In some Khmer folk tales, teenagers were sent to study magic deep in the jungles, where they spent years absorbing knowledge and mastering their craft before spending the rest of their lives travelling the world in search of fortune. One mythic magical ability, supposedly mastered by these teens, was the ability to transform their body into armour. Their skin was said to resemble strong pieces of bronze and their bones were like iron bars, completely impervious to damage.
Yoeurn Roeurn, of Kandal’s Veal village, is the real life embodiment of this myth. The father of 13 children, Roeurn lives near the Udong Mountain, 50 kilometres away from the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Adorned with Buddhist Pali and Sanskrit tattoos all on his chest and shoulders, the 53-year-old smiles as he waves two lit torches over his body. To his audience, it appeared as if the flames lapping against the skin of his body are tickling him.
“I don’t feel hot at all,” he told us. “I know how to manage my body, so that I don’t feel heat or burn my skin.”
He then enjoyed swallowing the fired until it went off. The ability to endure fire is known as “krong samreth” in Khmer, meaning skin that has become as cold as bronze. Like the hero in the fairy tale, Yoeurn Roeurn spent 10 years of his youth studying these abilities from Master Sun, a famous magician in Battambang province.
The next act of his performance started somewhat menacingly, as he took a shining stainless steel cleaver and made a clean cut through a bamboo stick to demonstrate the blade’s strength. Raising the knife, he rubbed the blade back and forth against his arm without a blink, and without drawing a single drop of blood.
“I am fine because I have bronze skin and iron bones!” he said. He impressed the crowd by adding that in the past he used to perform even more risky tricks, like walking on tightropes, sleeping on pointed nails, cutting open his throat, or, defying belief, even disembowelling himself.
Unfortunately, these little feats of self-destruction were not on show today. Many of Roeurn’s more outlandish stunts require special equipment, which he lost after his house was burned to the ground in a fire five years ago.
“If it wasn’t the fire, I would have still had this special equipment and continue to perform various tricks,” said Roeurn.
All the same, he refuses to give up on the idea of passing on his abilities to the next generation, and now three of his children are able to perform some of his tricks. In the meantime, his family is working hard to save money in order to import new equipment from Vietnam.
“This kind of equipment can only be bought in Vietnam,” he told 7Days. “The watermelon seeds that can transform themselves into shrimp are also from this neighbouring country.”
“With my children and the equipment, we will all be able to do every kind of risky trick and magic that I performed before. I really miss the stage.”