Magical tattoos

thompson_07may15_fe_tattoo_418_teven_say_apos_s_student_copy_ne_copySak yant: photo by Nathan Thompson

Journalist Nathan Thompson has an excellent article on Cambodian tattoos  (“sak yant”) on the South China Morning Post magazine. It begins:

He has a monkey on a chain. And an owl – also chained. Teven Say, a master of magical tattoos, strokes both of his familiars and regards me with a proud gaze. He is sitting in a large shed in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Stripped to the waist, his muscular torso is webbed with ink. Tangled outlines of gods and sacred geometry weave around his fists and arms like wires in a fuse box, pulsing with an ancient magic.

One of his students connects a tattoo gun to a battery pack. Teven Say dips the needle in black ink and tells me to lay down. I start sweating.

_DSF4357Nathan says that traditional tattooing is dying out. That’s the impression I get too. They used to be very popular with soldiers (they deflect bullets), but now they’re associated with gangsters and criminals and black magicians. Monks especially are not supposed to have tattoos, and the abbot of Wat Sarawan (in Phnom Penh, near the tourist strip of street 172) was most apologetic when I asked how he got his (he used to be a soldier). Links to more of his journalism can be found on his website, and stuff that doesn’t get in Slate and other prestige outlets on the ever-popular Khmer 440.


Hunters in the Dark

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 9.59.18 PMLawrence Osborne is being compared with the greats – Evelyn Waugh, Paul Bowles, Graham Greene. His most recent novel, Hunters in the Dark (from Kindle, for less than half the print price) , came out recently and is set in Cambodia. The basic meme is Westerns out of their depth in cultures they don’t begin to understand, with mythic overtones.

Plot summary from the Guardian:

A schoolteacher in the tiny Sussex village of Elmer, Robert [the central character] knows that his provincial English life is a cul-de-sac. The anomie that afflicts him is really despair at the pettiness and claustrophobia of England, at “a way of life that justified itself as being the pinnacle of freedom, but [which] had not come up with an alternative reason for existing once the freedom had been sucked out of it”. He leaves for Thailand, slowly settling into the decision not to return to that hated old life. The novel opens with Robert crossing over the border to Cambodia and gambling with the last of his savings to win $2,000. This stroke of luck sets into motion the machinery of a plot that comes to resemble a Newton’s cradle, one sphere colliding with another and transferring its energy and momentum to it, and so on, in a long, complex series.

If you want to read about it on the Sunday Times you’ll have to subscribe, but they do give a little author bio for free:

IT’S TAKEN Lawrence Osborne a long time to find his bearings as a novelist. A compulsive wanderer – born in Britain, he has lived in Paris, New York, Mexico, Morocco and Istanbul and is currently located in Bangkok; out-of-the-way travelling is a speciality – he has been equally wide-ranging as a writer. After his first novel, Ania Malina (1986), which criss-crossed ravaged Europe after the Second World War, he abandoned fiction for 26 years, publishing books on subjects as diverse as off-beat aspects of Paris, a journey into Papua New Guinea, autism, wine connoisseurship and perverse attitudes to sex.

Says the FT:

The bumbling Robert has little purchase in this world, where western culture is referenced only in terms of past glories. He thinks he has some insight into the country and its people; Osborne — who said in a Guardian interview last year that the most a writer confronted with an alien culture can do is to “make something out of his incomprehension”— knows that he doesn’t.

Even so, it is Osborne’s probing of the Cambodian psyche that gives Hunters in the Dark depth and substance. If this dark, teasing, elegantly written book has a flaw, it is that its author’s fascination with his characters’ belief in the “fantastical inevitability” of events results in implausibly tight plotting, a too neat tying-up of loose ends. But then life is often larger than literature.

And the New Statesman:

Grappling with manifold questions about identity and the tragic futility of material aspirations in a ruthless, brittle world, this novel draws you into a sun-struck realm where the survival of the fittest is more predicated on chance and where violence is a sudden, opportunistic enterprise. It had me thinking long and hard about how the traits that allegedly define you can be jettisoned easily when you are lost within yourself – and how, simultaneously, there is a bleak freedom in discarding the conundrum with which we all struggle: our tenuous identity.

For myself I’ll just say that Osborne is a stylist – a pleasure to read his prose.

Trouble with orphans, part 2

Wagga“They (Chloe and her boyfriend) come home each night in a drunken manner. She hit me with a book on my head last week” – Srey On.

The plot thickens. Last week we had an apparently straightforward case of a rougue orphanage manager (see here). I must admit that in hindsight the allegations were a bit lurid. Now we have counter-allegations:

Centre head denies child abuse

Thu, 25 June 2015

The director of a children’s centre who was arrested on Tuesday based on complaints from the NGO’s principal donor yesterday denied the accusations of forced labour and child abuse that led to her detention, and maintained that her accuser was actually at fault.

Soy Srey On, 23, said in an interview from the Chbar Ampov district police station that donor Chloe Flanagan had hit her because she was angry that Srey On tried to stop her and her boyfriend from staying at the centre on a visit to Cambodia.

“They come home each night in a drunken manner. She hit me with a book on my head last week,” Srey On said.

“Because the donors asked me to stay [at the NGO] … and they came without prior notice, so I didn’t allow it; they started to get angry towards me.”

Srey On said she had filed her own complaint to police but no action had been taken.

“As the head of an organisation, I am an educator who provides a good example to the kids.

I could not do anything that makes kids follow a bad example,” she added.

Srey On and her boyfriend, Ung Sras – who is wanted by police – are accused of neglecting the children’s hygiene, hitting them with sticks and even having sex in front of them.

Four children were removed from the centre on Tuesday.

Ministry of Social Affairs official Em Chanmakara said in a message yesterday that a nanny at the NGO had been called in for questioning, and that “hopefully tomorrow all documents [related the case] will [be] sent to the court”.

PhonogramThe police could have some work ahead of them. But I’m wondering: running this centre must cost a lot of money, so who and where are the donors?

Bonus link: Where Children Sleep.

Trouble with orphans

   WaggaThe streets of Wagga – where are the people?

On 6 June the Wagga Daily Advertiser (Wagga is a town in New South Wales) reported this human interest story concerning  Chloe Flanagan, a 25 year old local beauty therapist:

Sweltering in the Cambodian heat, Chloe Flanagan is surrounded by people riding motorcycles. She’s in Phnom Penh, home to around 2.2 million people. The city, which still harbours pain from the relatively recent devastation caused by the Khmer Rogue, houses grand elaborate buildings – temples decorated with gold. Drive down the main boulevard and you could mistake it for Paris – but … Phnom Penh harbours some dark secrets. Millions of young children are exploited in Cambodia every year.

Ok, so the prose is a little overcooked, but it’s not every day you find a beauty therapist from Wagga in the grim suburbs of Phnom Penh. It goes on to tell how Chloe “purchased a one-way ticket to Asia and volunteered for three months at a Cambodian orphanage.” There she saw that orphanages are a business and have some very unsavoury things going on . “Often in these institutions the children are kept in deliberately poor conditions so the managers get more money from the generous, misled western tourists.”

Chloe moved on to Laos, where she received “an urgent and distressed call from 22-year-old Srey On,” who had been at the home Chloe had worked at. She was now on the street, on the run from her former orphanage “mother” who was attempting to track her down, hassle her and intimidate her. “She has polio and wears a full leg brace, she still has parents but she is from a small rural village one-and-half hours out of Phnom Penh and there are no opportunities for her there. Her parents sent her to live at the orphanage so she could study.”

(This, incidentally, is very common – many “orphans” are not orphans at all, and find themselves in institutions for all kinds of reasons).

Srey OnSrey On

Srey On and nine children were living in an apartment paid for by a kind-hearted Singaporean woman, with no money and no food. Chloe flew back, organised accommodation, and set up a small  orphanage. “Bethel Children’s Home Cambodia was born.”

4692433_1432459458.4929_funddescriptionYou can read in the article about the ways Bethel helps the kids – it’s pretty heartwarming and more strength to Chloe. (Here’s a nice piece about how crowdfunding helped meet the needs of one handicapped little boy – his mother tried to abort him but did this instead; kids in this condition are mostly in a hopeless situation in Cambodia).

Anyway, I think I like Chloe. Which makes it all the more disturbing to read in the Phnom Penh Post that less than three weeks after that article in the Wagga paper the police raided the orphanage and arrested Srey On – the same Srey On who phoned Chloe – who is its manager.

Em Chanmakara, a secretary general of the Disability Action Council at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said three boys and one girl, between 5 and 10, were removed from the home in response to a complaint made by Chloe Flanagan … The document states that director Soy Srey On, 23 – who was arrested – and her boyfriend, Ung Sras, 24, neglected the children’s hygiene and hit children with sticks, including a child who is mentally and physically disabled. “Both [parties] are involved in beating the children, forcing them to clean toilets, and clean the centre, which is overwork for children,” Chanmakara said.“They even had sex with each other and let children watch.”

They WHAT?????

Chloe made a bad error of judgement in trusting Srey On. That said, I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t have done exactly the same. But please, Chloe, closer supervision from now on, ok?

If you’re interested in helping Chloe, Bethel has a Facebook group for supporters.

Chbal AmpovThe streets of Chhbar Ampov

Why Cambodians never get depressed


This extraordinary story on a blog from American National Public Radio called Goats and Soda.

Yes, of course Cambodians get depressed. But they don’t have a word for it. Instead they have an expression: thelea tdeuk ceut, “the water in my heart has fallen.”

When the water in your heart has fallen, you not only have a description (depression), you have an explanation (water in the heart). It makes a difference in how you view what’s happening.

Therefore it makes a difference how the condition should be treated. For us, depression is a mental condition, for Cambodians its a physical one (water in the heart).  The article points out that American-style mental health clinics aren’t necessarily the right way to go in Cambodia:

Simply setting up mental health clinics identical to the ones we have here in the U.S. isn’t necessarily going to help anyone, says Dr. Devon Hinton, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, who works with Southeast Asian populations in the U.S. and abroad.

Now we get on to a phrase I’ve heard used about ghosts – they spin. A newly-dead ghost “whirls around,” and only when it stops whirling can it leave the physical world and go to the world of the dead as a “praet” – a ghost which has not done this is a “kmouch,” and stays here with humans as a haunting ghost. But why do ghosts spin and whirl?

Take for instance khyal attacks, or “wind attacks.” Cambodians who suffer from anxiety disorders often experience the quick onset of heart palpitations, blurry vision and shortness of breath. Like panic attacks, khyal attacks can happen without warning.

In other words, the newly-dead soul is experiencing a panic attack.

There’s much more. Recommended reading.

The Prime Minister and the lightning goddess


The thunder-ogre and the lightning-goddess – see here for the legend

I was once told off by a tuktuk driver for getting my Cambodian myths mixed up. I’d said that Eyso was a good guy. No, I was told, Eyso is a very bad guy! And so he is. He’s the god of thunder, engaged in perpetual battle with Moni Mekhala, the beautiful goddess of lightning. As they chase each other through the monsoon storm-clouds Eyso hurls his axe at Moni Mekhala, who deflects it with her magic crystal ball, causing thunder and lightning. The good guy I had in mind was someone else entirely by a similar name. I was embarrassed, of course, but the tuktuk driver forgave me: I was just a dumb foreigner, how could I be expected to know?

Apsara-Dancer-Fight1-1000x666Moni Mekhala-Ream Eyso features in the Classical Cambodian dance repertoire

Anyway, Prime Minister Hun Sen fed up with the opposition CNRP party saying he stole the 2013 election and that the Cambodian Red Cross discriminates between people on the basis of their political affiliation. Last Monday he faced off to CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and drew a line in the incense-ash:  Join me mano-a-mano down at the Preah Ang Doun Kar shrine on the Riverside, he said. We’ll each take an oath, and may lightning strike down the one who lies.

hun-sen-stooge-reutersPrime Minister Hun Sen of the ruling CPP – is that a smile?

Do any parties dare to swear with the CPP at the [Preah] Ang Dangker shrine?” he asked. “If the CPP stole the election, let all of the CPP die through bullets, lightning and everything. Who­ever was the liar, and made the wrong accusations will get the same—the lightning and everything.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 3.12.52 PMOpposition leader Sam Rainsy – does he dare test trial by lightning?

Lightning is not a natural phenomenon in Cambodia. The gods agree – quite an amazing number of people get struck down each year. Does Hun Sen believe what he’s saying? I have no idea. There’s been some discussion on Khmer 440, where someone wisely observes that what the PM says is less important than who he’s talking to – do they believe it? My tuktuk driver certainly does.

100_0614The main image at Preah Ang Doung Kar – it’s called Vishnu though it’s not if you ask me, but nobody asks me. Oaths gentlemen please.

From a useful blog called Cambodia Monster. Interesting that the blogger calls Preah Ang Doung Kar “him,” though it’s strictly the name of the flagpole under which the shrine stands: “Sacred Royal Flagpole”

Postscript: Looks like it’s on. Sam Rainsy says he accepts the challenge, “though a vote recount would be more useful.” More useful, but less entertaining. Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, says this is a “strange” way to settle disputes. But Mao Pises, president of the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, says e’s a Buddhist himself, “and, as you know, the Cambodian people who follow Buddhism believe our ancestors and especially our heroes and spirits have power here, and will kill or destroy those people who destroy our nation.”