Laptops. Smartphones. A crowded air-conditioned office. Young men gather around to look at a Cambodian game that one of them probably created: cows vs. tigers. Then their interest switches to a 3D image of a witch that pops out of a photograph when they take a picture using a new app. This is the office of the JC IT Company in Phnom Penh, a Japan-Cambodia enterprise that focuses mostly on developing apps for clients in Japan. No one here seems to take fortunetelling seriously.
“No, I don’t believe [in daily horoscopes],” admits web developer Loch Khemarin. “I just believe that every day is a good day.”
But it was here that Cambodian programmers created the Daily Fortune app, which makes predictions about each day of a person’s life based on his or her Chinese year sign. Just two weeks after it was released for iPhone on December 31 2014, the app has been downloaded more than 4,000 times, according to data from the company. More than 2,000 android users also installed Daily Fortune on their phones.
“It’s a hit because it’s growing very fast. Four thousand in two weeks is not normal,” Khemarin says. “Some people believe [in it], or maybe [they want] some encouragement from good fortune [to] feel better, but sometimes they just want to play.”
There are now at least eight Cambodian fortunetelling and horoscope apps in Apple’s store. All the apps are free, and some, such as Khmer Horoscope and Fortune Teller Khmer, appear in the list of the top local apps.
The app that the JC IT Company developed features bright colors, stars and large pictures of animals from the Chinese zodiac. Today, for instance, if you happen to have been born in the year of the rooster, the app advises that you need to work harder and avoid conflicts with others.
Khemarin says that the predictions are authentic because his company purchases them daily from a real fortuneteller. He does not reveal the name of the fortuneteller, however, explaining that only his boss, not currently in the office, knows his name.
Khemarin admits his parents believe in fortunetelling more than he does. For instance, his father has told him about a handwritten book in his village in Kampong Cham Province. He says the magic book, which has been copied from 19th Century manuscripts, can make predictions about a person’s life based on his or her name and date of birth.
If someone could photocopy this book, maybe they could use it to make another fortunetelling app, helping ancient fortunes to skip right over the printing press into the digital age.
In any case, the JC IT company is currently planning to make another fortunetelling game that will include lucky colours, lucky items, love and career advice, and will be available in Japanese and English in addition to Khmer.
The lucky SIM card app
Not all Cambodian fortunetelling apps were created by companies. Sok Ratha, a self-taught 34-year-old programmer, made some on his own.
“In 2012 I saw that there is a market for apps because at that time people started using smartphones, but there were not many apps for Cambodian people,” he says. “Then I started learning [how to make apps] by myself.”
The first app he made is called SIM FengShui. It tells you if a new telephone number will be a lucky number for you. Just plug a potential phone number into the app and read the prediction.
“For businessmen, they believe the number is very important for them,” Ratha says. “In the phone shops, they also have a way to calculate if your number is good or bad, so I turned it into an app.”
As for himself, the developer says he believes in fortunetelling 50/50: “You can’t depend on faith. You have to depend on yourself. Just like if you want something, you cannot just sit at home and wait for it to come to you,” he says. “But sometimes, even if you try, you cannot get that thing. It’s 50/50.”
The Palm Tree Leaves app
Another app Ratha made is based on the custom of Khmer palm leaf reading. The way it works traditionally, he explains, is as follows: when you go to a pagoda, there is a stack of palm leaves with stories from the Buddha’s life and the lives of Khmer kings written on them. You place a stack of palm leaves on your head and put a stick into the middle. Then you read the palm leaf that the stick touched and the monks interpret its meaning for you.
To make this app, Ratha copied the text from the palm leaves at the Banon Pagoda in Battambang province. He didn’t explain to the middle-aged monk, who didn’t even own a smartphone, why he needed the palm leaves.
“I just told him I need it for my own work,” Ratha says.
The ChakKumPy (“Ancient Khmer Palm Leaves Reading”) app works by generating a random number and then the text from a palm leaf that corresponds to it. On a recent test run, for example, the app read, “The ship of Preah Chonok was smashed in the sea and was saved by an angel. Later on, his father gave him the throne. Prediction: This is very good indeed. You will get the support from others if you meet any difficulties.”
More than 150,000 people downloaded the app, according to Ratha’s data. One of these users is 22-year-old Yem Rathana, a university graduate and mother of a nine-month-old baby. Rathana has already heard some memorable predictions from human fortunetellers. When she was getting married, she says, she was told that her marriage would be unlucky unless it took place on a Friday (she followed the advice). And, the fortuneteller warned, either she or her husband would die if her first baby was female (luckily, she had a baby boy).
Unlike a human fortuneteller, however, the app costs nothing and is easy to use. She usually checks it when she wakes up from a dream about a ghost or a car accident, she says.
“I was just looking in the App Store and I found it,” she says. “I don’t use it every day, just when I feel horrible or I feel sad or unhappy, then I go and see. It makes me feel better.”
The luckiest wedding day
One tool that no one in Cambodia has made so far is an app to consult couples on the best day to get married. To find this special date, Cambodians must still seek the advice of a monk.
“I want to make it, but we don’t have the source. I don’t know how they [the monks] learn to calculate it,” Ratha says. “We have to have a reliable source. Otherwise, people will complain that we just make a random prediction. You can’t just cheat people like that. Trust is very important in this kind of business.”
Human fortunetellers vs. free apps
So do human fortunetellers worry about losing their business to the free apps? So far, no.
Chanthou, a fortuneteller on Riverside who charges about $1.50 for her services, says the app can’t be true because it can’t connect with the spirit. On a recent evening, she accurately told a girl that she had had an abortion and advised her to make more offerings to the ancestors if she wanted to keep a happy marriage.
Nearby, a 77-year-old fortuneteller, Sor Phean, also expresses doubts about the apps. He says seeing a person’s face helps him to make accurate predictions. Sor Phean, who has 30 years of experience looking into other people’s futures, says he wants to buy a mobile phone but can’t afford one. So rather than talking about the apps, with which he isn’t familiar, he prefers to tell a journalist about her future.
“You will get married next year,” he says. “If someone asks you to get married after Khmer New Year, you should say yes.”
While most Cambodian fortunetelling apps are only in Khmer, some have been translated to English. Search the Apple App Store for Fortune Teller EN, Chak Kum Py, and Lucky Number to check them out.