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.

Interview with a gangster

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 1.07.17 PMI carried out this interview in the course of investigating magical tattoos – what they were, why people had them. I was told that the most likely people to have them were police, gangsters, and soldiers. So I went and found myself a gangster.

Not really a gangster any more, in fact a very nice guy with a touching story. He’s 37 years old, and came to PP from the provinces with his family aged 8. At that time (about 1985) PP was a wild and dangerous place. Aged 13 (about 1990) he left school over his father’s strong objections and joined a gang on Riverside, the tourist strip along the Tonle Sap river. Got tattoos when he was about 16, to attract girls. Also got some amulets to make himself invulnerable to knives and to make himself brave. You can just see a tattoo at the very top of his singlet.

The gang robbed and intimidated everyone on Riverside – vendors, shopkeepers, tourists. Fought other gangs with knives, knuckledusters, bike-chains. The police were afraid of them. Boss of the gang was named Kmao, a very violent young man afraid of nobody.

One day there was a major battle with another gang. The other side had guns, Kmao’s side didn’t. Two of Kmao’s side were shot. Our friend had to jump in the river and swim for the far bank, because the enemy were searching for Kmao’s gang up and down Riverside and would kill him if they caught him. Out in the river he promised that if he survived he’d leave the gang and start a new life. And he did.

That was many years ago. Now he drives a tuktuk. All his friends from that time are either dead, or in jail, or driving tuktuks. Several have become monks, and one is an abbot. He bitterly regrets his wasted youth – he has no education, just a tuktuk driver. He was almost crying by the time I finished the interview, being forced to remember the past. I felt a bit guilty.

Phnom Penh gangster

HangmanA Phnom Penh gangster. Taken on the balcony of a room behind the Old Market (Psar Chas), overlooking street 110. “Gangster” has a specific meaning, essentially petty criminals specialising in bag-snatching and burglary. Distinguished by tattoos like this one – anyone who has a tattoo like this has marked himself off from normal respectable society. Usually, of course, the tattoo is covered by a shirt. “Gangsters” tend to have brief lives, much of it spent in jail. If people catch them committing a crime the mob’ll beat them to death – sometimes the police try to save them, sometimes not, but most often they simply don’t arrive.

The gangs are violent – this from a Phnom Penh post article in 2010:

“Earlier this month a student was killed and others suffered serious injuries after fights against rival gangs in the centre of the capital, and samurai swords are still the weapon of choice for the gangs. The fighting is brutal and the injuries horrific, but the authorities do not seem to be able to stop it.”

The article makes some very good points about what leads kids to join gangs, but essentially it strikes me as the inevitable result of a society and economy that can’t provide employment, recreation, or even much family life for its young people.

Interesting article here about life in the poorer parts of the city – mentions gangs and much else, though nothing in depth.