“Around the middle of the Buddhist era
A palace of gold and silver shall arise at the confluence of four rivers.
After that there shall be a devastating war in the land
And the blood of victims shall rise as high as the elephant’s belly.
Then shall come a man disguised as a Chinese,
accompanied by a white elephant with blue tusks.
There will be another brief war,
Until a monk brings back the sacred scriptures from the Kuhlen Mountains
And changes the name of the country from Kampuchea
To Nagar Bankat Puri.
Then will happiness reign, all illness disappear, every man have fifty wives
And live to the age of 220 years”*
*Rough translation of ancient Buddhist prophecy, lifted from A Fortune Teller Told Me, Tiziano Terzani, 1997
Fortune telling, prophecies and finding ways to influence fate form the backbone of Cambodian culture. Such things are intricately woven into ancestor worship, the spirit world and more orthodox ideas of Theravada Buddhist teachings. The above prophecy is known to pretty much every Khmer old enough to have heard it (go on, ask), and gets updated by each generation to ‘prove’ its authenticity.
“And the blood of victims shall rise as high as the elephant’s belly” for example, no longer describes the wars of attrition in the 70’s/80’s, but is now understood to be the foretelling of the Koh Pich water festival disaster of 2010, when 347 people were trampled to death.
It’s nigh on impossible to escape the day to day quirks of such an ingrained belief system. Whether it’s having a new Honda Scoopy blessed by a monk, getting the family doused down with enchanted water, lighting incense over broiled chickens, pig heads and/or bananas, and of course the omnipresent lucky red string. It’s a veritable minefield of spells, potions and magic out there, and where there is belief there is, of course, money to be made. A sucker is born every minute.
All over the world clairvoyants, mediums, astrologists and the like make a profit from the curious, gullible and vulnerable. They read cards, charred bones, chicken entrails, tea leaves but, as ‘we’ all know, such mentalists mostly read people by forming educated guesses and giving ambiguous answers from leading questions, giving the customer what they want. At worst these crooked bastards con the grief stricken or susceptible out of their entire life savings; at best it’s a bit of fun or a laugh.
Cambodians are into this sort of mumbo jumbo mysticism in a big way. Happy to laugh off the inaccurate, they still flock to the kru teay fortune tellers with names and dates of birth of couples to decide lucky days for marriages, discover which envious neighbour has put a black magic curse upon them, see what paths to take on future endeavors or get some tips on what the lottery numbers will be next week. Every now and then a story will pop up of people losing everything- even their lives – in no small part to the advice doled out by a kru teay.
Even foreigners are getting in on the action. Around the villages of rural Kampong Speu, an ebony skinned Indian national drives around on an old Dailem selling grass-mats and feather dusters. This door-to-door delivery service is merely a façade for his real business: telling the future and lifting black magic curses from Khmer woman aged around 18-50, if they touch his magic wand. Think a sub-continental Robin Askwith in Confessions of a Hex Lifter. Whilst he hasn’t yet been put on a sex-offenders register or beaten up by jealous menfolk, there are a few kids knocking about along his route, darker skinned than average, with longer than the usual Cambo-noses. It certainly gets the locals’ tongues wagging.
An Israeli citizen, Elan, found brief notoriety as a barang tarot reader on the streets of Phnom Penh. Apparently he’s still knocking about town plying his trade. He’s on Youtube and stars in his own surreal film: The Fortune Teller of Street 54.
Fortunately for the fortune tellers, they are not expected to be infallible, even when it’s 50/50. A couple was told in confidence that the latest bundle of joy to come into the world would, most certainly be a girl. When it plopped out with a winkie instead of a hoo-hoo, this apparent lack of soothsaying ability was shrugged off.
“Sometimes fortune teller wrong….”
Well, what if he gets the auspicious dates of weddings, buying cows or going to hospital to get those cataracts seen to? Just as well blue for a boy and pink for a girl isn’t the norm, otherwise there’d be more cross-dressing infants out there. Oh, doubting Thomases, even the third eye can get blurred.
Now, take my mother in law, (no seriously, take her, goes the old joke). Widowed with 6 kids at quite a young age, and former Khmer Rouge youth now surrounded by elderly relatives, she’s really into all this stuff. With a heart solidly set in the countryside – she’s made the 50km trip to Phnom Penh 4 or 5 times in her 50 odd years – she, along with the other old and even older guard, are firm believers.
Surely she is a product of the times not-so-long ago when there was no electricity or water in the village, let alone TV, telephones or internet. Until around 2005 the troupe of monks, wise men and various gaggle of mystics who still pass round our house pretty much weekly would have been the most exciting thing to hit this district since the USAF put on a free fireworks show during the 70s. I wouldn’t mind finding out more one day, but whenever I get too close to the old girl she hits me and calls me ‘Yap mong’. It’s a sign of affection, apparently.
I’ve had the water thrown over me, forced to kneel before a monk with the gift at Wat Phnom (Kampong Speu branch) and had my nose measured by an elderly Chinese in the market for reasons I couldn’t fathom.
Last time I bothered to poke my head in to see what everyone was up to, a gathering of family and neighbours were putting things into a PH Care bottle whilst an old man chanted in monotone. This event was designed to bring good luck for a new village shop business. Buffett and Branson take note; who needs a solid business plan, supply chain analysis and steady consumer base, when you can use rent-a-pyschic and place herbs in an empty bottle of nay-nay sanitizer?
It’s easy to scoff at something you haven’t tried personally, so one Sunday, during one of the frequent power outages and without a good book to read, I reluctantly joined in the fun as an elderly kru teay dropped by to bedazzle all with his psychic trickery and general all round mind blowing, mind reading skills.
Not really. He was without doubt the worst the teller of fortunes ever. Even the family- who normally reveres any old charlatan with an orange knapsack and magic beads – was in stitche, a true form of sit-down comedy to liven up a dull Sunday. To be fair to him, it was quite obvious to everyone he was pissed out of his face.
Everyone had a go with the toothless old sage before it was my turn. After sitting next to him, the old man produced some dried strands of coconut palm leaf. Measuring the size of my fingers with these, he folded the leaf up, had a bit of a think and proclaimed (through a translator) that I was a rich man with a high salary. Compared to him, this could be true, and although not quite as poor as a pagoda mouse, there’s no way I am making Cambodia’s Fortune 500 anytime soon.
He went on to talk about my past. His rheumy eyes flickered as he transcended the ethereal plane. The smell of rice wine wafted from his lips.
“You have seven brothers and sisters” he announced.
“Erm, wrong again, old chap”. I have younger twin sisters, which would surely be strange enough to show up on the cosmic radar. Maybe I’m too damned skeptical. Could it be that my own father, often away on work trips, could have sired a couple of brace of bastards? I’ll bring it up during our next awkward and infrequent Skype chat.
“You had a bad time between the ages of 18-24, perhaps money, school or parents”
No shit Sherlock, that’s about as sweeping as an indentured Filipina housemaid in Qatar during Ramadan. How about my future?
“You will become more rich and own many nice things, like, erm, car”
“Range Rover or Lexus?”
‘Maybe both, but you must be careful not to lose anything for one year”
The gifted Wat Phnom monk had told me the same at Pchum Benh time.
“Like what?” I said. My patience, my sanity, my last remaining shred of dignity were running short. “My keys?” (Already a lost cause)
“Things that can be lost, don’t lose them, for a year”
He wrote something on a scrap of paper, folded it and flicked some magical tincture, which was probably sanctified tap water. He mumbled some prayers over a length of red twine and went through the ritual of tying it around my wrist.
“Keep safe, do not lose” he instructed.
I crossed his palm with 2000 Riel and snuck off to buy a couple of cans, losing the important paper and biting off the annoying threads with my teeth.
So the old guy got his rice wine money, everyone one got their final chuckle and the old sozzled sot made his way down the rutted track on his bicycle which looked almost as ancient as he.
That guy’ll be back” I predicted, and, sure enough, the next month he was, still drunk and still trying his best to see what fate had in store.
Hell, anyone could do this job….. I can see a career change coming to Pedro soon……..