Review of “Spirit Worlds” in the Phnom Penh Post.Book launch 8 November at the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival (click link for program of the festival), midday, Baraca restaurant, Kampot.
Tag Archives: magic
Vanishing Act: glimpses into Cambodia’s world of magic
Vanishing 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 blub.com (not available at Monument Books). See the website at neaktaa.com, 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.”
Sak 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.
Nathan 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 1.
Cover illustration from Trude Jacobsen’s “The Lost Goddesses”
Steven Prigent’s paper UN FŒTUS HUMAIN POUR AMULETTE (in French, obviously), is divided into three parts, preceded by an introduction. This is a summary of Part I, “La rumeur de l’enfant fume”:
LA RUMEUR DE « L’ENFANT FUMÉ » (KUN KRAK)
- Koan kroh can be obtained either from a woman who has died in childbirth, or from a living pregnant woman. The woman in the second case will end up as dead as the woman in the first.
- In the first case, the man “awakens” the corpse of the woman (who has been buried with the fetus) by magic. He must then ask and receive the dead woman’s permission to take the fetus. This will be difficult for him, because the awakened corpse will cause great fear. (See the material from Trude Jacobsen below).
- According to Ang Choulean (says Prigent – I haven’t found Ang’s paper on the subject), a fetus obtained from a woman who is already dead in childbirth is less powerful than one obtained from a living mother. Prigent believes that the preferred course is to obtain a living fetus, which is to say, a fetus from a living mother.
- The word krak (which is how Prigent gives it – others have “kroh” or “kroach” or other variants) has been explained by Ang Choulean as “to grill, smoke, dessicate.” Prigent says that the word “kun” should be translated not just as “child” but as “child of….” There seems to be no exact parallel in English. The point is that the term implies the forging of a filial link between the fetus and the man who takes it. (Takes, that is, from the mother). The man becomes not merely its father, but its sole family, since the mother dies.
- The kun krak is thus not just the possession of the man who possesses it as an amulet, but also his son. (The amulet is regarded as masculine, and indeed most often is).
- The man (owner of the amulet) is usually a soldier; the woman (mother) may be his mistress or wife; the fetus must be a first child (and as the mother is either dead or, more often, about to die, also an only child).
- If taken from a living mother (wife or girlfriend), the man spends “an intimate moment” with her (presumably Prigent means they have sex); he then asks jokingly if she will give him the child in her belly; the woman, believing this is a game, says yes. The man immediately cuts her open and takes the fetus. The willing and verbal donation of the child by the mother is essential to the power of the amulet.
- The fetus itself is between two worlds, a soul caught “crossing the river” from unborn to born; this presumably accounts for its psychic potency. (Consider how ghosts also come at late evening or early morning rather than midnight or midday).
Trude Jacobsen in “The Lost Goddesses” has a little on the procedure and dangers if the fetus is obtained from a woman who has died in childbirth:
Women who died in the third trimester of pregnancy or in labour without having given birth were said to have been killed by brai (a kind of witch-spirit) and could become brai themselves if, three days following the burial, a man “sufficiently audacious and resolved” carried out a certain ceremony. After establishing a sima (boundary of holy stones) around the corpse, he was to place an image of an eight-headed brai in the centre of the room and recite magical incantations. The woman would rise from the dead as a brai after the third repetition … making horrible faces, lolling an enormous tongue, rolling her eyes, and taking on the forms of a serpent, tiger and elephant. If the man showed any fear he would be consumed…
…but if he didn’t the woman would give up her unborn child. Elsewhere Jacobsen mentions that the KR obtained koan kroh in order to guard against enemy bullets etc, and a rumour that Hun Sen possesses a number of them. This is not to say that Hun Sen really has these things, but the existence of the rumour illustrates that the belief in their power still continues.
Koan kroh (roasted baby)
In 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.
In 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).
The 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.
In 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.
Six 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.
“Visit 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.