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
"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
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.