Vanishing Act: glimpses into Cambodia’s world of magic

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 8.22.58 PMVanishing Act: Glimpses into Cambodia’s world of magic. Ryun Patterson and Ric Valenzuela.

Cambodia’s mystic class of healers, counselors, and fortunetellers channel spirits, read fortunes in numbers and cards, and inscribe enchantments in flesh. But technology and modernity are changing these roles and rituals. Vanishing Act tracks down these singular people to document their lives. It paints vivid portraits of people who live with one foot in the mundane and another in the magical.

The photos, by the way, are glorious. Available for iPad/Mac/Kindle. Available also on paper – contact Ryun Patterson on Facebook or (not available at Monument Books).  See the website at, reviews/interviews at Cambodia Daily and Khmer Times. The interview with the CD is worth reproducing at length:

Mr. Patterson, 40, a Chicago-based journalist who worked as an editor at The Cambodia Daily from 1999 to 2003, said he first conceived of the project in 2011, after receiving an enchanted protective tattoo at Wat Neak Voan in Phnom Penh.

During the 3-1/2-hour process of inscribing an image of the Hindu god Hanuman across Mr. Patterson’s back, the tattooist lamented the state of his magical craft.

“While I was getting that tattoo done, the artist kept talking to me about how his profession was slowly disappearing.

“He said that he didn’t use the traditional bamboo-needle method of tattooing anymore…about how young people weren’t getting holy tattoos anymore, and he worried that he wouldn’t have anyone to pass his skills along to before he died,” Mr. Patterson said in an email. “That got me thinking: what is all of this about?”

His interest piqued, Mr. Patterson began trying to find more information on magical traditions in Cambodia. The only problem: Accessible material on mystic rituals and beliefs, for the most part, was nonexistent.

“[A]side from the typical, lowest-common-denominator ‘Wow, Look at this crazy sorcerer!’ stories that journalists parachute in [to] write about in Cambodia, I really couldn’t find much about it,” he recalled, adding that academic materials did exist, but were difficult to access, and expensive.

“So, I decided to do something myself, to contribute, if even in a small way, to the preservation of these traditions and professions,” he added.

Financed through global crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, Mr. Patterson, Mr. Valenzuela and the rest of the “Vanishing Act” team—chief editorial assistant and translator Sun Heng; translators Mesa Lang and Heang Sreychea; and research assistant Saing Saem—were able to capture viv
id images of the diverse range of people inhabiting Cambodia’s supernatural landscape.

“Is it real? Is it fake? That’s beside the point…. My central aim is simple: I want to show the rest of the world that these supremely interesting, spiritually diverse people exist, and want other people to see these folks through my eyes, through a lens of respect,” Mr. Patterson said.

But is Cambodia’s class of spiritualists “vanishing?”

Mr. Patterson says he doesn’t believe they will disappear in the immediate future, but it is difficult to deny the societal shifts occurring around the country.

“They’re not Irawaddy [sic] dolphins or Siamese crocodiles,” he said, referring to the country’s mystics.
“[T]hey’re still around, for now. Cambodia’s supernatural traditions have survived for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and they won’t disappear overnight,” he said.

“But if these traditions aren’t slowly being supplanted by modernity, then they are at least changing to adapt to a world of Facebook and iPhones, and it’s in our best interest to remember them.”

ch9Chapter 9 – free chapter from

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.

Smoked babies, part 3

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 1.40.12 PMIllustration from a classic Thai tale of a man who kills his wife to obtain a smoked baby amulet

Journalist Nate Thayer was in a guest-house in Aranyaprathet (Thailand) on his way to interview Pol Pot in 1997:

There was a knock on my door, and … [Ghung], a young boy of 17, entered. … He opened his hands which clutched two Buddhist amulets. “I want you to take these with you. Wear them around your neck. If you are respectful to them, they will protect you from danger,” he said. The one on the left, pictured below, is an effigy of a dead baby fetus. He warned me that I should not be afraid if it talked aloud to me. The powerful one, he said, was that image, the Kuman Thong. “This will make sure you don’t die”, he said, if I treated it with a reverence. Ghung clearly did. “Only wear it around your neck and don’t be afraid. Sometimes it will talk to me.”

The kuman thing is, of course, the Thai version of the Khmer koan krak. Quite possibly it’s found all over Southeast Asia – I’m told there’s a Philippines version, although that involves using the afterbirth rather than a fetus taken from a pregnant woman’s womb (a slightly more civilised approach, though not much). Here’s an interesting ghost story by a foreigner who bought a kuman thong in Bangkok without realising what it was – I don’t know what in this is fiction and what’s fact, but the gist is that his Thai girlfriend was horrified (yes – I gather most Cambodians find koan krak pretty horrifying) and warned him that he’d taken a responsibility – he had to feed the kuman thong and take care of it like a normal child. Which, naturally, he failed to do. Read on.

Nate Thayer’s story also underlines that the fetus is entirely protective – it can’t be used to harm others. In that sense it isn’t black magic at all, but since it involves the almost certain death of the mother it might as well be.

This brings up the question of where the fetus comes from. In theory it’s either taken from a woman who died in childbirth, or, and preferably (more powerful amulet), from a woman who voluntarily agrees to give her unborn fetus to the man (who is, presumably, the biological father). This website suggests that in Thailand they come from abortions and morgues, but that would violate one of the rules of making a koan krak: the fetus must be willingly gifted by the mother to the father. Quite possibly, in modern urban conditions, this is being lost, and the simple possession of a mummified fetus over which magic spells have been chanted is seen as enough. This is highly disturbing, given the potential for all sorts of shenanigans. This is from a 2006 article by Bronwyn Sloane:

Recently 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.

An academic study of Cambodian refugees on the Thai border in the 1980s tells how some refugee women induced abortions in order to provide their husbands or lovers with a koan kroh. This account is interesting because it suggests that the death of the mother is not essential to the creation of the koan krak (or koan kroh, or whatever – the variations are endless).

Some more factoids:

  • The question of ownership is uppermost: the father – in reality already the biological father – must ask the biological mother to give him the fetus, as if in some fashion it isn’t actually his already. This implies that the father desires the biological role of the mother.
  • Relationships are inverted – the father of the koan krak is less powerful than the kun krak, and is actually dependant on it. He constructs an altar for it and makes offerings, as to a superior spiritual being.
  • The mother of the fetus also becomes a spirit- she’s now a bray, the earth-bound spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, the most powerful and malevolent of all spirits. (Recall that in the alternative route to procuring a fetus, from a woman who dies in childbirth, the dead woman’s spirit must be summonsed by magic, and she appears as a bray; the bray, incidentally, is the spirit that inhabits the racing canoes at the Water Festival).
  • By making an altar to the koun krak, the man makes the koan krak an ancestor in the maternal line. “From being a member of a conjugal couple, he becomes a descendant of his wife’s lineage”.
  • How is the amulet carried? Some say in a bag around the neck or waist, others in a wooden ball made of two halves. No doubt both could be true.

Smoked babies, part 2.

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 10.14.44 PMA Thai kaun krak – on sale for $199.99, being offered by a “so-called monk”.

Part 2 of Steven Prigent’s paper on the Cambodian “smoked baby” talisman (in Khmer, “kaun krak” or “kaon kroh” or “kaon kraouch”) . Part 1 was on how to obtain the fetus (it has to be freely offered by the mother, who dies), part 2 describes how the man turns it into a talisman:

  • The man who is to become the talisman’s “father” must first mummify it over a fire, while making offerings.
  • He then presents it to a monk who is skilled in magic. The monk will “awaken” the  fetus through magic words. (Prigent notes that an earlier ethnologist, the famous Etienne Aymonier, makes no mention of monks).
  • Finally the mummified and awakened fetus is sewn into the pouch which will be its final home. This is done within an enclosure of magic sima stones. The koan krak becomes the sole charge of its “father”, who must “feed” it with offerings at its altar in his house. The father should never reveal to outsiders that he possesses a koan krak. It will give its father advice, protect him from bullets (the father is usually a soldier), and even has the ability to make him invisible to his enemies. When he needs its help he asks it: “My child, help your father!” The link is one of father and son, and for this reason a koan krak cannot change hands.
  • Most importantly, a koan krak can be used only to protect its father. It is a moral being, superior to its father in both wisdom and power, and will not allow itself to be used for harm.

Erik W. Davis adds that a koan krak can be naughty and refuse to help its father, in which case the father can discipline it. One man who owns a koan krak told Davis he did this by jabbing it with a needle.

Prigent found the illustration at the top of this article on a Thai website called It seems to be a sort of e-bay for amulet-seekers. The add is still there, but with a note that this item is “out of stock.” This is most disturbing – the temptation for a black market in fetuses is obvious, and considering the rules for ensuring potency (the most powerful come from cutting open a living woman) the consequences would be horrific. Apparently Cambodian expertise is highly thought of in Thailand – the vendor of this thing boats that he “learned further from Khmer ancient magic book.”

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.