Hi everyone, today I'm posting my favorite folktale from Cambodia. The story was provided by Goombaking of AsiaFinest (thx bro!), and the illustrations was given to me by my friend (an Indonesian artist), Li Julian. It's quite a long story, so brace yourself! The post was taken word-for-word from Frank Smith's Khmer textbook (Kamlang Phiasaa by Frank Smith, 2006, www.studykhmer.com).
The tales unfolds as follows: there was a peasant couple, and the wife had a dream. In this dream, a holy man in white gave her three rings, which she soon lost. The man told her that the rings represented three types of BON . Intrigued and puzzled by her dream, the woman sent her husband to a fortune teller. He told the husband that the dream meant his wife was pregnant with a child who would have great spiritual power or BON BARAMI . The fortune teller also warned her to avoid eating unripe mangoes at all costs (it’s very common for magical powers to be dependent on the avoidance of a taboo of some kind; for instance, if KRU KHMER walk under a woman’s skirt hanging on a clothesline, they lose their powers). Mangos also happen to be a food that Khmer pregnant women are commonly thought to crave (the Khmer version of “pickles and ice cream,” or something like that). So of course, the woman got a craving for them. When her husband was off working the fields, she shimmied up a mango tree to try to pick one. While high up in the tree, she reached out for a lone fruit on a far branch. The branch she was perched on broke and she fell to her death. As the woman hit the ground, her belly burst open and out came a baby - Preah Kaew- and his older brother, a calf, who was born able to talk: ‑Preah Ko. The father returned and was of course distraught at the scene. But the villagers reacted in a worse way. They were convinced that the death of a pregnant woman (bad enough to begin with, if you’ll recall!) out of whose belly came an animal could not be a good omen, and they chased the man and his children out of the village. The father foraged for them the best that he could.
Meanwhile, after moving on to another village, while talking with some village boys tending cows, the now young lad Preah Kaew is taunted for being poor and having no food to eat. At this, Preah Ko moos and from his mouth comes forth silver and gold dishes with all sorts of delicious food on them, so his brother could eat in style. When he was done eating, Preah Ko swallowed the dishes again. The cowherd boys run and tell their parents about the cow who had coughed up and then swallowed the gold and silver plates. The villagers formed a posse to cut open ‑Preah Ko's belly and take the riches for themselves. At that point in the story, we’re introduced to yet another of ‑Preah Ko's powers. He commands his younger brother to grab hold of this tail, and takes to the sky flying to escape.
Eventually ‑Preah Ko and ‑Preah Kaew‘s father dies in the forest of starvation, for Preah Ko explains that he was not allowed to provide magical food for their father, only for ‑Preah Kaew. After ‑Preah Kaew grows into a handsome young man, one day he stumbles upon the king’s daughters bathing in a pond, and falls in love with the youngest, Neang Poev. ‑Preah Kaew complains to his brother that there’s no way he could court a princess in his ragged and destitute state. ‑ Preah Ko once again opens his mouth, and this time produces an entire palace for ‑Preah Kaew to live in, and splendid, regal clothes for the younger brother. A bit of flirting ensues between ‑Neang Poev and Preah Kaew, which is seen by her older sisters. Jealous, they report her “scandalous” behavior to her father the king. He is furious, and orders Neang Poev executed (in some versions of the story, he simply banishes her to the forest). The royal guard drags her out of the palace and beheads her.
Luckily for all involved, Indra (Preah Ehn) takes pity on the princess and magically restores her head back to her neck and breathes life back into her body. After wandering in the forest for a while she is seen by Preah Ko, who gives her the same kind of fabulous royal clothes he gave his younger brother. Then he performs a marriage ceremony for the two. Now, here’s where the historical part of the legend comes in. It seems that the king of
All’s not well that ends well, though, and the Siamese get suspicious. Their royal fortune teller discovers the existence of Preah Ko preah kaev in particular Preah Ko, who has within him all the mystical, scientific, artistic, military and literary knowledge that the Khmers learned from the Indians. The Thai king then hatches a plot with his ministers and advisors to abduct Preah Ko for his own uses. Now you can start to see the large-scale metaphors in this tale, right? Preah Ko —or more accurately, the magic contained within him, which is in fact the third type of BON spoken of by the fortune teller who Preah Ko Preah Kaew‘s father consulted when his wife first related her dream to him—symbolizes all of the high knowledge that the powerful Khmer kingdom learned from Indian sources and put to use in their rise to ascendancy in the region. The Siamese desire to usurp the Khmers as the premier mandala in the region is
symbolized in this story by the their desire to acquire Preah Ko. This reflects the actual Thai desire to acquire all of the high knowledge of the Khmers, something they did with the sacking of
So here’s how all of this historical reality is played out in the story: the Thais decide to challenge the Khmers to an oxen fight next, knowing for sure that Preah Ko will be the Khmer combatant. But the Thais don’t put an ox of their own into the battle. They instead build a mechanical or robot ox, emboldened by their fortune teller’s prediction that Preah Ko will soon meet with misfortune. Sure enough, the mechanical ox is too much for our hero, and rather than face defeat and capture by the Siamese (the match is being held on Thai soil), he yells for Preah Kaew and Neang Poev to grab onto his tail, and off they go. Unfortunately, as the trio is flying over Cambodian, Neang Poev loses her grip on Preah Ko‘s tail, and falls to her death. Indra shows up again, this time not to bring her back to life but rather to turn her into a mountain, which is supposed to be in the
The Siamese general got a brilliant idea, however. Instead of shooting cannonballs at the fortress, he had his men load their cannons with silver coins, and fired those into the dense bamboo cover. The Siamese army then retreated back to
Such taboos are common for those with magical powers in Khmer belief, as mentioned in Chapter Three. For instance, kru khmae, traditional ritual specialists, are not allowed to walk under speu `trees, women’s clothing hanging on a line, and various other things, lest they lose all their magic (saabaselb). The Siamese were thus able to capture the pair. They took them back to
claiming to have seen Preah Ko. Some people even claim to own a cow or ox who is inhabited by Preah Ko’s spirit and can perform healing of the sick and other acts.
Denith: Preah Ko is also known as the Keeper of Khmer culture for some reasons: the loss of Preah Ko results in today similarity of Khmer and Thai culture. Actually, Preah ko is a statue containing Khmer records on religions, traditions, cultures, knowledge, study, history... King Chan Reachea managed to keep all of these records in Preah Ko in order to secure it from being lost. But...