Feeling ill, but with no clear symptoms? Planning a marriage soon? Or just hoping
to find a mate? Wondering about your career or having troubles at your job? For many
Khmer, one way to deal with such matters is to consult their local fortune teller.
Scattered all around Phnom Penh down little alley ways and in village compounds,
often housed inside temple compounds as well, spirit speakers and fortune tellers
are consulted regularly and on special occasions by Khmer and even the occasional
baring. Young people and old, educated and not, practicing Buddhists and black magic
believers, Khmers of all backgrounds consult them. Sometimes they come just for special
occasions, such as arranging a marriage date or building a new house, sometime regularly,
just to check on career and love life prospects. Fortune tellers of all varieties
are a regular feature of some Khmer's lives.
There are many different types of such spiritual advisors: card and palm readers,
those who become possessed with the spirit of another, those who "read"
from incense. The money they collect for their spiritual services-maybe one or two
thousand riel per visit, maybe more, depending on the client-is given to the temple
as bonn, the fortune teller keeping only enough to buy food.
In a neighborhood of rutted dirt lanes and traditional wooden houses behind bamboo
fences, in the shadow of a nearby temple and far from the modern center of Phnom
Penh, one such fortune teller, an old man, sees clients at his house. He is also
a priest at the local temple, but he said his spiritual powers come from a miscarried
fetus that he keeps wrapped in a hairball. Because the child had no life of its own,
he explains, it is trying to live through him now.
There are also the people who practice chru cham, or black magic, and many people
are scared of them. According to one believer, many Khmer will not divulge their
exact birthdate because if someone knows your exact birthdate they can have a black
magic spell put on you. If the enemy also possesses a photograph or other personal
item, the spell could be deadly. Khmer suffering from unexplained illnesses might
visit a fortune teller to determine what has been done to them and ask how to "undo"
the black magic.
Some spirit tellers make protective amulets for their clients, for example, a ksaik
kithai, a belt of rolled metal beads with inscriptions on the inside that is worn
around the waist, hidden from view, to protect the wearer from bad spirits or being
subjected to black magic by an enemy.
Wat Phnom: Home of the Card Readers
Scattered around the grounds of Wat Phnom Penh on any given day, spread out on pieces
of plastic with a makeshift altar set up and incense burning, are several fortune
tellers, usually card readers. Over and over, in the same order for each person,
a card reader lays out several different hands, in different patterns, and proceeds
to tell the person a bit about their past and then advise them about their future,
For each person, the fortune teller reads several hands, laying the cards out in
different specific patterns each time, and each time giving the cards to the person
to reshuffle before she lays out a new hand.
A man sits close to the fortune teller, his brow furrowed, as she tells him about
his quarrels with his neighbors, his chances at getting a wife (not so good by the
expression on his face), and other practical matters. She draws another hand and
tells him about his family life, which is not so good and money matters in the future.
As he places 2,000 riel on the mat and gets up to leave, another woman is ready to
take his place.
Kearn, 46, has been a fortune teller for almost 20 years. On any given day she has
maybe 10 or 20 customers, or maybe none. Her normal price for a fortune is 2,000
riel although if someone is poor they pay only 1,000, she said. She carefully picks
a spot in the shade, and moves during the day to follow the shadow. By her plastic
tarp where she sits and awaits clients, there is a small altar set up against a tree,
with incense burning and a small cactus plant.
When she was in her 20s, Kearn said she went to the temple, and a spirit spoke to
her there and told her what to do. She does not become "possessed" the
way other fortune tellers do, But she knows from the spirit how to see when good
or bad things will happen to people, and to tell them so they know what to do or
The next woman sits down, and Kearn begins telling her about her unhappy marriage,
that her husband has three wives, she is the third, and he does not visit her often
or pay much attention to her. The woman nods, glumly, confirming the card reader's
gloomy assessment of her marriage. Kearn says the woman fights often with her husband,
maybe four or five times each day and that she worries about things a lot, particularly
money. Kearn says that in her heart this woman wants to divorce her husband, and
that this matter will be decided in the next few months.
As a final warning, she says the next few weeks will be a bad period for her family,
and she should be careful. If she lends someone money, Kearn warns, she will have
great difficulty getting it back. The woman puts down some riel on the mat and leaves.
A Woman Possessed: A Visit to the White Lady
Visitors enter the small shrine room, dominated by a large altar filled with statues
and gold foil ornaments, pots of burning incense, candles, and strung with electric
lights. It's a busy morning, about 10 people-both men and women-purchase incense
and take an offering tray as they enter the shrine, placing the incense together
with candles and their money in front of the cushion alongside the altar where the
White Lady (so-called because she dresses all in white) will sit.
The priest is busy lighting incense and candles all over the altar, then he takes
his place beside the cushion where she will sit once the spirit has entered her,
to keep her supplied with cigarettes and iced tea, and interpret for her patrons,
since the spirit speaks in the King's Khmer. The priest turns on the music, a cassette
in a Sony tape player, that will call the spirit.
The White Lady enters the small room and goes over in front of the altar, where she
bows and rocks back and forth, praying to the spirit to enter her. Suddenly her head
shakes violently, indicating that the spirit has entered her, and the White Lady
rises and moves to the cushion in front of the assembled crowd. She stretches, yawns,
and places her garland of jasmine flowers in her hair, and stretches and yawns again.
(According to a regularly visitor, she always makes the same movements after the
spirit has entered-stretch and yawn, stretch and yawn.)
She then motions to the rich woman, dressed in Western clothes and bedecked in gold
jewelry, who has pushed her offering tray to the front, with the large bundle of
riel clearly displayed. The woman speaks quietly as she asks questions of the spirit,
but the spirit lady responds in a loud enough voice that the entire room can hear.
When she scolds the woman for being mean to her husband, the whole room titters.
It is her normal voice, but her eyes are closed and she frequently cocks her head
as if listening to a distant voice.
The next visitor wants to know about her new "husband." The spirit wants
to know both partners' birthdays and animal signs according to the Chinese zodiac
(an ox and a rooster, apparently a good combination). She says he is a good man,
he has a good heart, although the woman has been unlucky in love in the past. She
says the pair spent last night together in intimate embrace, rocking her arms together
as if hugging someone tight, and the room laughs again. The White Lady tells the
woman she is worried about something, someone in the family. She responds that her
grandfather is very old and far away, but instead the White Lady says the woman's
mother is not well, and she should pay attention to her.
For the closing, she offers a special scarf (which costs an extra 5,000 riel), which
she douses with perfume (which also must be purchased, another 5,000 riel) and then
sprays the woman's head and shoulders as well, blowing on them. She tells the woman
to put the scarf under her lover's pillow to protect him. Although the woman will
be safe and have no problems when she travels, she warns that he must be careful
when he travels in the country. The white Lady knows he does not belive in this magic,
or she would have him carry the scarf in his pocket; instead, she must hide it under
One man who asks about his personal life gets scolded by the White Lady for running
around with too many women when he has a wife at home. "Stop running around
with all these women! Go home, stay at home with your wife, that is where you belong,"
she scolds him, to the amusement of the others in the room.
Another woman, clearly displaying her wealth in her dress and amount of gold jewelry,
is assured that she will soon make much money, that she will go away for ten days
and when she returns she will have more money. She is also warned that someone in
her household will cause her trouble, someone she lives and works with. She is told
to stay away from girls and eating beef. As the woman leaves, the next in line pushes
her tray of money and incense forward for her consultation. And so the morning continues.