Snake-loving Sambath swims with his slithery sister Chamreun.
A few hours outside of Phnom Penh, in Sit Tbow village of Kandal province, a six-year-old boy's loving, lifelong friendship with a seven-meter-long Burmese python is presenting some perplexing parenting scenarios for his well-meaning mother and father.
Some of the issues facing head of the household Khuon Sambath, 52, are scaly. Officials from the World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation Society say children should not play with large reptiles and the boy faces risks ranging from being infected, to being digested.
Other problems are more Monty-Pythonesque: now the child, Aun Sambath, has grown too big to cruise around the village on the snake's back, and leaves Chamreun, Khmer for "Lucky," at home when he attends school.
Don't recoil: this story of Sambath is more about child psychology than portrayals of "otherness," or superstitious beliefs. The Post's visit to Sit Tbow found a friendly, functional family at odds over exactly how to raise a modern young man who has experienced a most unusual upbringing.
"I know it is not common to have a snake like this. It's rare to see how he plays with the snake," said Sambath's mother. "I pray that they will no longer sleep in the same bed together. I pray that they will just play with each other and Sambath will run out and play with other children."
Young Sambath, however, seems just fine. Bright and precocious, he told the Post matter-of-factly that he likes to play with toy cars, his favorite animals are dragons, and he fully intends to become a pilot (No, he hasn't told Chamreun about the flying, he confided).
Growing up is never an easy matter; as a philosopher once said "When naivety ends, sadness begins." But Sambath is a special boy by all accounts, and has been honored in his village since birth.
After all, Miech Ponn, an adviser for the Council of Khmer Culture at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh said, in Khmer society the arrival of a snake in a village or home is a harbinger of good luck and happiness.
And if the realm of fiction is any indicator, take the short stories of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, in which the python Kaa is a wise and powerful hero. In the first Jungle Book, Kaa is enlisted by the panther Bajheera and the bear cub Baloo to rescue Mowgli, a young boy. In the second installment Kaa and Mowgli relax, bathe and wrestle together before Kaa takes Mowgli to a secret treasure chamber beneath a moldering city.
"I want to stay together for ever [with Chamreun]. She protects me and helps me," Sambath said. "She helps my family make money."
Mowgli of the Mekong
According to Sambath's mother, just before he was born she had a prophetic dream. She dreamt of a spirit that told her a snake would come to protect her son. If she fed it and remained honest, the dream spirit advised, her family would enjoy good fortune.
"I believe the dream was real. When my son was born a snake came to live in the house. I asked him about it and he said that Chamreun was his sister," she said. "Also, it's clearly a holy snake as it would never eat a live animal and doesn't eat at all on holy days."
What was equally "magical," she told the Post, is that at the time of her conception she'd been taking "birth spacing" medication.
The snake that arrived more than six years ago was a Burmese python from the family Boidae. According to a wildlife identification manual the snake can be gentle, can reach as much as 50 years of age and can stop eating for months at a stretch.
As years passed the python was accepted as a full family member, and Sambath and Chamreun were inseparable. The legend of their relationship brought droves of people eager to pay respect, observe the duo and be blessed. The small donations helped offset the high cost of keeping a rather ravenous new family member that devours 10 kg of dead chickens each week.
"When the neighbors get sick, they need magic so they come to get a blessing from the snake and the boy," said Sambath's mother.
His father was more pragmatic.
"You can see our commitment to the snake and the boy. We buy chickens for him to eat every week. Last week he ate 8.5 kilograms," he said. "Many newspapers, magazines and TV crews have come to see the snake. They lie to me and say they will give me money to feed her. Then they give no money and run away."
Still, both parents beam about Chamreun's protection and economic assistance. It's the sustainability that's troubling the pair. They've never worried about the plump python injuring the youngest of their four children, nor are they concerned that his minor celebrity would cause sibling rivalries.
"She has brought good luck. I am poor, but the snake has helped my family get better living conditions. She's helped us a lot," the elder Sambath said. "I would not sell her, even if someone piled gold in front of my house as high as the roof. It's the same as my son. How could I sell my own children?"
On a whispered cue from his father, Sambath stripped down to his shorts and happily displayed his fearless devotion to the snake. He entered the chamber adjoining the family home reserved for the shrine to Chamreun, and splashed into a murky, shallow pool. He was hardly gentle, gripping the snake's head firmly and lolling ungracefully across her broad back.
"I am not scared; she is my sister," Sambath said. "But I can protect myself now."
As long-held beliefs and good fortune clash with the onset of Sambath's adulthood, his mother admits some apprehension.
"I do it every day. I light incense and pray to the snake," she said. "They are both growing big now and I would like them to sleep separately. It's just natural that a grown-up human would not sleep together with a snake."
Perhaps Kipling had it right after all. When, in the story Spring Running, the boy Mowgli feels it is time to rejoin the world of humans, it is Kaa who takes him to the edge of the jungle and sees him off.
"It is hard to cast thy skin, Kaa tells Mowgli, but Mowgli knows he must cast the skin of his old life in order to grow a new one."