughed off my partner's claims that he was just the translator, reeling off the trials and tribulations of our relationship with as much familiarity as a close neighbor might, and then she warned me that until two months had passed, I should on no account go to the north.

I remembered her warning weeks later when the cabin of the Air India flight I was returning from Shanghai on filled with smoke, the oxygen masks dropped, and we made an emergency landing in Hanoi, where we were to remain stranded but grateful to be alive for interminable hours to come.

And then there are ghosts. Most Cambodians have an unshakable belief in them. In this ancient country with such a bloody recent past, it is hard not to agree.

At Pchum Ben, the Khmer Festival of the Dead, we went to the pagoda to leave an offering for an English friend who had been cremated there. Ghosts who are not fed during this festival go hungry all year, and some might not take this deprivation well, bringing bad luck and problems to the family and friends who failed to care. My partner had asked what my friend's favorite foods were, so these could be prepared and offered to the monks to be relayed to him.

But the suggestion of bangers and mash or sausage, beans and chips was met with dismay and a firm refusal. When a ghost in Cambodia, it seems, eat what Cambodian ghosts eat or go hungry. "Monks don't know how to eat this 'bangers' food," I was told. "And if the monks don't eat them, they can't meditate about your friend and he doesn't get to eat them either." So my dead friend eventually ended up with glass noodles, stewed pork, rice and fruit in a feast similar to what all the other ghosts were receiving.

I have always accepted the supernatural exists, to some extent. But in magical, unfathomable Cambodia, this acceptance is sometimes reinforced with a jolt. My daughter's childish protests that she didn't want to go to bed because there was a ghost in her room, which would have met with a stern talking to or been gently humored at best by many parents in the west, were instead greeted with great interest by the Khmers close to us, who encouraged her to provide them with as many details as possible, including conversations, descriptions and any advice that may have been offered by the spirit before he moved from under the bed to go to hide in her toilet.

All Cambodians know that ghosts are a great source of information. Some of them (not this one, thankfully) even provide winning lottery numbers. Children, they said, are often in closer contact with their clairvoyant powers than adults. If they have these powers, they should be encouraged. Bedtime can wait, they said, and tut-tutted my obviously foreign lack of parental understanding. 

But skeptical as I may have been, I had to admit there was something to this theory when we drove past the site of the old T-3 prison one night. Long demolished, the once infamous prison is now a vacant lot in the center of town and the prisoners have long since been transferred to the new Prey Sar prison, miles away from the city.

My daughter, who was born long after the grim, century old, French-built T-3 had been expunged, started to stare very intently out the window. Then she turned to me and asked: "Why are all those sad men in blue pajamas working so hard?" I couldn't see anyone. To me, the lot was empty. But I broke out in goose bumps and prepared for another round of 20 questions being put to her from curious Khmers.

The Cambodian prison uniform worn by inmates of T-3 consisted of a simple medium blue smock and pants with a white stripe around the edges. And that uniform, I have to admit, looks a lot like a simple set of blue pajamas.

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