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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Walking the plank in search of truth

Walking the plank in search of truth

Van An tries out the fortune board.

Fortune-teller Neang Bouy's system for divining the 'truth' has a strange twist.

First he places seven grains of rice and a piece of wax on the floor; he covers that

with a tomkombau - a metal box that holds the lime used in chewing betel nut; next

come incense sticks and candles. Finally he places above the lime box a smooth piece

of dark wood on which the paying customer stands.

Bouy reckons the contraption allows him to predict the past, the present and the

future. Want to know when the best day is to get married? The wood knows, he says.

How about what the future holds for your children? Again, the wood apparently has

the answer. And if someone stole your motorbike, the wood can help you with that

too. It can even tell your birth date.

Dressed in a white shirt with a red krama and black trousers, Bouy lights the incense

sticks and, placing his palms together, prays for guidance to a statue of the Buddha

surrounded by flowers and plastic gold leaves.

"Please allow the Teasabaa-ramey [the ten transcendent virtues] from the eight

directions to come here and helping me find the truth for the children [the punters]

and help me predict their future," he murmurs.

Use of fortune tellers and seers is common in Cambodia. People who have concerns

about the future or have life or love worries regularly confer with the men and women

they believe can provide the answers.

From senior politicians in Phnom Penh down to the humble rice farmers of Battambang

province, Cambodians of all classes consult with people like Bouy. Stories of magic

animals, magic materials, and even magic bowls - see below - abound. Bouy is simply

one of many who make their living from their assumed powers.

The Post turned up unannounced in mid-May to visit Bouy. He is not only the spirit

practitioner, but also the chief of Samdech Euv village in Kampong Speu. The village

changed its name to that of King Sihanouk's reverent title in 1994 after the King

donated most of the village houses, a primary school and a health center.

Van An, a former medical assistant living in Phnom Penh, also came to find some answers.

This is his fifth visit over the years, this time to find out the futures of his

children and when he will be able to afford a concrete house and a car.

Van An stands on the piece of wood and Bouy starts to ask his questions, tapping

the floor with an unlit incense stick. If Bouy's question does not contain the truth,

the wood will not move. But if it does, the wood swings around 45 degrees.

Van An's current house is causing him some concern: the authorities in Phnom Penh

are widening the road he lives on and he is worried they will demolish the wooden


"Will the house be demolished?" Bouy asks. Nothing happens.

"Will the house stay?" he continues. The wood turns gently to the right,

signifying the secure future of An's home. Just to be sure Bouy asks again if that

is correct. The wood obligingly swings back to confirm An's home will be safe.

Other questions elicit that An will be able to replace his wooden home with a concrete

one in three years, around the same time that he will have the money for a car.

"Everything that the magic wood has told me in the past was 100 percent correct,"

An says with a smile. "I never believe what fortunetellers or spirits predict.

Only what I hear at this place."

"One time I asked him where one of my children was living," he continues.

"The wood told me my kid was in Thailand. I was so excited because it was true.

Some of these predictions raise my hair they are so accurate."

Bouy began predicting in 1991 after his wife fell ill and neither traditional medicines

nor modern medicine helped. Bouy's late uncle appeared to him in a dream and instructed

him how to build this magic contraption. Bouy was skeptical, but felt his wife's

illness left him little choice.

"Since I obeyed my uncle's advice, my wife got better," Bouy says. "As

for me, I don't know much about magic. I think the help comes from powerful spirits

that I summon."

For his first attempt Bouy instructed his son to stand on the wood and asked him

questions about the day, month and year he was born. After the wood provided the

correct answers, Bouy started to take it more seriously.

Village chief and local spirit practitioner Neang Bouy awaits his next customer for the 'magic' board.

Since then numerous people have come to find answers. Bouy says the spirits tell

those with swollen legs and arms to pray to their ancestors and leave offerings where

their ancestral spirits reside. To counter bad luck requires a ceremony with sacred

water for their ancestors, while regular illnesses will see the spirits recommending

a visit to hospital.

It was time for the skeptical Post reporter and photographer to find out just how

accurate the magic wood was. Remarkably, Bouy's questions gave the day, month and

year of the photographer's birth, the location of his house and the direction it

faces. Even the design of its roof was correct. The wood also predicted the gender

of his as yet unborn child.

This reporter was accurately told how many children he has, the amount of land he

farms in Kandal province, and a few other things which we are not going to reveal.

In short, every answer to the combined total of some 25 questions was correct. So

after practicing this for 11 years, could Bouy reveal just how it all works?

"I also think about how and why the wood moves when I ask the right questions,"

he says. "But to be honest, I just don't know."


Enchanted by a puff of smoke

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh the latest object to captivate the superstitious is

a clay pot.

On April 18, eleven-year-old Phat Asrey found the pot floating in the pond south

of Chonlong Malau Pagoda. She picked it up and took it home. When she took off the

lid out came a puff of smoke. That, locals say, is a sign that it holds mystical


Her father, Mauk Sophat, says a strong storm the previous night caused the pot to

fly to the country's capital from Siem Reap. The night she brought it home, Sophat

dreamed the pot was tip, meaning divine. He renamed it ptel nisey saksit, or the

powerful and effective pot. It sits on a shrine in their home, helping only those

who believe in its powers, he asserts.

Plenty of visitors have since turned up to drink from the pot in the hope they will

be cured or helped financially.

It hasn't done Asrey much good though: since she pulled it from the water she has

been ill and not felt like eating anything.

The Post has no way of attesting to the pot's rumored powers, but it continues a

long tradition of magic turtles, fish, snakes, cows, statues, trees and other objects

people believe can improve their lot.



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