C OMPONG LUONG, PURSAT - They sit in a circle in a small wooden boat, the old, wrinkled
faces all looking toward a new-born baby lying in the middle of the tiny cabin.
Khon and Say's day-old son is covered by small yellow drops of spittle. He has not
been washed since the delivery the day before.
The child is very sick; he's been convulsing and his breathing is shallow and rapid.
The delivery was very difficult. Pek Sokhet, a traditional birth attendant, spent
two hours of terrible work before deciding to send the pregnant Say to Krakor district
Just four hours after the delivery, mother and baby were back in their boat, a torrid
journey of 30-minutes along a very bad road on the back of a moto. Since then, the
family have not been able to rejoice in the birth of their son.
Twelve ghosts dwell in the baby.
Khon chooses to call a traditional doctor to cure his child, and says "he already
came this morning but it was not enough. I've asked him to come again."
In the boat, everything is ready for the ceremony to cure the infant.
Inside the circle made by all the visitors who have come to attend the ceremony,
the child seems quiet but his body is shaking as he tries with difficulty to breathe.
Suddenly, his arms convulse in a way that can't be stopped. Hon, the grand-mother,
Hanging over the baby's head is a cane ornament with shears and basil leaves, that
are said to protect the yet-to-be-named child from the ghosts. Incense sticks burn
at the edge of the boat.
The baby wears a necklace and bracelet of dead leeches and coins.
"We kept the coins from the Lon Nol time. My daughter wore it when she was born
and I kept it for my grand-children," says Hon.
Hon lights two new incense sticks and puts one behind the baby.
Ta, who may be more than 70 years old, sits in a corner. Nobody knows exactly where
he is from but everyone calls him when they need a cure. He knows the way to make
the ghosts leave.
Ta starts to speak. Slowly. Just his lips are moving. Those in attendance can't understand
what he is saying. The baby is crying.
In the back of the boat, far from her child, Say is the only one not able to see
what's happening to her son.
She's lying on her bed, sweating. Since she returned from the hospital she has been
literally "roasting" in her bed, over burning charcoal put in concrete
pots under the floorboards.
She will stay like this for three days to keep the heat in her body.
"This is the rule for the Khmer. She has to do it to become strong," Hon
Say says she did not know it would be so painful, but smiles and says: "It is
Sokhet massages Hon's back, and a fisher woman whispers: "The ghosts are also
in her body."
Ta prepares betel leaves. He puts small limes on the leaves, folds them into a triangle
in his mouth and chews.
"Give the baby sleep. Let him drink the breast milk. Do not do any harm to him.
He is just an animal," mumbles Hon to the ghosts.
The baby keeps his eyes open.
No one moves. No one speaks. The only sound is that of water slapping against the
wooden hull of the boat.
Ta takes off the boy's cover, bends over the baby and spits.
The yellow spittle quickly covers the baby's body from head to foot.
He stops convulsing but keeps crying. Ta blows softly over the place he's been spitting
and begins again.
Ta will repeat this three times in the next two hours.
Hon repeats her incantation to the ghost: "I want the ghost to go away from
It is very hot. The heat from Say's bed spreads.
"I have already done the ceremony three times. Usually it is enough," says
Ta after he finishes all that remains in his mouth.
"The diseases in this baby are very strong. I spit on him for his bones to get
better. I blow on him for his skin to be softer. The ghost should have gone."
Ta tries to recite the name of the twelve diseases that inhabit the child. He stops
at the ninth - that is "bruising" - and says that he has forgotten the
The child is covered again. Ta is pessimistic and he retreats to his corner to smoke
Everyone looks at the child waiting for some improvement.
A small boat stops outside and a very old woman dressed in black with a red krama
enters. Space is made for her on the mat.
Ta and his assistant prepare two candles and Hon asks for more incense.
The old woman takes the krama off her head. Hon looks at her and says: "Kenh
is the best. She has the ghost in her."
"She inherits it from her mother who inherited from her mother. She may be better
to treat the child."
Two candles and more incense are burned.
Kenh prepares for her ceremony. She starts to move her arms, then her body. She sinks
into a trance.
"I am angry with the baby. I want the baby to go with me." The ghost is
speaking through Kenh's mouth.
"Please give the baby back to us. Leave him alone, he is only an animal,"
the assistants reply.
Kenh stops. Her ghost does not want to give up.
"I do not want the baby to go with the ghost," says Hon.
The discussion lasts ten minutes. Kenh is difficult to convince. She is still in
a trance and suddenly throws herself on the child and sucks her breath in sharply
over the baby's face.
"I'll give you back the baby if you give me one sarong," says the old woman
- speaking on behalf of the ghost inside.
The candles are blown out. The neighbors start to leave the boat. The baby is put
on the middle of the room again. His breath remains fast. He has stopped crying.
"This baby is very ill. He should go to the hospital, but we do not have enough
money to go and stay there. A traditional ceremony is cheaper, " says Hon as
she gives her grandson some milk from a bottle.
In Kompong Luong, the floating village on the Tonle Sap, magic and traditional beliefs
are the main medicines practiced. There is only one doctor in the Vietnamese half
of the village, and none on the Khmer side. The Khmers do not visit the Vietnamese
There are five traditional birth attendants and a midwife who has trained three years
in Phnom Penh. Most pregnant women insist on being attended by a traditional birth
attendant here. They are cheaper, they say, and more trusted.
The attendants at the birth of Khon and Say's little boy didn't ask for money. But
when one attendant, for instance, recently needed a house boat to live in, the villagers
rallied around to help her.
(Later that day, money was found - less than 10,000 riels for a moto and one night
accomodation - for Khon and Say to take their baby to Krakor hospital. There he was
treated with antibiotics, and food via a nasal drip. He brightened up almost immediately,
stopped convulsing and his breathing improved.
However, doctors were not sure whether the child would suffer permanent damage
because he had been convulsing since his birth the day before).