Magic Man Johnny smiles on the streets of Siem Reap where he is famous for his dangerous (and noisy) acrobatics. Photo by: ZOE TROUT
MENTIONED to one Pub Street area bar manager that I was going to talk to the “noisy boy”, the guy who jumps through the knife-filled hoop of fire onto a dark, decrepit mattress to the blare of loud, uncomfortable music. “Oh, is that what you call him?” she asked. “We call him Magic Man. Sometimes we call him something else. Maybe you can’t print it though.”
“Mr X” is another name given to him, but he calls himself Johnny.
Johnny has been in Siem Reap for four years now and has become a definitive feature of the town, part of the Siem Reap experience. Most days you’ll see him doggedly hauling his cart from one tourist hotspot to another. Once there, he’ll set up his main event, which requires a rickety looking stand, topped with three rusted hoops to which have been attached a few dozen knives at disparate angles. Through this he leaps and rolls onto a dog-eared mattress, also doing some fire eating tricks. All this is done to the sound of some ghastly techno caterwaul segueing at times into the dreaded “Macarena”, and to the cheers of tourists who find him endlessly fascinating.
For those who live here the novelty has worn off – the show, or rather the music, can tend to wear a little thin after a while.
When I ran him to ground for this interview, his portable music machine was exuding a gentle, wafting, Khmer ballad. He’s aware of the complaints about his noisiness, and has toned down the music.
But, as he says, he just wants to earn a living, and is proud of his entrepreneurialism. “Other people just beg,” he says, “I use my skills.”
Originally from Battambang, Johnny started to learn his craft from the Phare Ponle Selpak’s circus school. Stranger still, this is the boy who actually ran away from the circus. He felt he could do better on his own and, although leaping through a hoop came from his early acrobatic training, the knives were his very own embellishment.
And he’s got the scars to show for it. Great unnatural protuberances are scattered across his arms, interspersed with long, thin, flat scars and what look like cigarette burns. Among them are tattoos dotted across his body. He has protective Sanskrit script on his hands, arms and back. On his chest, there is a representation of himself, eating a fire stick.
“I made them myself, for fun. They aren’t from the military or anything like that,” he says.
Although he hasn’t seen his parents for years and doesn’t know where they are now, he lives with his wife and two children on the road to Chong Kneas.
The muscles on his too-thin arms bulge as he pulls on the wisp of a beard on his chin and says, “I don’t want my children to do what I do. It’s too dangerous. I want them to read and learn.”