The snakes came as blessings, their long, heavy bodies redolent not of Christian sin but of spiritual power worthy of a house, regular prayers and, in one case, even a wedding.
The house was built by Kim Kangnara, 39, to honor the python that came to live with her family in Kandal province’s Setbo village, three months after her son Uorn Sambath was born.
She prayed to the snake: Help me sell some land, and I promise to build you a home.
The land sold, and she built an addition to her house, complete with a spirit house.
The boy and the serpent, named “Chamroeun,” for “Fortune,” have grown up as siblings. “I love her as my sister,” said 7-year-old Uorn Sambath.
They play hide-and-seek and bathe together. She helps him with his math homework. He dusts her scales with talcum powder and tickles her with quick kisses.
He weighs 16kg. She weighs about 100kg.
Chamroeun, who the family believes is possessed by unidentifiable spirits, hasn’t eaten for five months. “The snake told my son that she’s been in the monkhood,” Kim Kangnara said.
Sun Kim Hun, a secretary of state in the Ministry of Cults and Religions, said Buddhism teaches karma, not animal spirituality. He said no one can be judged for his or her beliefs.
“When someone believes in the spirits, sometimes it turns out to be true,” he said. “People have believed in pythons for a long time.”
Mythical serpents—naga—have long been a feature of Khmer architecture and sculpture. (Often, they have the flared heads of cobras, not pythons.)
Naga adorn the lintels of Angkorian temples and flank Angkor’s ancient bridges.
The naga, according to the Apsara Authority’s Web site, “has long been associated with water and its benefits; it is symbolically the guardian of prosperity and treasures.”
Then there are the myths: of a serpent king who protected the Buddha; of the snake princess who gave rise to the Cambodian people.
Daniel Morawska, an adviser at Wildlife Alliance, a preservation group, said Cambodian pythons can grow to up to 5 meters. Pythons are commercially valuable for meat and leather, but Morawska said he’s far more concerned about the trade in king cobras, which are sold in some restaurants.
As to whether pythons are dangerous, Morawska said: “That depends on how you live with it, but generally there’s no risk. I’ve never had a case of aggression.”
In early March, Khmer-language newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea Daily reported that two pythons, one male and one female, invaded the home of Neang Phat, a secretary of state in the Ministry of Defense.
To welcome the snakes— which he named “Lucky Friday” and “Lucky Saturday”—into his family, he reportedly threw them a traditional wedding banquet, with several hundred guests at his home in Kandal’s Kien Svay district.
Neang Phat could not be reached for comment.
Just over the Monivong Bridge, Lay Nhel, a sometime sorcerer, says he has had five pythons over the years. He believes his favorite, a 3.5-meter female that he caught at a nearby pond, was possessed by Yeay Mao, a well-known local spirit.
On Buddhist holidays, the family lit incense near the snake coop, where Yeay Mao’s snake lived with a male python. They bathed in water the snakes had swum in, believing they had left some traces of magic.
Lay Nhel’s son, Lay Pros, 26, said the snake has brought the family fortune and enhanced his father’s magic powers, which include walking on hot metal rods barefoot, bathing in boiling water and summoning the spirits.
Lay Nhel says he can conjure money and love, and protect the unwitting from bullets, by drawing out magic geometries on small red squares of cloth and soft, secret pieces of metal.
After five years of happy co-habitation, however, Lay Nhel, 65, began to wonder what he was doing scrounging around trash piles at the local market in darkest night, trying to catch live rats to feed his pets. “I’m too old,” he said.
The spiritual strain of feeding the snake live animals had begun to wear on the Buddhist sensibilities of his son.
“I’m afraid of sin. I’m getting older. When you catch the prey for the python, it’s a sin,” Lay Pros said.
Just more than a year ago, the snake laid 50 eggs, and Lay Nhel went to a nearby statue of Yeay Mao to beg for release. Then he sent the snakes and their eggs to a relative in the provinces.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison)