I Tested Out Three of Cambodia's Spiritual Practices
And learned that Cambodian ghosts apparently don't believe in Jesus.
An entrance to a Cambodian home covered in chalk drawings of crosses and skulls to ward off evil spirits.
Vitray's first memories are of the tent cities in Thailand where Cambodian refugees found safety during the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge regime. Vitray was one of the lucky ones, as his family eventually managed to emigrate to America – to a Nashville ghetto plighted by bullets and crack cocaine. At 24, he travelled to Phnom Penh to get engaged. A handsome American citizen, he was quite a catch, so his father arranged for him to marry Dain, his pretty second cousin. They were happy for a while. And then the nightmares started.
Vitray was haunted with visions – bloodied bodies, tortured faces, flesh torn from bones. Night after night the horrors returned, until he was too terrified to lie down. Then Dain began to change; she suddenly seemed ugly and her serene expression began to look stupid and infuriate Vitray. He began to hate her and the way she affected an American accent and laughed in a high-pitched shatter of tinnitus-inducing screeches.
Vitray was originally betrothed to another Cambodian girl before Dain – a girl who, according to Vitray's family, was pretty angry that she'd been snubbed of the opportunity to marry an American citizen. Vitray’s sister Molika told me the rest of the story: “I never believed in curses until I saw what happened to my brother – he was in love with Dain and then he suddenly hated her,” she told me. “Then he got sick with Bell's Palsy. To this day, the doctors don’t know the cause, but people told me that the family of the girl he was originally betrothed to put a curse on him.”
But c an curses really result in mental and physical reactions? Author and druid Emma-Restall Orr thinks so, which isn't all that surprising considering she's a druid. “Whether we call it magic, cursing and sorcery, or we call it gossip and vindictive behaviour, the effect can be the same," she told me. "People can be profoundly psychologically affected and the ramifications can be extreme – sickness, accidents and spiralling down." While that explanation might not exactly be palatable to the Western mind, magic is very real in Cambodia.
In the village where I live and work for a small NGO, folk religion is woven into the way locals experience daily life. People swap tips about the best local fortune tellers and healers. They chalk skulls and crosses on their door frames to protect their homes from malevolent ghosts, and leave fruit and incense out for the good ones. Western medicine is available in the town, but it's dispensed by poorly-trained pharmacists and doctors at a price beyond the income of most villagers. Here, the vicissitudes and uncertainties of life are taken to the local fortune tellers, healers and sorcerers rather than doctors and psychologists.
The fortune teller.
The village fortune teller is a middle-aged woman with two gold teeth and a diamond ring – status symbols earned by her supernatural perceptions. She was born with no lower legs, and when I met her the lower half of her pyjama trousers were folded underneath her thighs, so – if you didn’t know – you'd assume she was just kneeling. Grabbing a deck of playing cards, she arranged them on a thin blanket in front of her. I immediately drew an ace of spades. She screwed up her face and made a noise like she'd just seen a horse kick a man in the groin. Apparently my pick meant that I wouldn't find my lost camera, which was kind of a relief after the teller's ominous groan.
A different arrangement of cards for a different question, and it seemed two girls were in love with me. The fortune teller grinned, her gold teeth snatching the afternoon sun. I asked her how she got her powers; “I was very sick when I was 18,” she told me through a translator, “then three spirits took pity on me and cured me of the disease. They have stayed with me ever since and help me tell fortunes.”
The spirits came from Phnom Kulen, Cambodia’s holy mountain and birthplace of the Angkorian king, Jayavarman II. She uses the cards in the same way as Western tarot readers: “The ghosts taught me how to arrange the cards so I can see the future of any person,” she explained. My Western agnostic mind balked at the story, but she did end up being correct about my camera – it’s still lost. So I guess I'll give her that.
The author after being coined.
While the fortune teller relied on the supernatural for her powers, Sarong – the healer – learned her skills from her mother. I went to see if she could cure my cold. After the initial bows and salutations, she told me in English to remove my shirt and lie down on a wooden platform that Cambodians traditionally use as a sofa and eating area. She smeared eucalyptus oil on my back, took a coin and began to scratch from my spine outwards. She scratched the same patch of skin over and over again. Then she scratched harder. I tensed up. It was far more painful than getting a tattoo – quite something bearing in mind that tattoos involve having needles slowly scraped through your skin.
The practice, known as “coining”, creates marks on the body similar to love bites – incredibly sore, painful love bites – and the hue of the bruise denotes the illness you're suffering from. Sarong made a clucking sound. “Your back is very red, you must be ill with a fever,” she said. Forty minutes later and I felt like I'd been through ten rounds with Charles Bronson. The healer wrapped me in a thin blanket and put me in a hammock to recover. “There is bad wind in your blood,” explained Sarong. “Now it is escaping through the scratches. We put this blanket on you so the wind will not infect our family." While I can't say the treatment worked for me, I have seen sick Cambodians come up smiling after a coining session.
After my experience with the healer, I wondered how much worse the Apb Thmob (sorcerer) could be. Trying to locate a sorcerer in a Cambodian village was like trying to score drugs at a music festival: embarrassing and largely met with cagey, suspicious responses. “Why do you want to see this person?” asked my friend, Raksme. “They don’t want people to know their history. It's dangerous; I can't help you.” Sambo, the energetic village teacher, looked uncomfortable when I asked him the same question. “This is bad luck for you,” he warned. I pointed to the small cross I have tattooed on my wrist. “This will protect me,” I pushed. Sambo looked skeptical. “Yes, sometimes holy tattoos help protect us, but not always. And anyway, Cambodian ghosts don’t believe in Jesus.”
It was Pring, a handsome 20-year-old from a nearby village, who agreed to help me. “So he can curse people?” I asked on the phone. "Oh yeah, sure,” said Pring. I considered how I could have black magic used within the boundaries of journalistic ethics. In the end, I plumped for casting a love spell on a friend who had given her full consent.
The Apb Thmob.
The sorcerer lived on a jungle road in a wooden house with a palm-leaf roof. He was 40-ish, wore a collarless white shirt and white trousers. He sat cross-legged on a thin cushion. On the wall behind him were pictures of blue Hindu deities. To the side was a statue of Buddha, curtained with thin gold lace and surrounded by mounds of melted candle wax. Around him were offerings left by clients: lotus flowers, incense and packets of cigarettes and herbs. His eyes opened, focused on me for a second and then closed in an expression of benign concentration.
Like the fortune teller, the Apb Thmob obtained his powers during a period of sickness. “I was very ill three years ago. I lost weight and I thought I was going to die, then ghosts came into my head,” he told me through Pring's translations. “They cured me and have stayed with me ever since, and now they'll do what I command.” As if to prove his point, he handed me a hardback bearing a picture of Buddha. Inside, the pages were covered in a strange script. “The ghosts tell me what to write,” he explained. Pring, who knows Sanskrit and Pali – the religious languages of Cambodia – took a look at the book and told me he didn't recognise any of the symbols.
I brandished my Blackberry with a picture of the girl I wanted to cast the love spell on. The atmosphere became suddenly changed. The Apb Thmob’s family members, who had gathered around to see what this white man wanted, tensed up. “It is not good for you to do this,” he said. “Even if I did cast the spell, it will not last. One day she will stop loving you.” In my village, people love gossiping, and I didn't want to earn the reputation of someone who uses black magic, so I acquiesced and asked him instead to heal my cold. He began to chant and flicked holy water on my forehead. I felt silly and thought about the mental eons that separated my worldview from that of the Cambodians who were watching the Apb Thmob in awestruck silence. “You will be cured in three days,” he said.
I was better three days later, but then I had also been taking antibiotics and colds don't usually stick around for much longer than a few days. Molika, the Cambodian-American sister of Vitray, remains convinced of the powers of the Apb Thmob. “I’m 85 percent sure that it was an Apb Thmob who was responsible for sabotaging my brother’s wedding and ruining his health,” she asserts.
Most Cambodians, whether raised in America or at home, don’t believe in the existence of ghosts and magic – they know. It’s woven into their worldview. However, when I met the fortune teller, the healer and the sorcerer, I didn’t find magic, I just found the edge of my Western agnostic mind and the distance that separates my world and theirs.
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