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Michael Sloan investigates the underbelly of
Cambodian folklore and discovers anti-ghost
scarecrows, spirit mediums and an exorcism
along the way. Translation by Lim Meng Y,
photography by Conor Wall.
AsiaLIFE Cambodia 27 26 AsiaLIFE Cambodia
Five minutes into the
exorcism, flecks of blood are
visible on 34-year-old Ton
Vuta’s skin as he struggles
to rise from the pagoda floor
beneath the weight of the
men holding him down.
Crouched above, with beads of
perspiration on his cheeks, Chhoung
Seaksat pauses to adjust his grip on a
rod of consecrated incense sticks that he
methodically beats his patient with. The
strokes are little more than a hard tap, but at
each blow Ton squirms and cries out in pain.
A small crowd gathers at the door of
Chhoung’s quarters in Phnom Penh’s Wat
Botum pagoda to watch as the Buddhist
monk approaches the most difficult stage of
tonight’s exorcism — convincing the spirit
that Ton’s family believes is possessing his
body to leave, preferably peacefully or, if
necessary, by force.
“To you or me being tapped like this might
hurt a little, but if the patient feels pain and
suffers greatly it means they are cursed,”
explains Chhoung, who began practising in
2007 and has since become one of Phnom
Penh’s leading faith healers. “For the spirit
inside them, it hurts like being burned with
hot water or stabbed with a knife.”
On the sidelines of the exorcism, Ton’s
mother explains that her son has suffered
undiagnosed mental health problems for
some time. He’s often moody and sometimes
violent. The pair came to the healer as a last
resort after exhausting conventional medical
With every strike Chhoung delivers
ultimatums, demanding that the spirit leaves
Ton’s body immediately. Ton curses in a voice
several octaves lower than his usual tone
and the spirit eventually agrees to leave by
12pm that night. It’s too early to tell whether
the treatment was successful and further
sessions might be required over the coming
days as Ton carries out two weeks of prayer
in isolation.
An exhausted Chhoung takes a seat
and pulls out his iPhone to display video
footage of successful exorcisms, while one
of his assistants flips through a large binder
containing thumb-printed statements from
hundreds of satisfied patients.
“Everything in the world has two natures:
The sky and the land, short and long, boy
and girl. So with disease as well there is
the real disease and spiritual disease,”
says the monk.
“If you have a disease you have to use
medicine, but if it’s a spiritual disease you
have to use spiritual measures. Doctors can
look at a spiritual disease as long as they
want and it won’t show up on any of the
tests. They can’t see it, but I can.”
Healing Spirit
Chhoung — who boasts of completing more
than 1,500 successful exorcisms on patients
that he claims were misdiagnosed by doctors
with conditions ranging from stomach aches
to cancer and AIDS — is one of many faith
healers and spirit mediums working around
the country. Those who conduct exorcisms
are commonly referred to as krou dors
ompeour, while krou thmoub deal in black
magic and curses.
Krou are mostly laypeople and are thought
to have many different skills. Kandal–based
spirit medium Yeeay Yum is renowned for her
ability to talk to the dead, while a man called
Dey Uth is said to be able to talk to the spirits
of animals.
Some temples offer such practices. Wat
Kom Saan just outside Phnom Penh boasts
a resident exorcist. Chhoung’s mentor,
Buddhist monk Kau Sopheak, performs daily
exorcisms by the river in Kratie.
Many faith healers and mystics do a brisk
trade in the sale of yoaan, pieces of cloth or
parchment etched with Sanskrit words and
symbols that are believed to have protective
powers. Offensive versions of these are also
sold and can be tossed inside the property of
enemies in order to curse them.
Each krou has a different methodology —
in Chhoung’s case he simply prays to Buddha
and consecrates the sticks he uses to tap
patients, allowing him to cajole the spirit out.
“Originally I never believed in this kind of
thing, so I understand if other people don’t
believe,” says the monk.
His interest in exorcisms stemmed from
an experience with possession several years
ago. When a former friend cursed him, the
monk sought help from an experienced
exorcist who then taught him all he knew.
Such practices can be controversial within
the Buddhist faith.
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Spiritual Controversy
Nearby Wat Botum, in his office in Wat
Langka, elderly monk Yos Hut shakes his
head when the ritual is described to him.
For 30 years he has headed up the Khmer
Buddhist Foundation, which was formed in
the 1970s to train Cambodian monks and
keep Buddhist traditions alive in the post-
Khmer Rouge exile communities of France
and the United States.
The foundation has grown into one of
the largest non-governmental groups that
support organised religion in the Kingdom.
It assists in the training of hundreds of
monks and provides meditation classes for
thousands of laypeople each year.
Yos Hut says faith healers are distorting
religion for their own uses, incorporating
practices that are not found anywhere in
Buddha’s teachings.
“It’s not part of Cambodian Buddhism.
When monks believe in superstition, it’s
because they learn and practise too little
Buddhism. This is a big problem. Everyone
wants to help others, but first you should help
yourself and learn about what you’re doing
seriously and correctly,” he says.
Chhoung, however, says that the sangha
— the Buddhist community — has not
forbidden his work and he claims to have
won the grudging support of some sections
of the medical industry.
“A lot of doctors have come to see me
and I’ve even had some as patients. Around
99 percent don’t believe me, but when they
come here and see the real thing they believe
in it.”
Seeking Protection
Belief in superstition and witchcraft are
evident in other parts of the Kingdom. Each
year, Cambodians are accused of being
sorcerers capable of cursing members of the
During exorcisms, krou are thought to be
able to speak directly to the sorcerer that
laid the curse on the victim, leaving a little
part of themselves behind in their body, says
Chhoung. A skilled exorcist can bully the
sorcerer into revealing personal details, such
as their name and location.
Such allegations can prove fatal. Sieng
Soeun was nearly decapitated by villagers in
Kampong Speu last year after being accused
of sorcery. The case was not an anomaly.
A report by human rights group Licadho
recorded 17 instances of suspected sorcerers
being murdered nationwide between 2006
and 2011. This was significant drop from the
previous decade which saw eight people killed
in 2001 alone.
Official Perspective
During his eight-year career as an archivist
and field worker at the government’s Ministry
of Cults and Religions, Phum Lie has seen
faith healers come and go and heard tales of
sorcerers so powerful people only whisper
their names. There is no official registration
system for faith healers and mediums, he
explains, and no figures are available on how
many are active throughout the country.
While villagers accused of murdering
alleged sorcerers are prosecuted to the
full extent of the law, faith healers are seen
as doing no harm and largely left alone by
the authorities. In the case of a monk like
Chhoung, ultimate responsibility for his
behaviour rests with senior monks at Wat
Botum, says Phum.
“I’ve seen a lot of fake things and some
things that I can’t understand,” he says. “If
you are an educated person maybe you do
not believe the same things as a villager. But
who can say if you are more correct than
them. If people believe these treatments work
and it helps cure them then that is not illegal.”
For his part, Chhoung says he takes great
pains not to provide false hope to patients,
and compares his methodology to that of a
hospital — including extensive pre-exorcism
questionnaires, consent forms and legal
Back inside Wat Botum, Sokleak Salak and
her 12-year-old son are getting ready for their
journey home to Kampot. The concerned
mother originally came to the pagoda to seek
treatment for her son’s joint pain.
After a prolonged exorcism and a good
night’s sleep the problem seems to have
disappeared. “I heard from my family about
[Chhoung] and came all this way to see
him, so I am glad the treatment works,”
she says.
Some families seek protection from spiritual
maladies in the form of ting mong — wooden
scarecrows planted outside the home rather
than in a field. Ting mong are placed to
scare away ghosts and often come armed,
sometimes with machetes and toy rifles. The
occasional wooden RPG launcher has been
The heavily trafficked Angkor Park in Siem
Reap is home to dozens of specimens. Large
clusters of ting mong can be found in the
province’s Banteay Srey district, including
at the home of Kosh Chhrom villager Soum
Rith. She installed the figure after consulting
a fortune teller about a wave of illnesses
sweeping her village.
“People were getting sick and at night the
dogs were whimpering a lot. The fortune teller
told us it was happening because ghosts were
going into the village and causing illness,” she
explains. “It’s an old tradition that if you put
a ting mong in front of your house, wearing
clothes like a human, the ghost will see it and
be afraid. It thinks the house is being guarded
by a person.”
Further up the road, Som San and Ngan
Thea have a five-foot-tall ting mong draped
on their gate, bedecked in shorts. Som says
installing the figure was a precaution, due to a
fear that the area is haunted.
“The people that live in the city don’t believe
in ghosts but in the forests it’s common to
believe. The forest is a quiet place so strange
things always happen at night.”
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"The forest is a quiet place so strange
things always happen at night."