Pang Nop was pedalling his bicycle home through a light drizzle when he paused to pick up some stones for his slingshot. As he did, the sky flashed and he fell to the ground, dead.
“Suddenly we saw him lying down,” said Uy Saroeurn, the boy’s uncle, who was planting rice in a nearby field.
The 14-year-old had died instantly, a big bruise on the back of his neck.
Pang Nop had become one of 95 Cambodians killed by lightning last year, more than double the 2007 total of 45 lightning fatalities and the highest-ever annual tally in the country.
“Most of the people killed are farmers who continue to work in rice paddies or herd cattle during rainstorms,” says Long Saravuth, a weather expert at Cambodia’s Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology. “Those people should be highly alert to the problem, but they don’t try to find shelter when it rains.”
The tropical country of lazy rivers and lakes is particularly prone to cloud formations that generate intense lightning storms, Long Saravuth said.
These formations can hover just 50m above the earth, and anyone underneath is vulnerable to lightning strike.
As the country’s rainy season drew to a close, local newspapers seemed to carry reports on new lightning deaths nearly every day — farmers, fishermen and soccer players have all recently been hit.
Worried Cambodians hope this year will offer respite. The country only began compiling lightning statistics two years ago after an increase in reports of deaths.
Some Cambodians have searched science and religion to explain the phenomenon, with many of the country’s 14 million people believing lightning is connected to supernatural forces.
“The lightning last year was more fierce than ever before. I’m worried I might be the next victim — but I believe if we do good deeds, we avoid lightning and bad luck,” said Cheng Chenda, a housewife in Phnom Penh.
In his office at the Buddhist Institute, advisor on mores and customs Miech Ponn said many Cambodians believed people with moles on their calves were susceptible to lightning strikes, as were people who had broken promises.
Cambodians also use mystical cures for those who have been struck.
When he found Pang Nop’s body, Uy Saroeurn carried it to the boy’s mother who quickly covered her son with a white cloth in the hope that it would revive him.