Concentrating on her other-worldy conversation, Pel Yom is surrounded by clients as she seeks answers to their questions
he modern age has brought vast improvements in communication: phones and email
have made letter-writing virtually redundant in many parts of the world. But such
technology is of no use for those who want to reach the dead. For some people that
is where 57-year-old Pel Yom comes in.
She has the power, she says, to bring together the world of the dead with that of
the living, allowing surviving relatives to speak to the spirits of those they miss.
Whether or not it actually works is a matter of belief, but the practice goes back
hundreds of years in many countries. Cambodia is no exception.
Pel Yom sits in a meditative pose on the floor of her wooden house in Kampong Cham's
Sontey village. Her first action, she explained earlier, is to access the gatekeepers
- the Thevada spirits - which she does with her eyes closed. After that the souls
of the relatives will enter her body, her eyes will open and they will speak through
Sure enough, within minutes Yom is speaking in tongues, asking the spirits of Thevada
to check specific names against the inhabitants of hell.
The names belong to the late relatives of the dozen people who have traveled to this
out-of-the-way place. They have come at great expense from Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville,
Koh Kong and Kratie to meet the dead.
Yom studies the details of clients' deceased family members.
Near a bunch of burning incense sticks and candles is a box in which the visitors
leave money once she has succeeded.
"I don't order them to pay money, but it is the custom that people contribute
to offerings to burn for the spirits," she says. "I don't keep the money
that I make. Once I have saved enough I will contribute it to help build a pagoda,
or to buy a traditional painting for a pagoda."
The smallest amount of money given that day was 5,000 riel ($1.25). Yom explains
that she will not spend any of it on repairs for her house until she has checked
that the spirits are happy for her to do so.
"If I were to cheat people, I would be rich," she says, "but in time,
my visitors would curse me and insult me."
Sun Sokhom, who is 56, has been to see Yom three times already to speak with her
son-in-law and grandchildren. Yom definitely has the power to commune with them,
she says - she has seen their spirits enter Yom's body.
"I came from Phnom Penh because I wanted to talk with my relatives and find
certain information from them," says Sokhom. "I believe in her abilities
because the spirits I was looking for knew my name, and spoke to me about things
only our family would know about."
One of the first-time visitors is 45-year-old Sun Teang from Kandal province. She
heard about Yom's powers from her friends, and wants to speak with her younger brother.
"I came here because I wanted to know whether or not this was true," says
Teang. "This is the first time here, and if my brother enters her body and speaks
of the things in my family, then I will believe."
Yom says that some very well-known figures in politics and the arts have asked her
to reach their loved ones, but asked the Post not to name them. Their efforts were
successful, she says, and they left satisfied.
Medium Pel Yom offers prayers to Thevada spirits she calls on to find the souls of deceased relatives of her clients, at her home in Sontey village, Kampong Cham.
She explains that her powers came to her quite by accident around ten years ago.
She had been ill for several years, she says, but no amount of medical treatment
"One day I tried to go to the pagoda, but when I got close to it I felt my body
become very heavy," says Yom. "My neighbor later told me that I had lost
consciousness, but after a few minutes I woke up with a healthy body and spoke with
the voices of the spirits.
"They told me to prepare a place for them, and they would enter my body and
Word quickly spread of her miraculous recovery and her new-found ability. Before
long she had a queue of people demanding her services. Within only a few months her
first customers were telling their friends and relatives of her skills and accuracy.
Any family member can be reached, says Yom, from parents to children to spouses.
The only catch is that they must be Khmer-speaking. Those who speak foreign languages
such as Chinese or English are simply unable to speak through her.
And if the process seems mysterious to the uninitiated, says Yom, it is strange for
"When I speak with the voices of the dead, I feel nothing and I know nothing,"
she says. "I simply sit down in front of a chair that I place there for the
spirits, and within a few minutes they enter my body and identify the name of the
surviving relative who wants to reach them."
Yom's powers are so well known that those who want to see her have to book an appointment
at least two months in advance. Turning up and expecting her to be available simply
Betel nut and sauce make a sustaining pre-seance snack.
And she doesn't work all day. She keeps strict hours, from 7-10 in the morning, and
1-4 in the afternoon. Buddhist holidays are out too, as she needs those days to meditate.
But what of those customers who cannot reach their loved ones? Yom says they can
take comfort in the fact that spirits with whom she cannot commune have been reincarnated,
and are back on earth.
There are other complications too: the spirits of those who are murdered will remain
in the spirit world for a year, allowing their families to speak with them. Although
they are able to identify their killers, the other spirits of Thevada won't allow
them to do so, for fear that would result in revenge killings in our world and cause
discord in theirs.
Yom understands the skepticism some might feel for her powers. When she was cured
back in 1992, she felt similarly doubtful.
"At first even I didn't believe what the spirits told me to do," she says.
"But once I had set up the place they asked for, I recovered from my disease.
Ever since then I have been a fervent believer in these powers."