FOLK RELIGIONS, SUPERSTITIONS, GHOSTS. MAGICAL TATTOOS AND FUNERALS IN CAMBODIA

SUPERSTITIONS IN CAMBODIA

Cambodians are very superstitious. They believe in spirits and supernatural powers. Young children with caged songbirds offer visitors the chance to set them free. For a few riel the children will open the cages which is said to bring luck and earn the liberator merit which can be used in next reincarnation. White teeth used to be considered bad luck in Cambodia. Teeth were thus ornamented with gold, silver and gems or stained red with betel nut. Some Cambodins talk about a ghost dressed in white that appears that appears in the nightime forest. A mythical water bird is the traditional symbol of peace and prosperity.

Several types of supernatural entities are believed to exist; they make themselves known by means of inexplicable sounds or happenings. Among these phenomena are khmoc (ghosts), pret and besach (particularly nasty demons, the spirits of people who have died violent, untimely, or unnatural deaths), arak (evil spirits, usually female), neak ta (tutelary spirits residing in inanimate objects), mneang phteah (guardians of the house), meba (ancestral spirits), and mrenh kongveal (elf-like guardians of animals). All spirits must be shown proper respect, and, with the exception of the mneang phteah and mrenh kongveal, they can cause trouble ranging from mischief to serious life-threatening illnesses. An important way for living people to show respect for the spirits of the dead is to provide food for the spirits. If this food is not provided, the spirit can cause trouble for the offending person. For example, if a child does not provide food for the spirit of its dead mother, that spirit can cause misfortunes to happen to the child. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Villagers are sensitive to the power and to the needs of the spirit world. According to observations by an American missionary in the early 1970s, villagers consulted the local guardian spirit to find out what the coming year would bring, a new province chief held a ceremony to ask the protection of the spirits over the province, and soldiers obtained magic cloths and amulets from mediums and shamans to protect them from the bullets of the enemy. Before embarking on a mission against enemy forces, a province chief might burn incense and call on a spirit for aid in defeating the enemy. Examples of Brahman influences were various rituals concerned with the well-being of the nation carried out by the ruler and the baku (a Brahman priestly group attached to the royal court). These rituals were reportedly stopped after Sihanouk's ouster in 1970. *

See Ghosts

Fortunetellers and Other Religious Practitioners

Religious practitioners, associated with spirits, include kru , traditional healers and makers of protective amulets; rup arak (mediums); and tmop (sorcerers). They are generally called to heal the sick. Fortunetellers do brisk business. They often gather together in town squares and operate off of small tables and use playing cards and incense stick to tell fortunes. Most answer questions or requests related to business, marriage or family.

Aid in dealing with the spirit world may be obtained from a kru (shaman or spirit practitioner), an achar (ritualist), thmup (witch, sorcerer or sorceress), or a rup arak (medium, usually male). The kru is a kind of sorcerer who prepares charms and amulets to protect the wearer from harm. He can cure illnesses, find lost objects, and prepare magic potions. Traditionally, Cambodians have held strong beliefs about protective charms. Amulets are worn routinely by soldiers to ward off bullets, for example. The kru are believed to have the power to prepare an amulet and to establish a supernatural link between it and the owner. A kru may acquire considerable local prestige and power. Many kru are former Buddhist monks. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Another kind of magical practitioner is the achar, a specialist in ritual. He may function as a kind of master of ceremonies at a wat and as a specialist in conducting spirit worship rituals connected with life-cycle ceremonies. Rup arak are mediums who can be possessed by supernatural beings and communicate with the spirit world. The thmup are sorcerers who cause illnesses. *

Fortunetellers and astrologers--haor teay--are important in Cambodian life. They are consulted about important decisions such as marriages, building a new house, or going on a long journey. They are believed to be able to foretell future events and to determine lucky or unlucky days for various activities. *

Eclipses, Meteorites and Sacred Oxen

Many Cambodians believe that pregnant women must stay indoors during a solar eclipse or their babies will be born mentally retarded. During a solar eclipse in the fall of 1995 at Angkor Wat many people fired their guns in the air in the belief that shooting the moon with help the sun escape.

According to Khmer legend eclipses began when three brothers made offerings of rice to monks. The first brother who made his offering with a bronze bowl was turned into a black monster called Reahou. The second made his offering in a silver bowl and he turned in to the moon. After making his offering with a golden bowl, the third brother turned into the sun. Lunar eclipses are causes when Reahou swallows the moon and solar eclipses are caused when Reahou swallows the sun. The Cambodian words Kreas Konlong which means that someone is crazy, literally means "Reahous jumps over you."

In January 2005, a 4.5-kilogram meteorite landed in northwest Cambodia, starting fires in rice fields. Villagers saw it as a divine omen of peace.

In the mid-1990s, hundred of village flocked to a village in southern Cambodia to be healed by a pair of oxen believed to be sacred protectors of Cambodia. The pair was originally head for the butcher house but their own had a dream that they were Preah Ko and Preah Keo. According to legend Preah Ko (Sacred Cow) and Preah Keo (Sacred Gem) were statues of cow a Buddha that were stolen by a Thai will one day returned to Cambodia and when they do they would be bake to do anything—fly, bring peace, heal people.

One man was reportedly cured of chronic limp when the oxen licked his leg and women who chronically the in was cured when the oxen drank from her family cistern. At the height of Preah Ko and Preah Keo mania, pilgrims lined up to feed the oxen grass herbs and fruit. Scarps of anything they ate was made into a medicine.

Lightning Death Increases Attributed to Superstition

In 2009, AFP reported: “Pang Nop was pedalling his bicycle home through a light drizzle when he paused to pick up some stones for his slingshot. As he did, the sky flashed and he fell to the ground, dead. "Suddenly we saw him lying down," said Uy Saroeurn, the boy's uncle who was planting rice in a nearby field. The 14-year-old had died instantly, a big bruise on the back of his neck.Pang Nop had become one of 95 Cambodians killed by lightning last year, more than double the 2007 total of 45 lightning fatalities and the highest-ever annual tally in the country. [Source: AFP, January 16, 2009 <>]

"Most of the people killed are farmers who continue to work in rice paddies or herd cattle during rainstorms," says Long Saravuth, a weather expert at Cambodia's Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology. "Those people should be highly alert to the problem, but they don't try to find shelter when it rains." <>

“The tropical Southeast Asian country of lazy rivers and lakes is particularly prone to cloud formations which generate intense lightning storms, said Long Saravuth. These formations can hover just 50 metres (164 feet) above the earth, and anyone underneath is vulnerable to lightning strike. As the country's rainy season drew to a close, local newspapers seemed to carry reports on new lightning deaths nearly every day -- farmers, fishermen, and football players have all recently been hit. Cambodia only began compiling lightning statistics in 2007 ago after an increase in reports of deaths. <>

“Some Cambodians have searched science and religion to explain the phenomenon, with many of the country's 14 million people believing lightning is connected to supernatural forces. "The lightning last year was more fierce than ever before. I'm worried I might be the next victim -- but I believe if we do good deeds, we avoid lightning and bad luck," said Cheng Chenda, a housewife in Phnom Penh. In his office at the Buddhist Institute, advisor on mores and customs Miech Ponn said many Cambodians believe people with moles on their calves are susceptible to lightning strikes, as are people who have broken promises. <>

“Cambodians also use mystical cures for those who have been struck. When he found Pang Nop's body, Uy Saroeurn carried it to the boy's mother who quickly covered her son with a white cloth in the hope that it would revive him. "To resuscitate a victim, Cambodian villagers drape the person's body with a white cloth, or jump over it three times, or place the victim in a bed and light a fire under the bed," said Miech Ponn, who believes these techniques can work. <>

“But how to explain the mysterious jump in lightning deaths? Miech Ponn said the surge in fatalities caused by lightning was predicted by Cambodia's chief royal astrologer Kang Ken, and that the country is now prone to more natural disasters. "The increase in lightning deaths was caused by deterioration of nature and a religious prophecy that said it was a bad luck year," Miech Ponn said. <>

“Hard science gives a slightly different explanation. Over the past two years the country has had particularly heavy rainy seasons from May to November, which might be partly explained by global climate change, said Long Saravuth, the weather expert. Meanwhile Anthony Del Genio, a scientist at the US space agency NASA, said the incidence of lightning deaths in 2008 did not point to a climate change cause because the timeframe was too short. The best guess was that warmer and drier weather earlier last year had created conditions for more vigorous lightning storms. "Natural phenomena like lightning are out of control and mostly cannot be predicted," Long Saravuth says. <>

Sihanouk Says Astrologer Saved Cambodia from Tsunami

In January 2005, after the December 2004 tsunami killed 220,000 people in South Asia, Reuters reported: “Former Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk says an astrologer warned him that an “ultra-catastrophic cataclysm” would strike, but that his country would be spared if proper rituals were conducted. “My wife and I decided to spend several thousand dollars to organise these ceremonies so our country and our people could be spared such a catastrophe,” Sihanouk, who abdicated last year, wrote on his website at http://www.sihanouknorodom.info. [Source: Reuters, January 2005 ><]

Cambodia was unscathed by the 10-metre (30-foot) tsunamis generated by a December 26 earthquake measured at magnitude 9.0 under the sea off Indonesia’s Sumatra island. The giant waves rolled across the Indian Ocean. Sihanouk offered his deepest condolences to the families of the dead and said he would give “a very humble and extremely modest” contribution of $15,000 (7,800 pounds) to international relief efforts.

Khmer Rouge Ghosts and Lottery Numbers

Reporting from Anlong Veng, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “In a dream the other night, two snakes slithered out of Pol Pot’s grave and gave his neighbor, Loan Pheap, what she said was a winning lottery number. This was not a surprise. The site of Pol Pot’s cremation on this barren mountainside is collapsing from neglect, but Pol Pot, who as the Khmer Rouge leader was one of the most brutal mass murderers of the last century, has become a sort of bookie for those who pray to him for numbers. For many in Anlong Veng he is the guardian spirit of the Dangrek Mountains, curing ailments and dispensing lottery numbers. People who live here say visitors have plucked the last bits of bone from among the cinders over the years and carried them home for good luck. A casino is being built nearby to capitalize on this spiritual bounty. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, August 12, 2006 ~]

“Mourners who trek through a muddy field have left only paltry offerings at Ta Mok’s tomb: a clump of burned-out incense sticks, five plastic cups of water, a black oil lamp whose flame has died and a roll of toilet paper that people here say is to wipe his mouth when he has consumed any food that is left for his wandering soul. But already, in what appears to be a Khmer Rouge tradition, people say his ghost has begun dispensing lottery numbers. On the day of his funeral, Mr. Em Man said, a woman saw him in a dream, bet the number 783 in a local lottery and won a million riel, or about $250. Mr. Em Man, squatting in the sand by the tomb, showed a scrap of paper with a list of numbers he said he had received from Ta Mok’s specter. He said he would keep playing these numbers until he, too, wins a million. ~

“The Cambodian government has gotten in on the money-making game as well, hoping to turn the two graves into tourist attractions. A shack on the main road, the Anlong Veng Tourism Office, lists the sites, showing faded photographs of weed-filled plots labeled as the former homes and swimming holes of Khmer Rouge leaders. ~

Cambodians are afraid to go near some buildings associated with the Khmer Rouge. One school near Phnom Penh, for example, is believed to be to be inhabited by the restless souls of Khmer Rouge victims, who moan, make noises, offer themselves for sex and turn into white cats.

Magical Tattoos in Cambodia

Reporting Phnom Sruoch, Cambodia, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In a haze of incense, clients approach Kol Sambo and humbly request his help, sometimes seeking rush jobs for an imminent crisis. He listens and asks why they require added force. If he thinks they'll abuse the power, he turns them down "in a nice way." Kol is a practitioner of magic tattoos, a 2,000-year-old tradition some call the "soul of the nation." They can make you invisible, divert bullets and boost your net worth, he says, but only if you believe. The 50-year-old has traveled the Cambodian countryside for the better part of two decades decorating people's bodies with gods, geometric patterns, supernatural creatures and characters in Sanskrit and Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. Some images appear to move as the wearer's muscles ripple; on others, rounded Khmer script, softened by age, appears to melt as the lines grow fuzzier.[Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2010 ++]

“Kol says most clients prefer the more efficient made-in-China tattoo machine he bought a few years back, but, if asked, he still will use the traditional method to ink the skin: two or three sewing needles tied together. Once applied, by whatever method, a tattoo must be blessed to activate its supernatural powers. There are "fake" magic tattooists out there, Kol says disdainfully. He was born with the talent, he says, and honed it after becoming a monk and retreating into the mountains to meditate, ponder visions and study ancient texts under a spiritual master. ++

“Grateful clients will periodically return, having survived a war or two, and offer thanks. Chan Ngeuy, 60, a rail worker who was a soldier during the 1970s, took off his shirt to reveal a line of lacy symbols running the width of his chest, down the outside of his arms and the length of his back bracketing his spinal cord. "I was shot at, but the bullet missed," he says. "My tattoo made all the difference." ++

“Cambodian heavyweight kickboxing champion Eh Phuthong, a national hero, credits the supernatural imagery spreading over his muscular body and onto his right fist for his winning record "Magic tattoos make me feel more confident, focused, allow me to punch harder and avoid my opponent's blows," Eh says, sporting a phoenix, a symbol of rebirth; the Hanuman monkey king, a force of life, agility and learning; and Vishnu god imagery, meant to provide strength. "They really work." But even Eh says he's getting more snickers lately from young boxers who shun a practice once considered de rigueur for up-and-coming fighters. ++

“Believers say the indelible marks, favored by soldiers, boxers and businessmen, ward off evil. They've also been something of a dead giveaway. During the mid-1970s Khmer Rouge reign of terror, when 2 million people died, the brutal regime targeted anyone who had been associated with the ousted government, many of whom were posing as farmers. "Not many men with magic tattoos survived," Miech says. "If you had one, you were probably a soldier from the old regime and promptly executed." ++

“Magic tattoos are traditionally applied to the part of the body in need of protection, with anti-landmine tattoos placed on the legs, anti-fever tattoos near the heart. Sometimes, however, even the tattooist doesn't understand what he's applying. Tattoo artist Chan Trea says that a few weeks ago a monk asked him to tattoo a particular pattern but refused to say what it meant. "In Cambodia, there are lots of secrets. People guard things jealously," he says, unfurling a copy of the mystery pattern he furtively kept. ++

“Actress Angelina Jolie recently had a magic tattoo done on her left shoulder blade meant to protect her and her Cambodian son, Maddox, from bad luck and accidents. The translated Pali incantation reportedly reads in part: "May your enemies run far away from you; if you acquire riches, may they remain yours always." ++

Decline of Magical Tattoos in Cambodia

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Peace, however, as welcome as it may be to Cambodians after decades of bloodshed, is not a friend of the magic tattoo business. "During wartime, everyone wants one," says Kong Taing Im, 38, a store owner visiting Kol hoping to safeguard her grandchildren's future. "Without war, mostly gangsters want them." Nowadays, a tradition that migrated from India centuries ago and endured through numerous Cambodian wars and rulers is being chipped away by technology and an education system that encourages people to be literal-minded, says Miech Ponn, advisor on mores and customs at Phnom Penh's Buddhist Institute. "Traditional tattoo artists are very few these days," the scholar says. "It's like a living museum."[Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2010 ++]

“Cambodia's few remaining magic tattoo artists these days tend to work in rural areas, where superstition is enduring, education less common and medical care limited. It's not enough to simply get a magic tattoo. You must also tend its power. "It's like a mobile phone," says Chan Trea, 46, one of the few magic tattooists still operating in bustling Phnom Penh. "Without maintenance, it won't work." To keep a tattoo's power, one should shun adultery, alcohol, insulting opponents while fighting them or eating star fruit. Star fruit? "Since ancient days, it's well known that people with tattoos or talismans should not consume this fruit," he says. "If it wasn't true, the warning wouldn't last so long." ++

“These days, Chan Trea supplements his income with fashion tattoos. "If I was only doing magic tattoos, I'd go broke," he says, leaning on the battered dentist chair his customers settle into for their needling sessions. Tattoo artists say women rarely indulge, partly for aesthetic reasons and because they fear they may be mistaken for prostitutes, but Kol sometimes blesses women's perfume bottles, protecting their aura that way. "These foreign women wearing big tattoos, that looks rather strange to us," said Kong, the grandmother. ++

Cambodia's few remaining magic tattoo artists recognize that they're fighting an uphill battle but say they haven't lost hope. "Granted, more and more people believe in rationality, technology and the Internet," Kol said. "But, you watch. As soon as the next war or crisis hits and they need us, they'll come running back." ++

Funerals in Cambodia

Death is not viewed with the great outpouring of grief common to Western society; it is viewed as the end of one life and as the beginning of another life that one hopes will be better. Buddhist Khmer usually are cremated, and their ashes are deposited in a stupa in the temple compound. A corpse is washed, dressed, and placed in a coffin, which may be decorated with flowers and with a photograph of the deceased. White pennant-shaped flags, called "white crocodile flags," outside a house indicate that someone in that household has died. A funeral procession consisting of an achar, Buddhist monks, members of the family, and other mourners accompanies the coffin to the crematorium. The spouse and the children show mourning by shaving their heads and by wearing white clothing. Relics such as teeth or pieces of bone are prized by the survivors, and they are often worn on gold chains as amulets. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia ^^^]

Funerals are important events. Creamtion is customary and it and funeral rituals are conducted as soon as possible after death. Ashes ad bones that that remainafter cremation are put into a box or urn which is kept tahe home or at a specal place at a Buddhist temple. Beliefs about the afterlife atr on line with those of traditional Buddhism. ^^^

Funerals in Cambodia are festive affairs that sometimes take place two years after a persons death, when the body is exhumed for cremation. Offerings are made underneath banners shaped like crocodiles which symbolize the departed soul and families feast for four days rice cakes, noodle soup and broiled cicadas. The body is cremated on a sandlewood pyre while pinwheel fireworks wiz in the sky. [Source: John Ambercrombie, National Geographic October 1964.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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