How an American NGO Worker Became an In-Demand Shaman in Cambodia

Credit: Gawker & Nathan A. Thompson

When praying mantis aliens tell you to quit your job and become a soothsayer, sometimes you follow their orders. At least that’s what one woman here in Phnom Penh did earlier this year. Eileen, who declined to give her full name in case her mom found out about her drastic career change, was working in international development in Cambodia but now sits in a colorful stall in one of Phnom Penh’s teeming markets. Her fortune-telling services have proven popular with locals who have dubbed her “Kru Khmer Barang”—the Western shaman.

Eileen sits in the traditional cross-legged posture of a sage in the hive-like market. It’s dimly lit and hot. Light gets in through a hole in the ceiling. The horns of a hundred motorbikes filter in from outside. She flaps a plastic fan, checks her phone and arranges her tarot cards in an esoteric pattern. The acrid smell of dye and varnish leaks across from neighboring salon stalls.

“The Cambodians are excited to get their fortune told by a foreigner,” Eileen says. “They are similar to westerners because they see foreign mystics as having access to exotic knowledge.” Eileen, 28, a graduate of West Virginia University who has lived in Cambodia for five years, speaks the local Khmer language and charges the equivalent of $2.50 for a reading. “I am the first foreigner to have a stall in this market,” she says. “Everyone has been really welcoming; even the police have made sure I am not being over-charged.”

Eileen at work.

The intergalactic praying mantises allegedly contacted Eileen while she was tripping on shamanic drug ayahuasca. Indeed, her stall is decorated with pictures of these elegant insects. “I wouldn’t have made the jump if it wasn’t for the messages I got on ayahuasca,” she says. Eileen believes that the praying mantis-people are a race of spiritual aliens who communicate via energetic pulses which she feels while in a meditative state. “I’ve stopped trying to normalize myself,” she says. “Now I feel empowered by my new career.”

Eileen is mentally healthy although she says she was diagnosed as learning disabled as a child and teenager. Despite this she graduated university and continues to work as a consultant for international NGOs part time. She thinks her brain works differently and it was a misdiagnosis. “I pick up on micro-expressions and small patterns of energy that other people miss,” she explains. While a student, boffins at Columbia University paid her $100 to take part in an experiment that involved monitoring brainwaves while solving math puzzles (Eileen was then a student at a different university). “I don’t know what they were measuring for because they don’t inform participants in a double-blind experiment,” she says. “But I remember my brain waves were so chaotic they couldn’t read them.”

A client arrives. Savon Bath is the daughter of a nearby grocer. Eileen lays out a colorful spread of tarot cards and talks emphatically in Khmer, tapping certain cards and gesturing. Bath sits in the respectful posture Cambodians reserve for monks and holy people and nods with interest. Soon a floppy-hatted women stops by offering iced Khmer coffee. She hands me her business card. It reads, “Ry Chhay, coffee selling, fortuen telling [sic].” Chhay is a fan. “I heard Eileen is a very good fortune teller,” she says. “Her readings are very clear.” Bath agrees, “I think she has the same amount of magic power as a monk,” she says. High praise indeed.

Eileen’s fortune-telling stall has been crowded since she opened it earlier this year.

So I took a turn. Eileen handed me the worn, water-warped cards and said to shuffle the deck. She dealt them into a shape known as the celtic cross in order to ascertain the forces at work in my life. She was 70 percent accurate. Themes of travel and spirituality appeared and she warned me to watch out for over-indulgence. There would be no improvement in my finances which, as a freelance writer, figures. An old lady watched us silently. Seang Saran used to be a fortune teller at the market but quit after she lost her power. Unemployed, she spends the hot afternoons sitting on a bench near Eileen’s stall, wistfully gazing at her work. “I can’t tell fortunes anymore,” she says. “The ghost that spoke to me has gone silent; he says Eileen has the power now.”

Eileen says her new career offers her a better opportunity to affect the lives of Cambodians then her previous roles in the development industry. “When you work in development you use posters and drawings to teach people the importance of things like medicine and education,” she says. “But now I use card readings and they work much better.” Eileen looks away momentarily and comes back with an example. “So if someone asks me if they will have another child and a health card appears I will use that as an opportunity to encourage them to go to a hospital if they do get pregnant.”

It’s only been two months but Eileen has already earned a reputation for accurate predictions and she is making more than enough money to get by. Are the praying mantises pleased? “They could be,” she says. “It’s hard to hear their messages when I’m not on ayahuasca.” When she is not in a visionary state she receives messages from a tree frog that lives in her garden. When the frog appears Eileen goes into a meditative state in order to receive messages from the ether. “Sometimes the frog will sit on the handlebars of my bike and wait for me,” she says. “It’s happened ten times so far.”

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