Tacky tourists with cameras

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Can this woman see this and not cringe? Why do perfectly decent people became monsters of tack when they get a camera in their hands? If I followed her around for a few hours with my own camera, taking her picture while she took pictures, followed her back to her hotel and photographed her eating lunch, followed her to her room and … well, you get the picture.

Discussion at the PPP. I put it down to the Cute Cambodian Kids syndrome, plus a heavy dose of cultural maladjustment.

Betel nut – just don’t


Here’s the BBC on why you shouldn’t chew betel. That’s quite apart from the fact that it’s disgusting.

The man in the photo is Taiwanese. In Cambodia it’s chewed mostly by old ladies, but also plays a central role in weddings – a symbolic one, fortunately.


Phnom Penh Prison Diary

5-Prison-Prey-SarAs the author of a crime novel set partly in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, I was extremely interested to stumble across this 2014 article in Bayon Pearnik magazine. It’s in 12 parts, of which I can only find the first 8 online, which is a pity as it means I don’t know how the story ends, but I gather it all happened in 2011/2012 (and maybe took even more time) and that the author is now out.

Very briefly, he was accused on child sex charges (falsely he says, and I believe him given the evidence, or rather the lack of it), and put through the wringer. Some highlights:

The Cambodian police have a 100% clear-up rate on crimes, and the Cambodian court system has a 100% conviction rate. To make that clear: the police always somebody, for every crime, and it always turns out to be the right person. Always.

imagesPrey Sar prison is the purest possible expression of capitalism. Everything costs. Take water. A company has the contract to deliver bottled water, for which the prisoners pay whatever the guards demand. Sometimes it rains. A kind NGO noticed this and installed rainwater tanks. The guards padlocked the tanks and sold the rainwater. (Mains water was connected since the author’s stay and prisoners are supposed to have access to a litre a day, but I’m sceptical).

Prey Sar has a rigid class system, based on wealth. Pay $500 and you get upgraded to the VIP wing, where there are only 25 men to a cell. Above that are two further classes of VIP, which cost even more. Tops is the Monivong prison hospital (which is not on Monivong Boulevard – its’ too difficult to explain), where young ladies of dubious morals are available for hire.

  • Don’t get into debt in Prey Sar. It’s very easy to get into debt. Don’t.
  • Don’t bother with a lawyer. Not unless you want to buy a remission on your sentence, or an amnesty – but those cost, and are slow to arrive, and you’ll grow thin while waiting. Lawyers, by contrast, are sleek and well-fed.
  • Don’t tangle with the child protection NGOs. They’re never wrong, even when their evidence is something out of Monty Python.

Here are the links to the 8 out of 12 parts that I could find online:

Part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5; part 6; part 7; part 8.


Koan kroh (roasted baby)

2014111683335555734_20In May 2012 Chow Hok Kuen, a British national of Taiwanese origin, was arrested in Bangkok after Thai police found six roasted human fetuses covered in gold leaf in his luggage. The police were acting on a tip-off that these things were being offered to wealthy clients via a black magic services website. “It is thought the corpses were bought from a Taiwanese national for 200,000 baht ($6,40) but could have been sold for six times that amount in Taiwan.”

The $US amount is wrong – 200k baht is close to $6k, so the resale value was about $36k. That’s not nearly enough to get me to carry gold-plated embryos around in my luggage, but a CNN report suggests that each fetus was worth that amount, so that Chow was looking at something over $200,000. As it panned out he was looking at a year in jail. Presumably the year is now long over and he’s a free man again, but I can’t find any record on google of his subsequent career.

120518071553-chow-hok-kuen-horizontal-large-galleryIn Thailand the embryos are called kuman thong, meaning golden boy, and in Cambodia the name is koan kroh, meaning smoked baby. From the Taiwanese connection, and also from a Singaporean link that I know of, they seem to be Asia’s answer to eye of newt (the link is to an article in the Huffington Post).

khun-chang-khun-phaenThe classic Thai tale Khun Chang Khun Phaen – Khun Phaen acquires a powerful spirit-protector by removing the fetus of his stillborn son from his wife’s womb

Koan kroh or kuman thong is a human embryo that has not come to term. In the Cambodian case, it’s ideally in the first trimester, although Chow Hok Kuen’s examples were mostly older. The person who wishes to benefit from it should first get his wife or girlfriend pregnant (I gather that it can’t be a random pregnant woman, though that’s a little obscure to me). When the time is ripe he should ask her if she agrees to give him the unborn baby. Ideally she agrees and he then cuts her open, removes the fetus, smokes it (like making smoked fish), and wears it as an amulet round his neck or waist.The smoked or golden fetus becomes the guide and protector of its owner, speaking to him in dreams to give guidance and warn of danger.

9843903In Thailand, kuman thong are very often figurines, not fetuses

The power of the amulet is derived from the spirit, not the fetus (meaning that the fetus is, ultimately, material, just a home for the spirit of the child). The spirit needs to be raised like any child, although its food requirements are a little bizarre. Like children, they hang out with their peers, enjoy practical jokes, and are totally loyal and faithful.

6_inches_clay_kuman_thong_statue_thai_amulet_lp_tre_sam_nam_charm_rich_yellow_1_lgwSix inches long and made of clay it says

In 2006 Bronwyn Sloan wrote an article about Cambodian magic in which she mentions koan kroh (which she spells cohen kroh):

One of [Cambodia’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.

Not surprisingly, the mother is not always cooperative:

Recently [recently in 2006, that is] 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.

IMG-20130128-WA0010Visit my online store…” – seems to be based in Singapore, and I found it very disturbing (the list of ingredients for making his kuman thong includes bones of children and “nam man prai oil of a girl spirit” – nam man prai being the oil exuded by a corpse)

Trudy Jacobsen in her book “The Lost Goddess” has an interesting discussion of koan kroh in pre-modern Cambodia which implies that the smoked baby had to be a first child:

Prapuon thom [main wife] seem to have been virgins upon their marriage. This characteristic put them at risk in their first pregnancy if their husbands happened to be evil men. … The father of the child might trick his wife into saying the words, “This is your child, do with it what you will…”


“From what information has been gathered from ancient Thai manuscripts about how to make a Kuman thong, it appears that the correct method is to remove the dead baby surgically from the mothers womb.” Oh no it’s not.

The thinking behind the magic appears to be that the motherless  fetus becomes a single child, beholden only to its father. This in turn implies that the holder of the koan kroh has to be its real father, but presumably it’s possible to adopt one – if not, Chow Hok Kuen wouldn’t be able to sell Thai fetuses to end-users in Taiwan.

Chow Hok Kuen, incidentally, told police he was working for a syndicate. If Thailand cracks down on the trade, they might well move operations to Cambodia. On the upside, I can’t see that smuggling fetuses through airports is ever going to be easy.

Past lives: Kinship Beyond Death: Ambiguous Relations and Autonomous Children in Contemporary Cambodia

Past-Life-Regression1On Imagining the Real World, the blog of professor Erik W. Davis, I stumbled across this very interesting account of a child who remembers her past life as her own uncle. Since it’s his story you’ll have to read it on the link, but it’s quite fascinating. (Prof. Davis has it as a downloadable pdf, and I gather he’s allowed 50 free downloads before, I assume, people have to start paying, for which reason here’s a second link, to the page on his blog where the download lives).

As I said, I won’t summarise or quote, but a few points strike me as especially interesting. First, the little girl’s parents found her memories of her past life with them quite disturbing, to the extent of trying to get her to forget them through magical means; second, although Buddhism as a religion gives space for memory of previous lives, it’s supposed to be adults (specifically monks) who have such memories, and they’re supposed to come through meditation; and third, the reason that the little girl’s family found the previous life so disturbing was that its remembrance (and therefore its present reality) posed a threat to its bonds to its current family: destroying the previous-life memories is necessary if the child is to become fully integrated into its present life.