Phnom Penh pedestrianism

From Rupert Winchester’s The Mighty Penh:

The son of an acquaintance was nearly sideswiped recently by a huge black SUV at 0300hrs as he crossed a major road in Phnom Penh on foot. He had the temerity to slap the vehicle as it sped by, whereupon the car stopped, a bodyguard got out and chased him into a nearby restaurant and shot him through the buttocks.

This is a symptom of the way Cambodian society is structured – hierarchical, violent, symbol-conscious (the SUV was a symbol of the high status, which was transgressed by the pedestrian – it all follows from there).

Can it change? Of course. But not just yet.


Would you buy a used karma from this man?

14guru-1Indian guru says Angkor built in India 3,000 years ago and shipped to Cambodia. Holds meditation workshop at Siem Reap, 500 participants at $10,000 each, which adds up to … a lot. Claims also to be “the living incarnation of super-consciousness” with 18 million hits on You Tube.

All this and more in the Phnom Penh Post.

Coup in Cambodia, 2015

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From Dart-Throwing Chimp

There’s a blog called Dart-Throwing Chimp, run by an expert in probability theory and the art of predicting the unpredictable. In other words he gives probability rankings, not predictions as such.

Every year he brings out his forecasts of coups around the round. Probablility of coups, that is. As you’d expect, North America, Western Europe and Australasia are pretty cool. So also, and less expected by me at least, is Saudi Arabia.

At the other end are the hot risks. Thailand, for example. Cambodia ranks below Thailand.

He also uses crowd-sourcing as an  alternative to modelling – Thailand comes out quite different (it drops from number 17 in the at-risk rankings to something so far down that I don’t care to count).


Cambodian spirit-flags have long fascinated me. Their functions are pretty clear – they’re to signal that something is going on, a festival or funeral or whatever. Aesthetically they’re genuine art, elegant and original. Their origins and symbolism, however, are totally obscure. This post is a summary of the best article I could find on the ‘net, a guest post by Dr Rebecca Hall on the blog Alison in Cambodia. The photos are also hers – I’ve not had much luck photographing banners, they tend to blow in the wind and they’re a long thin shape that doesn’t fit easily in a normal 2:3 photo.

image-3The Khmer word for a flag or banner is tung, and the commonest type is the tung rolok. These are the ones you see in the grounds of monasteries, usually outside the main prayer hall (the preah vihear). I’ve been told that they should always go behind the hall, never in front of it – but in Phnom Penh they’re always in front of it, never behind. The friend who told me this was quite shocked.

The tung rolok announces a festival or celebration. As the photo shows, they’re huge. The number of bamboo rods through the body indicates who’s being honoured – father, mother, monks, Buddha, the teaching, etc.

Note the overall structure of the flag: a triangular “head,” a body, and two “feet” at the bottom. Note also the dark patch of cloth at the crotch, where the genitalia would be if this were what it looks like, a humanoid figure. Note also the little triangular pennons off the main body.

image-6Next is the tung sasana, the “religion flag”. The idea of a flag for Buddhism came from an international conference in Sri Lanka in the early 1950s, and all Theravadin countries have adopted it. The colours stand for the multi-coloured rays of light that broke forth from the Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment, illuminating the entire world. They symbolise the various attributes of the Buddha; there were five rays each of a pure colour, and one of the other five mingled.

So this banner is comparatively new, but it’s become completely acculturated and is frequently seen around monasteries – and unfortunately I have no idea exactly what it’s function is.

Finally we come to the most interesting banner. Dr Hall’s informants, who were mostly abbots and achars (achars are the monastery’s experts in ritual) all told her they were called tung aphithoam. I gather that aphithoam is the Khmer pronunciation of abhidamma, which is Buddhist metaphysics. Dr Hall had been expecting to hear them called tung krapeu, meaning crocodile banner, but the abbots and achars never did. Her translators called them crocodiles, but not the experts.

image-4Here’s the tung aphithoam/tung krapeu. It looks very like the tung rolok, but it’s always white. It’s a death-banner. It’s hung outside a house where someone has recently died, and stays up for 3 to seven days, both being significant periods in the life of the new ghost.

And their function…  Dr Hall’s informants told her it’s to tell people there’s a death and funeral. The cremation takes place at the end of the seven days, with a big funeral feast.

I wonder though. In these seven days between death and cremation the ghost stays around the house, not yet aware that it’s dead. It’s invited into a new “house” (the coffin), and the word “coffin” must never be mentioned lest it be frightened. In other words, the seven days immediately after death is an extremely risky period for the ghost, and so I wonder if the flags have something to do with it – but I don’t know for sure.

And what about the crocodile? The reason Dr Hall was expecting to be told that this is a crocodile flag is that that’s the way it’s described in the scholarly Western literature. One very famous study links the crocodile to the naga, and suggests that the original earth-spirit of the Khmers, before nagas arrived from India, was the crocodile. Crocodile and naga and Preah Torani the earth-goddess all tie together, somehow, though it’s not for me to say just how. But for sure, earth-gods combine the functions of death and fertility (those patches on the groin of the tung rolok), and when I was walking around the monasteries of Phnom Penh with my friend, the one who was shocked to find banners at the front of the prayer halls, everyone we spoke to called them crocodile flags. And those little triangular pennons make the “body” look very crocodilian to my mind, though I’ve never seen them discussed.

image-7There’s a story. Once upon a legendary time there was a monk who transformed himself into a crocodile and swallowed a princess. Bad croc. The king sent his army to rescue the princess, but alas, when they cut open the belly of the beast they were too late, and beauty was dead. So they skinned the crocodile and hung its hide up at her funeral.

That particular story ties in with ritual human sacrifice traditions (it has to do with the pagoda where the princess’s funeral was held, and a requirement for sacrificial virgins), but this post is long enough already.

Divine architecture

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Photo by David Lazar

Preah Ket Mealea, who was the son of the god Indra and a human mother, spent his childhood on Earth, but when he reached the age of twelve his father invited him to visit heaven. On the summit of Meru the boy gazed in wonder at the palaces of the gods and the flower-filled gardens where apsaras danced and divine music played. His father told him that, as he was to rule over Cambodia, the greatest of kingdoms on Earth, he would need the greatest of palace.s “Look around you,” Indra said. “If there is any palace here that pleases you, tell me and I shall have the architect of the gods build it for you on Earth.”

The prince was a modest young boy, mindful of his place as both a child and a mortal, and even though the offer was a generous one he did not want to offend his father by seeming to set himself on the same level as the king of the gods. And so he declined a copy of Indra’s own palace, or the dining hall of the gods, or even any of the minor pleasure pavilions set aside for music and dancing. No, instead of these he chose the least of all the buildings in Meru – the palace stables.

Indra expressed his pleasure at his son’s choice and sent Preah Pisnukar, architect of the gods, to oversee the work. Preah Pisnukar did not build as men build, but molded the structure out of mud and then coated it with a magical coating so that the mud hardened into stone. How else could such a building be built? Some say that Angkor Wat was constructed by the tevodas (the minor gods), and that their fingerprints can still be seen as holes in the stones, but this, the legend of Preah Pisnukar, is the true story.

Center-Vishnu-asuras-L-and-devas-R-apsaras-and-Indra-above-01Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Angkor Wat – Vishnu centre, Indra and apsaras above

The King of Fire and the King of Water


Photo of the Fire King from

Sir James Frazer in his monumental, unreadable ethnological masterpiece The Golden Bough (about a dozen volumes – no, I haven’t read it, just this page), tells how the King of Cambodia used to send gifts and letters every year to the Kings of Water and Fire. (That’s the King of Fire up above, though he died in the 80s)

The King of Water had a sacred flower and fruit, with which he could cause a great flood to sweep over the world should he choose, while the King of Fire had a sacred sword which would cause the world to end if he drew it from its sheath.

According to Frazer they lived in the backwoods in seven towers on seven mountains, moving to a new tower each year. When the seven years were up they’d be put to death. The moment the cremation fire was lit all possible successors – the title was hereditary – would run off to the forest to hide, and the first to be found would become the new king.

Possibly (probably) more reliable than Frazer is Joachim Schliesinger, the author of a series of solid-looking books on Southeast Asian tribes. Unfortunately I can’t find out anything about him, but one of the books is called  White Elephants in Thailand and Neighboring Countries. That’s one I’d like to get. Anyway, in his Ethnic Groups of Cambodia Volume 3 he talks a little about the two kings. They do not live in seven towers on seven hills, and they are not executed every seven years, but the King of Fire did (or does) possess a sacred sword which fell from heaven long ago and is now kept hidden.

Also very useful is Oscar Salemink’s The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders (2003). He says that the Vietnamese government doesn’t like the “backward” culture of the Jarai and are trying to stamp it out. The old kings of Water, Air and Fire have all died in recent decades and the authorities aren’t allowing new ones to be installed. Jarai cadres in the Party are pleading with their superiors for the installation ceremonies to be permitted, but although the Vietnamese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the Kings are classified as superstition, which is forbidden. But things aren’t all black and white, and Salemink’s chapter is fascinating.

Meanwhile, if you visit Siem Reap, you can see a totally vulgarised version put on for tourists at something called the Cambodian Culture Village – but the blurb says, quite accurately, that there seems to be some connection between this Jarai sacred sword and the sword that’s part of the Khmer royal regalia. (The website calls the tribe Phnorng, but they mean Jarai).

 (Also worth reading on the history is this blog, which mentions a book called Kingdom in the Morning Mist, by Gerald Cannon Hickey).


Harrison Forman: Wat Phnom, 1953

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Harrison Forman (1904-1978) is one of those people who make me think I ‘ve lived my life all wrong.

Brief bio at what seems be a University of Oregon site:

Harrison Forman (1904-1978) was an American explorer, aviator, photographer, journalist and author. …  He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1929 after majoring in Oriental Languages. During the early 1930’s he went to China where he sold American aircraft and trained pilots.

It was in China that he heard of a mysterious mountain in Tibet supposedly taller than Mt. Everest, officially the highest mountain in the world. Forman went to Tibet and although he never found the mountain he sought he did earn the distinction of being one of the first western visitors to visit Tibet. As a result of his experience in Tibet, Forman in 1937 was the technical director for Lost Horizon, an Academy Award-winning film.

During the late thirties Forman covered the Sino-Japanese conflict as a cameraman for the “March of Time” newsreel service and also reported for the New York Times on Japanese forces across Asia. Forman became best known during this time for his coverage of the Sino-Japanese conflict, the Chinese government under Chiang Kai-shek, the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai in 1937, and the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. It was also during World War II in 1944 that Forman interviewed Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, and other communist leaders.

… He wrote books on China, Africa, photography and later ran a travel agency. Among the many newspapers and magazines he worked for were the London Times, New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, Life, Reader’s Digest and National Geographic.

And he visited Cambodia. I haven’t been able to find any Cambodia photos apart from this one, but they must exist. How charming was Wat Phnom in 1953. He left a diary of the visit, supposedly downloadable, but it won’t download for me.