From Cambodia to Japan

A Cambodian Student Looks at Life in Two Different Worlds

Sorcery in Cambodia: A Little Perspective

At daytime she is a normal person. At night she is a strange, scary creature: half-ghost and half-human.

Shortly after midnight, when all the village people are sound asleep, she would pull her head and all her internal organs out of her body and slip out through the window of her house, leaving behind her empty figure that is separated from the neck down. She would fly from house to house, sometimes from rice paddy to rice paddy, looking for some dirty and unpleasant stuff to feed herself. A villager-if he’s not yet asleep- could spot her easily since there is a bright green light emanating occasionally from her lungs as she goes from place to place.

Perhaps you haven’t heard of this kind of grotesque creature before. Ask any Cambodian what it is called.

Everyone knows it is called Arb, although I believe not many would claim to have seen Arb in real life, except in TV series or in movies. I’ve heard stories of people seeing Arb in my hometown a few times while I was a kid. But I have never been lucky enough to meet and talk to those people.

Usually, in Khmer, the word Arb is followed by the word Thmob. We say Arb-Thmob, meaning witchcraft or sorcery. A Guru Arb-Thmob (a witch) is believed to possess evil power that can cause harm, disease, bad luck or even sudden death to anyone he or she dislikes.

Now ask the same person again if he or she believes in Arb-Thmob or sorcery. If the person is from the City or town, the answer is likely to be a negative than a positive one. But if the person is from the countryside, where the majority of the population lives, I believe you are likely to get a ‘Yes’ response than a ‘No’, or if not, the unsure yes-and-no.

TheRFA (Radio Free Asia in Khmer-2007/11/27) has recently interviewed people in my hometown -Kampong Speu- and found out that among ten people who were asked whether they believe in sorcery, six people said they seriously do; three people said they are unsure, while one person reluctantly said he doesn’t. Interestingly, one of the people who gave the positive responses was the head of Kampong Speu provincial court, who claimed that he himself was a victim of sorcery.

For some, belief in sorcery has little to do with their lives. For others, this can be harmful to both the believers themselves and to the people they accuse of practicing sorcery.

Take the case of one of my neighbor who died several years ago. She was quite a religious woman. She had suffered for a long time from diabetes. At first she did consult the doctor, using all the modern medicine to fight the illness. But two or three weeks before her death, her family somehow resorted to consult the Guru Khmer (exorcist) who said she was actually enchanted. The exorcist said the evil spirit was extremely powerful, and that there was only one effective method he could use to make it leave her body.

And the method (one of the stupidest curing method I’ve ever heard) was rapping her body with salt and chilly, and placed her on a bed under which some pieces of coal were burning. It was like they were roasting her alive. This only exacerbated her illness. She died a few weeks later. Her family, however, didn’t take any legal suit against the Guru Khmer as they believed the evil spirit was too powerful to kill.

As to how many people were killed under such treatment, I do not know. I just hope she was the first and the last victim. Still, there have been numerous cases of people wasting their time and money on witch doctors who claimed to be able to effectively cure disease without having to use any medicine.

Very often, stories of such unusual people appear on various local newspaper and magazines. The recent one has been reported in the Kohsantepheap Daily. It was about a man who claimed to have been possessed by the spirit of a ghost’s doctor. He said the ghost's spirit enabled him to perform surgery on patients from outside their bodies by merely reciting magic words. As the Kohsantepheap Daily reported, hundreds of people flocked to his house, consequently creating immediate environmental problem in the local community such as pollution and congestion. Interestingly enough, he even offered his treatment service-surgery- via mobile phone to those who could not come to his house. Such an unbelievably advancing therapy!

In short, I’ve talked about the harm it does to people who believe their diseases are caused by evil spirit and sorcery. The real victims, however, are those who are accused of practicing this sort of witchcraft.

According to the same RFA's report, during the last two months, four people in my province have been killed after being accused by villagers of practicing witchcraft. The same cases happen every year through out the province. One such case happened around ten years ago, in a village next to mine.

In that, a middle-aged man was murdered after having long been suspected by villagers of evil practice(sorcery) causing disease, sudden death and bad luck to people in the village, including his neighbors. After his death, his wife and kids were discriminated and shunned by the whole community. She subsequently had to move out and never returned. The case has never been solved. Ironically, after the accused sorcerer died, people in the village continue to get sick, and die-either of natural or accidental cause.

In response to the increasing number of killings related to sorcery, the government has recently called on local government officials to educate people about the danger of this belief, and to stop them from believing in such irrationality.

Although this may sound easy, I believe the actual task can be rather difficult.

For one thing, belief in witchcraft or sorcery among some Cambodian has a long history-even longer than belief in Buddhism. As people started to adopt Buddhism as their religion, the two have co-existed ever since. In this way, belief in sorcery is deeply rooted in their minds. Simply telling them that sorcery is a false belief is like telling them to stop believing in their religion- buddhism.

Another thing is that the majority of those believing in sorcery -if not all- are the have-nots who receive little education. The belief will disappear when the country is economically and technologically advanced, which means more and more people will be educated. On the other hand, so long as the country remained poor and underdeveloped, with a high rate of illiteracy like today, belief in sorcery will continue to exist.

Having said that, I still applaud the move by the government to deal with problems stemming from this false belief. At least, it has started to show its concern over this long ignored issue.


*Author’s notes:

- There are a few recently made Khmer movies that deal with Arb, one of which is joining the 2005 Cambodian Film Festival. If you are curious to find out what Arb actually looks like, check out the movies at

- Belief in Arb-Thmob(witchcraft) in Cambodia may differ by regions. If you have any knowledge about Sorcery that is different from mine, please share it with me, either in my Comment section, or send to my mail:

8 Responses to “Sorcery in Cambodia: A Little Perspective”

  1. # Blogger Jinja

    One interesting paper presented at the Buddhist Institute earlier this year talked about belief in magic and how good and bad luck seemed to travel along social networks.

    4.00-4.20 Professor Maurice Eisenbruch, University of New South Wales, Miss Chea Bunnary, Miss Mech Samphors:

    “Are monks and kruu Khmer psychiatrists? Cultural competence in supporting Cambodians recovering from conflict”  

  2. # Blogger seserak

    Thanks for the link, Jinja

    I'm really interested in knowing more about belief in magic in Cambodia.I wish I had a chance to attend the conference.

    Just now, I'm trying to find articles on the net as well as books that deal with this subject.  

  3. # Blogger Wanna

    Quite interesting article, Seserak! Thanks for sharing!  

  4. # Anonymous Beth

    Very interesting article! As an aside, my daughter was born in Kampong Speu as well.  

  5. # Blogger seserak

    Ah, I'm glad to hear she's from my home province too.

    How old is she now?  

  6. # Anonymous sokhodom

    seserak, this is a very interesting article i've read. It's very well written and well versed.

    It was sent by my friend, Mongkul (A TOL). I enjoy reading your article :)  

  7. # Blogger s0eugene

    This was an interesting read. I was searching for some information on Cambodian beliefs and found this site. It's sad to know that people in this day and age have such a strong belief in this kind of superstition, but it's good to know the gov't is trying to educate the people.  

  8. # Anonymous adnan


    cure of black magic  

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