Every Friday morning, a white car with an Apsara TV logo peels out of Phnom Penh and hits up the provinces. With a film crew in the back and presenter Sok Somnang riding shotgun, the team gets ready to make another episode of House Number 11 – one of the oddest shows on Cambodian TV.
While the routine is the same every week, the show itself is always unique. House Number 11 showcases the outlandish talents of Cambodian people, ranging from the eerily supernatural, to the impressively superhuman, to the plain old superfluous.
"I started working on this program seven years ago, and in that time I've brought thousands of magical and marvellous people to the TV screen," said 36-year-old Sok Somnang. "Some people can eat burning charcoal, or eat razor blades, or lift an oxcart, or catch a big fish from the bottom of the Mekong river without an oxygen mask.”
Every week the television station is flooded with phone calls from people eager to have their special gift be featured. And if their talent is weird enough, Sok Samnang and the crew will find them and film them for Sunday's show regardless of how far away they are.
And despite having seen thousands of bizarre powers on display, including many which tax credulity, Sok Samnang remains an avid believer.
“I see these people perform magic or display marvellous power with my own eyes," he said. "It’s hard to believe, but I have to believe it. I even record it in my tapes. A lot of Cambodian people can do these strange things.”
Sok Samnang attributes the success of the show to Cambodian culture, which he says has a strong element of belief - either in gods, ghosts or magic. That lends people with allegedly magical gifts a degree of community support. And if they're brave enough, they know who to call.
“Many Cambodian people are not shy like before. They are brave enough to show their magical or weird skill in front of our camera,” said Sok Samnang.
But it doesn't always go well. Sometimes he'll take a hundred kilometre road trip, only to find that the freak of the week is a fizzer. In those cases, he says the audience will understand that the show can't be perfect every week.
Sok Samnang, who studied choral singing at the Royal University of Fine Arts, doesn’t really know what effects his programs have on the people he profiles, or how seriously people take the show. But the reaction he gets on the road is a hint.
"Wherever I go, people call out my name. Their words really encourage me to keep doing a good job.”
About 70 kilometres from Phnom Penh, in Tropang Pring village, Takeo province, 26-year-old Suon Sopheak makes a call.
He claims to have a strange talent, and he wants it shown on House Number 11.
When Sok Somnang rolls up with the crew, Suon Sopheak reveals his special ability: he can smoke a cigarette through his ear.
“Nobody taught me how to smoke like this,” he says. “When I was young, I just tried it by blocking my nose and mouth with a lot of pressure after I drew the smoke in. Then I felt the smoke begin to pour out through my ear. It was amazing! Since then, I’ve kept improving it.”
Standing next to him is his friend Ti Chhin, who pulls out a cigarette and lights it for him. There’s a tense moment as Suon Sopheak takes a long drag and clenches his mouth and nose, until smoke starts curling from his ear to a round of applause from the crowd.
But Sok Somnang is not impressed. The smoke was too light, and hardly TV-worthy. Suon Sopheak equivocates, then raises the stakes.
“I stopped smoking for a while because I felt it wasn’t good for my health,” he said. “But I will try my best to show you again, after I do my second trick: smoking from my ear and exhaling through my mouth.”
Ti Chhin lights another cigarette for his friend, and this time Suon Sopheak jams it tightly into his left ear. He takes a minute to concentrate, before drawing the smoke in through the ear and exhaling it out of his mouth – this time, with ample smoke to satisfy the TV crew. Suon Sopheak almost cries from the strain.
“It’s easier to smoke through the ear and exhale through the mouth than to smoke through the mouth and exhale from the ear. But both of them are harmful to my brain. I get a headache after I do it, and it takes a while to recover,” he says.
Suon Sopheak has been smoking this way since 2003, mainly as a party trick when he (and the audience) are suitably drunk. He says he’s not sure whether his talent is made possible by a problem with his cranial plumbing, and he doesn’t intend to find out either.
“I think it’s caused by jumping into water. When I was young, I would jump into water from very high trees. One day, I got a fever. And after I got better a few days later, I felt that I could breathe through my left ear,” he said.
Suon Sopheak stops chatting to the presenter when he feels ready to tackle the first smoking trick again. He takes a third cigarette from his friend, lights up, and absorbs it in a huge drag. Once again he tries to exhale it from his ear, but it’s the same lacklustre result as before.
Sok Somnang is no stranger to smoking tricks. In 2005, he met a boy in Takeo province who could also smoke through his ear.
“That boy was younger than this man, but he could exhale a very good amount of smoke through his ear,” Sok Somnang reminisces. “A few years ago I looked for that boy again, but I could not find him.”
Sok Somnang calls an end to the smoking, but asks the burgeoning star to breathe some fire instead – he needs one more scene to fill up the half-hour TV slot. Together, they go look for some gasoline.
Before he ends the show, the presenter finishes with an appeal to the audience.
“We just want to show this man’s strangeness, not encourage anyone to smoke,” he says. “You probably know smoking is not good for your health. Even this man, who smokes from his mouth and his ear, wants to quite smoking. So why can’t you?”