Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.37.00 AMThis article appeared in issue 16 of the Weekly Phnom Penh, which I believe will be the final issue. The author is Iain Donnelly, and I asked Iain’s permission to post it here. Tattoo is an ancient Khmer and Thai art, and it’s changing rapidly in the face of Westernisation and tourism.


The art of tattooing is nearly as old as the history of man. Evidence of tattoo art has been found in the archaeological records of nearly every culture around the globe. While art and tools suggest tattooing was happening in Europe as long ago as 40,000 years ago in Europe, the oldest direct evidence was discovered in 1991 on the border between Austria and Italy when two tourists discovered the frozen and mummified body of the now famous ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ which has been dated to somewhere between 3370 and 3100 BC. On examination Ötzi was found to have over 50 tattoos. The areas where the tattoos were situated were later found to have suffered “age-conditioned or strain-induced degeneration” which has led some to speculate that the tattoos could have been a primitive form of acupuncture or acupressure, some 2000 years before the advent of these treatments in China.

Illustrating the global history of tattooing, mummified bodies with tattoos have been found in sites from Greenland to China, Egypt to the Andes. While the practice seems to have been very common in the ancient world, the meaning and purpose appears to have greatly differed.

In Ancient Egypt, tattoos, primarily amongst women, indicated status, while there is also evidence that they were also used for medicinal purposes as well as a way of marking criminals. Yet in Ancient China, the practice was seen as barbaric and was practiced by bandits or to mark out criminals.

In more modern times, tattoos
have served a variety of
 purposes. British pilgrims to
 the holy lands in the 17th century often had tattoos done to commemorate their journeys. While after the American revolution, sailors began getting tattoos to be more easily identifiable and to avoid being press ganged. This practice later grew into as much being about self-expression as about identification. Though tattoos are often seen – wrongly – as a sign of being part of the criminal classes, it is somewhat ironic that in the 19th Century it was an expensive process and was thus popular amongst European royalty to show off their wealth.

In South East Asia, the practice dates back some 2000 years or so. Known as ‘Yantra’ – or more commonly as ‘sak yant’ (sak being the Thai word for tattoo and yant being the Thai pronunciation of yantra which is the mystical Sanskrit diagrams found in Dharmic religions) – the common theme of these tattoos are geometrical designs often coupled with animals or deities and accompanied by Pali phrases. These designs seem to combine both Buddhist tradition and the animist beliefs still prevalent in many areas. The script used in these tattoos varies slightly across the region; Central Thailand and Cambodia generally use Khmer script,

These tattoos are designed to offer protection, power or good luck to the bearer much in the same way as the commonly found Buddhist amulets do. From Chinese chronicles of the time, it would appear that the practice originated with the Tai culture of South-western China and North-western Vietnam then spread to the countries that are now Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Still hugely popular in Thailand and Myanamar, the use of yantra tattoos is somewhat less now in Laos and Cambodia, the loss in the latter being partly due to the long period of chaos that would have seen most traditional tattooists – usually monks or ‘magic men’ – lost to war or genocide and also to a Royal declaration from 1920 that forbade monks from tattooing, though many continued to practice the art.

There is a real belief in the magic and power that these tattoos can imbue to a bearer, and a real belief amongst the artists themselves that they are channelling power into the tattoos they make. But generally, in Cambodia at least, these sorts of tattoos are only found on the older Khmers as the younger generation are beginning to embrace Western designs when choosing to ink their body.

While traditionally these tattoos were done with sharpened metal rods or bamboo, the remaining practitioners will also work with modern tattoo guns as they believe the power comes from the design and what they put into it rather than how it is actually done.

What has emerged in both Thailand and Cambodia is the practice of tourists and backpackers wanting to be tattooed with sak yant designs, turning an ancient and meaningful esoteric art form into little more than an almost meaningless souvenir. In Thailand the tattooing of farangs with yantra designs has become a lucrative money spinner for the Wats who offer the service and even in Cambodia the tattoo artists here find that it is the barangs who most often request such work.

At the forefront of the tattoo scene in Phnom Penh is the RSD chain – now with 3 shops and with plans to open 2 in Siem Reap – which has been operating in the capital for 7 years. To find out more about the scene here, I spoke to Din – owner of the chain – and Nico Vanhakartano, a Finnish artist who has been working with RSD for 3 years now, spending half his year in Cambodia and the other half operating his own studio back in Finland.

Nico, how long have you been a tattoo artist and how did you start?

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.18.36 AMI’ve been tattooing for some 20 years now. I was never interested in academic subjects at school but was always interested in art so was always drawing
or sketching. I got to know some tattoo artists in my home town then bought some equipment and began practicing
on myself and then on friends. From there I then went on to work as an artist in various shops before opening my own studio.

And how long have you been working in Cambodia. And why here?

I first worked in Cambodia in 2011 but have been working with RSD for the last 3 years now. I visited Cambodia initially back in 2009 and fell in love with the country and with the people. There’s a feeling of freedom here that I feel has been lost in Europe to an extent. I still keep my shop in Finland for when I am back there but a permanent move to Cambodia is very much on the cards.

Have you seen big changes in those 3/4 years? Are more Khmers getting tattooed now than when you started?

Definitely. We have a lot more Cambodian customers now than when I started. Young people are becoming more Westernised through their contact with tourists and expats, their access to the internet and through TV and movies. I get a lot of Cambodians asking for me to do work because they have seen pictures of previous designs I have done.

And what about styles? I usually only see older Khmers with traditional yantra tattoos. Do you find the younger Khmers are mainly getting modern designs?

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.16.57 AMIt’s probably about 70-30 in favour of modern styles. What we do find is that a lot of the younger Cambodians get lettering done as a design; that can be everything from a loved one’s name to lyrics from a song to a tattoo honouring their parents. But I don’t do any of the traditional designs here; we have several artists at the RSD shops who are excellent at doing those type of tattoos.

How would you describe your own style? Or what sorts of designs do you like working with?

I like working with black and grey, tattoos that require careful shading. Design wise, I like working with skulls and other darker subjects. More recently I have loved designing and inking Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead) styles.

Din, you’re the owner of RSD, how long have the shops been going?

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.16.39 AMWe’ve been operating in Phnom Penh for about 10 years now, but for the first 3 years we were only offering temporary and henna tattoos – they were very big amongst tourists – then about 7 years ago I realised there was a growing demand for real tattoos so set out to recruit some artists. I’m not an artist myself, I’m just a businessman, but I love ink and saw that the demand meant there was a good business opportunity. Plus it means I can get cheap or free work done by the guys who work for me! We were the first professional tattoo parlour in Phnom Penh. Before we opened any artist working in the city were just operating from their house.

In the 7 years you have been offering real tattoos have you noticed a significant change in how many of your customers are Khmer?

A huge change. When we first started maybe 80% of our customers were tourists or expats. But over those 7 years tattoos have become more popular – and acceptable – in Cambodia and now I would say the split is probably about 50-50.

And from a Cambodian perspective, how many Khmers are you seeing requesting yantra work?

Not that many. As Nico has said, most Khmers want western designs or tattoos that are only lettering done. The majority of requests that we get for sak yant work is from tourists. If a Khmer gets a sak yant done then it is for protection – they really do see it as magic – but if a barang gets it done they see it purely as a decorative souvenir rather than anything to do with the actual tradition.

A big difference between Cambodia and Thailand is that if you get yantra work done here by a traditional practitioner then it is usually for free while in Thailand it has become a very lucrative money spinner for the temples that offer it.

As an owner of an expanding chain, do you see any patterns in the types of tattoos young Khmers ask for?

Yes for sure. Many western customers often want something unique to them. But with the younger Khmers there can be fashions; a tattoo can become popular and then you will see many people with the same design.

A good example of this is the twin crowns to represent King and Queen; there are many examples of this design in Phnom Penh. Young boys like to get the name of their girlfriend tattooed which can be a huge risk if you ever break up and are left with a girl’s name who you no longer love.

RSD have 3 shops across the city. You can find Nico, their most experienced artist, at the branch on Sihanouk Boulevard, close to the top of Sothearos Boulevard. You can also view more of Nico’s work at: https://www.facebook. com/NicoChAosInk/


Review of Spirit Worlds


The author signing copies of Spirit Worlds for awe-struck waitresses at the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi guesthouse and restaurant, Kampot. Trying to look cool in Panama and rolled-up long-sleeves shirt. Photo by John Fengler.

Reviewed on Thailand Footprints. “Spirit Worlds by Philip Coggan (John Beaufoy Publishing 2015) is a spirit catching and spirit explaining book which also catches the eye.” Saving this for putting between quote marks on the cover of the 2nd edition.

Dear reader, please visit Goodreads and Amazon and leave a review and a star or two – they say it helps.

King Norodom’s Head (Steven W. Boswell)


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King Norodom’s Head is available at Monument Books and through Amazon – click on the image for the link

(This review first appeared in the Weekly Phnom Penh)


I want to make one thing perfectly clear: under no circumstances will I mention Cholon Duck. Never. I know why you’re reading this, and I’m not going to give you the satisfaction. You’ll get not a word out of me about Cholon Duck.

I will, however, tell you all about King Norodom’s head. It’s wholesome and decent.

The king in question, in case you’re wondering, is the founder of modern Phnom Penh, so he matters. This far-sighted and generous monarch established his capital at the Four Rivers solely so that future generations could speculate on high-rise condos with views of the Mekong. His grateful people commissioned a bronze statue of him on horseback, which they placed on the bank of the river about where the Chaktomuk Theatre is today (subsequently moved to its present location by the Silver Pagoda in the palace compound). Somewhat later, rumours began spreading that the statue was a fake, just a mass-produced Napoleon III with Norodom’s head on top. Not so! It’s real! There is a story of fraud, and you can read about it in chapter 17, but King Norodom’s head is on top of King Norodom’s body.

The story of Norodom’s statue and its head, and how the truth was uncovered, is just one of the fascinating tales in this collection. It’s like a box of chocolates, you can’t stop dipping. Each story is anchored to some physical artefact of the city, and each leads into a history you’d never have suspected. Chapter 1, for example, begins with a large cast-iron anchor lying in the weeds at Phnom Penh Port. (The book, by the way, is profusely illustrated). It’s American – there’s an embossed marking that says so – and dates from 1942. What’s it doing here? The story takes us to the last mutiny in US naval history (as recent as 1970, to my surprise), to a prison ship off Chroy Chongvar (if it were still there today the prisoners would have a prime view of the Sokha Hotel and the fireworks on the King’s Birthday), and a very ill-judged attempt by two Americans to join the Khmer Rouge (these things never ended well).

Or another example: Chapter 20 traces the troubled course of Cambodia’s relationship with the US through the successive buildings that have served as the American embassy. At first the State Department worked out of the Hotel Le Royal, which can thus claim to be the first US diplomatic premises in the city, before settling into a building off Norodom Boulevard near Central Market. It was 1953, the Cold War was under way, and the Americans and the Soviets were competing to see who would be first to give an expensive gift to the new Cambodian nation. The Americans won, finishing the Khmer-American Friendship Highway (Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville) a full year ahead of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, but unfortunately the rushed construction meant that within a year it had turned into a chain of pot-holes, a fitting metaphor for all that came after.

What does the Riverside shrine, the one under the flagpole where the annual boat-races are held, have in common with the more blood-curdling Old Testament prophets? See page 50. Where, in 1970, would you go if you wanted a drink in a seedy bar while listening to  French Foreign Legion marching songs? Page 128 will set you right. Where, in Phnom Penh and surrounds, would you go today if you had a metal detector and were looking for hidden gold? See page 211, but keep an eye out for the police. What’s the connection between the house where King Sihanouk was born and a Japanese gent refusing to get out of a car on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border? It’s on page 291.

So you see, it’s perfectly possible to review this book without mentioning Cholon Duck, not even once.

The author, by the way, is Steven Boswell, an academic, now retired, who taught at Royal University from 2000. As he explains in his Introduction, the book began from his wish to know more about the things he saw around the city. The more he learned, the more he wanted to learn, and so we have this beautiful book, a labour of love from a gifted story-teller, written in a fluent and approachable style that wears its learning lightly. But make no mistake, there is real learning here, and no less a historian than David Chandler provided a foreword. Chandler sums up in these words: “For those living in the city and for people passing through, King Norodom’s Head … is bound to enrich their encounter.” I can only, and whole-heartedly, agree.

(Alright, so you really, really want to know about Cholon Duck. Send the children off to bed. It’s in the chapter on Madam Chum’s opium den, and it says that Cholon Du


(Editor’s note: We regret that Mr Coggan’s review has to be cut short at this point due to limitations of space).


Deathpower (Erik W. Davis)

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 10.31.15 AM.pngErik W. Davis’ Deathpower is being hailed as a major work on Cambodian Buddhism and Cambodian religion. See this review in the Phnom Penh Post, which makes it sound quite accessible. (All quotes are from the Post’s review, which is by Brent Crane):

Drawing from three years of field research … Deathpower: Imagining Religion in Contemporary Cambodia, published earlier this month by Columbia University Press, expounds on Cambodian ritual dealings with souls beyond the grave – how individuals, mostly monks, interact with and interpret the spirit world and how communities respond to those interpretations.

Buddhism is overwhelmingly about death. Weddings are mostly for the achars, the specialists in ritual, and the ancestors – the monks attend, but their role isn’t crucial. Same for birth – birth practices are all about protecting the new-born infant and the mother from the attentions of malicious spirits. But at the time of death the monks are indispensable.

Being in charge of death gives the monks immense power. Which of course is not so dissimilar to traditional Christianity – the Church tells you you need the sacraments in order to die right, and who can say they’re wrong? Oscar Wilde repented on his deathbed.

Davis is arguing against the idea that Buddhism is all about seeking nirvana. A religion that spent all its time sitting with its legs crossed and muttering mystic syllables wouldn’t have much hold on anyone outside southern California. Yet this is what many Westerners think – so many times I’ve been told that Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion. It’s a religion.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 11.10.26 AM.png

Californian Buddhism

It has long been the prevailing academic view that folk beliefs within Theravada Buddhist practices throughout Southeast Asia, such as spirit worship, were “accretions” or additions to “real” Buddhism, based on a strict adherence to original Pali scripture.

The Post is slightly wrong there – there’s no “spirit worship”. Nor is there any Buddha worship, at least in theory – the Buddha was a man, not a god, and he achieved nirvana, which is the extinction of the self, and therefore he no longer exists, and so there’s nothing there to worship. My own take is that there’s no worship at all in Cambodian religion – people ask the gods and spirits for favours, and they thank them for favours given, but they don’t give praise.

And asking and receiving favours is, of course, the basis of Cambodian social relations – you have a patron who is wealthier and more powerful than you, you ask him for help when you need it, and you owe him a debt for what you receive. Religion mirrors society.

Cambophiles and Buddhism scholars alike have praised Deathpower. Renowned historian David Chandler deemed it “very pleasing” and a “reader’s feast”; Anne Hansen, a Buddhist Studies Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, went so far as to call the 320-page book “the most perceptive, meticulous, informative, and important study of contemporary Cambodian Buddhism to date”.

High praise indeed. Hansen points out that the idea that the spirit world is not Buddhism is distinctively Western. It comes from the Western preconception that religion is the Word – religion is what’s written, whether in the Bible or the Koran (Islam is a child of this same mindset, and Protestantism takes it to an extreme). Buddhism, like Christianity, has written scriptures, and Westerners, academics and Californians alike, have instinctively preferenced the scriptures. Non-Westerns have no such preconception. Death is real, the spirits are real, and the monks know how to deal with both.


Cambodian Buddhism. Interesting article in PPPost from 2013 explains the importance of death and funerals (click on the image)

Deathpower is published by Columbia University Press and right ow is priced on the university website at $36, which seems reasonable. That’s the hardcover. The same website lists the e-book at $59.99. On Erik Davis’ personal website there’s a code that allows you to get a 30% discount.


Sam Sary and the little whips of history


Sam Rainsy, Sam Sary’s son.

In November Sam Rainsy, inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s  election victory in Myanmar, began comparing himself to the Burmese heroine. Like Suu Kyi, he was the son of a freedom-fighter, and like her he would lead his people to victory. Reigning Prime Minister Hun Sen caustically replied that while Suu Kyi was the daughter of a patriot, Sam Rainsy was the son of a traitor. This post is to explain what he meant.

Sam Rainsy’s father Sam Sary was born in 1917. His own father, Sam Rainsy’s grandfather, was a prominent politician of the 1940s, and Sary and Sihanouk became close – the age gap between them was only about five years. In the early 1950s Sary played a significant part in Sihanouk’s negotiations for full independence for Cambodia, at the 1954 Geneva Conference he ensured that Cambodia was not divided, like Vietnam, between communists and non-communists, and he went on to become a crucial figure in the formation of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, the Royalist front through which Sihanouk ruled Cambodia from 1955 to 1970. (And might I congratulate whoever it is at Wikipedia who wrote these articles – they’re excellent).


Sihanouk: from the Guardian’s obituary, no date, but probably the 1950s or 60s.

Sihanouk’s political style tended towards fascism, and Sary was charged with making sure that Sangkum and Sihanouk stayed in power:

The evil genius behind the repression [of opponents under Sihanouk’s rule] was Sam Sary – a bestial man. As an investigating magistrate in the 1940s, he had beaten suspects to death with his own hands. Then he went [to] study in France. In 1955, he joined the Sangkum and became Sihanouk’s closest aide … After Sihanouk decided to use strong-arm tactics, Sary handed out money and arms to hire ruffians to come and break our meetings.

(Ken Vannsak, quoted in Philip Short’s “Pol Pot”).

In 1955, the year in which the Sangkum was inaugurated, Cambodia held its first-ever beauty competition. The judges could pick only one winner, but Deputy Prime Minister Sam Sary chose two: “In no time at all, the judges’ first choice, coffee-skinned, sarong-clad Tep Kanary, was installed in Sary’s household. Later he added Iv Eng Seng, who was only an also-ran with judges…” (The report is from TIME magazine, 21 July, 1958).

By 1957 relations between Sam Sary and Sihanouk had cooled: Sihanouk believed in socialism and neutrality, and Sary, “the staunchest friend of the United States in Cambodia” as the State Department called him, believed in capitalism and Uncle Sam. TIME tells what happened:

Last summer (i.e., 1957) powerful political enemies complained that Sary was granting profitable import licenses to the wrong people, i.e., someone other than Sary’s accusers. Tears in eyes, Sary crawled before Sihanouk on hands and knees and asked to be relieved of his job. Tears in eyes, Sihanouk let him go. In remorse, Sary shaved his head and eyebrows, entered a Buddhist monastery.

(Editorial comment: I find it very difficult to believe that this scene was not staged. Anyway, a penitent Sary has confessed his sins before Father Sihanouk and done time in a monastery – things could have been worse).

Out of the monastery by January 1958, Sary was sent off as Cambodian ambassador to London. He arrived with his wife, his children, and his three concubines, including Iv Eng Seng.  Six months later the former beauty-princess went to the police to complain that Sary was beating her. Sary didn’t deny it. He explained to the British press:

I corrected her by hitting her with a Cambodian string whip. I never hit her on the face, always across the back and the thighs – a common sort of punishment in my country.


Sam Sary, Iv Eng Seng, and their son: stock photo from Alamy, 1958

Sary was recalled to Phnom Penh. By now the relationship with Sihanouk had grown icy, while the Americans saw him as a substantial asset.  He launched his own political party, together with a free newspaper. It carried no advertising – where was the money coming from? Suspicion focused on the US embassy. On 13 January 1959 Sihanouk announced the discovery of the “Bangkok Plot”, a CIA-directed right-wing plan to unseat him by means of a coup. Sam Sary fled the country (or possibly was allowed to flee – Sihanouk could be amazingly loyal to old friends), but after a shadowy existence in exile he was murdered in 1963, probably in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

And now for a very strange twist to the tale. On 11 August, 2015, someone living in France posted on the Cambodian expat forum Khmer 440 asking for help in finding the son of her grand-aunt, who had disappeared in Cambodia during the Pol Pot years. So far so common. But this grand-aunt was Iv Eng Seng, making the vanished boy Sam Rainsy’s half-brother:


Iv Eng Seng and her son Senaroth Averill (Iv Eng Seng stayed in England and married John Averill, barrister and eccentric, whose credo was “no smoking, no meat-eating, and no sex”.)

Hello everybody,

I Just discovert this forum. I am french and my english is not good, i hope you will understand.

She is trying to find the lost son that she had with Sam Sary. She goes with him on england and was married with John averill. Then she came back in cambodia without him. In 1974 the son Senaroth Averill goes to visit his mom and go back to england in 1975. My grand aunt is in France now, she is very old and she is still looking for him.

So if somebody know something about that, can you contact me please.

Thank you very much