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.”

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