Ten superstitions Cambodians believe and maybe you don’t know

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The Khata or magical spell, used in Thailand and Cambodia for protection or charm. 

Most people around the world have superstitions even in industrialized countries where reason and science seems to be the king of home. For this reason it is not possible to measure which country or people is more superstitious than other. Probably you have secret superstitions for any reason. For example, I use to make sure that the first feet I put on earth every morning when I wake up is the right one… But if you are living in Cambodia, it is right to know about the Cambodian superstitions, because they can make you understand some of the behaviors of your friends. Here ten most common superstitions that Cambodians believe and probably you don’t know:

1. The ancestors really eat

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An offering of food in a Sino-Cambodian tomb. Photo courtesy by Vuthychour.com

When we are talking about the ancestors, we are referring to the death. As many Asian cultures, the respect to the ancestors is very strong in Cambodia. It is possible to see it specially during the Pchum Beng in October. But one thing that is very important is that food is offered to them, because Cambodians believe that their souls can feel hunger. It has a big contradiction with the reincarnation doctrine, of course. But you can see food in the ancestors altars in more homes, as well as food put at the side of the coffin in every funeral.

2. Some death people don’t know they are dead

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The movie The Others narrates the story of a group of dead persons that don’t know they are dead… such as some Cambodians believe it can happen to some individuals…

Some Cambodians believe that some persons could die but they don’t know they are death. A description of this strain believe is very well illustrated in the 2011’s film of Alejandro AmenabarThe Others (watch it on Youtube) and in the 1999’s film of M. Night ShyamalanThe Sixth Sense (on Youtube.) In those films, some of the characters are dead, but they don’t know it – as well as the spectator until the end of the movie. The reason some Cambodians think that some persons don’t know when they left the world of the living has to see with materialism. Persons too much attache to material things or too busy with worldly things, could fail to recognize when they are dead. The consequence is that the person would continue their daily life, scaring others on the way…

3. Don’t eat Trey Domrey (Elephant Fish)

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The Marble Goby is called in Cambodia “Elephant Fish” or Trey Domrey. Although it is considered a delicacy in other countries like China, in Cambodia some persons believe it is a woman who was transformed into a fish. 

The Marble Goby (Oxyeleotris Marmorata) is an Southeast Asian river fish. It is very common in the Mekong and Chao Praya basins, as well as in Malaysia, Singapore, Indochina, Philippines and Indonesia. In Cambodia it is known as the Trey Domrey or Elephant Fish. But for some Cambodians, it is actually a person. The believe comes from the legend of a man that killed his wife and through her body to the river, where she was transformed into a fish. Eating this fish is actually a curse…

4. Ask permission to the spirits of the land

When you build a house, you have to ask permission to the spirit of the land. Cambodians believe that there are spirits everywhere, a remembrance of their ancient pantheism through Brahmanism. Nobody goes to live in a new house if there is not a previous ceremony to honor the spirit of the land. The ceremony includes food for the spirit, incense and  holy water spreading.

5. Bad spirits know persons by their name

Some Cambodian mothers do not give name to their babies for many years. The reason is that spirits get to know their babies by their name and can come to disturb them. In some occasions, Cambodians change their own name if they have bad luck in family or work. The purpose is to confuse the spirit that is coming to produce the bad luck. When the spirit comes, it uses to call your soul by your name. If you change your name, your soul will not answer to the spirit and the spirit will go away.

6. Count the gecko’s croak

If you live in Cambodia you get use to the gecko’s croak. The presence of a gecko in a house is seen as a good luck for that house. However, Cambodian women use to show panic before a gecko. But single young people count the gecko’s croak to know how their future spouse will be. To the first croak they say “single”, the second croak they say “widow – widower”. Then, the last croak should reveal if they will marry a single or widower person.

7. Don’t turn over the fish

When you eat a big fish, you eat first the part that is up. When you finish, you flip the fish to eat the other part… don’t do it: Cambodians believe that turning the fish, you will cause the boat of the fisherman that got that fish to turn on the water…

8. Tattoos are for protection

Many Westerners like to use Cambodian tattoos for cosmetic. But most Cambodian tattoo users don’t use it for cosmetic, but for protection. Specially men that are in war affairs like policemen, soldiers or others, put tattoos with magical meaning on their skin, specially in their chest and back, to be protected from bullets and knives. When Cambodians see you wearing a tattoo, most of them think that probably you have many enemies that want to hurt you, so you choose such tattoo…

9. The Khatha

The Khatha means a Spell. It is a big design written in Pali language with Khmer letters (even in Thailand is like this.) The Khata must be designed by a holy person, usually a Buddhist monk or a wiser. It is used as protection, in the same way of the tattoos. Some persons tattoo the Khata in their own skin.

10. Others

There are many others. For example, if you sing while you are cooking, you will marry a widow or widower. If your friend smell the same flower you smell, both of you will share the same spouse…

Do you know more Cambodian superstitions? Share it here.

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About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X39xwdGtVXI) and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (http://www.colombia.co/en/culture/colombians-that-are-making-this-a-better-world.html).

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