Thursday, November 25, 2010

Bananas, Rumors and Fear

Rumors are rife. The city and the country are on edge as people struggle to come to grips with the tragedy on the Koh Pich Bridge two days ago. The mood in the city is dark and somber and the deaths of so many hang heavy in people's thoughts and conversations. On the streets today, in the markets and at the caf├ęs it seemed all that people could talk about - death, the tragedy, its cause, its meaning, whether it represents some greater threat. A lot of theorizing going on, both pragmatic and spiritual. The streets of Phnom Penh this evening are unusually quiet, in part due to the mournful atmosphere and in part because people are uncomfortable, even in some sense afraid to leave their homes right now. There is a lingering stress and fear over the tragedy, providing fertile ground for rumor, superstition and even for those who would take advantage of the situation.

Yesterday a story spread that monks and mystics had instructed people to make special offerings to the spirits beyond the ordinary Buddhist practices and rituals surrounding respect and care for the dead. It was said that people needed to assemble offerings of bananas, rice, salt, water, incense and other ingredients to be placed at the front of their house. The reasons were not completely clear. Respect, to ease the passing of the dead, as protection for the house, the explanations varied depending who was doing the telling. It seemed that more than half the city quickly took to making these offerings. By evening yesterday bananas at the markets were in very short supply and the price of a small bunch had sky-rocketed from the normal 2500 riel (US60 cents) to as much as 30,000 riel (US$7.50) as gougers took advantage. People are still making these offerings today and this evening the smell of incense is thick in the air throughout the Phnom Penh.

Today the story of a bus crash on the road to Battambang swept the country. It was said that as many as 60 died in the accident. Some had details of a fiery smash up and others claimed to have spoken to eye-witnesses. Many said that this new tragedy was part of a pattern of ill-luck connected to the Koh Pich tragedy. But the rumor of a crash was patently false and seems to have been born of nothing. There was no bus accident let alone another massive loss of life. This evening TVs stations broadcast messages from the government informing people that the story was unfounded and asking the public to try to remain calm and not fall prey to hear-say and extraordinary claims. But the fear lingers and people are still trying to put meaning and understanding to the tragedy on Koh Pich Bridge. 

The following is a collection of non-empirical stories and explanations related to the tragedy that I have heard over the last two days. All amount to little more than rumor. Some are based in religion. Many in folk belief or just superstition. None have been fact checked. Most are of the sort that couldn't be fact checked anyway. Due to the use of metaphor and unusual concepts, some exceeded my ability to understand the Khmer and/or defy sensible translation. So I relate them below 'raw,' as they were told, without trying to force it to make sense. All were taken seriously by the teller and in my opinion represent mostly honest attempts to understand what happened, give it meaning and figure out how to protect against further such happenings.
  • A comet was seen in the sky 2 or 3 months ago. It was a portent of disaster and some monks said so at the time. The tragedy at Koh Pich was the fulfillment of that prophesy.
  • The bridge at Koh Pich was never properly blessed by monks after construction leaving it open to bad luck and mischievous spirits. The tragedy at Koh Pich is the result.
  • There was an abnormally orange sky at the time of the tragedy, indicating some higher involvement.
  • Monks warned the government 3 days before the Water Festival that there were supernatural signs of impending disaster. The government warned the people to be careful and be on the look-out. They thought that perhaps it would be a bomb or a terrorist attack. When a young boy drowned on the first day of the Water Festival, they thought this was the prophesied ill-event and let down their guard.
  • Koh Pich means Diamond Island. The island is like a giant diamond. It is too big. Giants eat people. The deaths on the bridge were, in a metaphorical sense, this giant diamond eating people.
  • Phnom Penh is now overwhelmed with spirits of the recent dead, wandering the edges of the city, many lost and unsure where to go. Children are in particular danger of possession by these spirits and should not be allowed outside after dark. In fact, due to these spirits, it is unwise for anybody to go out after dark.
  • Koh Pich (Diamond Island) is a name like Koh Dach. Dach is close to the word and phrase 'dach dong heurm' which means 'to not breath' or 'to be unable to breath,' which is what happened to the people who died on the bridge.
  • People must assemble special offerings to display in front of their house. The offering should include bananas, salt, rice, water, incense and other ingredients. Some say there must be 7 items in the collection. Some suggest there should be some sort of blood offering included, presumably to satiate the tiger. (This is the year of the tiger.)
  • This is the year of the tiger in the eastern calendar. The tiger likes to eat blood. People have died in many strange ways in Phnom Penh this year including several senseless murders that occurred in the last few months. These events, including the tragedy on the Koh Pich bridge, is the tiger eating blood.
  • This is the year of the tiger in the eastern calendar. 'Tiger' in Khmer is 'kla.' This word has a similar sound to the phrase 'ah kaw' which means to cut off the head. As above, the recent murders in Phnom Penh as well as the tragedy on Koh Pich Bridge are reflections of the 'cutting off of people's heads.'

(I began writing this at 10PM November 24 and posted it at 1:00AM, very early morning of November 25. When I refer to 'today' and 'this evening' I mean the 24th, 'yesterday' is the 23rd and 'tomorrow' is the 25th.)


  1. It might have been bad luck to evict all the farmers who lived there about five years ago.