Magic art of bullet-proofing the troops
October 2, 2007, 2:06 am
Filed under: Culture

Magic art of bullet-proofing the troops

Moeun Chhean Nariddh seeks out the teachers of Khmer magic, those to whom soldiers go to for “supernatural” help to turn the bullets and bombs away.


WITH magic protection, four years fighting on the battlefield was just like playing hide-and-seek for Chuop Saruop.

“A shell dropped by my side but it didn’t hurt me,” said the 40-year-old former soldier, a believer that the power of the “supernatural” saved his life, making him bullet-proof, fire-proof and impervious to knives.

He said the shrapnel from the shell was only able to burn and tear his clothes, but not his body.

Saruop said he had learned some magic words and got tattooed by a local kru (traditional healer) 24 years ago to protect himself when civil war began ravaging Cambodia.

“It’s like walking in the rain [when there is a war]. If you have the magic things with you, it’s like having a rain coat,” he said.

He joined the army in 1990 and was wounded in his chin last year before he left the military. However, he said that the wound was caused when he breached the restrictions obliged by the kru.

Saruop said that he swore at a friend who fired a B-40 rocket launcher without realizing that Saruop was standing behind. The kru had told him not to be profane, and days after Saruop swore he was wounded in the chin.

Many Cambodian soldiers rely on tattoos, amulets and magic incantations instead of flak jackets and helmets.

Battambang and other provinces in Cambodia’s northwest, where fighting is heaviest, are well-known for having the best krus with effective magic.

Chhun Chhay, a 48-year-old kru at Phnom Krapeu (Crocodile Mountain) village 15km west of Battambang, is one of the most famous tattooists and traditional healers in the country.

Chhay said he knew magic words, and owned tattoo designs, amulets and yons (magical drawing on cloth) which he had taught and sold to “thousands of people”, mainly soldiers, during 33 years of practice.

Chhay said he had studied supernatural techniques from a chief monk when he was a 15-year-old novice in Siem Reap.

He said one of his students, an army officer, was hit by a B-40 rocket of the Khmer Rouge on his back in a battle near Pailin. While his shirt was burned “he just fell down but was not killed,” Chhay claimed.

A villager at Phnom Sampov (Sailing Boat Mountain) east of Phnom Krapeu said in the early 1980s Chhay proved his magic to some Vietnamese soldiers. He recited magic words over a handful of rice which he then fed to some scavenging chickens. Chhay asked the soldiers to fire at the chickens “but they could not kill one,” the villager said.

When visited by the Post, Chhay’s wife said her husband had told her that he would not go to their fruit field that day “because he knew someone would come to see him this morning.”

Chhay said he had a lot of enemies despite the fact that he practices only “good” magic.

He said a group of soldiers one day wanted to kill him. They surrounded his cottage in the fruit field “but I knew beforehand they would be there so I didn’t go”.

The Khmer belief in the supernatural has prevailed for centuries.

Siv Thuon, a professor of history at Phnom Penh University, said a Chinese businessman who came to Cambodia during the Funan Age in the first century reported finding tattooed Khmers.

The professor said magic used by the Khmer was derived from a Vedic Brahmanistic scriptures, but it was later mixed with the non-magic scriptures of Buddhism.

However, according to Thuon, the use of magic was not seen during the Angkorean Period (802-1431). He said the Angkorians relied on physical and economic strength to broaden their empire.

Many Khmer fighters in the post-Angkorean period resorted to magic because they could no longer depend on their own strength, he said.

In 1866, Po Kambo, one of the first Khmer protesters against French colonial rule, led a struggle in Rong Damrey province in Kampuchea Krom. “Po Kambo knew the magic words with admirable effectiveness to turn away bullets,” wrote Sou Chamreon in 1971 in a book History of the Struggle of the Khmer Heroes in the 19th Century.

“The bullets from the French army… hit Po Kambo the most, but they could not make him fall down. Even other fighters survived thanks to the power of his magic,” the book reads.

Also in the late 19th century, two other anti-French protesters, Achar Svar and Kralahom Kong, used magic, according to Thuon.

Thuon said Kralahom Kong was both fire and bullet-proof. Kralahom Kong could not be killed when the French tied him to a ship’s smokestack in front of the Royal Palace, he said.

Chuop Lab, a 70-year-old kru on Crocodile Mountain, said those with poor memories had magic words tattooed on their bodies.

Those wanting to learn magic protective words had to first prepare a set of baysey (sections of a banana tree), white cloth, candles, incense sticks and some money. They return home to memorize and meditate on the words.

Lab said magic lore was not passed down from generation to generation.

According to Miech Ponn, chief of the Buddhist Institute’s Khmer Customs Research Office (KCRO), tattoos, yons and magic words were all Pali or Sanskrit.

People would get a yon if they could not remember the magic words. Likewise, they would get a tattoo in case they lost their yon. But many used the three together for extra protection, Ponn said.

Soum Samay, a professor at the Fine Arts University, said that there are many types of yons which the Khmers used for centuries such as Yon Sithipol, Yon Prachumtheat, Yon Tipachak, Yon Pyataoleou and Yon Mohaniyum.

Yon Sithipol is drawn on pieces of gold or metal and rolled on a necklace or a waist string to help the wearer win over his enemies. Yon Prachumtheat is designed on a handkerchief to prevent evils and hostile acts. Yon Tipachak is written on a handkerchief or a pillow case to preserve happiness.

However, kru Chhay said there were thousands of other yons for the protection of every bodily movement, including the four main attitudes – sleeping, walking, standing and sitting.

According to different krus, the people who practice the supernatural are obliged to stick to Panca-sila (the five-fold religious qualifications) and refrain from eating tiger, snake, elephant, monkey or human meat.

The Panca-sila says not to kill, not to steal, not to take someone else’s wife, and not to lie nor to drink alcohol.

KCRO chief Miech Ponn said that there were three forms of tattoo, including the characters of magic phrases believed to be the words and images of gods, powerful animals and different complicated arts.

Tattoos were made from black Chinese ink mixed with the breast-milk of a first-child mother, crow bile and vermilion dye.

He said if vermilion was used the tattoo would not appear unless one was angry, or ready to fight.

Ponn himself had a vermilion tattoo from a chief monk when he was in his early 20s and when it was “in use” it became “itchy, like the magic is awaking from its sleep”.

He recalled his military life during the Lon Nol period, saying “fifteen shells dropped around me but I was safe and just burned my hair”.

However, he admitted that he could not guarantee the power 100 percent and that Khmers would use the “tricky” term Akum pasom ayos – that the magic also depends on one’s own life.

“If it is the end of your life, nothing can help,” he said.

Lim Sokheng, an amputee at Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Center, said most Cambodian soldiers would get something to protect themselves. But only two or three soldiers in a battalion of 300 would have really powerful magic, he said.

“Almost every amputee here has tattoo and yons,” he said.

Sokheang said a new soldier would have to stop smoking to save money for these magic things “but many would come back with an empty, cheap tattoo that had no power.”

The ex-soldier said he used to have a yon when he joined the army a long time ago in Siem Reap. He said he was very brave at first, but not after he saw one of his friends with all these magic things get killed on the battle field.

Yoeun Run, 35, at the military hospital in Phnom Penh, stepped on a mine and lost one of his feet in Banteay Meanchey.

He was a soldier belonging to the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front [KPNLF] when he met a tattooist from Battambang in a refugee camp in the early 1980s, Run said.

He said he spent five days having his chest tattooed at the KPNLF border camp in the 1980s, having drunk wine and taken pills to stop the daily fever caused by the tattooist’s needle.

Run said he finally stepped on a land mine in 1985 “after I failed to refrain from eating dog meat when there was a shortage of food”.

Kru Chhay said the magic lore had been largely lost because krus hid the “special magic” from students, fearing they would use it inappropriately.

Krus used to use magic to shorten the distance between two places, or to make themselves invisible, he said. 

Phnom Penh Post, Issue 4/18, September 8 – 21, 1995
© Michael Hayes, 2000. All rights revert to authors and artists on publication.
For permission to publish any part of this publication, contact
Michael Hayes, Editor-in-Chief – Any comments on the website to


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