A kru Khmer medium takes on the personality of a spirit.
Witchcraft: a word that to the Western mind conjures up an image of cackling hags
poised over cauldrons, creating mys-terious potions and chanting evil spells. Broomsticks
and a cat complete the stereotype.
But outside a large, opulent house in the Doeun Thkau commune of Phnom Penh the scene
is far less dramatic. The men and women waiting to see traditional Cambodian healer
and mystic Champa Sar Sak are here for more earthly reasons. They want advice on
business ventures, relief from physical ailments, or help to win back errant lovers.
"Her husband ran off," says one woman, pointing to her despondent friend,
"so she wants the kru to bring him back."
For a significant number of Cambodians, the power of magic to do both good and evil
is taken very seriously and Cambodian mystics - known as kru Khmer - are widely consulted.
They have a range of skills, from traditional medicine to telling fortunes. Some
are believed to be able to cast spells using black magic, others have the power to
overturn such curses.
"The kru Khmer still play a huge role, especially in rural areas," says
Dr Ang Choulean, an anthropologist and expert on black magic. "Kru Khmer is
a very respected term, but because they use magic their position is somewhat ambiguous."
After a short wait, the crowd outside Champa Sar Sak's house is ushered inside for
a hearing. The consultation room is expensively decorated with lush materials and
elegant furniture. Sticks of incense burn by a golden shrine decorated with flashing
lights; bundles of incense lie wrapped in 500 riel notes on the floor.
When Champa Sar Sak walks in, the crowd falls silent. She is a striking women, her
surroundings and appearance far removed from the clichés of wrinkled mystics
or wart-ridden witches. She wears an intricate pink and gold dress, her hair tied
back in an immaculate bun, her skin scrubbed and clear.
Champa Sar Sak sits on a bed in the corner of the room and begins speaking in a fast,
high-pitched voice. She is now possessed by a spirit.
One by one the women and men come and sit on the bed. She listens to their problems
and ailments and rubs ointment on their limbs and bodies, continually chanting in
a shrill voice. Occasionally she spits on the hands and face of a customer and rubs
in the saliva. Each customer gets around two minutes of such spiritual consultation
before Champa Sar Sak moves on.
Cambodians' faith in the spiritual world and its associated powers dates back to
pre-history, says Dr Choulean, before the religions of neighboring countries dominated
"Belief in magic is not specific to Cambodia," says Dr Choulean. "Animist
beliefs were widely held throughout Southeast Asia before the penetration of religion
from India and China. Even now after foreign penetration, animism still exists."
Typical beliefs include the ability of black magic practitioners to place metal hooks,
blades and even buffalo skin inside a person's body, causing anguish and eventual
"The common belief is that a sorcerer can send the skin of a buffalo into your
body through your food or a small insect," says Dr Choulean. "The buffalo
skin then takes in the stomach, and people believe you become ill and finally die."
Dr Choulean says this type of magic is referred to as direct harm, but some sorcerers
also practice an indirect form of black magic.
"[The sorcerer] will use a small animal such as a frog," he says. "They
will put a poisonous spider in the mouth of the frog and sew the mouth shut. The
frog then dies and the spider is imprisoned inside it. By reciting a specific formula,
[the sorcerer] can then provoke harm on the person they want to curse."
Rather then wanting to inflict black magic on others, many of the crowd requiring
Champa Sar Sak's services want to be rid of a curse they believe has been placed
on them by others. Sok Ny, 51, has come because of a recurring throat problem.
"I took modern and traditional medicine and they did an X-ray and found nothing
in my throat," she says, "so someone told me to come here for treatment.
The kru Khmer told me black magic has been made on me, and she took out nine needles
from my throat."
The needles were removed from her throat by the kru Khmer's teeth, says Ny pointing
to a cluster of red pinpricks on her neck.
"She opened her mouth to show me there was nothing hidden in there," she
explains, "then used her mouth and teeth on my throat to get the needles out."
Sok Ny's treatment includes pouring blessed water on herself and being spat on by
Champa Sar Sak. It hasn't worked yet, says Ny, but this is only day seven of a two-week
Further removed from the practices of Champa Sar Sak are the kru who practice black
magic. They are extremely secretive, which is not surprising in the light of the
number of killings related to sorcery.
In July this year, a mother and her two children were axed to death in their home
because a neighbor believed the woman had put a fatal curse on his father. Over the
past year alone, several sorcerers have been murdered and their livers eaten.
Chea Bunthol, administrative chief at the Ministry of Interior's crime department,
explains one recent case.
"This year two neighbors had a quarrel," he says. "When one of them
then died, his son got angry and a kru Khmer was accused of causing his death with
black magic, so the son got a gun and shot the kru dead."
Bunthol says that belief in witchcraft is most prevalent in rural communities, especially
in Ratanakkiri and other provinces in the northeast.
"People live in remote areas very far away from the community," he says,
"and the living standard is very low so they have a low level of education."
But thanks to NGOs providing education in these areas, says Bunthol, the number of
witchcraft-related killings has decreased.
Dr Choulean agrees that continuing belief in magic is symptomatic of the wider issue
of poor public services in rural areas, but says magic is also common in urban areas.
"Sorcery is born in misery. When the people of a country are the victim of high
poverty rates and war, the practice of black magic comes out," he says. "The
lack of education is the main cause [for belief in magic] in rural areas. Public
health is also not very good, so traditional methods of health and medicine still
play an important role.
"But in towns there are many rich people, and they have many problems with mistresses,"
he says. "The wife is not happy, and they turn to magic. Jealousy can make people
very silly in spite of education."
Former nurse and practicing kru Khmer Chheung Chandara says each practitioner has
their own particular talent.
"Some kru are very specialized in creating love between people and some are
good at helping you out in the casino," she says. "Others will get possessed
with spirits. When the spirit is inside the body, the body knows nothing and the
spirit knows everything."
Chandara specializes in matters of the heart, such as casting spells for neglected
wives and lovesick souls.
"Lots of women come to me when their men have ran away with a mistress. They
want me to call the men to come home," she says. "Normally the wife will
want me to break up a husband and his mistress. I will make it that he misses his
wife and children and will want to go back."
And all she needs to make two people fall in love is a personal item of the lovesick
client and two photos: one of the hopeful customer and one of their unwitting lover-to-be.
After a night of concentration chanting the names and ages of the possible pair,
Chandara will be able to tell if the couple will fall in love, get married, or just
have a fling.
"When I sit in meditation the spirits will tell me whether or not the love will
work, and whether or not marriage will work out," she says.
Matchmaking is not her only task. One woman came to see Chandara because of bad relations
with her boss. After a brief chat she left behind a photograph for the kru's nightly
"A lot of women come for business purposes or to ask for an errant husband to
return home," she says. "The men come because they want to improve their
career position or their boss to like them more."
Although Chandara says she can remove a curse, she never casts them. "The spirits
won't permit me to cause bad things to happen to people," she says.
"Some people come with a lot of money and want me to make black magic, but I
will not accept no matter how much they pay me. You have your own problems if you
decide to practice black magic. The worse the things some kru Khmer commit, the worse
they become themselves."
She says black magic makes those who have been cursed both mentally and physically
"People do not know what disease they have. The hospital does not know what
it is either," she says. "For example, black magic will be put into food
so whenever the person eats rice it would affect the head of the person eating it."
Getting rid of the curse depends on how the other kru has cast it, she says.
"Some people mold wax into human form and stick needles into the wax,"
she says, "To get rid of this I have to form another wax body and spit on it
to destroy the black magic."
She says Buddhist monks are also capable of curing black magic, a claim about which
the Venerable Yos Hut Khemacaro of Wat Langka is skeptical.
"According to Buddhist principles there is no such thing as black magic,"
says Khemacaro. "If a person goes to see a monk and really believes they have
been cursed by black magic, the monk should explain to the person that black magic
does not exist."
However he does concede that some monks still believe in otherworldly powers.
"Of course people talk a lot about black magic and some monks do too,"
he says but he blames this belief on necessity.
"If people have a problem and they have nowhere to go they will go to the kru
Khmers, but if there is a hospital, they will go to the hospital. When people feel
helpless they turn to magic, but if they have access to proper services, there will
no longer be such beliefs."