Ailments cured, missing persons and lost belongings located, curses placed/removed, no job too small, house visits by appointment only – your trusty Cambodian medicine man does it all. Krumeans teacher, but this is about a disunited band of folk who are not giving TEFL classes to kids of upwardly mobile urbanites. ‘Master’ is another meaning for kru, which nods to the regard traditional healers are held in. On visits to several different witch doctors in various provinces I left each time a little surprised and I must say bemused by it all.
For a country so homogenous in ethnicity and religious practice, with traditional culture and even dialect differing very little across the land, it strikes me as odd that there is such variety amongst Kru Khmer. Wherever you might go at Pchhum Bun or Khmer New Year, people will be celebrating in a very similar manner: what they wear, what they prepare for offerings, what they eat, when they go and how long things last. But a trip to the doc, local style, has always turned up something unique. Of course there can be little or no regulation of the kru and a curriculum of learning the magic arts seems to go against the whole idea of the thing.
The reputation of certain kru spreads far and wide and it’s amazing how far people will travel to see a particular practitioner, especially considering the time and expense to get around in a country said to be so poor. Eight hours in a stinking minibus packed with grannies and young mothers is a good effort, and then to wait hours or even overnight in some cases to see the gifted healer indicates determination and dedication. Some may say they’re just gullible or ignorant, but it’s obvious that they believe.
My first trip was closer to home, taking me just beyond Kandal Province to consult the famous (in those parts at least) Ta Mor. Lining the road on our approach were fully dressed scarecrows outside every house, apparently for protection in case of inadvertent supernatural exhaust from the nearby wizard.
It’s hard not to have any preconceptions sometimes, and on the occasion of visiting a witch doctor the mind gets all sorts of ideas, so when we turned into a smart iron-fenced compound with a sprawling low rise concrete house I was a little disappointed. The dwelling and new model Camry pointed to the success and by extension the effectiveness and power of this doctor. Joining an informal queue, we waited for Ta Mor to emerge. Now, Ta means grandfather or old man, but the guy who came to take his position next to a large shrine wouldn’t have looked out of place selling fake Sony tellies down at O Reussey. He was middle-aged and of unexceptional appearance; no wizened sage stroking a wispy beard today then.
Having waited somewhat more patiently than some ill-mannered locals, the plate loaded with offerings purchased from a specialised stall outside was passed over: incense, betel, a bottle of water, cheap perfume, tiger balm, a pack of Ara Reds and a 5000 bill. My driver was showing me the ropes so I didn’t feel totally lost.
Ta Mor invited me to explain the situation (can we have a baby boy please?), said he agreed to help, muttered some words and did some strange blowing. It’s more like a cross between trying to blow an ant from your skin and creating a breeze to cool perspiring flesh rather than extinguishing candles. His magic exhalations of breath had blessed the water, nasty perfume, balm and incense sticks; these were to take home. The Aras went untouched though all the while he chain-smoked 555s (with the cheaper fags perhaps being returned to the stall to be sold to the next pilgrims) and the five grand went into a pot.
A group of gossipy aunties looked impressed with a Barang being there and asked whether I believed in the big man’s powers; if I didn’t, why would I have bothered coming. They liked the clever reply, but I wasn’t actually as convinced as I’d made out. It was a nice day out, the trip pleased the missus, but my scepticism remained fully intact.
Things were a lot more surreal next time up; much more Hollywood from start to finish, which I must say pleased me no end. I was in the area anyway on a stinking hot day in the boonies of Kompong Speu, so a stop-off at this kru’s place to discern the whereabouts of a friend who’d been missing nearly a fortnight seemed opportune. The kru had recently had one of his turns but was still taking guests. It was soon my time to enter the small sandy-floored hut. One tiny window streamed the harsh midday light into the otherwise pitch-black interior. The eyes finally begin to adjust and incense smoke billowed from an enormous flowerpot stuffed in layer after layer of the red stubs from previous patients. It was like a wedding cake of incense butts reaching to the ceiling.
An ancient woman sat mermaid style on one of those slatted bed frames Khmers use like sofas. She croakily summoned me to join her to ask for the services of the venerable old man. My knees were hurting sitting like this and there was still no sign of this Ta. A friend encouraged me to give old Grandpa my request. Well, I’m the only male around here I thought, but I was wrong. The old biddy next to me was in fact Grandpa, and I should use the title Ta to address her. Right then, o-kay, info was transferred, and after a brief glance to the heavens it was announced in an effected man’s voice that my friend would emerge within a few days from the southwest (spot on as it happens, though a reasonable prediction as he’d left heading that way).
Another woman had appeared from the darkness and thick smoke, crouching near my feet. A wild shock of white hair; see-thru eyes; weird skin. Shit, she’s albino! It was gladly a brief consultation; I thanked Grandpa and bade farewell to the two ladies and managed to get within a safe distance outside before a silly grin spread across my face. No one else was smiling, just another ordinary day where this woman channels for her deceased father, a kru still operating from the other side.
At Phnom Chhngauk outside Kampot is a cave with a fairly well known 6th century Hindu temple inside. We caught up with a tall dark-skinned chap with hair to his waist, damp and pony-tailed, wearing a bright yellow shiny nylon tracksuit as we made the short stroll along paddy walls from the nearest pagoda. Some natives questioned whether I was here to check out the laterite prasat, which seemed a bloody obvious enquiry at the time. Ooh yes, foreigners like a bit of history they agreed, but pointed out that most Khmers come to visit the amazing kru.
He can heal anyone, they enthused, even people with cancer or AIDS. A pretty big call, and he was definitely living a modest life camped out in a thatched open-sided shelter on the hillside. Perhaps the pharmaceutical multinationals have yet to complete their trials on his secret formula.
Maybe the yellow tracksuit dude was here for fashion tips, having exhausted all other possibilities. It turned out this was the magic man himself. Having no mystic business to take care of that day, I merely observed the great wizard at work. He was immaculately preened, smelling of baby powder and with serene eyes. Think: Red Dwarf. Think: The Cat – this was his doppelganger. This example of Cambodian cool was treating an unfortunate gentleman for syphilis, and given his amazing success rates (statistics unavailable), it might be worth making a note of this dude for next time you/’your mate’ gets the clap.
The best may not have been left for last, but the situation was certainly the most serious and desperate measures were called for. My nanny (well, my kid’s nanny) is strong as an ox, so when this rock hard woman got struck down with unimaginable pain it made people take notice. Then in less than 24 hours her stomach swelled to that of a woman about to give birth! Perhaps an alien had been transplanted in there and was soon to burst forth. Friends and neighbours were in no doubt as to the cause; some heavy-duty witchcraft was at work and only a truly gifted kru could muster the required power to tackle the black magic that had a grip on her.
Sadly I didn’t witness the ballooned stomach and only returned from Phnom Penh the next day after which time the sturdy nanny was on the mend. I’d been bending it in the capital and was feeling and looking pretty battered myself, the body having suffered some long sessions and was now the worse for wear. It was feared the evil relatives who’d had her cursed may have done a long-distance zapping on me too, so I should accompany my maid for her final consultation and get myself cleansed too. It wasn’t hard to persuade me to get to witness this kru firsthand.
His wooden house was nice but unassuming and with few signs of wealth. Some young girls were preparing the tree bark medicines that are boiled up as a tangy reddish infusion. This is perhaps the only feature common to all the Kru Khmer I’ve heard of. The range of complaints supposedly treated by these one-size-fits-all bark mixtures includes aching joints, STDs, swollen uterus, lack of appetite and sleeplessness. A smiling chap in his eighties shuffled out. His powers had arrived with the onset of total blindness, yet he was happier than he could ever remember, gladly doing what he could to help those in need. His frequent chuckles were not at all those of a mad man, but I felt showed a sense of contentment and peace with the world that is mentioned more often than witnessed.
A daughter placed the old man’s hand on the patient’s shoulder for him and he proceeded to flick holy water around whilst mumbling what seemed to be verses, interspersed with intense blowing. Though there was definite rhythm it wasn’t clear just what he was reciting but it seemed totally incomprehensible and the aged kru in some ways resembled a demented inpatient exhaling the babbled nonsense from his body. He also placed both hands on the affected areas, more blowing, knowing nods, all the while beaming. It definitely made you feel better just being around the guy. I sorely regret missing out on the first session during which a darning needle was produced through the skin from within the stomach followed by a piece of raw cow skin, without leaving a mark on my maid’s body.
The fee was at the discretion of the punter with this happy chappy kru Khmer and any number of repeat visits was permitted. My maid gladly handed over a good chunk of her savings following her healing. The house his extended family lived in was paid for by some wealthy Phnom Penher who was cured of blindness. The kru himself has no intention to fix his own eyesight just in case his special powers desert him to leave him the ordinary Joe he had been for the first seventy-odd years of his life.
I remain by no means convinced by all of this but it must be remembered that the vast majority of Cambodians fully believe in this stuff. They’ll leave hammocks untended, pawn jewellery to finance a trip to the other side of the country, sell a pig to have a particularly nasty curse placed, even climb up long steep staircases in the heat of the day to consult their chosen kru. Whether for health, wealth, fertility or the more sinister art of placing curses intended to cause a tortuous death, a traditional doctor claims to be at your service.
* Having curses removed is far more demanding, thus more expensive, than getting one placed.
* Under certain circumstances curses can, for a fee, be ?reflected? back onto the nasty individual who commissioned the curse and with increased power. Bear this in mind and take full responsibility for wheels you set in motion.
* If you require a curse or magic as strong and black as Vietnamese coffee, then the top practitioners in the land are the Chams; those guys know their hexes.