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Author Goes in Search of Cambodia’s Disappearing ‘Magic’

Ryun Patterson, a Chicago-based writer who worked as a journalist in Cambodia, is the author of a 'Vanishing Act: A Glimpse Into Cambodia’s World of Magic'.
Ryun Patterson, a Chicago-based writer who worked as a journalist in Cambodia, is the author of a 'Vanishing Act: A Glimpse Into Cambodia’s World of Magic'.

[Editor’s note: Despite much modernization, Cambodia still holds onto some of its old traditions. Among them is a belief in spirits and practitioners of a kind of “magic,” who channel these spirits and give advice or help heal mental illnesses or other maladies. Ryun Patterson, a Chicago-based writer who worked as a journalist in Cambodia, last year put together a Kickstarter campaign to travel around the country and document as many practitioners of that magic as possible. The result of his trip is a multimedia book: “Vanishing Act: A Glimpse Into Cambodia’s World of Magic.” He recently visited Cambodia to launch the book, where he spoke to VOA Khmer.]

Would you tell us a little bit about your book?

For “Vanishing Act,” what we wanted to do was really I just wanted to travel around Cambodia and meet these people that live lives in this magical realm. Whether they are fortune tellers or spirit medium or other kinds of people that use the power of spirits, the power of magic, and the power of belief to help other people in their community and to sort of preserve the lives of these people for the future generation to read about.

How do you come up with this idea? How do you get to know all these fortune-tellers and all these people who practice magic?

For the most part we just went to the different part of the country and asked around. We tried to find them. We tried to go. We went to Battambang and asked, where can we find the best spirit medium? We asked Cambodian people in the countryside, where can we find these people? We did not try to go to the tourist places. We did not try to find maybe the more commercial fortune teller, because most markets have card readers and palm readers and things like that. That was not the kind of people that we wanted to meet. We really wanted to meet the people in local communities that are connected to their neighbors and their community, using these powers that they say they have to help out their neighbors.

Visitors take a closer look at another fortune teller, Seim Chantha, holding three smoked cigarettes in his hand.
Visitors take a closer look at another fortune teller, Seim Chantha, holding three smoked cigarettes in his hand.

How long did it take to do the whole thing? How many provinces did you go to?

We started off in Phnom Penh, and we went on to a larger research trip, so we covered basically the southern half of Cambodia. We went from Phnom Penh all the way up to Battambang, and we stopped in Pursat to do an interview, and came back to Phnom Penh. We went to Kandal province, and then we went down to the southern coast, so we went on to Kampong Trach. We went on to Kep. We went to Kampot. We went to Sihanoukville before coming back to Phnom Penh. With the money we had, we wanted to visit the whole country, but we ran out of money, unfortunately.

Maybe next time maybe we write a part two where we get up to Mondulkiri, Rattanakkiri, and also to the northeast and northwest.

How long did the process of collecting information, compiling the book, translation and editing take? How long did the whole thing take?

The process started at the end of April 2014. And it started then I had five or six weeks in Cambodia that I was free from my job in America that I was able to spend, so we did all of the research in those five weeks. All the interviews and everything took place. And it stopped at the end of May 2014 when we finished our research trips. And then from there was a long, long process, because we shot probably 15 hours of video. We had all of the interviews and audio tapes and we had maybe 400 photographs from the entire research trip. And then from there we just started reading out what we thought were the best clips and the best photos and the best information to turn into the book that we had right now.

We really started with the photos. We chose the photos first to try to get a really good idea of the visual style that we wanted for the book and what we wanted to illustrate about our subject. From there I wrote the text. I transcribed all of our interviews. It was about 40,000 words of transcripts that I wrote down from all the interviews, and I broke them up by the people and by themes, so once I had all the tapes all written, we started looking into hours and hours and hours of video, to maybe capture sections of interviews that weren’t reflected in the text to try to add another dimension to the stories of these people. And then after all that was done, we tried to grab audio clips from audio recordings to add to the multimedia version of the book that you can get on iPad and Mac computers.

Book signing at ‘Meta House’ gallery in Phnom Penh.
Book signing at ‘Meta House’ gallery in Phnom Penh.

Could you tell us your challenges while traveling to those provinces? How hard was it to find those people?

The key for us and with a lot of journalists in Cambodia was you have to have a local contact first. Maybe a friend or a family member. Someone who can help point you in the right direction, because it’s very difficult as a foreigner to go into Cambodia and just start asking people questions, because they are very suspicious. (And they have a right to be suspicious, because I would be suspicious if someone came to my door with a camera and a microphone and said we want to write a book about you. I would say well, what are you doing?)

We had several lead in the beginning. In Pursat we knew the grandson of our first subject, a wonderful lady named Sansa in Pursat. He led us to her. From there I said, well since we are going to Pursat already, we’re already on the highway, lets’ go to Battambang. It’s a big center of population, and we should be able to spend a couple of days trying to find people, and luckily we had a lot of help from local people at a sandwich shop that we ate at. After eating sandwiches, we brought his car around and said let’s go, we’ll find the spirit medium right now. I know the general area, but I did not know where exactly these people are, so he drove us out into the countryside. He couldn’t find anyone himself, so we stopped and on the side of the road there was someone on a motor bike. He rolled down the window, and he said, “Do you know where the spirit mediums are around here? I heard there are some.” The young boy on the motorbike got on his phone and he called someone up, and he got off his phone and said, “Which one do you want to meet?” and it was perfect.

We found two people at once and we were able to do interviews the next day of very different spirit mediums in Battambang. It really covered our bases for the kind of people we wanted to meet there. From then on we made sure that we had the photos that we needed, making sure that we had the videos that we needed. We had several days making sure that everything covered in that area before heading back to Phnom Penh, and planning our next areas to go to. The initial trips were mostly based on the locations based on the people that we knew and the contact that we had in the area. We had a really good family friend in Kep. I knew that if I got down there and asked her, she would be able to help us very quickly and she did, so we went down there. We had breakfast with her and her family. She said, “I know a spirit medium I can take you there right now,” and she took us there, and there was a wonderful fisherman named Kao Chork, who is a fisherman most of the time, but in his spare time he’s a spirit medium. But if you ask him he would probably rather be a fisherman if he had a choice, but he believes he has no choice. He said the spirit tells him he must help people. He must give counseling to people, but if he had a choice in it, he would just fish every day and fish for crab and be happy with his family.

A young woman views a photo of Buth Oeun, a fortune teller in Preah Sihanoukville, who uses cards to tell people’s fortune.
A young woman views a photo of Buth Oeun, a fortune teller in Preah Sihanoukville, who uses cards to tell people’s fortune.

Where did you get the original idea?

It’s a very long story here. It started a long time ago. I first moved to Cambodia in 1999, when I came to work for the Cambodia Daily newspaper. There was a woman that I met who is now my wife and we were seeing each other very casually maybe for two years. One night she said she wanted to come and have a serous talk with me. I thought, I don’t know what this is about. This is a serous talk. She sat down with me and she said I just want to tell you before you find out from anyone else that my father is a sorcerer, and he had eight other wives. It was a shock to me, but it was also very interesting because that was really how I entered this world, because his main job was a fortune teller to very high ranking people around Cambodia. He is very well respected and his whole system is numerology so, he takes people’s names, and says what is your problem. Say your business is failing: he would take your name and take the name of your spouse and add them up into numbers and do a special kind of calculation with them and decide what is wrong with the names that you have. To solve the problem with the business that you have, he would give you a new name that would have the correct number that would add up to the correct fortune.

He has wide support and people really believe in his practice. That was where it really first started, and as I got to talking to him more and learning more about Cambodia and the religion of Cambodia, and this mixture of religion in Cambodia that can combine the nature spirits, the Old spirits, the Buddhist beliefs, and the Hindu gods—this whole mixture that Cambodians really believe in different aspects of. It was really, really interesting, in the four years I lived in Cambodia and then I left before I moved back to America in 2003 and got married, and then during that time I kept trying to find a monk that could give me the traditional protection tattoo.

You see a lot of old men that fought in the war that have this protective tattoo over their bodies, but it’s very hard to find someone that can give an authentic tattoo. There are a lot of places that know the designs but they don’t know the blessings, and they don’t know the connection to the monk or into the religion that I was looking for. In 2011 I finally was able to get a monk in Phnom Penh to give me a tattoo on my back of Hanuman with several protective spells drawn around it. During the course of my tattoo, the tattooist was telling me. “You know, there is nobody who wants to learn how to make tattoos anymore. I can’t find anyone to teach my craft to, and I’m afraid that when I die, everything that I know about giving this magical tattoo will die along with me.” That was really what got me thinking about this book in particular.

Author Ryun Patterson and photographer Rick Valenezuela posed with a Cambodian student who helped with the translation of the ‘Vanishing Act’.
Author Ryun Patterson and photographer Rick Valenezuela posed with a Cambodian student who helped with the translation of the ‘Vanishing Act’.

Tell us about the 11 characters in the book; which are your favorite characters, and why?

To start with, we start of the book with the one person I knew for sure that I could interview, that was my father in law, Thach Saing Sosak. He has a very interesting system of numerology and changing the names for people, but in addition he does a lot all the kind of blessings, like amulets. He made amulets for Cambodian-American soldiers who went to war in Iraq, to protect them against explosion. He had also does a lot of blessing for protection. At one time, we got to witness a ceremony that is called the rumdoskros ceremony. It involved three bodyguards of a high-ranking official, giving blessings and giving them better luck in the future.

I don’t know what happen to them, but they were put underneath the veil. It symbolized them returning to the womb and then being reborn with new luck, and new life. My translator at that time was listening to the ceremony and the chanting. He was like, this is very interesting because instead of the normal discussion of the god and the spirit they were both there but they also evoked the power of the Prime Minster Hun Sen and all the governing CPP rulers to also help and give their power to the ceremony as it was happening. That is something that doesn’t occur originally in the normal ceremony. There was a very unique situation. Sadly, Thach Saing Sosak died in May 5, 2015. We were very fortunate to get his story in the book before he passed away.

Visitors skim through the ‘Vanishing Act’ at the book launch Thursday.
Visitors skim through the ‘Vanishing Act’ at the book launch Thursday.

Another interesting woman that we met was a woman name Song Sokheng outside of Battamabang. She channeled a child spirit. As soon as the spirit enters her body she becomes like a child. She was playing with stuffed animal and she is eating candy all the time, and she read a fortune of people in 100 riel notes. She’ll take the riel note and read the number on it and tell you what your fortune is based on that. She’s very laughing and giggling and playing. This is an older lady and all the sudden the spirit comes in her and she’s jumping around and clapping and smiling and playing. That was very fascinating to us. That was the first time that I witnessed that kind of spirit possession before. That was very, very interesting.

One other spirit medium that we met, her name was Meas Chanthu. She channeled a spirit of a monk from Kampuchea Krom who died in 1940, and he was very well regarded in this village, the village of Kompong Chum, in Vietnam, of Soc Trang province. He was very famous. They thought that he had great magic when he lived.They said that he could walk in the rain and never got wet. They say he walked all the way from Vietnam to Wat Ounalom to study under the great monks’ there to learn powerful magic and then he died in 1940. This woman Meas Chanthu got very, very ill in 1987. Everyone thought she was going to die, and during this time she said the spirit of Lok Ta Sok, this monk, came to her and said I can help you live but you have to give yourself to me and let me possess you to help other people throughout the rest of your life. So she agreed because she still wanted to live, but it caused problems right from the beginning, because so many people came to her house to get advice from the spirit that the Vietnamese authorities sent guards to watch because they thought she was planning something, like she was making a plot against the government because there were so many people at her house all the time, and [that] she was creating such a stir. It worried her so much that she had to renegotiate her deal with the spirit. The spirit agreed to let her stop giving advice to anyone who wanted it but he told her that first she was not allowed to eat on any Buddhist holidays.

She also has to make a large donation to a temple. She has to do a bond, make a merit one time a year worth about 500 dollars. For her, she is just a rice farmer, and she doesn’t have that amount of money and also the spirit doesn’t allow her to work. He doesn’t allow her to eat meat. She isn’t even allowed to raise animals. She can only be at her house and give advice to her family, but she cannot earn any money for herself. She thinks if she doesn’t do this, the spirit will not let her live anymore. Once she has to give the offering to the Lok Ta Sok once per year; otherwise he would not let her live another year. Every year is a new year for a payment.

Can you tell us more about how these people use their skills to help people? What kind of people need their help?

It ranges so many different ways. People come to them with a huge variety of problems. I think it’s because Cambodia doesn’t have a strong infrastructure for counseling and psychology, to help people talk about their daily lives. Cambodia in the last 30 years has gone through a tremendous amount of trauma. There has been war, and there has been suffering. There are all of these problems that everyday Cambodians face, and they cannot understand the reasons. They don’t know why. Why are their lives so much difficult than the lives of people in say in America or in other developed countries? Why is it them? Is there bad luck to do with it? So they go to the spirit. I think there is no other way to find recourse, to find a reason behind what seemingly happens to them for no reason, so they asked [the spirit medium]. They say my husband is cheating on me; what can I do? My son left home, and he become a very bad boy. How do I get him to come home and be good again?

A lot of the advice is very commonsense and practical, you know. There are little rituals and spirits, but for the most part, these spirit mediums and fortune-tellers are just giving them very commonsense advice. It seems to come from a place of authority that makes them want to follow it and makes them feel like they have a little bit more control over their lives, their destinies.