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Snakes charm villagers in Kandal

Medium Ming Meun goes into a trance during the ceremony.

It's late afternoon in the small village of K'dei Chas in Kandal.

A band strikes up with the refrain of traditional music known as pinpeath. Ming Meun,

a spirit medium, places a sprig of smoking incense sticks in the bowl next to a spirit

house, and with a red krama around her wrist dances slowly across to a woven mat

placed in the dust.

Two boiled pigs' heads sit somewhat incongruously in metal bowls on the mat, which

they share with lit candles and burning incense sticks. All this is designed to placate

the snake spirit that Meun and the crowd of villagers have come to honor.

The snake in question is a large python, which is out of sight in a nearby hole.

The villagers are told by Meun that it contains the spirit of Neang Pov, a girl from

Khmer legend whose father turned her into a snake to release her bad karma.

After a short time Pov's spirit has supposedly left the snake and entered Meun's

body. By now Meun is sitting on the mat with her eyes closed and tears rolling down

her face.

"Father, please release me, please release me," she calls out on Neang

Pov's apparent behalf. "You have punished me now for four [hundred] years."

The mighty python, which is common to rural Cambodia, is a well-regarded repository

for spirits. The water that its body has touched takes on holy properties, and people

will drink it hoping to get better. Conversely, those who eat python or sell them

will supposedly receive bad karma in not only this life but the next as well.

After ten minutes of calling out and crying on Pov's behalf, Meun starts to crawl

snake-like across the mat. The villagers manage to hold her back, and she eventually

quietens down and lies resting. The spirit leaves her, and now back in her human

state, Meun hides her face with her krama and runs away from the 200 strong crowd.

She is replaced by 20-year-old Sok Khun, who dances and whirls in front of the spirit

house as the music pounds faster and faster. Khun places burning incense sticks in

his mouth and exhales the smoke.

Unlike Meun, Khun says nothing during his half hour trance. He writhes across the

mat, finally dunking his head in a bowl of water and spraying the onlookers.

The ceremony revering the pythons took place over the first weekend of this month

in Bakheng commune, Kandal province. Khun and Meun weren't the only two mediums -

four others turned up to celebrate the supposed powers of the four pythons hiding

in two holes.

The reptiles were discovered last month by a girl and boy who were looking after

their parents' cows. They stumbled across the four pythons living in two kiln holes

at an abandoned brick factory outside the village.

Since then hundreds of people have visited the site to leave cash offerings in two

strong boxes, or to burn incense to ensure happiness, a successful life, or simply

a safe journey.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the pythons left their holes during the noisy, smoky

ceremony. Some villagers say that is because they fear that drunken villagers might

steal the eggs they laid recently; others say the snakes are simply shy.

But for all the assumed powers of the reptiles, has anyone noticed any changes since

they were discovered? Absolutely, says local villager Ko Sa Em, 48. For a start there

have been no robberies, which were very common.

Just last month, before the snakes were found, two teenagers were murdered and their

motorbike stolen. Some villagers and visitors from outside the area say two of the

pythons are the girl and the boy reincarnated.

Visitors peer into the entrance to a python hole. An offering of money or incense may be made to appease any spirit within.

Sa Em is not so sure, but says the weekend-long ceremony has cured the village of

its bad karma. Equally importantly, the sacrifices to the pythons will ensure a good

crop and peace and happiness for the nation.

"We pray the spirit will help bring us a good life, a good crop and happiness,"

says Sa Em. "We also pray that robberies don't happen here or anywhere else

again."

One other benefit, Sa Em points out, is that people will be more aware that they

need to conserve pythons from the actions of unscrupulous individuals. Villagers

have learned that stealing their eggs or selling them brings bad karma, which should

at least ensure agricultural pests such as rats have a more difficult time of it

in Kandal this harvest time.

Sixty-year-old Pon Neang from K'dei Kandal village says pythons are peaceful, friendly

and bring happiness and good luck to the people."Please don't sell the python.

It brings a lot of benefits to all of us," she says. "We must protect pythons

from those people who want to sell them."

Three years ago Neang caught a python when she was clearing forest to plant dry-season

rice. She made sure she released it, but not until she had burned incense and even

perfumed the snake.

"In that year my crop filled five ox-carts. That had never happened before,"

says Neang. "The mice and the insects did not damage my crop. It was the best

crop I have ever had."

At the end of the ceremony on the Sunday evening, the villagers, who are mainly farmers,

also released a captured python from its wood and iron cage after offering it food

and burning incense.

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