It doesn’t take a very long stay in Cambodia to notice them. They’re proudly displayed in nearly every shop — from travel agencies to auto mechanics — and in homes, offices, bars and restaurants across the entire Kingdom.
See for yourself: enter any place of business and look for the colorful, intricate drawings which are tacked up, taped or framed. Often they’re surrounded by incense and offerings, and accompanied by statues and figurines. Clearly, there’s something mystical or magical about them.
The items in question are called “yon” — Cambodian cloth and paper talismans that are placed in positions of honor to bring good luck and love, prosperity and protection. Some are only scrawled, childish drawings; others are expertly executed, solemn masterpieces of ancient iconography. All of them, as any true believer will tell you, bestow certain charms and powers upon their owners.
“Yon are inscriptions on paper or cloth that possess magical powers to protect the owner from all kinds of weapons, like guns, knives or swords. Yon are also used to protect the owner from evil spells, ghosts and sickness,” the owner of the KS 181 Auto Parts store in Phnom Penh told the Phnom Penh Post in a 2006 article. He continued: “You can also use the yon to promote harmony and good business. I asked a well-known monk to make a yon that will protect me from weapons and attract customers to my garage.”
Even if you don’t believe in the purported magical properties, yon are astounding for their artwork. The script alone is amazing: the swirling, sprawling, looping text has been described as a special, ancient “alphabet” which experts believe to be a modern amalgam of Sanskrit, Pali and old-fashioned Khmer.
The stylized writing usually encircles renderings of real and mythical animals which are said to assign special powers and characteristics. It’s common to see yon adorned with dragons, tigers, fish and bulls. Some creatures are inexplicably bizarre hybrids and surreal creations.
As French scholar Olivier de Bernon wrote in his book “Yantra et Mantra, ‘The richness of [their] inspiration is entirely subject to the rules of composition. Symbolic, geometrical figures serve as frames for the mantras, the Vedic chants for protection. [Their] origin can be traced to Buddhist or Brahmanist formulas, or it could have been inspired by the religion of errant hermits.'”
Clearly, the origins of yon are centuries old. They’re stunning mixture of numerology, animism, Buddhism, astrology is hardly decipherable today. Many have been passed on by families for generations, others are commissioned by monks at local wats with specific purposes in mind.
As Khem Sambath, chief monk of Nhean Ransei pagoda and a famous yon artist, told the Phnom Penh Post: “There are many different drawings and ways of using yon. Common people, businessmen and government officials come every day to request yon from me. Some want it to keep in their pocket and some for their house.”
With all they’re beauty and alleged power, it’s no wonder yon can get under your skin — literally. In fact, yon have been inscribed as tattoos since the Angkorean era and are still believed to protect the wearer and intimidate enemies. The use of yon as body armor can be seen today, commonly inked onto the arms and legs of soldiers and the country’s most popular kickboxers.
The practice is catching on in some unusual places. Hollywood siren Angelina Jolie has a yon tattoo etched onto her left shoulder blade.