RUMOR, fear and a couple of tall tales caused city residents to flood the streets
late on May 7 in a desperate search to buy mung beans, after they heard that anyone
who did not eat the vegetable by midnight would surely die from the SARS virus.
The proliferation of stories makes it hard to pin down the source, but one common
tale went like this: a baby born in Siem Reap on May 7 - and which was miraculously
able to speak while only a few hours old - told its parents that the only way to
avoid the disease was to eat a bowl of mung beans before midnight that night. Those
who did not, the hours-old infant warned shortly before it died, would be killed
by the virus.
Another yarn was that relatives living in France - or was it the US? - had phoned
through the vital news. Whatever the truth, the word spread like wildfire in a country
which loves a good rumor. The phone system was overwhelmed as people passed on the
Families not lucky enough to have a phone awoke to the sound of caring relatives
or neighbors banging on their doors with plates of steaming mung beans. The warning?
"Wake up immediately and eat this or you will die!"
Across the capital, thousands of sleepy children and adults spent the late hours
of Wednesday night wolfing down beans.
But it wasn't all bad news: Mung bean vendors turned a truly spectacular profit.
The normal market price for a kilogram of mung beans is around 1,600 riel, but as
demand increased, so did the price.
And with the markets closed - the rumor began around 7 p.m. - the way was wide open
for clever entrepreneurs to set up roadside stalls. By 8 p.m. the price had shot
up to 4,000 riel a kilogram.
Canny traders then stopped selling one kilogram amounts, instead limiting buyers
to just half a kilogram. By 9:30 p.m. they were charging 2,500 riel for a half kilo;
by 10 p.m. the price was 3,000 riel.
As the dangerous midnight deadline drew ever closer, vendors again halved the amount
they were prepared to sell. The price rocketed, this time to 5,000 riel a quarter
kilo. One lucky part-time vendor sold 80 kilograms.
Around the capital, residents prepared tasty dishes of mung beans as the clocked
ticked relentlessly towards the hour. One former Post reporter said his mother-in-law
had insisted he eat a bowl of beans.
"My mother-in-law is my mother-in-law," he chuckled. "What can I do?
This is a rumor-filled country."
Not that he believed the story, he pointed out, but with a sprinkling of sugar, the
bean dish made a delicious dessert. After midnight, he added, his neighbors went
back to bed with full stomachs.
An official from the World Health Organisation dismissed the rumors of the purported
magical properties of mung beans, saying: "This is clearly nonsense - there
is nothing else to be said about it."
The Post would like to point out that as of press time, the price of mung beans has
returned to normal and there are still no SARS cases in Cambodia.