Fortunes fading for Cambodia's palmists
Phnom Penh, Nov 11, 2007 (AFP) - Seeking a lover, or perhaps the secret to a good harvest? Need that lucky number or an auspicious date?
For nearly two decades Yeay Va has plied the riverfront shrines and other holy sites around the Cambodian capital, dispensing fortunes in exchange for a handful of small change.
But she and the dozens of other palmists lounging in ramshackle stalls opposite Wat Phnom, a pagoda that serves as Phnom Penh's spiritual hub and bustles with Cambodians and foreign tourists alike, have few, if any customers these days.
"Ten years ago many people came to get their fortunes told about business or jobs," Yeay Va said recently at the height of Pchum Ben, or Cambodia's festival of the dead, when people go to temples to pray and make offerings for their ancestors.
Pchum Ben is also normally the high season for hundreds of fortune-tellers who are instead now struggling to keep their centuries-old tradition alive.
"Now only a few come. It's not like before," the 68-year-old fortune-teller said, leaning over a crude wooden table wallpapered in cheap vinyl flooring and draped in a bright, gaudy carpet.
A shrine made of gold-coloured plastic and fairy lights sat in the corner of her tiny cubicle, surrounded by empty plastic chairs.
Palmists and card readers like Yeay Va dot the capital and countryside, acting as cut-rate seers or match-makers who have influenced countless decisions -- from the diagnosis and treatment of illness to crop production.
But astrology, once such a mighty force in this superstitious country, is fast losing its hold over the everyday lives of Cambodians, who are increasingly abandoning their belief in the mystical as growing prosperity and a post-war return to education brings change.
"People don't like predictions so they are walking away from fortune telling," said Dok Narin, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Religion and Cults.
"It is not going to be popular anymore because it is just predictions, it is not real," he said.
Nowhere is this more telling than among the young -- and in a country where more than 50 percent of the population is under 25, the impact of their cynicism is devastating.
"I believe in science. With science, we can understand through research. But fortune-tellers just talk," said fine arts student Bun Dara. "We cannot know if it's real at all."
Cambodia's fortune-tellers say they have seen the writing on the wall, and if communities like those outside Wat Phnom close down they would embrace this change of fate.
"For sure, we cannot compete with science," admitted Ly Phon, another palmist near the pagoda whose shop was devoid of customers.
"We are not worried at all. We believe in our minds. But if there are no people coming, we will go to work in the paddy fields or other jobs to support our lives," she said.
Some have tried to compensate for the steep decline in business by hiking up their fees, hoping to take advantage of Cambodia's booming economy, and its uncertainties.
"People always come to me when they encounter problems," Ly Phon said.
But as for Cambodia retaining its reputation as one of Asia's major fortune-telling strongholds, the cards say it is in the middle of a troubled relationship and there will definitely be many tough years ahead.
"It is up to the people whether or not to stop believing," Ly Phon added.
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