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/


Kevin Cummings, Tim Hallinan, Lawrence Osborne

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 11.19.53 AM

Click for the link to Hot Countries on Amazon.

Bangkok 101 magazine has an interview by Kevin Cummings with Tim Hallinan. in which they discuss Tim’s latest Bangkok-based thriller, “Hot Countries”, and much else. And in the current Phnom Penh Weekly Kevin has a review of Lawrence Osborne’s Hunters in the Dark (noir psycho-thriller with a Cambodian setting) . As the Weekly isn’t available on-line I’ll paste it here, with his permission. (Click on the book cover to link to the Amazon site for Hunters).


Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 3.58.14 PMHunters in the Dark

by http://Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 3.58.14 PMLawrence Osborne

reviewed by Kevin S. Cummings

“What is a bad man?”

This is the calm retort the Cambodian policeman and central investigator, Davuth, provides his daughter in Lawrence Osborne’s

moody and spirit laden novel, Hunters in the Dark, (Hogarth 2015) before following a set
of clues that will see one American under- achiever and one English school-teacher cross paths in a tale of double identities and floating indemnity. Investigators in Cambodia pursue for their own personal gain first and foremost without the benefit of much schooling. Davuth survived the history of Cambodia precisely because he comes from peasant stock, yet he wields considerable power over the educated “barangs” that frequent his country for “business or pleasure”.

When I first learned that Osborne’s latest novel would feature an English school-teacher set
in Cambodia I thought, how unimaginative is that? I also thought this will be a far cry from his embezzling, on the lamb, English attorney who reinvents himself as the high-stakes playing baccarat gambler in Macao, Lord Byron in The Ballad of a Small Player, a novel I enjoyed very much, written by Osborne and published in 2014 (Hogarth).

But just as the American businessman, Simon living by the river in Battambang had come around to the idea of ghosts since living in Cambodia, I’ve come around to the idea

that Lawrence Osborne can write about any character whom he wishes to, because he does it with skill and a nuanced imagination. Robert Grieve is the central character – 28 years
old, a career English literature teacher from England. His life, like his present day country,
is rather bland and ordinary compared to the East. When he has a bit of drowsy luck at the Diamond Club, after a border crossing from Thailand, his fortunes change forever. I see similarities between the Lord Byron and Robert Grieve characters in Osborne’s last two novels: they both assume new identities; interpersonal skills are not their strong suit; neither has any love lost for their former country; they both seem to get thrills they never came close to achieving before; they both wear tailored cloths and enjoy the details of a fine meal. Grieve is not your cheap haircut, cargo pant wearing English teacher in flip flops. On the contrary, Osborne gets his digs in at this expat “sub- culture” on more than one occasion.

Osborne’s characters and settings are equally superb, be they major or minor. The Scottish innkeeper with a penchant for munitions themed interior design I particularly liked, along with the yellow taped grounds and deer that occasionally get turned to a bloody

mist. The Dutch artist painting while naked
at 3:00 am with two young female models seemed vaguely familiar and believable. Other principal characters are Grieve’s driver, Ouksa, the Khmer doctor Sar, and his beautiful young daughter and love interest for Robert – the Paris educated Sophal. She is contrasted nicely with Simon’s Khmer girlfriend, Sothea who brings a semblance of balance and karmic energy to the story. Osborne gives the reader many details of the characters later rather than sooner, which enriches the story at an enjoyable pace.

But it is Cambodia and Osborne’s art of observation that ultimately seals the deal. Don’t skip a sentence of this atmospheric novel by Lawrence Osborne. You will be cheating yourself. The ending is particularly good although not flawless due to a clumsy transfer of a known vehicle. Osborne shows us the best and worst of the human experience. As the narrator observes while Robert eats at an outdoor terrace on Street 136 in Phnom Penh, “What an easy life it was. Just moments randomly pieced together.”

In other words, the exact opposite of what Lawrence Osborne has accomplished in writing “Hunters in the Dark.”

Scratching the underbelly: Christopher G. Moore and Vinny Calvino

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 8.03.11 AM(Appears in this week’s Phnom Penh Weekly,  free at all good coffee-shops in Phnom Penh; look also for Kevin Cummings’ review of  Lawrence Osborne’s Hunters in the Dark.)


The genre of Asian noir seems to be flourishing just now. With established writers like John Burdett, Tim Hallinan and Thomas Hunt Locke continuing to explore the dark side of human nature in Thailand, and Tom Vater, Bob Couttie and Steven W. Palmer setting their adventures in Cambodia, fans of the genre have a wealth of material to choose from.

But head and shoulders above all of these is the Godfather of Asian noir; Christopher G. Moore.

A Canadian and formerly a lawyer, Moore has now lived in SE Asia for 25 years. His first book, “His Lordship’s Arsenal”, was released in 1985 to critical acclaim. Since that first release, he has written over 20 novels, 200 essays and a book on the Thai language as well as other collaborations and editing jobs. But Moore is best known for his Vincent Calvino series, now standing at 13 novels – with a new one due in 2106 – perhaps the first in the genre to feature a Western protagonist in a South East Asian setting.

His writing style has been praised globally, with such eloquent descriptions as: “The Hemingway of Bangkok” (The Globe and Mail), “Dashiell Hammett in Bangkok” (San Francisco Chronicle), and “W. Somerset Maugham with a bit of Elmore Leonard and Mickey Spillane thrown in for good measure”(The Japan Times).

The Weekly sent along Phillip J. Coggan, himself the author of “Sweet Nights of the Naga King”, to find out what makes Moore and Calvino tick.

Ladies and gentlemen, readers and gawkers, inhabitants of the steamy Phnom Penh night; please plug in your ear-buds, because today we have a rare treat, a double interview with Christopher G. Moore and Vinny Calvino, the latter of whom doesn’t really exist except as a fictional character.


Click on Chris for the link to his author-page on Amazon. Vinny refused to be photographed.

Vinny: I what? Chris, what’s this guy saying?

Chris: Shut up and listen, Calvino, and you might learn something of use.

Vinny: That’s my line…

First, how long have you and Vinny been together?

Vinny: Been together? What’s this guy implying? Chris, if he keeps this up I’m gonna have to do summit. Summit serious.

Chris: Shut up Vinny. Seriously, I’ve been cleaning up your English and related messes for the last 25 years, and now I get nailed with some kind of Brokeback Mountain allegation.

So Vinny never had any real childhood? I mean, he just sort appeared out of nowhere?

Vinny: Hey, now he’s callin’ me an illegal! Serious, Chris, I’m gonna have to do summit about this guy.

Chris: He’s an ex-New York lawyer, who got on the wrong side of a Chinese Triad gang in Manhattan. He was trying to protect a friend, a young Thai guy named Pratt. His turf in Bangkok extends from the shopping malls, to Nana Plaza, Patpong, and Soi Cowboy, to the slums of Klong Toey, the racetrack at the Sports Club, and even the swanky shopping malls. His client list is as thick as a crooked cop’s wedge of notes. The clients are expats who live and work in Thailand: some live the good life on a fat package; others get by day to day on a nickel and dime. They are the kind of ordinary people who have no clue about the culture, law enforcement and justice system or language. A set of non-skills guaranteed to land them in trouble. Cheated or killed. By the time they or their next of kin walk into Calvino’s office they are damaged and look to Calvino to patch them up. In Calvino’s world, most of those who survive don’t go home after one tour of duty. They become addicted to the front. Like Calvino, they volunteer for just one more tour and forget about New York.

Vinny: Noo Yoik.


Slums of Klong Toey, from Silent Tapes, a project by two photographers documenting and helping the people of the Bangkok slums and similar places around the globe. An excellent website – click on the picture for the link.


Vinny: I said Noo Yoik. Dat’s how we sez it in Joysey.

He doesn’t talk like that in the books.

Chris: I had to clean him up. Taught him there’s no joy in Joysey.

And there’s not much in Bangkok either. Chris, what is noir?

Chris: Noir, like porn, has many definitions. You know it when you see it. The characters in noir live under a dark shadow where intimidation and violence are part of the fabric of life. When the outcome is hopelessness, desperation, sorrow, you can be certain you are down a noir road. The powerful forces with the guns are the winners; others yield or are destroyed in their path. A sense of doom prevails. A good example of what represents noir for me is found in Georges Simenon’s novel titled Dirty Snow.

51PUOedFNKL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Cambodia would seem to be the perfect home of noir. In fact you edited a collection of short stories, Phnom Penh Noir?

Chris: I tried to bring together a community of writers and artists in Phnom Penh Noir, publishing their stories, lyrics, and photography. I had the rare chance to work with legendary creative talents like Roland Joffe, James Grady and John Burdett along with a young generation of Cambodians. The best thing about the collection is the diversity of noir tales told through multiple points of view. Truth, mortality, regret, betrayal, and loss play out in these stories, poetry and lyrics.

Do you have any favourites in that collection?

Chris: That’s like picking threads out of an incredibly intricate Persian carpet as favourites. What makes Phnom Penh Noir work is the whole of the anthology creates a small universe of feelings, thought, motives, behaviour, and along the horizon of these experiences you find how storytellers carry history inside their imagination.

Vinny, you visited Phnom Penh, what did you think of our lovely city?

51Kl9XND76L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Vinny: I think you mean Zero Hour in Phnom Penh? That takes me back to 1993. I’ve been to Rangoon and Saigon. Okay, that amounts to handful of times I’ve left Bangkok since I arrived back in the 80s. It does a man good to get shot at in other places. You don’t take Bangkok so personally after that. These places are like Bangkok but not like. Back then it was…

He’s not talking like a cheap Al Capone knock-off any more, Chris! He sounds almost educated!

Chris: Vinny has a NYC side of his brain that does this sumo wrestling thing with the educated side. They flop around inside his muddy skull and after awhile you can’t tell one from the other.

Vinny: Can I go on? Thank you. Phnom Penh in 1993 was dirt back streets where chickens scratched, slums overrun by rats, and UNTAC forces chasing women, ghosts, and drugs.

I especially liked the visit to T3 prison. Chris, was that a real visit?

Vinny: Was it a real visit? This guy is seriously starting to annoy me.

Chris: Keep calm Vinny. He’s not armed. Yeah, the T3 prison scene was based on a real visit with UNTAC officers in 1993.


Inmates of T3 voting in the 1993 elections, covered by Chris Moore. The prison was demolished in 2000 and replaced by Prey Sar.

And the bit where you eat the dog?

Chris: Dog? I don’t remember eating any dog?

Vinny: Yes you do, it was that little place outside the jail, just a little street stall. I think the Golden Soyra is there now. That Golden Sorya place, that’s noir! We were trying to get on the good side of those Cambodian cops. They served us something brown and I put it in my mouth and all the Cambodians raised their glasses and toasted me, and I asked why and they said it was because not so many foreigners liked dog. Street mutt special someone said. Pratt was with us, he said it reminded him of New York.


Chris: He’s that fair pair of dice in a rigged casino called justice. Forget about climbing Everest. Even pushing a ladder against what looks like a molehill in Thailand requires an experienced Sherpa. And even then an avalanche has been known to bury a man if his chit cup is knocked over.

And Pratt is a cop who isn’t corrupt? All Thai cops are corrupt, aren’t they?

Vinny: Seriously, Chris, this guy is starting to annoy me.

Chris: Think of corruption as a plumbing problem. Pipes leak. Someone figures out putting bucket on the leak is profitable. Once that happens repairing leaks becomes difficult, if not impossible. And where are all of those pipes? Behind walls with nice pictures on them so you never know they’re there. You turn on the tap, water comes out. The leak doesn’t seem to hurt you. You move on.

 Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.14.30 AMYour latest book was Crackdown, right?

Chris: Came out in March 2015.

I remember there were some Cambodians in that.

Chris: Yes. It’s set in Bangkok but a major figure is a Cambodian named Munny. He’s an illegal migrant, living in a derelict apartment building with about a hundred squatters. The basement is flooded and filled with fish, and the squatters make a living catching the fish and selling them in the market. So they start off, you see, in a condition of communal innocence.

A bit like the Garden of Eden?

Chris: You could say the Garden of Eden in dystopia. But then corruption starts. Some of the squatters form themselves into a council and start imposing rules. Let me read a bit and you’ll see what I mean:

The meeting-calling men referred to themselves as the Eight-Nine Safety Council and made it clear to everyone squatting in the building that from now on they were the ones who ran things …. A couple of men from other floors who challenged them were beaten up. After that no one, including Munny, risked offending the council.

 So society is based on the rule of violence ahead of the rule of law?

small square

Phnom Penh, behind the Night Bazaar.

Vinny: The rule of law is based, ultimately, on violence, or the threat of violence. That’s half of what noir is about. Those officials with the monopoly over violence figure they can do a lot to improve their own position. About then things start to roll down hill and people get flattened.

And the other half?

Chris: Let me read you a bit more, about Munny’s wife, Chamey, when she tries to buck the system:

The Eight-Niners … set a quota on the number of fish each family could take from the basement pool for personal use. Beyond the quota, residents now had to pay for the fish…. The leaders of the Eight-Niners supplied the fish market from the pool. They also collected a “tax” to pay off the police and the owner. But as the new rules and demands increased, Munny said nothing.

Chamey wasn’t quiet. No one owned the fish in the basement. Anyone could see the massive numbers were sufficient for all to take as many as they wished. She complained, and her discontent reached the eighth and ninth floors. The Eight-Niners didn’t frighten her. They watched her taking fish from the basement, and when they told her to stop, she flashed a knife. She threw her last hundred-baht note at one of them.

“Here’s your tax,” she said. “Now leave me to feed my family.” She earned money frying and selling fish harvested from the basement.

“You owe us one thousand more. We want our money.”

Vinny: That’s just background. But that’s where it starts. And what Chris is saying is that the Munnys of this world matter. You should read that book by that guy Evans. Chad Evans. He just wrote a book about me. Nice guy. You should learn from him.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 11.05.11 AMWhat’s it called?

Chris: Vincent Calvino’s World. One of the points he makes is that there are two ways of responding to the noir. One is Henry Miller’s way – withdraw from public life, create a private world of personal self-indulgence. That’s what old Henry did in Paris. The other way is George Orwell’s way – engage and fight. In Crackdown, Munny is taking Henry Miller’s way, and Chamey’s way is Orwell’s way. Not that things stay like that. Without conflict there’d be no story.

Oh, I don’t like conflict.

Vinny: Sure, buddy. That’s exactly the way the Eight-Niners want it.

Mr Moore, I wanted to ask you about Reunion, because it’s set in Cambodia. What’s it about?

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.44.22 AMChris: It’s an unsentimental story of friendship, one formed in desperation, and nurtured by deception. It’s about the lies that are part of life when survival is in a killing field. Two men, one a journalist and the other a survivor, meet again years later. Both seek redemption and discover that the past, with its lies and deceit never morphs into the truth. This is a post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia story that explores friendship and survival, and how peace and justice remain unfinished business.

Oh right. Chris, I wanted to ask you something really personal here, if that’s all right.

Chris: Sure.

How can I become a noir novelist? I mean, if I had the right table to work at, and all that. Bought myself a black beret, lightweight trenchcoat. Can you teach me?

Chris: It’s not that easy…You could join the Bangkok Noir Authors Facebook page that I just launched with 8 other authors. That might be useful.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.36.19 AM

And Vinny, just one last question for you.

Vinny: Shoot.

Vinny, in Chad Evans’s book about you, he calls you “an existential bachelor” with a self-made moral code. What does he mean by that?

Vinny: That does it. I’m really gonna do summit about this guy right now!

Chris: I wouldn’t worry, Phil. There’s nothing to worry about in the analogue world. We are all digital in the expressions of our emotions, right? To be on the safe side, it would be wise to keep your precise location to yourself while in Bangkok. Sit with your back to a wall. That’s always a good precaution whether in New York or Bangkok. You just never know.

VINNY: At last Chris said summit that I can agree with. I mean that last sentence.



The temple boy’s tale


Temple boy with pet, Wat Sarawan, Phnom Penh

Temple boys occupy one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder, but they can rise to great heights. Hun Sen’s family were very poor, and when he was 13 he was sent to Phnom Penh to become a temple boy at Wat Neakavoan. Today, as everyone knows, he’s the Prime Minister.

Souleang Keosupha is 21 years old and in the first year of a law degree at Build Bright University. Originally from a village in Ratanakiri province, he has two brothers and a sister and is the third in his family. His father is a farmer but his mother passed away in 1997 following the delivery of his youngest sister. The baby survived, but the neighbours were convinced the mother’s death was because an arp* had eaten the afterbirth after they failed to bury it correctly.

Keosupha was 7 years old at the time and in the second grade.  A monk from his village noticed Keosupha studying hard, and took pity on him because he was motherless and his family was extremely poor. Four years later the monk took Keosupha to stay with him at Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh, where he was registered in Grade 2 at Preah Norodom Primary School, a kilometre from the monastery.

“Unlike other kids who cried when they were away from their family, I did not indulge in self pity but determined to return home a success, with pride.

“Every morning I was woken up at 4am by the monk, who sometimes punished me or sprayed water on me if it took me too long to get up. When you are 11 years old, you know how difficult it is. Later I needed the alarm clock to wake me up, but now it’s a habit to get up early.

“As soon as I got up I started to learn Pali straight away, then my public school homework. All the temple boys were the same. After that we would sweep, clean, water the plants, boil water, cook and prepare the breakfast and serve it. We ate after the monks had eaten, then we took turns washing the dishes. Only then could we go to school.

“After school, we prepared the food that the monks got from begging, then served them lunch and finally we ate. Then we were allowed to take a nap. Sometimes we were taught English by the monks during our spare time, then we prepared our own dinner, using the leftover food from lunchtime.

“During the rainy season we all had to participate in chanting from 8.30 a.m. to 9.00 a.m. We also chanted every time before we had meals. This merit-making was expressing gratitude to the donors for what they gave us to eat.

“The monk supported me with clothes and study materials, using money that people gave him. Sometimes he asked people directly to buy me things.

“My father has remarried now and has other two children. I only visit once a year, at Khmer New Year.

“I am now doing a degree in law. I could have chosen to study technical skills but while these would be useful to me personally, by studying law I will be able to assist my community as whole, as there are innumerable disputes and conflicts in our province, and the villagers there really need my support.

“The monk isn’t able to support me financially, so I pay my own university fees with support from my parents and relatives. Plus, I supplement this with a part-time job as an assistant to a cameraman, and I’m able to earn around $50 a month.

“In the future, I want to be a civil servant in Ratanakiri Province. I want to work as a lawyer or in fields related to the law.

“I will always remember the words of the monk who, despite having so little, helped me to pursue my education up to tertiary level. I owe the monk and my family so much. I have to go back and help my village.”

*Arp: vampire that preys on pregnant women.


Temple boys in the grounds of Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh


Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

The first nun’s tale

yd3c1439A nun (daun chi) presents food to a monk. Photo by Nick Shippen, travel writer and photographer – part of a photo-essay on nuns and their relationship to the monkhood in the context of Angkor and the tourist industry.


Women who wish to follow the Way face a major obstacle: there are no nuns in Theravada Buddhism. I’ve called them nuns for convenience, but ordination in Theravada has to be part of chain stretching back to Buddha, and the chain for nuns died out long ago. Women may, however, become helpers to the monks and follow the eight precepts rather than the ten. These women are called yeay chi or daun chi – yeay and daun are both terms of respect for an older woman, with daun chi being more formal.

_DSF1987Chan Sopheap started living in Wat Phnom Orderk (“Turtle Mountain Monastery”) in Battambang province when she was not yet twenty years old. This was in the time of Lon Nol, who overthrew king Sihanouk in 1970. Not many years later the Khmer Rouge took control and sent her to a labour camp. After the Khmer Rouge were driven out she returned to the monastery in Battambang and lived there until she met the man who was to become her husband, a former monk who had been forced out of the Sangha by Lon Nol. (Lon Nol, concerned that too many potential soldiers were escaping conscription by putting on the robe, had decreed that no one under fifty could be a monk).

For the next twenty-five years Sopheap lived with her husband and children in Battambang and later in Siem Reap. About 2006 or 2007 she became very ill, and her husband agreed that she should return to Wat Phnom Orderk, where their second son was a monk. “By serving the monks as a daun chi I would build up kamma to overcome my illness.”

So she went back to Turtle Mountain, serving the monks and studying the Way, until her daughter asked if she would come with her to Phnom Penh where she wanted to do a ten-month course at the National Institute of Education. Naturally she agreed, as she could not send the girl to the city alone. She originally intended to take a room for the ten months, but rents in the capital proved too expensive and so, with the help of the abbot of Turtle Mountain, she obtained permission from the abbot of Wat Lanka to stay in this, one of the most prestigious monasteries in the capital.

I asked Sophea about the spirits, as I was curious to know what an intelligent and learned woman would have to say about the spirit world.

“Boramey and neak ta are not part of Buddhism (preah put sassana). These things don’t exist. Spirits come from Brahmanism (prumman sassana), which is all about the unseen. Brahmanism is about magic. I know of some people who came and asked a monk to sprinkle their new motorbike with holy water for good luck. That same day they were killed in an accident on the way home. Who can believe this? No pure monk will do this thing with magic water. Buddhism is about good and bad deeds. Your lot in this life reflects your deeds in your previous life. Everything that happens to you is due to the karma that you’ve built up in your previous life and this one.”

Sophea will return to Battambang when her daughter’s course is finished. The daughter will probably stay on in Phnom Penh as a teacher, and after a few years will apply for a scholarship to study for a Masters degree in English in Australia.


Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds, an investigation of religion and belief in modern Cambodia – due out in October.