Vanishing Act:
A Glimpse into Cambodia’s
World of Magic


Ryun Patterson teamed up with photographer Rick Valenzuela and a group of translators⁠ to find and interview Cambodian sorcerers, spirit mediums, fortunetellers, and monks for Vanishing Act: A Glimpse into Cambodia’s World of Magic. The final product includes 12 interviews, dozens of photos, and almost an hour of video, and it’s available for iPads and Macs on the iBooks Store. More information and additional formats can be found at www.neaktaa.com.

Chapter 9: Fire/Proof

Written by Ryun Patterson
Photos and video by Rick Valenzuela
Translation by Sun Heng

We returned to Phnom Penh, and our next interview took place at the house of Seim Chantha, 47, in Kandal province. The house was a work in progress, with tools, lumber, and all manner of rusty debris littering the downstairs living area.

The upstairs was mostly vacant, save for a room dedicated to an elaborate altar and a front porch covered with plastic mats and, as we’d find out later, some sticky, staining petroleum-based wood treatment meant to repel termites. An elaborate spirit house hung from the roof to guarantee the local entities lived in style:

Seim Chantha’s upscale spirit house.

Designed with an eye toward more-modern architecture, it came complete with an SUV and a helicopter. It was a window, perhaps, into Chantha’s own aspirations and a testament to his showmanship, which he was eager to demonstrate.

Chantha’s magical practices were derived from a complex cosmology that came not only from the spirits that possessed him but also his unique past lives as well: Among others, he claimed to be the reincarnation of Jayavarman VII, the greatest king of the Angkor-era Khmer Empire. But he didn’t always know that.

“My parents were farmers. Neither has experience with spirits,” he said. “I spent most of my life in the countryside as a farmer, and I didn’t know much about what went on in the outside world.”

Seim CHantha shows off his protective tattoos.

He spent some of his younger years in the army, and protective tattoos on his hands and chest are evidence of that, but otherwise, his worldly experiences were of the more mundane sort: working, marriage, and supporting his family.

“When I was in my early 30s, I encountered spirits, and they said, ‘Go and take care of other people; they need help,’ “ he said. “The spirits first came to me in a dream. I dreamt that a god gave me a chakram from his palm and said that this was the power god gave me to help humans who are in need of help.”

Chantha disregarded these messages, preferring instead a life of fishing, but disbelief carried a heavy price: five years of sickness that he couldn’t seem to shake.

Seim Chantha describes his early spiritual experiences.

“I was young and didn’t believe in such things. But the god visited me a few more times, and the god took my spirit to visit different places, like heaven, the mountains, and even where the dragon lives under the water. So I started believing. And the god told me that when I stopped being a fisherman my life would get better.”

This supreme being’s name was Krorpom Jakrova, protector of three realms (heaven, the Earth, and the underworld). And when he came to Chantha, he brought company.

“Seven spirits come to me: 1) Krorpom Jakrova; 2) Ey Sey Akinet; 3) Lok Ta Mae Toib; 4) Lok Ta Kom Haeng; 5) Lok Ta Krong Nokor; 6) Lok Ta Meun Ek; 7) Vihear Sour. The other six are the associates of the first one. Bodyguards, each with powers,” he said. “They come when the people need them. When they come, they smoke three cigarettes.”

While the supreme being is very gentle and understanding, the other six, being bodyguards, are more strict and have specialized roles.

When these spirits came upon him, they told Chantha about his past lives and what he needed to do in this life to preserve his legacy.

“My karma decided what I am now. In my first life, I was a forest saint near Veing Mountain. In my second life, I was Jayavarman VII. In this life, I am destined to help people. People are suffering, and my karma decided that I need to be a medium and help people.”

And he’s not the only family member with a strong past — he said that his eldest son is the reincarnation of a mountain saint.

“He has cheated death. Once his boat sank in the river, and normal people would have died, but my son survived,” Chantha said. “Because he was born powerful.”

Chantha’s grand visitation prompted skepticism in his village.

“At first the villagers thought I was insane,” he said. But the spirits’ power proved them wrong, as people came to him to have their problems solved. “Now the whole neighborhood believes in me, and people often have me bless ceremonies as I channel the spirit of the protector of the land.”

A client is blessed.

Using charms, ointments, relics, and more, the spirits that Chantha hosts provide guidance, cures, and protection to those who seek him out, and the appreciation of his clients has his family slowly climbing out from under the mountain of debt that his wife assumed when he first fell ill.

“Before the spirit came to me, my life was a struggle; I barely had enough to feed my wife and my family. But now I am much better. I help people, and people help me back with offerings depending on how much they appreciate my help and how effective it is. With these offerings, my life has improved,” he said. “I’m happy and content with my life because I believe that this is what I’m destined to do from my past lives — to help people. When people are happy, I’m happy.”

Another client is blessed.

What doesn’t make him happy are fortunetellers who exploit those in need (“That’s not how spirits work. Spirits help people.”) and black magicians who attack him out of professional jealousy.

“There are other people who practice magic who call themselves spirit mediums who get jealous and use dark magic to make my family suffer,” he said. “Once, my wife was targeted by black magic, and she would wake up in the night crying and screaming. But I channeled my spirit and blessed her, and it all went away.”

Like our other subjects, Chantha really can’t conceive of a situation in which his neighbors would blame him for problems in the area or commit violence against him, as mobs had done several times in the preceding months. But he admitted that black magic is still a problem, and he said that he was the solution.

“I was not aware of those killings, but there are people like that, and that is the reason why there are people like me. There are people prone to doing bad things. That’s why the spirit came [to me]: to help people escape black magic,” he said. “[The killings don’t] concern me because people in the village know that I don’t know magic. What I do every day is not my doing! It’s the spirits’ doing. So I don’t concern myself about people accusing me of performing black magic.”

And while he sees a growing sense of disbelief among Cambodia’s younger generations, Chantha said that they’ll eventually come around.

“Teenagers today do not fully understand how magic works. Whether they believe or not, it’s a way of helping people. Sometimes when science fails, they look for magic to help. A teenager who suffers from a broken heart can go insane, and a doctor cannot cure that, but the spirits can.”

We then prepared an offering that would summon the spirits into Chantha’s body, and he told us to expect the unexpected.

“You can ask the spirit to perform a miracle for the camera,” he said. “It can eat fire.”

Seim Chantha prays for the spirit to enter his body.

Chantha donned a red headband and turned on some traditional music. Several minutes later, the spirit was inside Chantha, scribbling on pieces of paper, which it distributed.

“This is a language known only to me. No human can read it. It’s the language I use to bless people and heal people,” it said. “The Buddha and the dharma help the people in all realms.”

The spirit Chantha referred to as Krorpom Jakrova calls itself Hun Bak, and it says that it’s 2,337 years old (“Since the beginning of Buddhism”).

“Destiny decided for me to choose this host. My destiny is to help people,” Hun Bak said. “I’m very pleased with this body. I tortured this body for more than five years because it didn’t believe in me.”

Hun Bak smokes three cigarettes, which represent Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha (monks).

Hun Bak chain-smokes three cigarettes at a time; each represents one of the “three jewels of Buddhism.”

“The three cigarettes represent the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha (clergy),” it says. “It’s either cigarettes or betel nut, and you didn’t bring us any betel nut.”

While its father is Yum Reach, the lord of the underworld, and it claims dominion over all the dark spirits of the underworld, Hun Bak said that its intentions are friendly.

“My favorite thing to do is to help people, especially people who are suffering from disease, whether it’s a disease they are born with or a black magic curse. I also help couples who are breaking apart. The more people I help, the sooner I can fulfill my destiny and go back to where I came from,” it said. “I often have to fight evil spirits, and my greatest enemy is an eight-headed ghost. … I don’t use relics or charms [to fight them], just my power.”

Hun Bak said that it originally came from Cambodia’s Dangrek Mountains on the Thai border, though there’s a shrine to it in Kompong Chhnang province and here in Chantha’s house.

“I am Khmer, and I have always been here,” it said. “I’ve never been anywhere else.”

When we asked about a miracle, Hun Bak was ready.

Hun Bak performs his miracle.

“Fire-eating is very powerful,” it said. “When humans are possessed by bad spirits, I eat fire to burn the bad spirits from their bodies.”

Hun Bak lit a handful of yellow candles and shoved them into its mouth. After doing that several times, Hun Bak held up the melted candles and opened wide to display an unburnt mouth (as far as I could tell). It wrote down more blessings for us in the language of the underworld and said goodbye.

Hun Bak holds up evidence of the miracle.

Chantha came back.

“It’s all OK. I don’t feel a thing. But I’m very tired after the spirit leaves my body and my spirit comes back,” he said.

“My spirit stays in the room, watching us, and there are spirits guarding me to make sure I don’t go too far from my body. My spirit cannot wander around because there are bad entities that would prevent my spirit from going back to my body.”

Chantha said that while he’s aware of everything the spirit says and does during a possession, he cannot perform any magic or miracles himself, and he is unable to discuss anything said between the spirit and the client.

He relishes this postmiracle state, spitting out bits of yellow wax. Taking into account the testimony of the monks we’d met, I asked him what he thought about Sameoun saying that rituals like this are not truly Buddhist.

Seim Chantha, post-possession.

“A monk just studies the light part of Buddhism. Monks don’t understand the dark side of Buddhism. Even Buddha needed help from gods to reach enlightenment. The monks don’t understand that because they don’t understand the dark way of Buddhism.”

Hun Bak writes blessings in the language of the underworld.

Vanishing Act is available for iPads and Macs running iBooks from the iBooks Store. The Kickstarter campaign for a second book, Living Spirits, is now live, so check it out!

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