In flat, stormy Cambodia, where lightning kills and injures dozens of people every year, it’s often angry spirits and bad karma that get the blame
Mut Sochea was washing his two cows in the Stung Prek Tnout river, only 200 metres from his village of Prek Kampis in southwest of Takhmao, when it happened. The clouds had darkened, the wind had picked up and his neighbours had hurriedly rushed to their homes, but Sochea stayed out alone.
“I felt like there was a huge shadow pressed into my neck,” the 29-year-old said. “I was trying to get loose and scream for help, but strangely no sound would come out of my mouth.”
Then, with a boom like an “exploding rocket”, the light-ning struck.
Sochea said he remembered falling backwards into the river, his hand still gripping the cows’ rope. Luckily, the frightened bovines dragged him out of the water.
“Then I was unconscious,” Sochea said.
In Cambodia, where the land is flat and storms roll through most days in wet season, fatal lightning strikes are relatively common. In the first nine months of 2015, 85 Cambodians were killed and another 73 injured by the bolts from the sky, according to the latest report from the National Committee for Disaster Management. The report showed that lightning also killed 40 cattle and 15 pigs and destroyed 12 houses.
On a rainy day in September this year, Yi Bi, 22, from Battambang province’s Lumphat village, was struck by lightning along with four others who were gathering and loading the cassava onto a truck. One of the workers died immediately. Bi and the two others were knocked unconscious.
“I felt the electric shock and then passed out.”
Four months pregnant at the time, Bi later delivered her baby prematurely and she worries about the ongoing health effects of the lightning strike.
In May, Hang Saret, 52, from Banlung in Ratanakkiri province, was struck by lightning while he and his 14-year-old son were crouched under a plastic sheet, seeking refuge from a storm.
Chan Yutha, spokesman for the Ministry of Meteorology and Water Resources, said lightning strikes are caused when electricity generated between positively and negatively charged clouds is transferred to the earth.
“Lightning normally happens between May and September,” Yutha said, adding that warmer air temperature increased the likelihood of lightning strikes.
To avoid being struck by lightning, he warned, one should stay far away from trees and electronics, as well as high and wet land in the event of stormy weather.
It’s estimated that lightning forms 8 million times a day around the globe, but most instances occur in the air or clouds.
Saret said that when the bolt hit, he felt a great electric shock but he did not die because it was “water lightning”.
He said lightning was like a “piece of stone like an axe” and there were two types: one grey and dark red coloured, what he called “the fire lightning stone”, and the other yellowish white, “the water lightning stone”.
“The people who are struck by water lightning do not die,” he said. “But people will die if they are struck by the fire lightning.”
Some Cambodians believe lightning strikes can be caused by bad karma.
Yong Kheng, 62, one of Sochea’s neighbours who survived a lightning strike in 2008, said that malicious behaviour like greed, deceitfulness and insulting one’s parents were enough to anger lightning-armed gods.
“Someone could be killed by lightning if he or she had committed a lot of bad deeds,” Kheng explained. “For ones with less bad deeds, the lightning just injures them as a lesson.”
When she was hit, Kheng had been cutting grass behind her house in the rain. Seven years later, she still feels numb and gets headaches when the weather turns sour. She believes she was struck for past wrongs.
“I’ve believed in superstition since I was young,” she said. “I used to take an oath to let the lightning strike me if I lied to someone. But since I’ve grown old, I’ve performed many good deeds, which is why the lightning didn’t kill me.”
Some villagers believe lightning strikes are the work of menacing spirits. Often, instead of doctors they call for kru khmer – traditional healers – to deal with victims.
When the villagers found Sochea, they worried he had been cursed. They dared not touch him and covered his body in a white cloth.
A kru khmer was summoned who said the lightning had actually struck a spirit on Sochea’s neck. He advised the villagers to slaughter a pig and two chickens for a spirit called Khmao that guarded that area of the river.
The livestock was to be a gift of gratitude – it was Khmao who had urged the cows to drag Sochea out of the water, the kru khmer said.
“After our praying was over, my son regained consciousness,” Suon An, 65, Sochea’s mother told Post Weekend.
“But he was mute and deaf. A month later I brought him to a clinic in Takhmao town. There, the doctor checked his ears and figured out that his right ear no longer worked. The doctor advised me to get him a hearing aid,” she said.
The doctor told her Sochea’s hearing might have been saved if he had been brought to a doctor immediately after the incident occurred.
One afternoon last month, four years after Sochea was struck by lightning, the villagers from Prek Kampis village were once again working in the fields as black clouds began rolling in accompanied by gusting winds.
While his friends stood and enjoyed the sweet smell of the blooming rice flowers brought by the breeze, Sochea without a word gathered up his fishing rod and tackle, jumped on his Super Cub 50 and made a beeline for home, 700 metres away.
“Sochea is not an arrogant man,” Suon said. “Since he was struck by lighting and nearly died, the fear usually comes to his mind when it is about to rain.”