Tales of the Superstitious

Posted on by Pedro Milladino
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Do you have any superstitions? Salute solitary magpies, count rosary beads, throw spilled salt over your shoulder, have an irrational fear of the number 13, which is antagonised further when that day of the month falls on a Friday?

Such irrational beliefs, to ‘normal’ people in the west without OCD, Louisiana State driving permits and other mental health issues, belong in centuries past- along with with witchcraft, leeching and the bible.

These small rituals and notions, which often served a common purpose in less enlightened times, are now fading – given lip service without much real thought given to the wheres and whys. As traditions become obsolete and the western world turns more homogeneous, curious beliefs are still held in strong regard across ‘developing’ cultures.

Cambodia has a myriad of superstitions, some taken with a pinch of salt, others with fanatical seriousness. Here follows a brief lowdown on a few favourites- some better known than others, with the help of a translator and some of old aunties in the village.

Red String

Lucky red string is everywhere. Tied around wrists and looped over motorcycle mirrors and throttles – blessings from monks cover the arms of newly weds. The colour red is actually a misnomer, any colour can be used, except black, with white threads once being the standard, the red is said to be a later China influence.

The origins come from ancient Buddhist clergy, who would recite sutras (religious chants and songs), whilst spindles of thread were unwound into their hands. The goodness of the sutras would mingle with thread, which was then rewound, broken and tied around the arms of temple visitors- the only material riches that holy ones had to offer the lay folk. For entrepreneurial owners of string factories this has probably been a very lucky practice.

Ting Mong

scarecrowBizarre homemade scarecrows, often armed with sticks, cardboard AK-47s and RPGs are swiftly created and plonked outside the gates of rural Cambodian homes during times of crisis. Unashamedly animistic, these macabre manifestations are used to frighten away evil spirits – the root cause of dengue fever outbreaks, bird flu and other infectious maladies that sweep the countryside from time to time.

Ting mong are not universally accepted out in the provinces, when one of the youths at Rancho El Pedro put one together, the matriarch swiftly denounced it and had the offending effigy torn down and torched. The reason for such opposition to the evil looking creation is still unknown, but seemed to stem from the idea of ‘meddling with forces you can’t understand’.

Interestingly, these scarecrows are not a phenomena exclusive to Cambodia, but, like the legend of the Aap, can be found across SE Asia- a hark back to pre-Buddhist and Islamic cultures, unrecorded and since lost in history.

Twin Marriage

‘Standard’ weddings in Cambodia are daunting enough- long, loud and with more lavishly flamboyant costume changes than a Liberace concert with Elton John and Lady Gaga as the support acts.

There are even stranger affairs involving children which still take place, rarely. Whilst babies are popped out left, right and centre across the country, SE Asia has one of the lowest birth rates of twins in the world, so double packages of joi-joy are rare. When the sprogs are of the same sex, people just shrug it off as unusual, but when the birth is that of a boy/girl something very odd takes place.

Cambodians believe that such babies are the reincarnation of past lovers, whose bond was so strong in a previous life that karma has brought them back together in the next- so the only logical thing to do is call the marquee guys, hire a band and get the caterers in for a proper baby wedding. Hundreds of guests arrive, blessings are made and copious quantities of food and booze are consumed.

Welfare groups will be relived to know that the marriage is not legal and never consummated- both infants free to marry in later life. It’s all about that 4 letter work L.U.C.K.

Dreams

For a nation that spends around 75% of the time asleep, it’s not so surprising that dream interpretations have an important role in deciding what’s going on in up-time. When a well known ex-pat and former colleague disappeared last year, a Khmer co-worker claimed to have had a dream of the missing man drinking beer without a shirt. Sadly, after this premonition, the chap in question was discovered to have died. Perhaps a coincidence, but the lady with the dream had already come to this conclusion weeks before the outcome was finally known

There are literally hundreds of somnambulist divinations, but beware- should you have any night time visions of pigs, dogs or chickens please get to a good practitioner of spells. These animals in your dreams mean only one thing- someone has gone to the effort of placing a black magic voodoo curse on your sorry ass. Like a dodgy rash downstairs, you’d better get it seen to by a professional ASAP.

Copulating Dogs

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When man’s best friend isn’t busy barking at ghosts, fighting over bones or being served up as a provincial dinner, dogs like to do what comes naturally – sniffing other canine orifices and shagging.

Mostly unloved as pets, local hounds are tolerated and fed scraps as a kind of insurance policy against common thieves and supernatural intruders- the barks and howls are different for would-be robbers and phantoms of the night.

Left to their own devices, semi-feral packs of canines breed and die with minimum human interference. There’s something both disturbing and highly amusing about dog sex- especially when it’s taking place in a pagoda courtyard, as celibate monks ignore the ruckus.

But to look upon such an act is to gamble with your eyesight – for the cause of conjunctivitis, or red-eye is not from infectious person to person hand/eye contact but from deviant doggy voyeurism. This is viewed as a bit of an old wives tales by many Khmer, because, I quote “I see dog fucking many times, but never have red eye”. The age of science and reason may finally be arriving.

Bro Mat Bro Mong

A bro mat bro mong is a kind of hawk, preying on young chickens which stray away from the flock. It is also the term used to talk about child kidnappers. All societies have a warning tale for kids- the bogeyman, the child snatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and modern day pedophiles. Cambodia’s human bro mat bro mong are equally as dark.

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Apparently, it used to be all the rage to have a personal spirit to protect newly built property and to guarantee this rich folk would buy a child- virgin girls being the most sought after – to be killed and buried on the site of a new building. After death the spirit remains trapped on the site, keeping away more malicious denizens of other esoteric planes at bay. The bro mat bro mong were/are the dealers roaming the countryside ready to snatch, dispatch and perform the ritual, for a large fee.

Of all the myths covered, the bro mat bro mong are undoubtedly the most real. Old Aunty is adamant that the tradition was prolific before the Pol Pot era, and continued to a lesser extent afterward. Although human sacrifice may not be so popular nowadays, there is still a demand for children for other deplorable reasons. Village kids are still warned by their parents not to play alone outside the house in case the bro mat bro mong come to take them away.

These are just a few of the tales I’ve heard about- there are many, many more from lucky lizards to shaven lady-gardens. If readers have any they would like to share, we’d love to hear about them. But for now, be safe and don’t have nightmares about dogs, pigs or poultry.

Pedro Milladino

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7 Responses to Tales of the Superstitious

  1. Patricia says:

    Fascinating article. Well written. It makes me want to learn more about this.

  2. the_purple_turtle says:

    Great read, Pedro. I used to date a Cambodian trainee doctor in Siem Reap. She’d studied a year at Cambridge, traveled Europe, and was very level-headed. Far more intelligent than me, if you quantify intelligence with academic ability. One day, she told me that a Tok-eye gecko can’t make its distinctive noise until it crawls down to the ground, and a snake crawls in its mouth and eats its liver. Only then can it make the famous croaky call. Stunned, I asked her if she really believed that, with her level of education and what not. She looked down at her feet, and shrugged, “Yes, because my mom told me when I was small.” Blindly accepting what is told as truth seems to be quite common, and in a small way, endearing.

  3. williagra says:

    A Khmer GF once told me that twins were bad luck and one of them had to go. She herself was a surviving twin but insisted that her sibling died of natural causes soon after childbirth. I chose not to think too much about it.

  4. William says:

    All a load of Mumbo jumbo, the sooner these silly superstitions fade away the better!

  5. Dave says:

    Leeches are actually very 21st.Century in the medical world!

  6. Vic Matthews says:

    I don’t think this was very good and am disappointed because normally Pedro puts out better work. I’m going back to GavinMac and Fox News Channel!

  7. StroppyChops says:

    A great article, Pedro. Gives a good insight into local thinking, but also causes one to wonder about the origin of western superstitions such as ‘touch wood’, etc.

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