Back in September, New York Times reporter Seth Mydans filed this story, presumably after a visit to the Cambodian capital. He describes a visit to Wat Phnom, which was my first and last stopping point in the kingdom during my three-week trip in 2004.
Although I went to Wat Phnom several times during my journey, visitors to Phnom Penh are told that they should pray for a safe visit at the wat upon their arrival in Cambodia, and for a safe trip home on their departure. Of course, when I walked up the hill for the last time, my prayer was that I would quickly return.
Seth is a wonderful storyteller, capturing a slice of life in one of the kingdom’s most important and unique locales.
Step Right Up: Futures Told, Demons Slain, Moles Turned
By SETH MYDANS
To seek a lover, to choose an auspicious date, to find success in business and in love, to know the good and the bad in life, to change bad-luck moles into good-luck moles.
These are the arts of Son Sam-Ath.
To wrestle with demons, exorcise black magic or do battle with monsters in the soul, these are the bruising encounters of her dual life, half in sunshine and half in the shadow of ghosts.
”I am nothing,” said Ms. Son Sam-Ath, 48, her faux pearl necklace, costume rings and glittery bangles announcing a woman who is oblivious to the bare feet that dangle beneath her.
”I am like the gateway to a temple,” she said. ”I am empty. But when I open my heart, the spirits can pass through me.”
Ms. Son Sam-Ath is a fortuneteller, one of hundreds who line the bank of the Tonle Sap river and cluster in booths around the little holy mountain, Wat Phnom, that is the heart of Phnom Penh.
In this realm of feints and whispers, where things may not be as they seem, these sages of the other world are the keepers of Cambodia’s mysteries, the ultimate advisers to rich and poor, weak and powerful.
The riverfront in Phnom Penh, in view of the Royal Palace, is the city’s promenade, from dawn when it is the venue for tai chi, aerobics and badminton, to dark, when the city’s poor gather with their children to eat boiled eggs and fried beetles.
Wat Phnom is the spiritual core of the city, where supplicants make offerings to Preah Chao, a Buddhist deity, at its peak and gather for soft drinks and beer at its foot as traffic swirls around them.
Most of the fortunetellers rely on the cards, charts, intuition and balderdash that are the basic tools of their trade. Only a few have Ms. Son Sam-Ath’s powers of trance and tongue, and they are highly prized.
Hers is a ritual as old as superstition and as widespread as the world of ghosts that blankets Southeast Asia, invisible only to those who cannot see them.
Summoning the spirits, Ms. Son Sam-Ath lights sticks of incense and the sweet smoke curls in front of her face. She chants quietly in an unknown tongue. Her eyes roll up. Her soul flies away, and she is empty.
Then, as if through the hum of a long-distance cable, the voices come to her and she begins to speak. The timbre is not her own and the words are foreign to her — perhaps Thai or Arabic or Pali, she says, or perhaps words with no earthly meaning at all.
If a client needs urgent help or if, for example, he is visiting the United States or Australia, she can also work her magic over the telephone, passing on the words of the spirits as if forwarding a call. The cost is $2.50, the same as for a personal visit.
”It’s as if someone has opened a book in front of my eyes,” she said, describing a sort of dizziness that seizes her, ”and I just read them out, whatever language they are in.”
That is all the more mysterious, she said, because she cannot read or write, even in her native language, Khmer.
Lounging like an odalisque on her divan, her hair crimped and reddened by the mysterious arts of her cosmetologist, she beckons with a smile as strings of colored Christmas lights flash and twinkle from an altar behind her.
If her altar represents the other world, it is a cluttered and eclectic place, all leaping Ramayana monkeys and Buddhas with holographic halos, pot-bellied laughing gods and bearded porcelain sages, plaster horses, multitiered gold parasols, bowls of bananas, fluttering candles, incense and, for prosperity — and just in case all else fails — a plaster Japanese Beckoning Cat with an endlessly waving arm.
There was no sign when she was young that Ms. Son Sam-Ath was special. Indeed, she shared the horrifying childhood of her contemporaries, working in a Khmer Rouge labor brigade while as much as one fourth of the population died between 1975 and 1979.
But the spirits, it seems, had been watching her since she was 12 years old, waiting for their moment. This in any case is what they told her.
They seized her unexpectedly 18 years ago when she fell ill. A traditional healer was painting her body with magic herbs when suddenly, she said, she cried out and slapped him.
After that, sometimes to her discomfort, she began seeing beneath the surface of things. When a child was ill, she could tell the cure. When husband and wife were quarrelling, she could tell them their fate, for better or for worse. The spirits found her a handsome husband, another fortuneteller.
”This is my true life,” she said, swinging her feet. ”That was the beginning of my life as a fortuneteller.”
As she was speaking, her daughter, Son Sopharon, 22, arrived, bringing glasses of sweet iced coffee.
Ms. Son Sopharon is studying to be a hairdresser and as far as anybody can tell, she does not have the psychic powers of her mother.
”I don’t know anything about that,” she said, unimpressed by the visitations of the other world. ”I don’t know it and I don’t like it.”
Asked if her parents used their skills to guide her in her life she said, ”No. They don’t tell my fortune. But they still tell me to do this and do that.”
Her mother was understanding, as a fortuneteller must be.
”My son is a painter and my daughter is a hairdresser,” she said. ”That is fine. We all have different talents, different gifts, from the day we are born. We can’t force ourselves to be something that we are not.
”You must follow your gifts,” she said. ”Everyone can’t be a fortuneteller. If they were, there would be nobody left to do all the other things that have to be done.”