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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Fun with the EDC and a kick boxer with spirit

by Bronwyn Sloan

February 2005

Phnom Penh is sweltering in the hot season already. Some of us are sweltering more than others.
This is apparently because rich city folks have invested in air-con almost to a family, but, the Electricite du Cambodge (EDC) says, not enough foreign investors have invested in it, with the result being a shortfall in megawatts available. And that means blackouts. No fans, no lights, no air-con. Just still air the consistency of tepid bathwater enveloping the generator-less. Even a few years ago, the blackouts were not as long as the ones induced by thousands of AC units in February.

Now, the EDC was pacifying people last week by saying these blackouts were alternating through each area of the city in an effort to share the burden and advising people to buy candles and grin and bear it in the interests of solidarity. This was, however, not true. Of course it was not true. Since when has equality been something that Cambodian utilities hold dear?

This became clear when residents of the 'NGO-land area' to the south of Sihanouk Boulevard expressed mystification when confronted by ranting riverfront people who claimed to have been reduced to just a handful of hours of power each day. Residents lucky enough to be in an affluent area, such as the NGO quarter, where Apsara television and most of the U.N. offices are located, had not had a second of darkness. Instead it was the river area which bore the brunt, where tourists flock in droves and where the city has installed electric lighting and made a concerted beautification effort to present the best face and safest face to visitors. Some of the poorer sections of town like the Toul Sleng and Toul Tom Pong areas were also hard hit.

For people who need computers to work, such as myself, this rolling pattern of one hour on, three to four hours off during weekdays is unbelievably frustrating. Short of writing by candlelight and tying missives to the legs of Thai homing pigeons, we were stuck. Even the local internet café, which does have a generator, was trying not to use it, because the price of fuel has also rocketed through the roof in the past year, and running a generator all day would force the average small business into bankruptcy. Reduced to wandering aimlessly in the air-conditioned ambience of the Sorya Center near Central Market, or dripping through a powerless Russian Market trying not to antagonize the melting vendors while we waited for a tiny window of light to again hit, we were unable to do much. Hence the date on this column.

If the powers that be, or in this case, don't be, could be accused of planning, there is a strange logic there. Tourists don't know any better. They don't live here. They don't vote and they often don't even report robberies. To plunge them into uncomfortable darkness is the best idea, because in a few days, they will be gone and when something isn't there, it isn’t important. Unfortunately, it is also Cambodia’s only growth industry, and now the capital is overall a secure, comfortable place, it seems mad to risk that by blacking out major tourist areas with such regularity that it attracts thieves and pickpockets and sends travelers packing for cooler climes.

Meanwhile, electricity or not, the long, languid days of the hot dry season have well and truly rolled in. The skies are perpetually clouded, sometimes giving the false illusion of rain and relief just beyond the horizon. It is only the haze of the rice fields being burned off, however, and there is not likely to be any rain to damp down the dusty streets until the mango rains of April now. People begin to go a bit crazy in the unrelenting heat, and even the Cambodians let their smiles slip at times as the mercury soars above 100, and stays there for two months.

But there are still good crazy things to do. This month, my colleague and I set out on the road to the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek on the edge of Phnom Penh, to visit a prominent member of the Cambodian Boxing Association; a man who leads a strange double life.

Most mornings and evenings, this man trains a group of young boxers. On weekends, he referees the Cambodian kick boxing matches for one of the capital's top television stations. But on Buddha days, he dresses in white robes, walks upstairs to a glittering shrine built on the first floor of his home, and for a bottle of perfume, some flowers or incense, becomes possessed by a spirit.

We visited and waited our turn in a queue. These are popular days for people to visit, and this man has garnered quite a following. A member of a local commune committee was next in line ahead of us, and she was excited.

“His voice sounds like it is coming from a thousand years ago,” she said. “Last time I came, I asked him for a successful business strategy, and he outlined a few changes to my scheme that made it very successful. He is very good. Trust him. And one thing about him – he loves perfume.”

The spirit’s human vessel was breaking for lunch. The act of being possessed is tiring. “He gets exhausted by the end of these days. We see maybe a hundred people on these days,” his proud wife explained. Then the woman ahead of us was inside the shrine, and we were prepared for our audience. Mobile phones were placed in a tray to be blessed, and soon we were ushered in.

The spirit indeed loves scent. He sprayed a lot of perfume, asked how he could help, and after some thought agreed to help me write a book with a great flourish and lighting of candles. Then he sprayed a lot more perfume, sprinkled flower water, blessed the phones (which is a good idea with the amount of telephones being snatched and stolen lately) and announced a few more things that need not be gone into and advised the middle road. He told me he detected that there were other people in the same profession as myself who were behaving like pricks (hardly intuitive, given my profession, but interestingly close to the mark for that month) and gave me permission to tell them to sod off, again using the middle path, of course. He suggested I should spray my face with perfume whenever I set foot outside my door, just for luck. And then he was done.

“Next,” he called. His voice sounded a lot squeakier than one that was echoing through the ages, but it certainly wasn’t the same voice the boxing guy had used. So we waited downstairs to speak to the vessel after the spirit had gone. He did indeed look tired, but satisfied with himself when he had finished. He spoke in his normal voice now, and he spoke like a social worker.

“We have a lot of successes with relationship problems and drug users at the moment,” he said matter-of-factly. “A lot of women come to me when they are having trouble with domestic violence or partners drinking too much and straying. Also mothers whose children have begun using drugs like yaba come to us. And most of them return to make offerings, which means that it is working.”

Indeed, like most mediums and spirits, he does not charge money at the time of reading, but expects satisfied customers to return and reward the spirit as their budgets allow. This gives him a gauge as to how he is doing, and the honor system seems to work for both him and his customers.

Of course, there are fakes who take this trust to extremes. Like the man in Takeo province this month who told a teenaged girl that he was a magician, and he could help employers like her, but to do that she had to get undressed and let him mix his magic fluid with hers. The girl twigged the next day that this was rather unorthodox and he was arrested for rape, but by then it was too late of course. “Girls, never trust a man, even if he says he is a magician,” the police chief of the area told the newspapers in a classic quote that would almost make a t-shirt.

But this fortuneteller is not like that. And most people there that day were making return visits, which is not usually the way for conmen or a man who does not believe in his gift. For a few of the boys who stopped using drugs after their mother received advice here, the human vessel for the spirit further turned their lives around by accepting them into his team and training them in the art of kick boxing, and they visit him each morning in the hopes of becoming great boxers in his experienced hands.

“I have been doing this since 1991 since a female spirit appeared to me in a dream,” he said. “But she was only really good at predicting lottery numbers. It wasn’t until about five years ago when another guy replaced her that we began to get into the serious stuff.”

“I do it because I believe it helps people. When I bless boxers, I bless boxers from all teams, not just my own. We can’t play favorites. But when one of my best boxers, Big Tiger, didn’t come for a blessing before his fight last week, he lost, even though he was a much better boxer than his opponent. My boxers believe in the spirit very much.”

And then it was time to say goodbye. “If it works, I will see you again,” he said. And we set off towards a shop to buy perfume.

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