Sunday, January 15, 2012

On The Trail Of The Elusive Coconut Man

I first heard about the Coconut Man during a late night conversation in a bar with a strange man who claims to be an ex-forces agent, wades through swamps with king cobra serum in a holster on one leg, and viper serum on the other, and has “fired every Goddamn weapon on this earth”.

He’s been living in SE Asia for the past 40 years, helps run a charity clearing land mines, and is a partner in a security firm transporting millions of dollars of payroll cash to factories across Cambodia. Or so he claims. The last time I saw him, he was wearing a grimy bandana and eating cold chicken out of a plastic bag in a supermarket canteen in Phnom Penh.

That night he was lecturing me about how physically strong Khmer men are. He took a swig of beer and put his baseball cap back over his glass. He sounded like Bill Hicks, but more angry.

“This dude can climb trees and rip coconuts open with his fucking teeth man,” he said. “Can you do that? I know I’m Goddamn sure I can’t!”

I told him I didn’t think I could either.

“Damn right, you can’t! The Khmers are the toughest people on Earth! Pound for pound I’d put them up against any other nationality.”

He told me the Coconut Man lived in the jungle, somewhere along the Mekong River - a river that stretches 300 miles across Cambodia. When I pressed him further on the location, he admitted he hadn’t actually seen the Coconut Man, but had read about him sometime ago in one of the Cambodian newspapers.

“Were there pictures?” I asked.

“Damn right there were pictures! The man was ripping coconuts open with his freaking TEETH!”

The next morning, I did a few internet searches, and eventually found a feature about a man called Sai Song, who, according to the copy, lived in Preak Anh Chanh village, near the Kampong Cham border in Kandal Province.

It was hundreds of miles away from where I was, but I thought the story might make a few dollars. I found a Khmer taxi driver, who for some reason called himself Ian, and claimed to know the village. In fact, he said he was born in a village a few miles away. He spoke decent enough English, and said he sometimes works as a driver and translator for foreign journalists visiting the country.

He met me at my hotel in Phnom Penh the next morning and drove me in his old Toyota saloon into the flooded provinces along the Mekong River. We crawled down muddy tracks, built for oxen, with the worn suspension thumping away. But there was no sign of the village, let alone the Coconut Man.

Ian kept getting out to ask for directions. I could make out a few words. Occasionally someone would point up the road, or across rice paddies now flooded to the size of Lake Windermere, but with trees sticking out from the water. There seemed to be a lot of men who could rip open coconuts with their teeth in this part of Cambodia. But no-one had heard of the village.

Eventually I phoned the paper to try to get hold of the reporter who’d written the story. It took her a few minutes to remember the tale, and a few more to admit she’d probably written down the wrong Preak Anh Chanh village, and that it was nowhere near the Kampong Cham border. We headed back towards Phnom Penh, with Ian moaning much of the way about the “waste of gasoline”.

“Near Kampong Cham border!” he kept tutting.

We stopped at more communes, and I was about to suggest we head back to Phnom Penh and forget all about the elusive Coconut Man and his self-proclaimed “special powers” - invisibility clearly being one of them - when three young children fishing in a tiny trench pointed excitedly down the road.

From the slightly terrified look in their eyes, it was obvious we weren’t the only ones who’d heard about the Coconut Man’s incredible feats. We drove down the dirt track and asked more villagers, and they pointed at a wooden house with palm trees growing at the front. An old woman was sitting on the front steps with a baby on her lap. She was apparently the Coconut Man’s mother-in-law.

She pointed behind the house and we walked down an overgrown path, lined with ducks, chickens, and half-wild dogs, and stopped at the last barn. After a few minutes, a hugely muscled rice farmer appeared. It turned out he wasn’t the Coconut Man - he was just here to check us out. I began wondering about what they were growing in the barn. Then the Coconut Man appeared. He was much shyer and smaller than I’d expected, but his arms looked like they’d been made from smelted iron.

He took us out to the front of the house as word quickly spread round the village that a barang with a camera had appeared. Soon there were dozens of villagers crowded round the car waiting for the Coconut Man to work his magic. But Cambodians are a suspicious lot, and none of them were standing too close.

I began filming as he scaled a 40ft tree in just 15 seconds and then climbed back down carrying five heavy coconuts. He then ripped open two coconuts with his teeth – taking barely 40 seconds to remove the fibrous, brown husk of the first. And then just 50 seconds to shell the far tougher, green husk of the second.

His other stunts included flexing his neck muscles out like an angry, hooded cobra and ripping rope apart with his hands. I interviewed him through the taxi driver afterwards, but he was a man of few words.

“I knew when I was 12 that I was strong, and decided to start climbing trees and bringing coconuts down for my family and friends to eat. Then I trained myself to rip them open,” he eventually muttered.

I turned to the rest of the family in hope. Anything to break through his steely silence. His five-year-old daughter Yisoung simply said she was proud of her father. I asked the Coconut Man whether she had special powers too. He gestured at her, and she held her hands to her eyes and turned her eyelids inside out.

There was more silence, and then his wife Seap, 22, appeared from the back of the house. She said she was too scared to watch his stunts.

“I tell him not to do them because I’m afraid he will fall from the tree or break his teeth on the coconuts, but he does not listen to me,” she sighed.

A huddle of villagers were standing well away from the others. They said they were scared he was using “Khmer black magic”. “We worry he may bring evil spirits to the area,” said an old woman.

But when I talked to the monks in the local pagoda, they just laughed. They said his skills come in handy every year for the Pchum Ben festival of the dead, when they get him to climb trees in the grounds of the commune to collect coconuts, which are then left with rice and other foods as offerings to the ghosts of dead ancestors.

I climbed back into the taxi, not knowing whether we had a story or not.

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Mzungu said...

It's amazing how many weird ex military are still hanging around asia after all this time. I met a few in Laos a few years ago. Odd balls the lot of them.

andyinasia said...

Man of few words. Coconut shy.

Flim said...

Love it!