Alessandro Vanucci – photos from Angkor

Some rather beautiful photos from Alessandro Vannucci. He runs photo-tours around Angkor and Siem Reap, which look well worth the taking – go to his website to see more of his work (look under the tabs “workshops and travel photography” and “portfolio”).

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The tattoos are a mix of magical and simply decorative – generally speaking, magical ones are more schematic, look more like diagrams. The purpose is always either to protect the bearer from harm, or to attract girls. Monks are not supposed to have tattoos, but they do, it’s a sure sign that they’ve led an interesting life. possibly including time as a soldier or maybe a gangster.

Untrodden Fields etc.

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 12.17.30 PMLasciviousness, gambling, pederasty, and sodomy, are innate in the race; having definitely stated this fact, let us pass on to another subject.

 My word yes indeed.

The above concerns the citizens of Vietnam, esp. Saigon, and we now pass on to Cambodia.

Our guide stayed, he tells us, several months in Cambodia in the year 1866. At the time the king, Norodom, was busy trying to chase down and kill his brother, who felt he’d make a better king. The resulting mayhem restricted our author’s ability to get around the country, but nevertheless he fitted an awful lot of observations into a brief period. So many, in fact, that he has to limit his scope: “I shall deal very briefly with all those manners, customs and habits which do not directly concern sexual intercourse.” One chapter on manners, customs and habits, then one on sex.

First up is a description of Cambodian genitalia, of both sexes and all ages. It may be very brief but it tells me more than I ever wanted to know. But the po-faced seriousness is compelling: “The clitoris I found, in some cases, fairly well developed, and also the lesser lips, but generally speaking the dimensions of these two parts are normal.” Normal?

Then on to other matters. “The mandarins are much more numerous than is needed… They are insatiable, and ruin, or impoverish by their exactions, the people…” Free men “have liberty and nothing else.” They have hardly any property, and no redress against the mandarins. “Men of the lower class are thus obliged to chose a patron amongst the mandarins of Phnom Penh.” There is also a class of hereditary slaves, some of them tribal people hunted or purchased for this purpose, or debtors who have failed to repay their debts.

"Cambodian man" - John Thompson, 1868. Thompson was a remarkable man, a pioneer  who travelled extremely widely and was at one stage official photographer to Queen Victoria.

“Cambodian man” – John Thompson, 1868. Thompson was a remarkable man, a pioneer who travelled extremely widely and was at one stage official photographer to Queen Victoria.

Unmarried girls wear their hair long, but cut it short on marriage, giving them “a harsh, unfeminine appearance.” The men are “mild-tempered, indolent, and very fond of amusement”; they fly kites, play ball games, and bet on cricket-fights. They are brave and fearless of death, but fight modern rifles with spears and lack leadership. They hunt elephant, rhinoceros and wild bull, all of which are very numerous.

The religion is Buddhism, but “disfigured by numerous superstitions,” notably a belief in ancestral spirits. Buddhism is by nature a noble and philosophical religion, but has been much debased, and the paintings in Cambodian temples “are often of a licentious and libidinous character.”

The king has a white elephant. When the country was under Siamese vassalage he was obliged to send all such animals found in his kingdom to the King of Siam, but since becoming a French vassal he’s allowed to keep them. (This is one of the last white elephants recorded in Cambodia, although there’s a story that Sihanouk sent one to the President of the United States – this would have been in the 1950s, if true).

Human sacrifice was widely practiced until recently, but is now restricted to condemned criminals, who are executed “under the protecting tree of the province” as a sacrifice “to the tutelary genii” (the local neak ta?) There are 21 prescribed methods of execution, such as burning alive, being thrown to wild animals, etc.

To leave a young girl alone with a young man is like entrusting an elephant with the care of a plantation of sugar-cane

Royal dancer, Phnom Penh (undated), by P. Dieulefils. Given that Cambodian women customarily cut their hair short on marriage, this could be, and probably is, a female dancer.

Royal dancer, Phnom Penh (undated), by P. Dieulefils. Given that Cambodian women customarily cut their hair short on marriage, this could be, and probably is, a female dancer.

King Norodom has eleven wives and unlimited concubines. “In appearance he is dried-up…” Khmer girls are chaste and modest and do not allow themselves to be seen in public by strangers; illegitimacy and prostitution are almost unknown. Copulation is undertaken in the missionary position. “Pederasty has not, in Cambodia, the place of honour it finds in Cochin-China,” and the Frenchman visiting Cambodia must therefore take a native mistress. (Ok, so I’ve twisted that a little for the sake of humour, but see page 198).

And it’s all free on-line. Untrodden Fields of Anthropology, by a French Army Surgeon (2 Volumes, of which this is Volume 1), privately re-issued by the American Anthropological Society. The original limited edition of 500 copies (i.e., the AAS’s translation) was an unexpected best-seller. It was then re-issued with a rather defensive Introduction in which the anonymous author is defended against the charge of indecency on the grounds that he was a student of the Sixth Sense:

I believe in the existence of a Sixth Sense, the genital sense, the existence of which he (Dr. Moreau of Tours) has psychologically proved … It is the psychological and medical study of this sense that I had in view in compiling this work…

Yes indeed again – today we’d call it the sex drive, and it drives 90% of our waking hours. Although as I get older I find that eating comes to compete quite strongly.

A final word of acknowledgement to Shizzle, whoever he or she may be, who made a post on Khmer440 that alerted me to the existence of this book. As one of the comments on K440 says, it’s pure gold.






Cambodian kru and magic

Black magic kru

Black magic kru

The gentleman to the left is a kru. The word kru is from the Sanskrit word “guru”, meaning teacher or master. A teacher in a school is a kru, and if someone teaches you Khmer he’s your kru Khmer. But this is a more specialised use of the term: kru as magician,and kru khmer as practitioner of traditional, and very abstruse, teachings. (the man to the left is, unfortunately, a black magician, which is unfair, as most are white, but he looks so good I just had to use him. He comes from an article on fortune tellers at Khmer Connection).

Kru follow written texts detailing ingredients to be used and rituals to be followed. Symbols play an important role. A centrally placed bell represents Meru, the cosmic mountain, and other ritual objects represent the four cosmic continents. The kru might invoke Thorani the Earth Goddess while sprinkling holy water over the patient, thus creating a symbolic link with Buddha’s defeat of Mara the demon king through the water wrung from Thorani’s hair.

There are the “white” kru, who heal sickness, and also “black” kru who cause it through black magic. A black kru can cause a knife to enter a man’s body, causing sharp pain and even death.If a Cambodian has an illness that won’t respond to modern medicine, he’ll probably go to a kru. White kru have a high standard of ethics, following the Buddhist precepts and basing their powers on Buddhist teachings, albeit the more esoteric ones, or practices derived from Brahmanical belief. Black kru are the enemies of the Buddha and of religion: to preserve their power, must never enter a monastery or pass before or make a deferential bow to a Buddha image, nor may they wash their entire lives.

Cambodian lead katha amulet - lead charms indicated by arrows - one like this caused lead poisoning in the child in New York city in 2009. (

Cambodian lead katha amulet – lead charms indicated by arrows – one like this caused lead poisoning in the child in New York city in 2009. (

Amulets can protect the wearer from physical harm. The thirteenth century Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan wrote of how the king of Angkor was protected from swords and arrows by powerful amulets implanted under his skin, and I know of a Western photographer living in Phnom Penh who wears an amulet made of a small sheet of hammered lead, rolled into a tube around a braided thread and tied to his wrist. More expensive ones are available of silver or gold.

Amulets can also take the form of small Buddha images carved from ivory or wild boar tusks or crystal, worn around the neck or waist or over the genitals. The katha must be guarded from contact with impurity, and for this reason should not be taken into the lavatory. The wearer should also avoid certain foods, and should obey the Five Precepts. For some people, such as soldiers and criminals, following the first two precepts might be difficult, as they prohibit killing and theft, and to compensate they will need to make especially generous and frequent donations to the monastery.

Amulets and charms drawn on cloth are popular. These are called kansaeng yantra, and are displayed on the walls of houses and businesses. The best ones are those prepared by monks, and monks who are skilled in them can become extremely sought after.

Tattooed soldier, Tuol Sleng museum

Tattooed soldier, Tuol Sleng museum

Protective charms can also take the form of tattoos. These are called bidhi sak, and as usual, the process is surrounded by ritual. In the past the tattoo was rendered more powerful by the inclusion of certain substances such as the bile of a brave enemy, or the skin of a monk. The completed tattoo must be consecrated by ritual sprinkling delivered by the senior monks of seven monasteries.

Kru also prepare special potions. Their specific powers depend on their ingredients, and, of course, the incantations and rituals. One was prized for its ability to confer invulnerability to bullets – the ingredients included dried python and the faeces of the red vulture, among others.

Thai version of the goan krak, for sale on the internet

Thai version of the goan krak, for sale on the internet

Possibly the most famous charm is the goan krak. This is made from a human foetus cut from the mother’s womb (the woman theoretically having agreed beforehand) and dried over a fire. Worn in a small wooden ball around the neck, it will whisper advice and warnings to its owner in times of danger. The Khmer Issarak rebels who fought the French during and after World War Two are known to have used goan krak, the current prime minister is rumoured to have a collection, and freelance journalist Nate Thayer was offered one when he set off to interview Pol Pot in the Cambodian jungle.

All this, apart from a few details, comes from Ian Harris’ book Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. I’m trying to meet some of the kru, but not having much success so far.



Cambodia’s shame: innocence for sale

The following article was published on the Penh Pal bog today (7 July). I’m re-blogging it because it’s so important a subject. So many lives ruined, and yet somehow it seems to have slipped out of the care of Cambodia’s many NGOs.

7th July 2014

Writing in Britain’s Observer yesterday, Abigail Hawthorn, who lives in Asia, and writes about global women’s issues for the American edition of Marie Claire, tells the sad story of an impoverished Cambodian mother who sells her daughter’s virginity to a wealthy police general for $US1500. (Also reprinted in the Phnom Penh Post)

For anyone who has spent time here in Asia, this is an all too common story.

“Many Asian men, especially those over 50, believe sex with virgins gives them magical powers to stay young and ward off illness,” Hawthorn quotes the president of Licadho, Chhiv Kek Pung, as saying. “There’s a steady supply of destitute families for the trade to prey on here, and the rule of law is very weak.”

In many ways, this preoccupation with virginity as a commodity is a uniquely Asian phenomenon. It is not just powerful Cambodia men that fuel the trade (although the bulk of the trade is local). Men from other Asian countries, such as China, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand regular travel here on business and have expect to have a ‘virgin’ as part of the package.

Where the pleasure can lie in raping a terrified innocent is a mystery to most men with any human sensitivity. The practice would seem to support the idea that rape is less about sex than it is an expression of violence against those that are weak and vulnerable.

Some years ago, I met a guy in Thailand from South Asia who was educated in the US. Bizarrely, he boasted about how, while having sex, he liked to pound his female partners into the mattress to the point where it made them bleed.

This, he seemed to believe, was proof of his masculinity.

He was less than happy when I suggested it was more likely these women were simply menstruating — and by being exposed to their blood, he risked possible exposure to HIV.

In her article, Hawthorn makes the point that while sex trafficking has long received more press, the trade in virgins is much more common here, sustained by intrenched poverty, a deep-seated sense of obligation of children to parents, ingrained gender inequality, and a long cultural history of acceptance of the practice.

Even amongst the wealthy here, marriage has traditionally been regarded as more of a business arrangement between families than based on any notion of romantic love. And desperation amongst those living close to the edge is often the key driver of a decision to sell the one thing that seems to have a monetary value in many poor communities.

Licadho’s Pung also makes the point that this may be sad but it’s not ‘sexy’ for the numerous anti-trafficking NGOs and foreign aid donors. The narrative is simply too complicated, given the difference in cultural attitudes to the role of daughters.

“The fear is that, while people might feel sorry for the girls, they’d be too outraged about parents selling their daughters to open their wallets,” she explained.

When they do intervene, many NGOs working in the sector see it as their duty to remove the young women at risk or already a victim from her family. While this may be well-intentioned, it may deal with one problem while creating another — as family is critical for the majority of people in this part of the world.

All too often the problem is also cast in moral terms — curious given that the real victims usually have little control over their circumstances — when economics is seems a more likely answer.

While cultural attitudes clearly support this trade, at its heart is the wretchedness of poverty.

This is what needs to be changed.


Beyond Democracy In Cambodia

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 9.39.27 AMBeyond Democracy in Cambodia was published in 2009, but now seems a good time to draw attention to it, given the current interest in some quarters in the kingdom’s credentials. What follows is a summary of the main points as contained in this recent and excellent review by Virak Thun in New Mandala.

The basic idea is that around 1993 the international community wanted Cambodia to both reconstruct (reconstruct society, reconstruct the economy, reconstruct everything) and to become a liberal democracy. Only the first of these has happened. “International efforts to bring liberal democracy to the country have, one must conclude, hardly scratched the surface.” (Those are Virak Thun’s words).

  • The achievement of liberal democracy is highly unlikely in the predictable future, because of a political culture based on a deeply rooted patronage system and the absence of prerequisites for democracy.
  • Elections are used to gain external legitimization rather than as a force for democracy.
  • The judiciary is incompetent, corrupt, and politically manipulated.
  • Democratic decentralization (a reform introduced in 1993) has served as an instrument of local democratization, regime legitimacy, and post-conflict reconstruction in the form of stability in local communities. (I.e., this at least is a success).
  • Globalization has helped enhance women’s political legitimacy.
  • At the national level regime uses  foreign aid to gain internal legitimacy, but aid is not a substitute for a true democratic process. (This chapter is by Sophal Ear, who has argued elsewhere that massive foreign aid actually hinders the development of democracy in Cambodia).
  • At the rural local level also, reliance on foreign donors/NGOs has emasculated the development of indigenous political legitimacy.
  • The revival swept of Buddhism since the 1980s has played a contributing role in recreating and increasing political legitimacy.
  • The ECCC has been ineffective, and has thus missed the chance of contributing to the political legitimacy of the government.
  • Conclusion: post-conflict reconstruction was relatively fruitful, the Cambodian political context was better and more stable by 2009 than in 1991, and the government is arguably able to maintain a high level of political legitimacy. Nevertheless, “the middle ground, democratization, which is presumed to deliver post-conflict reconstruction, remains elusive”.

My own gloss on this is that Cambodia has achieved political stability and economic development, but that its future stability remains questionable due to the lack of genuine democratic and liberal institutions – meaning independent courts, a free media, oppositional politics, etc.

Lord alone knows why, but Beyond Democracy is free at google books. Or you can buy it through the usual outlets, like Monument.