Shine On: In Search of Cambodia’s Blessed Waist Beads
By Glynn Pogue
I’m from Brooklyn, and I know bling, so it didn’t take me long to spot the shimmer peeking out from around the waists of the Khmer people in my small, Cambodian village–my coffee lady, taxi driver, fruit vendor, phone card salesman, they all had a string of beautiful beads fastened to their waists. I wanted my own, immediately.
The chance to score came when my best friend Noele visited me from New York. We spent a weekend in Siem Reap, the city of ancient temples, and while scouring the jewelry markets I zoomed in on the intricate silver charms on display. My fingertips danced over the grooves and ridges. Love.
A choppy chat with the jewelry seller, however, gave me the impression these waist chains were far more than just accessories. Centuries ago, he explained, warriors wore them for protection, and if we wanted to the wear them, it seemed we’d have to work for it. After five hours of bargaining and price comparisons, Noele and I both bought a set–eight beads, a silver chain, and a stack of slim silver paper for a monk to etch prayers onto and add into our beads. Then we set out into the blaze of sun in search of a welcoming pagoda, where a monk would do the honors.
(Silver sheets are etched with ancient Balinese prayers)
The first stop was a no go. We walked into the pagoda to find a group of girls milling around a young set of monks–blasting music, play fighting and giggling. We suddenly felt like we were intruding and found ourselves sitting in the corner, looking on from afar like outcasts to the cool kids. Intimidated, we finally introduced ourselves, only to be grilled about why we even wanted the chains. I mumbled a response: “uh…well…you know, as a person living in Cambodia…I’m you know, connecting with it. And I figured…well, it’d be cool to have one of these chains.”
“Yeah!,” Noele piped up. “For the culture, you know? Plus, they’re pretty. So…yeah!”
The young monk cracked a smile, nodding in understanding. The ice had been broken. “I see. Well, we can’t help you with that here. But tomorrow you can find another pagoda.”
The next day we woke up early. Driven, we donned head-to-toe fabrics, long-sleeved shirts and ground-skimming skirts, to be sure we were as respectful to the traditional Buddhist modesty as possible. Outside our hotel, we approached a tuk tuk driver, the equivalent of New York’s yellow cabs except it’s more like a cart attached to a motorcycle. We showed him the jewels and hit him with a pout and pleading eyes. It worked.
He called monk friends at a nearby pagoda and arranged a meeting for us. We clamored into his tuk tuk and rode along trustingly as he took us 30 minutes out of town. He screeched to a halt in front of a slightly run-down collection of intricately designed wats, clustered together behind a towering fence. The chipping paint, low-hanging trees and almost eerie silence left us feeling like we were walking on sacred ground. Reaksa, our tuk tuk driver, glided in with ease.
We followed timidly. He led us into a smaller temple in the back, where a very distinguished looking monk sat surrounded by bunches of burning incense and stacks of books. On the walls hung snapshots of him and notable Khmer politicians and society members. This guy was no joke. His arms were cloaked, both by his pinot noir-colored robe and a slew of sacred yantra tattoos. He motioned for us to sit. I could feel his presence filling the room. We bowed the customary three times and kept our heads down in honor, killing our necks and spines as Reaksa explained the purpose of our visit in rapid-fire Khmer.
(The prayer sheets are then rolled and inserted into silver beads)
“Okay,” Reaksa said, breaking us from the almost meditative state we had fallen into. “What sort of prayer do you want? Health, love, money…?”
We were thoughtful for a moment.
“Luck,” I volunteered.
“Protection,” Noele added.
It was finally happening.
“Pass him your chains and beads.”
We readily obliged, clanking them on a large silver platter along with a neatly folded $10 bill.
“Please wait,” said the monk, who we learned went by “Kim,” (a name we still find so endearing and now say casually like we’re bffs).
And wait we did. For four hours. As families of six and seven members came in for blessings, we watched as Kim threw buckets of rain water on them and each of their motorcycles, all the while reciting a prayer in fluid Balinese. Finally it was our turn. We re-entered his quarters, bowing again, and settling in front of him, being sure to sit on our haunches, legs to the right, toes pointed to the door. He passed over the completed chains and watched as we clipped them around our waists.
We returned to our bowed position as he launched into another fluid prayer. This time for us. He sprinkled water on us from the tips of incense sticks. I drowned in his voice. Mind went blank. Felt myself floating.
And then it was over. We bowed again in gratitude, sneaking quick peeks at each other to swap ecstatic smiles.
“Awkun cheran,” I said. Thank you.
This is where it should end. But as we rose and turned on our heels to leave, before we could make it down the steps, Noele’s skirt fell, landing in a puddle at her ankles.
She was mortified. I burst into laughter; so did Kim, his a roaring, hearty, buckled-over laugh.
Perhaps that moment was the best of all.
Acquiring a Ksei Chung Kay of Your Own
Purchasing a Ksei Chung Kay in Cambodia is a great way to have an authentic cultural experience. What’s more, you’ll have evidence of the experience forever, all in the form of a beautiful piece of silver waist jewelry.
When in Siem Reap, head to the old market (Psaa Char), located at the center of town. It would be hard to miss. At the back of the market, you’ll find an expansive selection of jewelry vendors. Each of them has the supplies you need, but it’ll be up to you to haggle the best deal. Hop around from stand to stand; a salesman will be extra willing to cut you a deal if they see you negotiating with a competitor. As a rule, for the standard eight beads, silver chain and prayer sheets, you should pay no more than $50 USD. And if a vendor tries to go any higher, tell them “tlii nah,” meaning “too expensive.” To get your chain made, call or email Reaksa at (+855) 774 82 2922 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s a wonderful tuk tuk driver and tour guide, who speaks fluent English, and can arrange your meeting with Kim with ease.
Glynn Pogue is a writer and dreamer from Brooklyn, NY. Following her graduation from Howard University last year, she ditched corporate opportunities in favor of adventure, and signed up for the Peace Corps. Glynn is now serving her 27-month commitment in Cambodia, where she eats fried tarantulas, bargains in the market like a pro and teaches English and fine arts to high schoolers. In her down time, she jets off to exotic Southeast Asian locales on cheap flights, crowded buses and overnight trains. An unapologetic wanderluster, she draws inspiration from the people she meets in her travels; their foods, languages, personal styles and stories. Follow her journey on instagram at @yungvogue.