Cambodian kru and magic

Black magic kru

Black magic kru

The gentleman to the left is a kru. The word kru is from the Sanskrit word “guru”, meaning teacher or master. A teacher in a school is a kru, and if someone teaches you Khmer he’s your kru Khmer. But this is a more specialised use of the term: kru as magician,and kru khmer as practitioner of traditional, and very abstruse, teachings. (the man to the left is, unfortunately, a black magician, which is unfair, as most are white, but he looks so good I just had to use him. He comes from an article on fortune tellers at Khmer Connection).

Kru follow written texts detailing ingredients to be used and rituals to be followed. Symbols play an important role. A centrally placed bell represents Meru, the cosmic mountain, and other ritual objects represent the four cosmic continents. The kru might invoke Thorani the Earth Goddess while sprinkling holy water over the patient, thus creating a symbolic link with Buddha’s defeat of Mara the demon king through the water wrung from Thorani’s hair.

There are the “white” kru, who heal sickness, and also “black” kru who cause it through black magic. A black kru can cause a knife to enter a man’s body, causing sharp pain and even death.If a Cambodian has an illness that won’t respond to modern medicine, he’ll probably go to a kru. White kru have a high standard of ethics, following the Buddhist precepts and basing their powers on Buddhist teachings, albeit the more esoteric ones, or practices derived from Brahmanical belief. Black kru are the enemies of the Buddha and of religion: to preserve their power, must never enter a monastery or pass before or make a deferential bow to a Buddha image, nor may they wash their entire lives.

Cambodian lead katha amulet - lead charms indicated by arrows - one like this caused lead poisoning in the child in New York city in 2009. (

Cambodian lead katha amulet – lead charms indicated by arrows – one like this caused lead poisoning in the child in New York city in 2009. (

Amulets can protect the wearer from physical harm. The thirteenth century Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan wrote of how the king of Angkor was protected from swords and arrows by powerful amulets implanted under his skin, and I know of a Western photographer living in Phnom Penh who wears an amulet made of a small sheet of hammered lead, rolled into a tube around a braided thread and tied to his wrist. More expensive ones are available of silver or gold.

Amulets can also take the form of small Buddha images carved from ivory or wild boar tusks or crystal, worn around the neck or waist or over the genitals. The katha must be guarded from contact with impurity, and for this reason should not be taken into the lavatory. The wearer should also avoid certain foods, and should obey the Five Precepts. For some people, such as soldiers and criminals, following the first two precepts might be difficult, as they prohibit killing and theft, and to compensate they will need to make especially generous and frequent donations to the monastery.

Amulets and charms drawn on cloth are popular. These are called kansaeng yantra, and are displayed on the walls of houses and businesses. The best ones are those prepared by monks, and monks who are skilled in them can become extremely sought after.

Tattooed soldier, Tuol Sleng museum

Tattooed soldier, Tuol Sleng museum

Protective charms can also take the form of tattoos. These are called bidhi sak, and as usual, the process is surrounded by ritual. In the past the tattoo was rendered more powerful by the inclusion of certain substances such as the bile of a brave enemy, or the skin of a monk. The completed tattoo must be consecrated by ritual sprinkling delivered by the senior monks of seven monasteries.

Kru also prepare special potions. Their specific powers depend on their ingredients, and, of course, the incantations and rituals. One was prized for its ability to confer invulnerability to bullets – the ingredients included dried python and the faeces of the red vulture, among others.

Thai version of the goan krak, for sale on the internet

Thai version of the goan krak, for sale on the internet

Possibly the most famous charm is the goan krak. This is made from a human foetus cut from the mother’s womb (the woman theoretically having agreed beforehand) and dried over a fire. Worn in a small wooden ball around the neck, it will whisper advice and warnings to its owner in times of danger. The Khmer Issarak rebels who fought the French during and after World War Two are known to have used goan krak, the current prime minister is rumoured to have a collection, and freelance journalist Nate Thayer was offered one when he set off to interview Pol Pot in the Cambodian jungle.

All this, apart from a few details, comes from Ian Harris’ book Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. I’m trying to meet some of the kru, but not having much success so far.



The rat and you

800px-Rat_in_a_suburban_Vancouver_drivewayThere’s an article in the Cambodia Daily today about rats. The gist of it is that there are professional rat-catchers in Phnom Penh – I never knew that. They live out in the suburbs and come into the city centre at night to hunt behind the Riverside tourist strip. Lots of pricey restaurants on the Riverside, lots of good food that gets thrown out, lots of rats that the tourists never see.

The rat hunters are a special breed, fast of hand, fleet of foot, unafraid of crawling down the inner-city drains in search of their quarry. They run many dangers – the police mistake them for gangsters, and the gangsters for police, and they get arrested by the first and beaten up by the second. But the money is good – about three times what a Western expat English teacher makes. And then…

“After we hunt them we chop off their heads, skin them, and remove their insides, but we do not have to clean them since they are stored in ice,” Mr. Han explained on Friday morning as he prepared the previous evening’s fly-covered catch.

And why do the skinned and filleted rats have to be stored in ice? Read on.


Looks disturbingly like chicken, doesn’t it?

Neak ta: the White Mother and human sacrifice

Main shrine at Ba Phnom - photo by "doonstra", Trekearth (

Main shrine at Ba Phnom – photo by “doonstra”, Trekearth (

The last human sacrifice in Cambodia took place at Ba Phnom, in Prey Veng province, 80 kilometres east of Phnom Penh and 45 kilometres south of the provincial capital, in 1877. An inscription from 629 AD describes the mountain as sacred to the god Shiva, but today the mountain is a centre for neak ta, the protective spirits of places, from villages to provinces and entire regions.

The neak ta of Ba Phnom is Me Sar, the White Mother. (Not only of Ba Phnom: she’s found throughout Cambodia). Me Sar’s origins are mysterious, but she’s probably the modern incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, who as Parvati is the consort of Shiva.

The story of the 1877 sacrifice was told to scholars from the Buddhist Institute in 1944 by an old man who had witnessed it as a boy. The victim was a man already sentenced to death for a serious crime, possibly for being a soldier of a rebel army.  Locked in a neck-stock and followed by a large crowd, he was led around the various shrines at Ba Phnom and allowed to take part in rituals at each before being beheaded at the shrine of Me Sar. “The people looked to see what direction the victim’s blood fell,” wrote the Buddhist Institute scholars. “If it fell evenly, or spurted up, then rain would fall evenly over the entire district, but if the blood fell to one side, rain would fall only on that side of the district.”

Human sacrifice has, of course, a long association with fertility – a Chinese traveller in the middle ages reported about a king in what is now southern Laos who sacrificed a human victim once a year to ensure the rains and crops.

At Ba Phnom the victim’s head was impaled and offered up to Me Sar, while his body was cut into pieces and offered to Me Sar and to the neak ta called Sap Than (“spirit of everyplace”) and Tuol Chhnean (“spirit of fishing basket mound”).

Festival at Ba Phnom, 2011 - photo by Jonas Kroyer (

Festival at Ba Phnom, 2011 – photo by Jonas Kroyer (

The sacrifice took place during a festival called Loeng Neak Ta, “raising the ancestor-spirit”, which is still held. In 2006 the Phnom Penh Posty visited the festival, and an old man told the journalists that as a boy he had witnessed a sacrifice, but the victim was a buffalo rather than a condemned criminal or rebel. He also told the Post a legend about Ba Phnom involving a king who had been beheaded by the magical trick of an enemy. His quick-thinking wife was Me Sar, who ordered replaced the missing part with an elephant’s head – a story with faint overtones of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh.

Preah Thorani the Earth Goddess

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 9.54.38 AMKeith Kelly is a Cambodia-based photographer and graphic designer. He has a website here, and a very good collection of photos here on Flickr. I found the photo of Preah Thorani, the Earth Goddess, on his Flickr stream. (He spells her name Torani, which is a bit closer to the pronunciation – she’s also called Neang Kong Heng, “Lady Princess”).

When the Buddha was on the point of attaining Enlightenment the demon Mara attacked him, claiming that he was not the true Buddha and had no right to sit on the Diamond Throne. The gods were defeated by Mara and fled, but Buddha reached a hand down to touch the ground and called on the earth to bear witness. Goddess Earth (Thorani means Earth) appeared, a beautiful bare-breasted girl with her hair full of water. She told Mara that the water was from the countless libations the Buddha had poured out in all his past incarnations, and that he was indeed the Buddha. When she wrung out her hair Mara and his entire army were swept away in the flood.

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 11.14.47 AMThorani, under various names all meaning Earth Goddess, is found from Burma to Laos to Thailand, not just Cambodia. (The Thorani water-fountain above is from Bangkok – she’s the symbol of Thailand’s Democrat Party, and also of the Bangkok Water Authority). But she’s not present in Indonesia or Malaysia, and not in India or Sri Lanka. Just those four countries. So she’s a very special earth goddess for mainland Southeast Asia.

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Once you start looking you’ll see her everywhere, wringing out her long hair while standing on or near a crocodile and/or an ornamental pool or fountain. She’s often found near a Buddha in the earth-touching pose, the gesture of calling the earth to witness – in the photo above you see Thorani on a pillar with a golden earth-touching Buddha at right-front. (The photo is from a blog called Wanderlust and Lipstick). Keith’s is at Wat Krong at Sihanoukville, and there’s a nice one inside Wat Penh (standing statue to the right-front as you look at the main altar), and a famous one outside Olympic Stadium, and even at many vihears (the central shrine-hall of a monastery), despite being not quite canonical. (She’s not quite canonical because her story doesn’t appear in the canonical Pali scriptures, only in one non-canonical text that’s found only in mainland Southeast Asia).

One final Thorani, from Prasat Banteay Thom at Angkor, as described on Andy Brouwer’s blog Andy’s Cambodia, just to show how old the goddess is. Bare-breaset Thorani stands on a lotus, destroying Mara’s army.

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Interview with thriller writer Tim Hallinan

It’s my pleasure to be carrying this interview simultaneously with Angela Savage, who writes the excellent Jayne Keeney mysteries starring a female PI in Thailand, Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, and Kevin Cummings, who runs one of the most comprehensive Thailand blogs I know of. As Kevin says, if you haven’t read Tim Hallinan yet you should; but I’d add that you should also dip into these blogs.

  HallinanPicTim Hallinan (his excellent Blog Cabin here) began his career as a writer in the 1990s with the distinctly noir Simeon Grist series. In 2007 he began a second series, set in Bangkok and featuring “rough-travel” writer Philip (“Poke”) Rafferty and his attempts to cobble together a family comprising a former go-go dancer and a precocious street urchin named Miaow. In 2011 he returned to the Los Angeles setting for his third series starring Junior Bender, the best private detective a mobster could have. The second Junior, “Little Elvises”, has just been nominated for the Shamus Award as Best Private Eye Novel of 2013, while the next Junior Bender, “Herbie’s Game”, has been chosen as one of the coming summer’s top ten thrillers by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY magazine and as one of the ten best thrillers for July by Amazon. It’s also been selected as an IndieNext book of the month by the U.S. association of Independent booksellers, and a great review just appeared in BOOKPAGE (with the title These Boots Are Made For Kicking Butt – I wish I’d thought of that!)

“Herbie’s Game”, the fourth in the Junior Bender series, will be appearing in mid-July, to be followed in November by the sixth Poke Rafftery.

  1. Tim, can you tell us a little about “Herbie’s Game”?

HerbieHERBIE’S GAME is the fourth in my series of books about Junior Bender, a first-rate Los Angeles burglar who moonlights (when forced to) as a private eye for crooks.  He’s been the smartest guy in the room for most of his life, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the thugs in his (anti)social circle, and when one of them becomes the victim of a crime or a threat, they know they’re not going to get a sympathetic, gee-we’d-better-solve-this-tout-suite reaction from the cops, so they turn instead to Junior. What this usually means that he’s in danger of being killed by the culprit if it looks like he might succeed, on one hand, and–on the other hand–in danger of being killed by his client if he fails.  So in addition to solving the crime, Junior has to pay a lot of attention to staying alive.

In HERBIE’S GAME, a continuing character, a sort of executive crook named Wattles, finds his office burglarized one fine morning, and the only thing missing is a piece of paper on which he unwisely wrote the names of the crooks in a chain he was using to pass along to a hitman the name of the victim and the payment.  The chain guarantees that the hitman has no idea who hired him and it also builds an ideal defence case for Wattles because if things go awry, all the prosecution witnesses will be convicted felons, and as one character says, defence lawyers have a word for such trials: they call them acquittals.  Wattles thinks Junior might have committed the burglary, but Junior knows immediately that the thief was his mentor, the legendary Herbie Mott, who took Junior under his wing when Junior was only seventeen and became a surrogate father to the budding burglar.  And then Herbie shows up dead, with no stolen piece of paper in sight, and Junior knows that he has to follow the names in the chain to get to Herbie’s murderer.  As he does, he begins to find that Herbie may have been a very different kind of man that Junior thought he was, and Junior has to ask himself how much of the life he’s living — a life that frequently leaves him feeling unsatisfied and adrift — is his own invention, and how much of it is just Herbie’s game.  Sorry to rattle on at such length.

  1. “Herbie’s Game” is a very funny book, and the humour derives mostly from the characters. In fact I get the impression that you enjoy writing bad guys more than good guys. What is it about crooks that excites your imagination?

They have a special energy. They don’t have to be politically correct, or even polite.  They can say whatever they want. They can go from A to D without bothering with B and C. Best of all they have highly personal and idiosyncratic moral codes, which they frequently invent on the fly.  In my non-Junior books, I usually have to work to keep the bad guys and gals from taking over.  I decided to deal with that issue by writing a series that’s essentially all crooks, and writing them makes me very, very happy.

Another thing I like about writing the Juniors is that, for all of us, whatever we’re doing makes sense to us. I think much of what the characters in these books do, sometimes on a daily basis, skirts the fuzzy edge of insanity, and part of what makes their characters so much fun to write are the internal justifications and accommodations they’ve made in order to accept the things they do.  But when the tide goes out and they’re old, like Dressler or Burt the Gut, what’s left is just a normal person, usually not very happy.

  1. You also have an amazing rapport with female characters – I’m thinking Dolly’s adolescent beginnings in the movie game in “The Fame Thief”, Rose’s journey from village beauty to Bangkok bargirl, and the daughters of Junior and Poke. 

I have no explanation for that.  Until three Rafferty books ago — Breathing Water, I think — I’d never written two women alone in a room.  I was afraid to — how did I know what women talked about when no men were around?  But then, for QUEEN OF PATPONG, I was stuck writing huge section of the book — 40,000 words or something – that was all women, and women at a very intimate juncture in their lives.  Having been forced into the sex trade, they were trying to find a way to lead their new lives while keeping their hearts and spirits intact and learning to divorce sex from emotion and intimacy.  And the story and characters just came in huge bolts, like yardage.  Geraldine Page, who knew all there was to know about acting, said, “When the character uses you, that’s when you know you’re really cooking. You know you’re in complete control, yet you get the feeling that you’re not doing it.  You don’t completely understand it, and you don’t have to.”

It feels since QUEEN like I’m writing women all the time, and it’s great because it’s opened up a whole range of stories I couldn’t have written otherwise. And as for Miaow, she’s always been the easiest character in the series because she always, always has an agenda.  And I can’t say much of anything about THE FAME THIEF — that whole book arrived by air mail.  I just wrote as fast as I could to keep up.

  1. Your second book this year is “For The Dead”, the sixth in the Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty series. Can you tell us something about this?


Well, speaking of Miaow, FOR THE DEAD is largely Miaow’s book.  On the thriller side it’s a story about police corruption, power, and murder on a grand scale, but on the emotional side it’s about what happens to a 13-year-old girl who’s created a new identity to impress the snotty kids in her fancy school when every lie she’s told is suddenly exposed and she loses even the boy she was falling in love with and–she thinks–the security of the home Poke and Rose made for her.  It is, to put as benign a face on it as possible, a major growth experience.  Things also change forever, over the course of the book, for Poke and Rose. (I will say with some astonishment, since the book almost killed me, that it’s getting some of the best early reviews of my life.)

  1. It seems to me that each adventure in the Poke series centres around Poke’s attempts to create a family in the midst of a world which is essentially malignant. Poke wins every battle, though only just, and with each victory his private world of love and family is strengthened. What’s your own take on the world of the Poke series?

You’re spot on. I think of it as a series about three people who have unexpectedly been given a second or third chance at a kind of life they thought they could never have.  It’s almost an accident that the family is so central.  When I wrote the very first book, I wanted to make it clear from the beginning that this was not a me-love-you-long-time book in which beautiful brown women fall helplessly and inexplicably in love with uninteresting white males. So in our first glance at Poke ever he’s holding his daughter’s hand and following his wife as they go grocery shopping.  And then Miaow takes off after Superman and the center of the book’s interest shifts to that apartment.  I had to fight to keep the thriller moving forward.  If I have my way I’ll write the series until Miaow moves out, at 19 or so, leaving Poke and Rose behind.  One of things I like best about the Pokes is that in the middle of the city of instant gratification you’ve got three people clinging for all they’re worth to the middle-class ideal of a functioning, loyal family.

  1.  Both the LA and the Bangkok series seem to me to be extremely visual and filmable. Who do you see playing Junior – Johnny Depp? How about Poke – give Owen Wilson a try on that?

Boy, you got me.  The Pokes were bought for cable although the experiment failed, and the Juniors have been optioned a couple of times.  I’m hampered in my attempt to answer this question by the fact that I watch almost nothing.  Poke is part Filipino, so someone with some Asian blood would seem to be called for.  Keanu Reeves looks interestingly battered in the fascinating documentary he directed about the transition from film to video.  There’s an actor attached to Junior right now, and while I can’t say who it is (in case it falls through) he’s no one who would come immediately to your mind.  I think he’s got to project intelligence; someone once suggested Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and when I saw him, I thought he’d be great.

  1. With two books out this year, what’s next? I understand you’re working on a return of the main character from your very first series, Simeon Grist, in what sounds like a very novel scenario. Any news on that?

The seventh Simeon, PULPED, has been finished for more than a year but so it’s far unsatisfactory to me, although I think about 80% of it works.  What happens is that Simeon has been banished to a kind of limbo that’s reserved for the heroes of unsuccessful crime series.  When the last unsold copy of the final book in the series is pulped to make paper for a new (and presumably better) book, pop, the character finds himself stranded, possibly forever, in the environment his/her author created as the primary setting, in a kind of gerrymandered neighborhood where everyone else is also the hero/heroine of discontinued crime series.  This is kind of a shock to begin with because fictional characters don’t know they’re not real until they’re suddenly in limbo, severed from the real world. The only connection with the world in which we live is when someone down here opens one of the books in the series, at which point Simeon (or the hero of whatever book it is) can look up, so to speak, through the page at the person who’s reading it.  He’s doing just that when someone kills the reader.  He doesn’t have enough readers to take this lightly, so he has to find a way down there and find out whodunnit.  That gives me a chance to write a lot of (to me) very funny and quite difficult scenes between a real person and a fictional one, including a love affair.  If I had a month I could (and eventually will) rewrite the first 25%, which is where the problems are.

So this July, HERBIE’S GAME comes out, and in November it’s FOR THE DEAD.  At the moment I’m writing the seventh Poke, THE HOT COUNTRIES, and the fifth Junior, KING MAYBE.  God willing, they’ll both be good.

  1. I think it was Dorothy Parker who said something to the effect that she hated writing but loved having written – meaning, I guess, that writing is hard work. P.G. Wodehouse in contrast brought out slightly more books than he had years in his life. Are you a Parker or a Wodehouse?

Writing is very hard work and enormous fun at the same time.  There are days when I’d rather be a lab rat than write, and there are days when writing is the only thing in the world that matters to me.  I hate to do it and I love to do it and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

  1. Every day we see articles about the demise of traditional bookstores and publishers in the face of Amazon and Kindle, and even warnings about the death of books. Joe Konrath, of course, feels that books and writers will get along very well without publishers and booksellers. You yourself brought out Junior as a self-published ebook series before switching back to traditional publishing. Where do you see the future heading?

I’m no prophet, although I think the growth of online commerce of all kinds is inevitable, barring some absolutely horrific systemic security breach that drives people back to the stores.  But where you buy the book or what format you buy it in–both those things are just delivery systems for the text.  And I think that text is alive and well and will continue to thrive as long as people want to tell and read (or hear) stories.