Legend has it that Phnom Penh was founded in the 14th century by a pious woman named Penh who discovered four statues of Buddha floating in the river. Reverentially, she fished them out and built a shrine on a local hilltop to house them. This of course became Wat Phnom.
Some six centuries later, the hill and its surrounding area are still known for magic, mystery and folklore and the site remains the religious and cultural center of the capital city.
On any given day, opposite the pagoda atop Wat Phnom and behind the popular crafts bazaar, is a sprawling tract of makeshift storefronts and shadowy entrance ways. Through the dark of the doorways comes candlelight, incense smoke and, some say, sage advice.
These are the famous fortune-tellers of Phnom Penh.
Although language skills are limited to sparse English and French, a visit to these soothsayers is always a fun and fortuitous experience. It’s a unique atmosphere for visitors seeking a Cambodia off the beaten path. Whether or not the counsel is sound, is strictly a matter for the participant. But a trip to these famed fortune-tellers does provide a rare glimpse into the extremely superstitious society that exists in Cambodia.
In one soothsaying stall, a furrowed old woman with withered hands asks a client to first cut a single deck of cards nine times. Then she spreads the deck across the table and requests a selection with each hand. From the two cards, the woman discerns a recent departure of a significant other. She then begins to play a game that resembles solitaire before slowly turning over three kings and a queen. From this she declares that the client has met his future spouse already, and notes that in April all will be revealed.
A few stalls later, a grandfatherly fortune teller shakes 50 sticks of incense over the patron’s head and then asks him to pull a single lighted stick from the bunch. The choice, the old man says, signals coming success at work.
After only a few seconds of inspection, a female palm reader further along in the mall of fortune-telling shacks explains to her client that she sees deep sadness that comes out everyday. But more mysteriously, this palm reader too predicts a major romantic event in April.
For an afternoon adventure, the soothsayers offer a fanciful dose of local color to any Wat Phnom escapade — and the predications are always guaranteed to be fortuitous. Because as everyone knows, especially the soothsayers, doling out unlucky predictions invariably means bad luck for business.