Even in the age of smartphones, belief in magic and the supernatural permeates Cambodian society – for better or worse
Authentic or not, magic costs lives in the Kingdom. In large swaths of the countryside, accusations of evil sorcery often end in brutal murder – at least four alleged sorcerers were killed in 2014 alone, while a Ratanakkiri man has been hiding in a police station for the past two months to avoid a similar fate.
Far more common, however, are the “good” sorcerer who, in the eyes of their customers, use their supposed talents in the supernatural realm to heal, counsel and protect customers from curses. Some brew potions, while others build amulets or read fortunes from palm leaves.
Ryun Patterson, whose multimedia project on the subject, Vanishing Act, will launch next week, said the 11 magicians he interviewed had no fear that their practices would be confused for dark arts.
“Everybody we interviewed was like: ‘Why would we be afraid of people? All we do is help people,’” said Patterson, who had assumed his subjects would be fearful for their lives given the swift, lethal vigilante justice at times meted out to sorcerers accused of practising black magic.
In the week prior to the team’s field research in May 2014, some 500 people participated in the stoning of an alleged sorcerer in Takeo, whose brutal torture lasted eight hours, while another man was slain for sorcery a few weeks later in Kampong Chhnang.
Two other men had been beheaded a few months prior under similar circumstances.
Professor Vong Sotheara of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, who teaches history but holds a master’s degree in sociology-anthropology, said magicians who fought black magic were lauded in their communities.
“They get very high respect from the people in the countryside – a lot of people will go to their houses to treat diseases or get protection from black magic attacks,” he said.
Patterson, who teamed with Phnom Penh-based journalist and Post web editor Rick Valenzuela to document the magicians, said these beliefs stretched back thousands of years.
“It’s one of the unique aspects of life in Cambodia, you have the combination of the ancient animism, combined with the Hinduism and Buddhism, and they’re able to hold all these ideas in their heads at the same time,” said Patterson.
The project’s title only partially reflects the state of magic in Cambodia – while it’s mainly older people selling magical services, Patterson said the beliefs still thrives even among youth.
“I don’t think the beliefs are going to fade away – these beliefs are hundreds of years old at least, if not thousands of years old,” he said, adding that he found many young students buying magic services.
He said the magicians he met, all no younger than 35, were from a wave of mediums, soothsayers and potion makers who emerged immediately after the fall of the Khmer Rouge to help cope with the omnipresent trauma.
“They took the form of counseling and support services … that were totally non-existent in those times,” he said.
Patterson, who had expected to find technology supplanting traditional beliefs, said he was surprised to find modernity co-existing with the supernatural in rural Cambodia.
“That was part of my original hypothesis – that technology is maybe driving out traditional beliefs in favour of hard, cold ‘rationality’,” he said.
With that presumption, he was shocked to find two mediums offering consultations over their mobile phones in the midst of their interviews with Patterson’s team.
“If they got connected, I have no doubt that they’d be doing it over Facebook or Skype as well,” he said.
”It speaks to the resilience of these people and their flexibility when it comes to their beliefs.”
His subjects sincerity, said Patterson, was unquestionable.
A fisherman in Kep told the crew he didn’t even particularly enjoy his second job as a spirit medium.
It was only through a sense of duty to his community that he kept at it.
“He didn’t feel like he had a choice other than to be a spirit medium in his spare time, because he helped so many people,” said Patterson.
The only cagey subject, said Patterson, was an old Cham woman in Pursat with a local reputation for brewing love potions.
Though neighbours were quick to point the crew toward her house, it took coaxing for her to reveal her magic practice.
“She said no, there’s not any magic – people don’t understand, I’m just a midwife, I’m a faithful Muslim,” said Patterson.
She slowly opened up, however, and revealed her practice of blessing water by reciting Koranic verses before serving the glasses to married Muslim couples.
While Patterson’s subjects were largely open to publicity, Sotheara said magicians needed to be cautious to avoid false accusations.
A neighbour from his hometown in Kampong Cham province must walk on egg shells, he added, to prevent being indicted by vigilantes.
Though the 33-year-old man, who picked up the trade from his deceased father, left his practice for a better paying job, Sotheara said the former magician’s true intentions are a matter of intense speculation within the neighbourhood.
“The people in the village have always suspected that he can practise either black magic or good magic at the same time,” he said, adding that law enforcement should take the initiative to prevent slayings of suspected evil sorcerers.
“The people in the village would kill him if they observed him doing something wrong.”
Patterson and Valenzuela will launch Vanishing Act at Meta-House on Tuesday, June 30, at 6pm. In addition to the multimedia e-book available on iTunes for $9.99, a hard copy version will also be available at the launch for $40.