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Zen and the Art of Cows

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: January-30-2008 in
Bronwyn Sloan

For farmers in the West, castrating cattle is a necessary chore. In Cambodia, where steers are worth up to $1000 a head and many people earn less than a dollar a day it is a celebrated profession which ranks besides traditional healers in importance.

Peach Thun thinks his talent, which he believes is due to a magical spirit that guides his hand, helped him survive the Khmer Rouge regime.

The 1975 to 1979 ultra-Maoist regime based its ideology on taking Cambodia back to an agrarian utopia free of social classes, markets and even money. It rode, quite literally, on the cow's back.

And Peach Thun could provide the skills to help without the modern techniques or medicine the regime hated. Even today, 50 years after he began his work, he practices his trade exactly the same way.

"I realized this is what I had to do when I was just 16. There was a spirit guiding me to take this profession, and I followed its voice. That spirit has never guided me wrong."

He carries just a simple pocket knife. No anesthetic. No antibiotics. All he needs is already at the homes of the owners of the livestock, and much of it has little to do with the actual operation.

"First, we light three incense and make a small ceremony. Most people offer fruit or flowers. If they want to offer a chicken, that is up to them. The most important is bananas. Without an offering of bananas, the operation cannot go ahead," Thun says.

"The young bull must be tied by one hind leg, and for the other one we dig a ditch so it is tower. To cut the bull, you need two or three people to hold him. I am getting old for this even this morning one kicked me in the chest."

Because the spirits have the final say, the spirits of the house, Thun's own guardian boramei, and then that of the bovine due for the cut must all be consulted and asked about permission and procedure.

The cut is quick and clean. Thun keeps his knife sharp despite being called from his Kampong Speu home as far as Battambang or Kandal provinces to work his magic up to 20 or 30 times a day.

"The bulls always know what is about to happen. They understand. But some fight and make a problem. Others go peacefully. In the end, the bull is happier if the operation goes well." Thun says.

The words Thun mutters before, during and after he cuts each animal are also magic. He uses special words to appease spirits which might invade the animal and make it sick after the operation.

Khmers use both the cutting technique and the Burdizzo method (breaking the testicle at the top, often by hitting but usually by clamping). Thun can do both, but prefers his knife, which is a simple pocket-knife from the market.

A poultice of turmeric, white alcohol and salt is applied after the ingredients are blessed.

"If the owner believes in the spirits and makes the right ceremony, that gives the medicine the proper magic," Thun says.

Amazingly, he says not one spirit of one young bull has ever refused him permission to reach in with the red pocket knife.

"If he is not cut, he cannot concentrate and he is never happy - he cannot get fat. The cut bull gets fatter much better and more easily than the uncut bull," he says.

It's a strange profession to aspire to, and one he never dreamed of as a young boy. But the profession has guided him through successive regimes since Prince Sihanouk, through Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge. Everyone respects their cattle, he says, no matter what their politics.

"Many younger people try to follow me because it costs up to $30 for them to pay me, but few of them remember how important the spirituality is in this job. I have not found a successor yet that I am happy to pass on my skills to," Thun says.

"I have been kicked scores of times. I have cut more cattle than I can remember. Now I am 66 years old. But I have never had an accident and I have never lost one animal. This is not just my skill. This is the magic that surrounds my trade that young people do not understand any more," he says.

In foreign countries, he has heard they need special equipment and medicines and insurance policies to go near a young bull to castrate it.

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