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.
AdvertisementThe 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 Southeast Asian country of lazy rivers and lakes is particularly prone to cloud formations which generate intense lightning storms, said Long Saravuth.
These formations can hover just 50 metres (164 feet) 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 football players have all recently been hit.
Worried Cambodians hope 2009 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 believe people with moles on their calves are susceptible to lightning strikes, as are people who have 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.
"To resuscitate a victim, Cambodian villagers drape the person's body with a white cloth, or jump over it three times, or place the victim in a bed and light a fire under the bed," said Miech Ponn, who believes these techniques can work.
But how to explain the mysterious jump in lightning deaths?
Miech Ponn said the surge in fatalities caused by lightning was predicted by Cambodia's chief royal astrologer Kang Ken, and that the country is now prone to more natural disasters.
"The increase in lightning deaths was caused by deterioration of nature and a religious prophecy that said it was a bad luck year," Miech Ponn said.
Hard science gives a slightly different explanation.
Over the past two years the country has had particularly heavy rainy seasons from May to November, which might be partly explained by global climate change, said Long Saravuth, the weather expert.
Meanwhile Anthony Del Genio, a scientist at the US space agency NASA, said the incidence of lightning deaths in 2008 did not point to a climate change cause because the timeframe was too short.
The best guess was that warmer and drier weather earlier last year had created conditions for more vigorous lightning storms.
"Natural phenomena like lightning are out of control and mostly cannot be predicted," Long Saravuth says.
So even weather scientists concede that the millions of superstitious Cambodians could be onto something when they say that, with luck, 2009 will be a better year.
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