In the dim light of Sunday evening, 32-year-old Kong Channeang approached his family. Startled at his unexpected presence, they ran away in abject terror.
The reaction was more than understandable. Channeang had, after all, turned up at his own funeral.
Suffering from an unidentified mental illness, he had gone missing five days earlier from his home in Svay Rieng province’s Romdoul district.
On Sunday, a decomposing and bloated body was spotted by villagers in a nearby river. His family, satisfied the corpse was likely their son, proceeded to hold a funeral for him.
They were preparing the body for cremation when Channeang turned up.
“All of us were scared and ran away immediately. We thought that we were being haunted, since it was a little bit dark at 6:30pm when he showed up at the funeral,” Orn Song, the chief of Svay Chek commune, said.
Kong Vanny, Channeang’s 63-year-old father, told the Post yesterday that while everyone was running away, his son had shouted for him to return.
“When I heard him call me, I just went to him and grabbed his hand. I realised that he was not a ghost and I told the villagers and authorities to return to the funeral and to not be afraid of him because he was actually alive.”
The unidentified body was handed over to authorities, who buried it at a local pagoda.
According to Vanny, three members of his immediate family suffer from a hereditary mental illness that Cambodians call sabour.
Before Channeang “went crazy” a few years ago, he was an industrious builder, he said, but now, he becomes aggressive and leaves the house for long periods of time.
“His condition is like a spirit comes and controls his body. Sometimes he is normal, and sometimes he is not normal and he has problems with other people. Sometimes, I shackle his legs in order to stop him from attacking anyone in the village.”
When Channeang ran away on May 27 his legs had been chained but he managed to set himself free. Chaining relatives suffering from mental illness remains a common practice in the Kingdom, despite being decried by rights groups.
“The condition affecting my wife and sons usually occurs on days where there is a full moon and on the last day of the month. Apart from these days, they are normal and can work,” Vanny said.
“I have never taken them to the psychologist.”
Dr Chhim Sotheara, executive director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, said that it is common in Cambodia for people to explain mental illnesses in spiritual or superstitious terms.
“Mental health is pretty new in the Cambodian context. Psychiatry in particular is really new. In general, Cambodian people have their own explanatory model to explain behaviours or [mental states] or attitudes of people,” Sotheara said.
“The explanation is based on cultural beliefs, religious beliefs and maybe based on experiences from their parents’ generation. It’s very common that Cambodians explain this kind of psychological reaction as a kind of spirit possession . . . or what we call sabour, a kind of craziness running in the family.
“But if we look at an explanation based on Western psychiatry, we can see clearly that these people meet criteria for mental disorders [such as] schizophrenia [or] psychosis.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH