Magic monk Bin Sovann is having a typically busy day.
It's before lunch at Wat Komsan some 5 km outside Phnom Penh and Sovann has already
cured the sick, blessed a family's bed sheets and anointed a 1993 Toyota Celica with
sacred water sprinkled from a silver bowl.
He's chanted Pali incantations over dozens of cell phones, removed plenty of bad
luck for poorly performing business owners and prescribed a slate of protection spells
- or "yon" - to keep away bad spirits and ghosts. A magic monk's work,
it seems, is never done. The sign outside Sovann's cluttered greeting room-decorated
with pictures of Sovann alongside ministers, movie stars and high ranking officials-posts
his office hours as between 5 am and 6:30 pm. The sign apologizes for not providing
after-hours consultations, but warns: "Don't knock at night!"
Sovann said he treats between 50 to 70 people each day, and as many as several thousand
each month. On this day, he's swamped: cars crowd the pagoda's courtyard and men
and women of all ages gather at the entrance. Some peer through windows and others
buy incense from the vendors that have sprung up to accommodate the daily demand.
A group of four young women kick off high heels to enter and have their jewelry,
phones and makeup blessed: stacking a pile of lipstick, mascara and rouge onto plastic
offering plates they kneel before Sovann as he chants incantations over the cosmetics.
"I bring all my personal, daily makeup and hand it over to the monk so he can
put magic in it. I believe the monk, because when I use the makeup and go to work,
it makes me charming and I make a lot of tips from clients," said Ly Srey Pov,
25, who said she works in the Phnom Penh "gambling industry."
Srey Pov said she visits Bin Sovann whenever her tips drop below $100 per month.
After a quick 20 minute blessing, she estimates her monthly tips can exceed $500.
Her girlfriend, 21-year-old Sreu No, has a different problem. "I set up a beauty
shop about six months ago and my business isn't good. So, I brought all my makeup
to get the 'charming magic' to bring clients to my shop," No said. "I believe
the monk, because I know it works."
Stephen Asma, a Buddhist scholar and former lecturer at the Buddhist Institute in
Phnom Penh, believes Khmer Buddhism of the 21st Century differs from other forms
of Theravada Buddhism in at least two ways-and it has been infused with ancient ideas
of animism and superstition for centuries.
"The blending of Buddhist Dharma with indigenous folk culture is unique. The
neak ta spirits, for example, are blended into Buddhist rituals and even live inside
some Buddhist wats. The other unique character of Cambodian Buddhism is the fact
that it has been rebuilding itself from the ground up after being completely razed
during the Khmer Rouge period," Asma wrote in an e-mail to the Post.
According to Asma, much of traditional Buddhism was lost during this time, particularly
the more intellectual reform traditions of Choun Nath who spoke out against "magic"
rituals like those practiced at Wat Komsan.
"The question for Khmer Buddhism, and it surviving fragments, is 'Which Buddhism?'
Will the intellectual Buddhism of the scholars return - the original Dhammayuth.
Or, as seems more likely, will a more supernatural, anti-modern form re-emerge as
dominant?" Asma wrote.
For many believers of monks like Sovann, actions speak louder than evangelical debate.
"I know it's Brahmanism, but these beliefs have been in our society for a long
time, and I still believe it," said Im Sopheap, 53, a professor at Baktuk High
Sopheap comes to see the monk to restore prosperity, and she's kicking herself for
not coming more often. "I came to see the monk and he told me my uncle was under
witchcraft. I was careless. If I had known before my uncle would not have died. He
died because I trusted a doctor," Sopheap said.
A youthful looking 39 years old, Sovann is a jolly monk, often breaking into a high-pitched
giggle. "I know about magic, but you can't do this without studying. I learned
from the older generation, particularly my father, then with magic teachers,"
According to Sovann, Wat Komsan has always been famous for its supernatural monks
and he inherited the practice from another monk now living in the US. He doesn't
ask for payment but spends what is offered on his mother and personal expenses. The
Post observed that each offering plate held at least one 5,000 riel note.
"I will continue to help people forever. It's not something common people can
do," he said. "If I left the monkhood, who would help?"