Sok Seap began reading cards at 12, when she learned the skill from an old man in the forest of Kampot province
As Cambodians struggle to drag their impoverished post-conflict society into the
21st century, traditional folk beliefs and superstitions continue to give them insights
and assistance denied them in modern society. Lon Nara, Tarek Bazley
and Vann Chan Simen lift the curtain on Cambodia's hidden world of the occult
and find the ways of the past are far from fading away.
The spirit of the red neck grandpa
FOR sheer entertainment value, few of Cambodia's occultists can rival Sar Nhor. Furiously
intoning a strange chant during each consultation, Nhor chainsmokes an endless string
of Luxury-brand cigarettes, rolls her head and gesticulates like a madwoman.
Counting on her hands in an unknown language or erupting in deep, throaty laughter,
Nhor looks out with blind eyes and claims to see the future.
"Whatever you wish for will come true, so do not worry. You are a very generous
man, I see, with big hands. You must marry at 29, and will need my help. Just put
Luxury-brand cigarettes in your pocket and think of Lok Ta Krohoam Kor. I will come
to help you. And do not play with prostitutes, or you will get AIDS."
In the last two years the 38-year-old medium and her powers of fortune-telling have
become well-known in Luong Village on Samrong Island near Kampong Cham.
Each afternoon in her tiny wooden house, beneath portraits of family and a small
statue of Buddha, Sar Nhor is possessed by a 106-year-old blind Laotian priest -
the spirit of Lok Ta Krahoam Kor (The Red Neck Grandfather). The spirit has been
coming to her since 1998.
The spirit directs Sar Nhor to use perfumed water from the Mekong to heal. It is
said to be particularly effective on those patients who have not been cured by conventional
medical doctors and for whom Sar Nhor is a last chance.
Offering : 1 packet of cigarettes, 1 packet of incense, 1000 riels.
Lok Ta Khmao Preah Kamchay - or Sam Su - scrutinizes each part of the body with
Peering at a client's hands through a magnifying glass, 45-year-old Sam Su gives
palms, finger-prints, nails and wrists a meticulous examination.
Between each observation he flicks a few counters on his abacus and then returns
to the subject. Ears, eyes, eyebrows, lips, gums and tongue. His hands dart back
each time to the abacus. Backbone, saliva, scalp and then the soles of the feet.
Observations done, he sits back and calculates without hesitation, undistracted by
the screeching myna in a cage on his balcony.
And though he charges ten dollars for an advertised "one-hour consultation",
Sam Su has done the job in under five minutes.
"You have ten fingers, but your fingerprints are not coiled. You are someone
who depends only on himself. You were separated from your parents at birth and made
your own decisions as a teenager. Your legs are large and you like adventure. Next
year you will travel far, but it will be like rowing a boat against the river's flow:
you will move forward, but only little by little."
A self-professed "student of human psychology", Sam Su has made a lucrative
living from palmistry since he was 16.
Sar Nhor has a become well-known spirit medium in Luong Village on Samrong Island near Kampong Cham
Today he receives customers in the small reception room of his Phnom Penh apartment.
The room opens on to a small balcony crowded with a troupe of portly Buddha statues,
the largest of which wears a pair of gold-rimmed glasses.
"Some people come to see me because they wanted their children to get married.
Some people wanted to know a good location for a new house. Some people want to know
where they should bury or cremate their parents' bodies. I try to help them."
"A human is like a tree. The lines of our palms change 12 times a year and when
a tree is well watered it grows strong and green. But eventually the leaves begin
to shrink and are consumed by ants. Those are the kind of things I am looking for."
Offering: 1 packet of incense, 1 packet of 555 cigarettes and US$10
THERE is gentility in the way 61-year-old Sok Seap deals the cards. She sits behind
an old table in a dimly-lit room of her wooden roof-house near Central Market in
Phnom Penh, and peers at each card in succession.
The client shuffles the cards nine times, then draws another seven times, then draws
"Your future is very good," she says almost immediately.
"But you will live in a foreign country. You will be a very rich man but do
not marry a beautiful woman. If you do, she will not be good to you. Instead you
must marry a girl who is a businesswoman. This girl will be like a bowl of the best
soup for you and you must marry her when you are 32 years old."
According to Seap, she learned the art of card reading when wandering the forests
of Kampot Province after running away from her exploitative family.
During that ordeal, she met an old man who produced a deck of cards, spread them
on the ground and invited her to pick a card.
The old man then disappeared but left the pack of cards behind. Moments later a group
of shepherds appeared and asked the young girl if she was hungry. They told her if
she wanted rice she would have to draw the ace of clubs from the pack. She drew the
desired card and shared their rice.
She returned to her village and soon became known for her card readings. People who
lost their cattle came to her and she told them to draw a card.
According to Seap, the spirit of the old man who introduced her to card reading never
abandoned her, returning each night to deepen her understanding of the cards.
She resumed her craft at the end of the Pol Pot regime in 1979 and now boasts a steady
stream of customers to her morning readings.
Although the wives of generals, businessmen and high-ranking officials invite her
to their houses for card readings, Seap says the spirit of the old man has forbidden
her from reading to the rich in their own homes. Instead she insists they visit her.
Every July Sok Seap holds a ceremony dedicated to the old man's spirit. She offers
him five roasted pigs in return for a renewal of her powers for another year.
Offering : 2000 riels
The waters of forgetfulness
On Samrong Island near Kampong Cham town, Chhin Yorn is recognized and revered
as a living, reincarnated link to the early part of the 20th century that is as distant
to most Cambodians as the temples of Angkor.
Among family and neighbors, the elderly woman is known both as Chhin Yorn and Ou
Chhe, a woman who died in 1938.
Popular belief in Yorn's reincarnated status began in 1941, when, at three years
old, she started dispensing baking advice with a level of confidence and accuracy
seemingly beyond that of an unschooled child.
Soon after, Yorn began to refer to older people by their childhood nicknames and
to berate her parents for their poverty.
Yorn's reincarnated status was finalized in the popular imagination by the arrival
of a stranger seeking to buy tobacco from Yorn's family .
Yorn astonished all present by correctly identifying the man as the brother-in-law
of a man named Ngor Eng and claiming to be Eng's dead wife.
Word of Yorn's claims got back to Eng and he invited her to his house. Surrounded
by the village elders the girl was tested.
Yorn spoke angrily to Eng, complaining of how he used to kick her betel-nut box aside.
She told them how to open the old family wardrobe. She told them details about his
deceased wife's life and knew exactly where her body had been buried.
The three-year-old then told the villagers to look for a particular scar on Ngov
Eng's scalp. "When I was 20 years old I married this man," she said. "I
became pregnant by him and had cravings for sour, green mango. Eng took a stick and
threw it up into a tree to dislodge a mango, but the stick fell back on to his head
and injured him. Look and you will find the scar."
The discovery of that scar confirmed to all that Yorn was in fact the reincarnation
of Ou Chhe, Eng's deceased wife.
So convinced were village elders of Yorn's reincarnated status that efforts were
made to have the couple remarried, a plan scuttled by Eng's acquisition of a new
wife by the time Yorn was of marriageable age.
At 19 Yorn married and has since had 11 children. She lives today in Samrong Village
8 and treats children from both her lives as her own.
ï Tarek Bazley is in Cambodia with the support of Asia 2000 (NZ)