July 5, 2022
PHNOM PENH – Meng Sarath grabbed a handful of finger-sized zebra striped snakelets that were crawling around the roots of a hyacinth, explaining that they were the key to his livelihood after the Covid-19 crisis ended his job as a hotel cleaner in Sihanoukville.
Sarath is the main Cambodian breeder of Bocourt’s water snake (Subsessor bocourti) – known as chan l’mom in Khmer – for the Vietnamese restaurant market. He also sells them to farmers who want to raise snakes as a family business.
Within three years of beginning his career in hospitality, Sarath, 34, returned to his hometown in Ka’am Samnor village, Loeuk Dek district, Kandal province. He became interested in raising snakes, as he knew there was a demand for them in the Vietnamese market.
He went to Vietnam and learnt how to raise the snakes and then decided to invest almost two million riel ($500) to buy snakelets and build ponds. He began by raising 400 snakes, which cost about 12,000 riel per head.
“In my district, nobody else is breeding them yet, which was one of the reasons I decided to invest in this industry. In the last two years, I have sold between 3,000 and 4,000 snakes,” he told The Post.
Although snake farming is a legitimate private business, some species are not allowed to be bred without authorisation from the authorities.
Suon Sovann, spokesperson of the Forestry Administration, said that some wildlife species are considered to be rare, according to Prakas No 020 PRK 2007 of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and fisheries, which classifies wildlife species.
“Breeding pythons, flying snakes, lizards, roe deer, monkeys, swallows and so on, require permission from the Forestry Administration,” he told The Post.
Although the chan l’mom is not classified as an endangered species by the administration, Sovann did not specify whether the general public could raise the non-venomous snake without prior permission.
Sarath initially built two brick pools, a four by four metre pool for keeping his stock of salable snakes, and one of three by four metres to raise new snakes. After some experimentation, he divided each into two parts, adding a section for breeding and one for the smallest snakelets.
The deepest pools are more than a metre deep, and are planted with water hyacinth. The breeding and snakelet pools are shallower. The snakes are separated by size, because the largest snakes will eat their smaller brethren, given the chance.
Although he had to invest a lot of initial capital in building the ponds and buying the initial snakes, Sarath insisted that feeding and caring for the snakes was not a difficult task.
“I buy low quality small fish to feed the snakes. One kg of fish can feed 100 snakes. When the food is finished, I add more. Oh, and I change the water once or twice each month,” he added.
He said snakes usually only eat every two or three days.
Sarath said the chan l’mom is not a dangerous species, but that it can take up to a year for them to reach a salable size. Their current market value is about 80,000 riel per kg.
Generally, a snake is sold when it grows to about 1.2kg, he said, adding that the ones which reach 1.5kg are usually kept as breeders.
“These snakes are a seasonal product, as I only harvest them once per year. Currently, I sell 200 to 300kg a year. As harvest time approaches, Vietnamese traders contact me and say they will take all of the snakes I have,” he said.
“I think if I could produce 1,000kg of snakes, the Vietnamese would buy them all. But of course I’m not sure how that would affect the market value,” he added.
He does sell some of his product to the local market. He says demand is not high, but he expects it to grow.
Right now, Sarath has partnerships with four domestic restaurants – two in Phnom Penh and two in Preah Sihanouk – and local customers order 3 to 4kg every half month. If domestic demand grows, he though more people would become interested in breeding.
“Last season, I raised 400 snakelets and sold about 200kg. The rest I kept for breeding,” he said.
He said that of the 200kg of meat he sold, about 150kg went to the Vietnamese maket.
“I don’t think it’s because Cambodians don’t like to eat snake meat. Perhaps they haven’t tried it, or are afraid they will be served an endangered or illegal species,” he added.
His personal favourite snake recipe is pickled lime soup, but snakes can be made into many other dishes, such as fried lemongrass snake, he added.
He said although the number of people ordering the meat in restaurants was small, that suited hi for now, because he could not meet demand if orders grew too much.
He also said that he had sold snakelets people who were also interested in breeding them. He sold the baby snakes for 10,000 riel each.
“I admit the price of 10,000 riel sounds expensive. But in Vietnam, the price can be as high as 12,000 riel. In fact, I sold a few hundred to Vietnamese breeders,” he added.
Nim Khon, 50, bought 150 snakelets from Sarath. He carried them home to Takhmao town in three jars just over a month ago.
He explained that in addition to farming, he thought he would try raising snakes. As he was unfamiliar with the process, he was unsure how his snakes would fare. Happily, they were now growing nicely, he said.
“They are not difficult to care for, as their food is small fish and eels. I spend about 40,000 riel a month on food,” he told The Post.