Van An tries out the fortune board.
Fortune-teller Neang Bouy's system for divining the 'truth' has a strange twist.
First he places seven grains of rice and a piece of wax on the floor; he covers that
with a tomkombau - a metal box that holds the lime used in chewing betel nut; next
come incense sticks and candles. Finally he places above the lime box a smooth piece
of dark wood on which the paying customer stands.
Bouy reckons the contraption allows him to predict the past, the present and the
future. Want to know when the best day is to get married? The wood knows, he says.
How about what the future holds for your children? Again, the wood apparently has
the answer. And if someone stole your motorbike, the wood can help you with that
too. It can even tell your birth date.
Dressed in a white shirt with a red krama and black trousers, Bouy lights the incense
sticks and, placing his palms together, prays for guidance to a statue of the Buddha
surrounded by flowers and plastic gold leaves.
"Please allow the Teasabaa-ramey [the ten transcendent virtues] from the eight
directions to come here and helping me find the truth for the children [the punters]
and help me predict their future," he murmurs.
Use of fortune tellers and seers is common in Cambodia. People who have concerns
about the future or have life or love worries regularly confer with the men and women
they believe can provide the answers.
From senior politicians in Phnom Penh down to the humble rice farmers of Battambang
province, Cambodians of all classes consult with people like Bouy. Stories of magic
animals, magic materials, and even magic bowls - see below - abound. Bouy is simply
one of many who make their living from their assumed powers.
The Post turned up unannounced in mid-May to visit Bouy. He is not only the spirit
practitioner, but also the chief of Samdech Euv village in Kampong Speu. The village
changed its name to that of King Sihanouk's reverent title in 1994 after the King
donated most of the village houses, a primary school and a health center.
Van An, a former medical assistant living in Phnom Penh, also came to find some answers.
This is his fifth visit over the years, this time to find out the futures of his
children and when he will be able to afford a concrete house and a car.
Van An stands on the piece of wood and Bouy starts to ask his questions, tapping
the floor with an unlit incense stick. If Bouy's question does not contain the truth,
the wood will not move. But if it does, the wood swings around 45 degrees.
Van An's current house is causing him some concern: the authorities in Phnom Penh
are widening the road he lives on and he is worried they will demolish the wooden
"Will the house be demolished?" Bouy asks. Nothing happens.
"Will the house stay?" he continues. The wood turns gently to the right,
signifying the secure future of An's home. Just to be sure Bouy asks again if that
is correct. The wood obligingly swings back to confirm An's home will be safe.
Other questions elicit that An will be able to replace his wooden home with a concrete
one in three years, around the same time that he will have the money for a car.
"Everything that the magic wood has told me in the past was 100 percent correct,"
An says with a smile. "I never believe what fortunetellers or spirits predict.
Only what I hear at this place."
"One time I asked him where one of my children was living," he continues.
"The wood told me my kid was in Thailand. I was so excited because it was true.
Some of these predictions raise my hair they are so accurate."
Bouy began predicting in 1991 after his wife fell ill and neither traditional medicines
nor modern medicine helped. Bouy's late uncle appeared to him in a dream and instructed
him how to build this magic contraption. Bouy was skeptical, but felt his wife's
illness left him little choice.
"Since I obeyed my uncle's advice, my wife got better," Bouy says. "As
for me, I don't know much about magic. I think the help comes from powerful spirits
that I summon."
For his first attempt Bouy instructed his son to stand on the wood and asked him
questions about the day, month and year he was born. After the wood provided the
correct answers, Bouy started to take it more seriously.
Village chief and local spirit practitioner Neang Bouy awaits his next customer for the 'magic' board.
Since then numerous people have come to find answers. Bouy says the spirits tell
those with swollen legs and arms to pray to their ancestors and leave offerings where
their ancestral spirits reside. To counter bad luck requires a ceremony with sacred
water for their ancestors, while regular illnesses will see the spirits recommending
a visit to hospital.
It was time for the skeptical Post reporter and photographer to find out just how
accurate the magic wood was. Remarkably, Bouy's questions gave the day, month and
year of the photographer's birth, the location of his house and the direction it
faces. Even the design of its roof was correct. The wood also predicted the gender
of his as yet unborn child.
This reporter was accurately told how many children he has, the amount of land he
farms in Kandal province, and a few other things which we are not going to reveal.
In short, every answer to the combined total of some 25 questions was correct. So
after practicing this for 11 years, could Bouy reveal just how it all works?
"I also think about how and why the wood moves when I ask the right questions,"
he says. "But to be honest, I just don't know."
Enchanted by a puff of smoke
On the outskirts of Phnom Penh the latest object to captivate the superstitious is
a clay pot.
On April 18, eleven-year-old Phat Asrey found the pot floating in the pond south
of Chonlong Malau Pagoda. She picked it up and took it home. When she took off the
lid out came a puff of smoke. That, locals say, is a sign that it holds mystical
Her father, Mauk Sophat, says a strong storm the previous night caused the pot to
fly to the country's capital from Siem Reap. The night she brought it home, Sophat
dreamed the pot was tip, meaning divine. He renamed it ptel nisey saksit, or the
powerful and effective pot. It sits on a shrine in their home, helping only those
who believe in its powers, he asserts.
Plenty of visitors have since turned up to drink from the pot in the hope they will
be cured or helped financially.
It hasn't done Asrey much good though: since she pulled it from the water she has
been ill and not felt like eating anything.
The Post has no way of attesting to the pot's rumored powers, but it continues a
long tradition of magic turtles, fish, snakes, cows, statues, trees and other objects
people believe can improve their lot.