"Grandfather Floating Stone" is imbuing the often opaque practice of divination with the rigours of the schoolroom
Long Bora doesn’t look like your average teacher. At home near Phnom Penh’s Niroth pagoda last week, the 37-year-old sat on a raised, cushioned table typically reserved for ordained monks. A golden statue of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva towered over him, behind which a glittering altar had expanded to fill half his small living room.
Also known as "Grandfather Floating Stone" – a name he acquired after coming into possession of an apparently gravity-defying rock – Long Bora is the man behind the only fortune-telling course in Cambodia.
His six-month program, the second season of which starts today, represents a significant shift away from the norm of informal, unstructured education in divination. Bora’s classes follow a strict timetable and cost $300 to attend.
The former monk said his mission was to bring some level of quality control to a profession with little to no regulation. “Fortune tellers in the market never learn the rules of horoscopes – they just guess,” Bora said disapprovingly.
“Some of them get experience following professional fortune tellers, or they try learning about it from books, but it’s still not enough.”
Bora said that most unqualified fortune tellers stick to card reading: the easiest technique of divination, and one he doesn’t teach in his classes. Instead, he said his main goal was to drill participants in the complex calculations that go into reading horoscopes.
To do this, the year, month, date and day of the week that a person was born must be combined, and the results tallied against the current calendar to ascertain what fate has in store. Bora then teaches his students what solutions to prescribe according to the results: what day a wedding should take place, or what magic should be performed to tame a wayward spouse.
“Most people come to the fortune teller when they have specific problems,” Bora said, adding that it is important for tellers to be able to “read” people as well as charts.
“It has rules, but it’s also about knowing psychology and human characteristics.
“Horoscope school is different from general school because people who have no propensity cannot catch up through hard work.”
He said that his course is not aimed at interested citizens but rather at ajas – the men who lead Buddhist ceremonies but are not themselves monks.
Long Bora was himself a monk when he was 21, but found that he was disinclined towards the solitary life of the pagoda. He handed in his robes after one year, and embarked on foreign travel to countries including Thailand and India.
It was on these trips abroad that he became aware of how underdeveloped his home country was when it came to teaching fortune telling.
In other countries, the discipline was taught in special schools and even on university syllabuses, but in Cambodia, there was only informal knowledge being passed down from older generations.
“I thought, if we had a teacher, we could do it the right way,” Bora explained.
Past students attest that, at least for them, his methods are working.
“After I learned how to read horoscopes, I was able to help lots of people and make prophecies for them,” said Soun Seoun, a monk who participated in last year’s horoscope classes. “Now I have more people coming to me to ask for my help.”
Seoun has inherited his old teacher’s distaste for Cambodia’s more ad-hoc practices of divination. “It is important to have more people learning the facts,” he asserted. “If people pretend they can read horoscopes but are unreliable, it will cause people to lose trust.”
Teaching is not the only area to which Bora has applied his talents since leaving the monkhood. He is a regular guest on MYTV’s horoscope chat show Kae Vesna and Lek Reasey (“Change destiny and bring luck”) and reads horoscopes for major businesses including the mobile network provider Cellcard.
Bora’s classes have the support of the National Committee for Organising National and International Festivals, but have not yet been sanctioned by the Ministry of Cult and Religion, which currently runs its own short training courses for ajas that do not include fortune telling.
Bora said he hoped that official state approval would come with time. “In China, even engineers take courses to learn how to predict the best place to build according to superstitions,” he said wistfully. “In the future, I hope to have my own horoscope training school.”