The Saccamng and the Eisei

U Sam Oeur

Illustration by Florinda Pamungkas

Neak Saccamng, “the invisible people,” have existed in Cambodia for aeons, and are still around. I have never had a personal encounter with them, but I know several people who have. The Saccamng are not actually spirits—they eat like us and they smoke, though they don't drink intoxicating beverages. They have bodies, only usually we cannot see them, and they live in villages in the mountains. I met a man who wound up living in a Saccamng community, married a Saccamng woman, and had Saccamng children, before eventually returning to his previous existence.

Starting in 1980, I worked with a man named Old Man Pring, who was always a great help—he tipped me off when the communist party had it in for me, or at which events they were going to arrest people. During the Pol Pot regime he had been part of an exodus from his village near Battambang. As they crossed the Cowl Bat Mountains and approached the border with Thailand, his oxcart lagged behind. He heard a voice: “Hey, you! Don't go, stay here!” He looked around, but seeing no one, continued his journey. He heard the voice again and thought it was a spook trying to scare him. He raised his whip to lash his oxen, and the voice said: “If you stay here, we are going to teach you Agum (sayings with magical properties, like charms or mantras) to help your people later.” It was then that he decided to stay. He saw ripe papayas, jackfruit, and bananas laid out before him, but even after a month, he still had not seen anyone. When he sat in meditation, facing west, he would turn around and food would be there, very warm, as if it had just been cooked—it simply materialized. There were gigantic jackfruit; the skin covered with thorns and with more flesh inside than he had ever seen; there was so much food that he could never finish it, and no matter how much he ate, the same amount remained. It was a similar phenomenon to Jesus feeding thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish.

One day, when out walking, he came across a skeleton, the skull of which was almost the twice normal size. He had heard stories that the heads of the ancient people were very big—maybe this was the remains of someone from a prehistoric race! Then he found the begging bowl of a monk, larger than any he had ever seen. Remember, these were the Cowl Bat (“Begging Bowl Left Behind”) Mountains. And there were rings on the ground bearing several precious stones that were so large that he could probably fit one on his big toe! But intuitively, he knew that he shouldn't touch any of these things.

Then, after a month, he could see the Saccamng. They told him that it was time for him to return to his village. But he said: “Where's my village? I don't know where to go!” “Okay, now we will show you.” Just like that, he could see his village in the distance, quite close to the Cowl Bat Mountains where they were standing! After he left his home, he had been on the road for two weeks before arriving at the place of the Saccamng. His return took just half a morning, maybe four hours. When he had fled his village, he had been physically weak, but now he was strong. And the remaining leaders of the village did not ask him where he'd been. It was as if he'd just left for a day—they didn't even notice that he'd been gone. He felt perfectly safe now—he had no more fear of what was going to happen to him or his village. He also had developed clairvoyance, and knew on what day they were going to be liberated from the Khmer Rouge, and what other events would happen. This quality, of course, was of inestimable use to me when I worked with him, for his whispered bits of advice saved my life on several occasions, and kept me out of trouble on others. On one occasion he told me to go home as quickly as possible, look in the drawer of a big cabinet and find a document signed and sealed by Prince Norodom Chakrapong, King Sihanouk's son. He told me to burn it, as the Vietnamese were going to search my house soon. What is most astounding is that Ta Pring had never been to my house, but when I went to the cabinet, I found the document, just as he had said, and burned it right away. If I had not found that item, the Vietnamese would surely have discovered it when they searched my house the very next day, and I would have been sent to C9, the underground dungeon in Chbar Ampeou.

Many people have sought out Ta Pring to help them find gold. Before the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, several Chinese people buried their gold, but died during Pol Pot’s regime. Their surviving relatives came to Ta Pring, seeking his assistance in finding these treasures. Ta Pring would go to where they thought the gold was, sit down, bend his head close to the ground, close his eyes and chant Agum. He could hear the Phum Deva (spirits of the land). They would whisper to him that the gold was in such and such a spot and how deep in the ground it was buried. When he'd find their gold, people would give him a generous percentage. Ta Pring is now rich and lives in Pochentong, east of Phnom Penh airport, and south of the main road.


I met another man who had an encounter with the Saccamng, and also with an individual known as the Eisei. This man was a prince, an uncle of Norodom Sihanouk. Some time in the 1920s, the prince was on the run from the French colonial army. It wanted to kill him, and so one night he escaped into the Kamcay Mountains southwest of Phnom Penh. The prince didn't know it but this is where the Eisei lives. Long ago the Eisei had been the son of the King of Angkor (Ang Chey’s father), but the king had been overthrown by one of his generals, and his son was brought to the mountains by his attendants, where he later became an ascetic. That was hundreds of years ago, but he was (and is) still up there. The Eisei is a hermit, an ascetic, a sage, who works toward saving all people, all creatures.

When the prince reached the mountains, he came to a thriving village. Some of the people were weaving, while others were harvesting rice. All the women and girls were remarkably pretty. Cambodian women are noted for their beauty, but these women were particularly beautiful. They were working with their husbands and families. The village itself was quite peaceful and the surroundings spectacular. As this was in a remote area of the mountains, the prince wondered why there were so many people. He noted that they seemed calmer than the people with whom he usually came into contact.

Eventually the prince found his way to a hermit who stayed in a darkened hut at the edge of the village. The hermit asked him, from within the darkness, “Oh, is that you? I have been expecting you.” The prince wondered how the hermit knew he was coming. “Now you are hungry, huh? Come, eat. Sit down and have a meal.” So a novice offered the prince a meal, which consisted of just three pieces of rice, each as long as one finger joint. The prince thought to himself, “Hell, I am very hungry; they've given me very little.” And the hermit answered from the hut “Eat it! If you finish, I'm going to give you more!” Again, the prince marveled that the hermit seemed to be able to read his mind. So he ate. He finished just two pieces. He was completely satiated by only two pieces of rice! He then experienced a sensation of overwhelming tranquility and decided to stay the night. At midnight, the prince thought about his palace and his family. The hermit said “Oh, you're thinking about your wife again!” The prince remarked to himself: “Well, I guess I cannot have any private thoughts!”

In the morning, the hermit said that the prince had to find his guru. This man would be his teacher, his spiritual guide, and would teach him how to make medicine to make him tough-skinned. The hermit told him “So you have to leave now, because you have no vocation with me. Your guru is in the mountains at Damrai Romeal, northeast of here in Kompot Province.” The prince thought to himself, “How can I reach that place through these thick forests full of thorny rattan?” Incidentally, Damrai Romeal means “Rolling Elephant,” because the mountains are so steep that elephants start going up, but always wind up rolling back down.

The prince stayed another day, and when he awoke the next morning, the village had disappeared. Only a decaying mass of tangled vines and thorns surrounded him. “How will I ever traverse this jungle?” he thought. Then the master’s voice answered: “Don't worry—I'm going to let my novice lead you.” “How will I get there—where is this other mountain?” The Eisei’s voice answered him again, “Don't worry, you just go and in the morning you will be there.” So he walked through the woods with the novice assigned to accompany him. The trees soon opened onto a well-traveled path. Finally, he reached his guru and studied with him for a long time. After some years, his guru told him that he, the student, had to change his body. Actually change its form, so that no one could recognize him. The guru warned him not to return to the palace, and that he should stay in the mountains and wear only black calico pajamas.

The prince was a handsome man, of regal bearing. His name was Norodom Arun Yukanthor (Yukanthor means “mountain of fragrance”). He had been next in line to become king, but instead the French authorities enthroned Sisowath, Sihanouk's great-grandfather-in-law. They decided to assassinate Norodom Yukanthor, so that he would not dispute Sisowath's ascension to the throne. He had no ambition to become king anyway, and so made his escape. The guru told the prince that the time had come for him to transform his body and return. The guru splashed him with holy water, and he immediately fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, he was in another body, as dark as mine. His hands were tough, as if he had done hard labor all his life. You can see it in photographs of him: before, Yukanthor had very beautiful, clear skin, and afterwards, he looked like a peasant. When the French tried to assassinate him, he was 40 years old. When I first met him, in 1980, he claimed to be 150 years old; in truth, he was probably a shade over 100. Everyone knew him as the “Old Man of the Mountain.” Since then he has changed into yet another bodily form. Although he invited me, I never went to his place, far away in the mountains of Kampong Chhnang Province, northeast of Phnom Penh.

Another man I know, named Yang Sokhom (“Ta So”), who now lives in Long Beach, California, encountered the Saccamng when he was a novice studying with a monk named Ta Nen. Sokhom told me that he and the monk had traveled from Kampong Chhnang to the Kulen Mountains in Siem Reap, and had fleeting encounters with three Saccamng villages along the way.

Sokhom told me that they had started on their journey around midnight, walking through the forests. When the sun was high in the sky the next day, around 11 a.m., Sokhom became hungry. Ta Nen told him that they would reach a village in half an hour. Sokhom thought to himself, “What village? This is all forest.” But in half an hour Ta Nen asked him to stop and procure a meal. “What meal, Lok Ta (Grandpa)?” “Rice!” Ta Nen answered. Bewildered, Sokhom went off into the jungle, and lo and behold he found three pieces of ansam (sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves). But there was no trace of anyone—just the dense trees. He took the ansam, and they had their midday meal in the middle of the jungle.

They reached the Kulen Mountains, and the next morning, Ta Nen asked Sokhom to carry a begging bowl and another novice (who had joined them there) to bring a lunch box for samlaw (fish soup with vegetables), and sent them off to find food. They wandered into a Sacccamng village with lots of people and many coconut trees.

The novice with the lunch box stood next to a coconut tree and began beating on the trunk with a stick to make a coconut fall. The Saccamng told the novice not to beat the tree, because it was hurting the tree. The novice ignored this, believing that a tree could not have feelings. Then the village suddenly disappeared. Ta Nen and the novices traveled the rest of that day without food, with only water for sustenance.

They reached the ashram, and the next day a Saccamng came to offer alms; it was a young girl so beautiful that Sokham could not stop staring at her. When she left the ashram, Sokham followed her to find out where she lived, but as she went around a bush, she disappeared into thin air. Sokham never saw her again, although he remained at the ashram for some months.

Sokham's experiences might not seem as dramatic as those of Old Man Pring, or as convincing. And maybe you don't believe either one of them. I suggest you keep a receptive mind, so that when you go to Cambodia, the Saccamng or the Eisei might come to your assistance when you are in a tight spot.

translated from the Khmer by Ken McCullough