Monks behaving badly


Phnom Penh Post photo

“Monks Behaving Badly” is the title of this article from the Post. It’s a general investigation of the state of monkish morals, and what happens when monks go bad. It says (or rather, an interviewee says) that Cambodians respect the robe rather than the person wearing it. True not only in Cambodia but throughout Southeast Asia so far as I know. The robe is the token of a decision to earn merit, it doesn’t imply that the owner is a man of merit.

It mentions a recent case of four monks arrested for drinking and dancing with girls in a karaoke bar. That infringes two cardinal rules, maybe three – against drink, music, and touching women (I’m assuming they were touching). The penalty as laid down in the rules of the monkhood is disrobing (getting tossed pout of the monastery). It then discusses the question of who can discipline monks, and especially whether the police can disrobe them. The official answer is no, the unofficial answer is yes. It comes down to what type of offense the monk has committed – if it’s a moral one, the abbot disrobes him. The police can investigate monks who break criminal laws, like this monk who raped a British tourist (the article is a catalog  of monks raping women and girls, many of them foreigners). Officially the abbot does the disrobing, but it seems to be the police. In real life there’s a huge grey area involving monks who get into social activism – here’s an article from the Cambodia Daily about some monks who were arrested and defrocked for carrying a flag – a political offense, not a moral one.

Ghost Money (Crime Wave, 2015)

2Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 8.57.29 PMCambodia 1996: PI Max Quinlan arrives in town to find missing, and very dodgy, businessman Charles Avery. Welcome to Ghost Money and the heart of existential darkness.

The book (which can be purchased here) has a marvellous opening: Max finds a body on the floor of Avery’s Bangkok apartment, battered to death by Quan Yin, the goddess of compassion. Very quickly it’s established that it isn’t Avery, but if not Avery, then who? And where’s Avery? As legions of Asia-noir writers from Chris Moore on down keep telling me, Bangkok is Ground Zero for danger and amoral sleaze, but it’s too law-abiding for Avery: he’s flown to Cambodia…

Cambodia in the mid-90s. I wasn’t there, I arrived in 2002, which, the true old-timers tell me, was far too late, but Nette’s Phnom Penh ambiance is convincingly realistic. The police still hang around on corners doing nothing (not quite nothing – when the boss needs cash they collect improvised fines from anyone unlucky enough to catch their eye), kids still beg on the Riverside and whores minister to the needs of terminally lonely drifters at Sharkey’s, and by golly Max stays at the old Hotel International – the building’s still there, though it’s not a hotel any more.

6177-762654Hotel Intercontinental, 2008, from Andy Brouwer’s blog

Andy tells me it’s since been tarted up beyond recognisability.

I love Max, a man born right in the middle of a modern multicultural identity crisis, his father a dysfunctional Australian cop, his mother Vietnamese but Max never knew her, and though Max looks Asian he doesn’t speak Vietnamese, nor Khmer, but he does speak Thai. The supporting actors are pretty compelling too, especially Sarin the Cambodian interpreter, psychically scarred by the Pol Pot years, trying to find a way to survive in the new Cambodia. We all know a couple of Sarins. Add a varied gallery of expat chancers (“When you’ve used up your last chance there’s always Cambodia” – I can hear Bogie muttering that out the corner of his mouth) and you have Phnom Penh then and now.

MI0000612211Bogie at Sharky: “We’ll always have Cambodia”

There’s a thoughtful review of Ghost Money here, and the book has been frequently and favourably reviewed on Goodreads. One reader, struck by the long shadow the Khmer Rouge cast over the story, comments that “most accounts of the war in Cambodia treat it as a cola to the Vietnam conflict” – a cola? But we know what he means.

Nette’s been compared with Lawrence Block, and that’s high praise indeed. Andrew Nette is a go-to man on pulp fiction – his website, called pulpcurry (don’t ask me why) is a treasure. His personal profile on Goodreads says:

Andrew Nette is a writer, reviewer, film-lover and pulp scholar, based in Melbourne, Australia. His first novel, Ghost Money, a crime story set in Cambodia in the mid-nineties, was recently republished by Hong Kong based publisher, Crime Wave Press. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 – 1980, forthcoming from Verse Chorus Press in 2015. He is one of the founders of Crime Factory Publications, a small Melbourne-based press specialising in crime fiction. He co-edits its magazine Crime Factory, and co-edited Hard Labour, an anthology of Australian short crime fiction, and LEE, an anthology of fiction inspired by American cinema icon Lee Marvin. His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and on-line publications, including Beat to a Pulp Hardboiled 3, Shotgun Honey Presents: Both Barrels, Blood and Tacos, The One That Got Away, Phnom Penh Noir and Crime Factory Hard Labour.


Sharky Bar (from Nana Journals)

In case you’re wondering about that reference to Sharky Bar, it features as the meeting place between Max and an informant in one of the early chapters, though not named. Personally I would have named it. It’s a lot tamer now than it was back in Max’s day.

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.

Phnom Penh the Dangerous


Back in 1994, so I’m told, backpackers in Ho Chi Minh City were sitting round in cafes discussing the latest news out of Cambodia and cancelling their onward travel. Too dangerous. Said one:

“I decided not to go to Cambodia after reading an article

in the Travel Section of the Independent in Melbourne [Australia] about the kidnappings of three westerners. The article advised against travel in Cambodia so I am spending more time in Vietnam.”

Those three kidnapped tourists were, unfortunately, later murdered by the Khmer Rouge. (Laura Jean McKay’s “Holiday in Cambodia” is partly based on the incident and well worth reading.

Cambodia, of course, thrives on its reputation for danger. Backpackers get the thrill of having walked down the Riverside and survived. But is it dangerous, really?

Surprise surprise: Interior Minister Sar Kheng says yes, it really is, though he’s talking about petty crime, not the threat of kidnapping and murder. In fact he likens PP to HCMC of yore, which apparently was once a pretty crime-ridden place (so were all those backpackers sitting in the midst of a crime wave and not noticing?)

According to figures released by City Hall, in 2014 Phnom Penh Municipal Police dealt with 564 cases – including misdemeanours and felonies – and arrested 762 suspects.

Un Sam An, Wat Phnom commune police chief, who was at yesterday’s meeting, agreed that street crime was a big issue, but said authorities were already doing their best to address it.

“My police officials make an effort to crack down on robberies and street thefts. We had an almost 100 per cent success rate in 2014,” he claimed. “Most of the thefts happen on Cambodian people, not foreigners.”

But Kheng said that foreigners are often victims of crime, and said French nationals in particular regularly ask why they are targeted.


Simon Gipson blog

Bag-snatchers and pickpockets seem to be the most common complaints. Locals and tourists seem to be equally the targets. Beware when using motos and tuktuks. Some tips for tuktuks:

  • Some tuk-tuk and motodop drivers are alleged to be involved in organised crime, and will take you directly to an unknown place. Be careful, and get recommendations on tuk-tuk drivers who are trustworthy from hotels, friends and colleagues. (Comment: the vast majority of tuktuk and moto drivers are not involved in organised crime, but the advice is still useful – just don’t get paranoid, like this lady did).
  • Never ride in a tuk-tuk late at night and alone. (Comment: I frequently ride in tuktuks and on motos alone at night, but I’m careful where I take them from).
  • Don’t leave bags or other goods open to snatchers on motos. Place your bag in the middle of the seat and close to you when in a tuk-tuk. (Absolutely right).
  • When riding a motodop, put the bag or purse between you and the driver. (Better still, take a tuktuk – not just for theft protection, but because motos are really bad if you’re in a traffic accident).
  • Don’t wear too much jewellery, and don’t carry unnecessary valuables and cash. (Or hide your cash).

Don’t bother reporting the incident to the police – you’ll pay tea-money and still nothing will happen. Anyway, there are no police around after3 5 o’clock. Don’t try to fight muggers and bag-snatchers – the often operate in gangs, and can be violent.

Everyone Burns

everyone burnsEveryone Burns (available here from Amazon/Kindle) is the first installment of John Dolan’s Time, Blood and Karma series. The introit goes something like this:

Samui, January 2005: a foreign tourist has been murdered and his body incinerated. Robbery is not the motive – the wallet is left on the corpse. Nor, one hopes, is sex, since the victim is male. The murder of foreign tourists is a dreadful thing, and Chief Charoenkul does what any thoughtful policeman in his position would do: nothing. After all, if he investigated the murder he’d have to publicise it, and that would be bad for the tourist industry.

Then another foreigner turns up dead and barbequed. Charoenkul‘s superiors call in a superior officer from the mainland to take over the case. This is potentially career destroyingly bad for Charoenkul. Thinking quickly, he in turn calls in David Braddock, Samui’s only but unlicensed farang private eye and a man with a secret past. (A very interesting secret it is too – when it’s revealed it hits like a killer whale on a penguin). If he, Braddock, will kindly find the real murderer then he, Charoenkul, will be eternally grateful and might not throw him, Braddock, off the island after all. What Charoenkul doesn’t know is that he, Braddock, is having an affair with his, Charoenkul‘s, wife.

Over on Goodreads it has 57 reviews, almost all with five stars, which is no mean feat – Goodreads reviewers can be brutal. It deserves the five star ratings. The story is beautifully structured, the setting richly realised, the characters compelling. Dolan is also skillful at integrating the apparently obligatory instructions on Buddhism into his story – that sort of thing can be a drag, but our author seems to have avoided the trap. In fact there’s a hefty dose of Buddhist metaphysics in the title, but I’ll leave that for you to unravel.

Dolan has website/blog here and website here, (why two I have no idea), on which he explains what he’s trying to do with Time, Blood and Karma:

The ‘Time, Blood and Karma’ series comprises novels spanning the period from the aftermath of World War II to the present day. While each book contains a complete story, the novels collectively form part of a larger narrative trajectory involving themes of relationship and the consequences of actions in an interconnected world.


The individual stories can be classified as belonging to the mystery/thriller genre (the emphasis between ‘thriller’ and ‘mystery’ varying by book). Most of the action takes place in South East Asia – although there are interludes in other parts of the world – and the imagery and philosophy of the series is essentially Buddhist in nature. The overarching narrative jumps forward and backward in time to show the planting and ripening of the seeds of karma.


The series is really about interconnection – the idea that everything is connected to everything else…

If everything is connected to everything else, I wonder what Mr Dolan will make of this: while researching this review I looked him up on the universally respected Wikipedia, and I found this:

John Carrol Dolan (born 1955) is an American poet, author and essayist. …  completed a PhD thesis on the … Marquis de Sade. … has held various jobs including attack-dog handler at a truckyard in Oakland. …  In 2001 Dolan resigned his academic post and moved to Moscow … He was the first reviewer of A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, a bestseller featured on Oprah‘s monthly bookclub, to correctly expose this alleged memoir as fraudulent … (the title of Dolan’s review was “A Million Pieces of Shit” and the first line was “This is the worst thing I have ever read”) … Dolan relocated to Canada to teach at the University of Victoria in Canada ….  fired for encouraging students to criticize George Monbiot …. Until spring 2010 was an associate professor of English composition and literature at the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani….. fired in 2010 and wrote a lengthy article on his experience there.

This feisty John Carrol Dolan is not, I repeat not, the author of noir thrillers set in Samui, but everything is connected, no?

If you’d prefer the real John Dolan (ah those Buddhist themes – what is reality?) he does an interview here in which he gives the reviewer a writing tip (don’t do it, it’s more addictive than heroin – buy a dog instead), and another here, in which he reveals that the series will have seven titles and that he has a little man inside his head who makes up the stories and he, John, just writes them down. I’ve heard about this little man from a lot of writers so I think it must be true.

John is on twitter here.