Living an austere, solitary life in a shed on a rocky hill, the self-proclaimed ‘Grandmother of White Mountain’ doles out blessings and cures – and hints about a mysterious previous life in Phnom Penh
On a rocky hill, a few kilometres north of Kampot, lives an elderly hermit with a mysterious past, supposed supernatural powers and a penchant for canines and cigarettes.
Not much is known about this curious character. It’s believed she made her home on what’s called Phnom Sor more than 10 years ago. Some refer to her as the Witch of Kampot but most just call her Lok Yay Phnom Sor, the “Grandmother of White Mountain”.
Residents of Angdoung Chi Moeun Village, located near the base of the hill, occasionally make the journey up to visit her. It’s said she can cure physical injuries, tell fortunes, offer blessings and curses and even communicate with animals.
“I saw many people come to find her, in order to cure their sickness and be blessed to have good luck, good business and other things related to Buddhism,” said Kep Him, 42.
Him said that he once got lost in the forest. When his wife consulted the Grandmother of White Mountain, she correctly foretold that he would return in two days.
The hermit isn’t hard to find. Most days she comes to the bottom of the hill – about 500 metres from Angdoung Chi Moeun – where there is a partially built Buddha statue and a tin shed. Upon approaching, visitors are greeted by a cacophony of dogs howling and barking – her guardians and friends. She quickly hushes them before offering a welcome.
She dresses in a simple white smock, and her hair remains jet black – even though she claims to be 91 years old. Her smile is toothless but friendly.
Following an invitation to see her home, it takes about 20 minutes to scramble to the top of the hill where the woman spends her nights in another tumbledown shed next to a shrine decorated with tattered prayer flags, other handmade objects and odd offerings.
A rough mural of the woman as a princess hangs above her bed from glittering lengths of material. “That’s what I used to be like,” she says, pointing to the mural. “I decorated my bedroom like a princess’s because that is how I used to have it before.”
Chunks of tobacco rolled in sangkae leaves and Marlboro Golds fill numerous offering trays. She eagerly takes a clove cigarette when offered and soon half the pack has become a donation.
The Grandmother of White Mountain once had another life, she says. She worked in the government in Phnom Penh, was married twice and had seven children. She left the city in 1962 after she became fed up with the corruption she witnessed.
“When I started to care less about property, such as money, houses, land and so on, I started to care about meditation,” she said.
After searching across the country for many years and seeking harmony “on more than 700 mountains” she finally found a suitable place to make her home, Phnom Sor.
She lives an austere life these days, surviving on donations from supplicants and money from her children who live in Phnom Penh and France.
While she denies being able to fix physical injuries, she says she can cure mental illness and possession, and communicate with animals. But she is adamant that, as a devout Buddhist, she does not practise evil. Nor does she promise to bless or cure everyone. Only if she makes a connection with them – and a suitable donation is made.
Erik W. Davis, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College in Minnesota, said that while Buddhism is the moral compass of religious Cambodia, it’s not the only religious world in which Cambodians live.
“The world in which most Cambodians live is filled with all sorts of spirits, ghosts, and deities, etc, all of whom have different personalities, morals, etc. It’s hard dealing with them, though it can be particularly useful,” Davis said via email.
“In contrast, Buddhism is rarely ‘useful’ in a practical way, but more in a therapeutic and moral way.”
Getting verifiable facts out of the woman is a challenge. She mentions that she is related to the royal family, but refuses to say how, saying the relationship turned sour and she doesn’t want to talk about it. She claims to have once been married to a governor of Kampot, but won’t say which one or when. She won’t talk about what work she did for the government back in Phnom Penh. She won’t even reveal her true name.
“I could not release my name to be published because it will lose value. Besides, my family just calls me Lok Yay Phnom Sor, so everyone will recognise me by this nickname,” she said.
All that’s clear is that she loves the peace and quiet, her dogs and a smoke.
“For now, I want to live on the mountain for long time, because I want to live in this silent place and protect this mountain. But maybe one day I will consider it the right time to move to France [to be with my children].”