Cambodian Folktales

The Trial
Origin of the Tiger
Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso (The Goddess And The Giant)
Hanuman and Sovann Macha (The Monkey and The Mermaid)

Many Cambodian folktales concern animals who are very clever and show great ingenuity. Judge Rabbit is a character which often appears in Cambodian folktales.

The Trial

retold by Tony Shapiro

A long time ago in the kingdom of Cambodia, a young man fell in love with a young woman and so he set off to ask her parents for permission to marry her. "If you want the hand of our daughter in marriage," said the parents, "then you must first undergo an ordeal. Your legs must be bound and you must be submerged up to your neck in the water of a lake for three days and three nights. However cold you may be, you must not move to warm yourself. If you survive this trial of your courage then you may have the hand of our daughter in marriage." The young man agreed to the ordeal and so he was tied up and submerged in the water.

After he had been standing in the lake for two days and two nights, he looked up and saw a fire burning on top of a hill some way off. By now he was tired and cold. He lifted his hands out of the water and held them up towards the distant flames. At that moment the girl's parents came down to the water and saw what he was doing. They decided that he was trying to warm himself with the flames from the distant hill and so he had not fulfilled their conditions. They refused to give him their daughter in marriage.

The young man was very angry about this and went off to lay a complaint before a Magistrate. The official invited the girl's parents to come and be judged. The parents agreed and because they were rich, they were able to give the Magistrate several presents. However, the young man was poor and gave nothing to the Magistrate, who then pronounced the judgment. "The young man broke the conditions of the ordeal by warming himself. He has lost his case. He cannot marry this girl. In addition, he must repay the defendants by preparing a banquet for us all." When the young man heard this judgment he was very angry and upset and went off complaining bitterly. On the way home he ran into Judge Rabbit. "Why are you so miserable, Brother?" asked Judge Rabbit. The young man told him the whole story as it had happened. "Where are you off to now, Brother?" asked Judge Rabbit. "I have to go and prepare the banquet," replied the young man. "Ah" said Judge Rabbit, "Go ahead and prepare the feast; then come and fetch me and take me along to the meal as well. I will win the case for you for sure if you do what I say. When you prepare the meal, make the soup without any salt in it. Put the salt by itself in a separate dish."

The young man was very happy when he knew that Judge Rabbit would help him. He went off to prepare the banquet, making sure the soup had no salt as he had been told. Then he went along with Judge Rabbit, to offer food to the Magistrate and the parents. The Magistrate saw Judge Rabbit coming and asked him: "Brother Rabbit, what have you come here for?" "I have come to help you with this trial" said Judge Rabbit. "Ahh," said the Magistrate, "Then why not stop and have a meal with us?"

When the banquet was served, the Magistrate was the first to start the meal. He took two mouthfuls of the soup and then called out, "Well, why is it that this soup is not salted?" Judge Rabbit quickly answered him,"The fire burning on top of the hill, far away from the young man was supposed to warm him up. How is it that the salt for the soup, which is placed far from the soup does not flavor the soup?" The Magistrate was embarrassed and was silent. The case was reversed and the young man was declared to have won his action and married the couple's daughter immediately.

"The Trial" in Cultural Context

In this story the judge is bribed by a rich family to give a verdict in their favor. This reflects the corruption which many Cambodians feel is found throughout their justice system. Also, the story does not mention how the daughter of the family feels about this man who wants to marry her. The story just mentions the wishes of her parents and also the young man who wants to marry her but it does not mention her. 

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Origin of the Tiger

retold by Toni Shapiro

A long time ago, there lived a great king who ruled over a rich Kingdom. He had a wise and beautiful Queen, four Chief Ministers, a Royal Astrologer, who always helped the king make decisions, and a whole class of Mandarins and great Officials to perform all the honors for the king.

But unfortunately, neither the King, nor the four chief Ministers knew anything of magic practices, which were so necessary for victory in battle. Because of this the king was very worried about his kingdom. As he got older, he worried that if an army should invade his Kingdom, it might be easily overrun.

One day, early in the morning, the King, accompanied by the Queen, went to his Throne Room. The Royal Astrologer, all the Mandarins and Officials, and the four Chief Ministers were prostrated for the Royal Audience. It was then that the King formed the idea of going to learn magic with a great and famous teacher called Tisabamokkha, who lived in the far-off kingdom of Takkasila. There they found Tisabamokkha and asked him to instruct them in magic, which the great teacher did.

So the King and his whole retinue were taught magic practices. They learned how to change themselves easily into all kinds of animals and heavenly beings.

When they had learned all that their teacher could tell them, the King decided it was time to return to their own Kingdom. He set out on his journey again accompanied by the Queen, the Royal Astrologer and the four Chief Ministers. After they had traveled for three whole days from Takkasila, they got lost in a huge forest. They had eaten all the food they had brought with them and they began to eat all the roots and berries they could find. The king began to worry that perhaps he would die so he called all the other members of the group together. "Our end may be near because we have no food to keep us alive, what should we do?" The Royal Astrologer suggested to the king "perhaps we should use the magic which we learned to turn ourselves into a tiger, then we could catch other animals to eat. We could wait until we got back to our own Kingdom to turn ourselves back into humans again. The other members of the group all agreed with the Astrologer's idea. Which part of the tiger's body do you each wish to be?" the king asked. The four Chief Ministers wanted to turn into the four legs of the tiger, the Astrologer into the tiger's tail and the Queen into the tiger's body. The tiger's head was left for the king himself.

So they all recited the magic formulae to transform their bodies and . . . there stood a Royal Tiger. Soon the Tiger felt quite hungry and bounded off to catch deer and antelope to eat. After a time, the Tiger was so happy that he forgot to return to his own Kingdom. He did not regret his wonderful new life.

This is how there came to be tigers in the world which are stronger than any other animals. When the tiger goes off to hunt for his prey, the tail, waving from side to side and guiding him on is the Royal Astrologer; the supple, pliant body is the Queen, that wise woman; the four strong feet of the tiger, with their sharp claws, are the four Chief Ministers; and the head, awesome and majestic as it looks around, is the King greater and more powerful than all the other kings.

"The Origin of the Tiger" in Cultural Context

The word Tisabamokkha is a word of Pali origin, which means "great teacher." Also Takkasila is a district in north-west India. The use of such words shows the Indian influence in Cambodia.

This story is a famous Cambodian folktale because it explains the origin of the tiger and also emphasizes the idea that people must cooperate together for the common good. However, it is also meant to teach the audience that people should not turn their backs on their country or community when they experience increased wealth or great happiness. Many Cambodian proverbs warn people not to forget their responsibilities. In this tale, the King and his entourage originally wanted to help the people of the kingdom. However, in their excitement of being able to transform themselves into tigers they forgot the original reason that they wanted to learn such powerful magic, which was to assist the people of the Kingdom.


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Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso (The Goddess And The Giant)

Retold by Toni Shapiro

There is a Cambodian legend that, once, a long time ago, there lived a goddess and a giant who were studying with the same teacher. A wise and powerful hermit who lived deep in the forest, the teacher possessed a magic ball, which he wanted to present to one of his devoted students. However, it was difficult for him to judge which of his star pupils, the goddess Moni Mekhala or the giant Ream Eyso, both of whom were just completing their studies with him, was more deserving of the ball. He decided to offer his pupils a challenge: The two were told to collect the morning dew. The first of them to present the hermit with a glassful of this liquid would be the winner. And the winner would receive the magic ball.

Ream Eyso, the giant, had a clever idea which he thought would surely bring him the honor of the best student. Early the next morning, Ream Eyso gathered as many leaves as he could, and one-by-one, let the droplets of dew slide from each leaf into his glass.

Moni Mekhala approached her task differently. She spread a handkerchief on the grass and left it there overnight. By morning the handkerchief was damp, and it took just a moment to squeeze the dew out of the cloth and into the glass. She arrived to present her full cup of dew to her teacher before the giant did. As a reward for her ingenuity, the hermit bestowed upon Moni Mekhala a glittering ball. Ream Eyso received a magic ax as a consolation prize.

But instead of being the end of an isolated contest, this was just the beginning of an eternal struggle for the small ball that Mekhala now carried was very powerful, much more so than the ax that Ream Eyso wielded. The giant was jealous. He had to have that ball!

Ream Eyso stalked Moni Mekhala. He taunted her and threatened her. He crept up behind her and tried to grab the object of his desire. He even flirted with the goddess. But the goddess was not at all bothered. Indeed, she was aware of all of his tricks and teased him in return. In desperation and anger, Ream Eyso flung his ax at Mekhala, barely missing her. Moni Mekhala finally tossed the ball into the air, creating a bolt of lightning that blinded the giant. Down he fell, defeated, as Moni Mekhala gently flew away. But moments later, wiping the sweat off his brow, the giant regained his composure and stood up. Realizing that his foe had escaped he pranced around in fury and disappeared into the sky.

In this tale we find the origin of thunder and lightning. Ream Eyso's ax flying toward the goddess creates the thunder. And Mekhala's sparkling ball lights up the heavens. Together they bring rain, the symbol of renewed life as it imparts fertility to Cambodia's farmlands.

The confrontation between the giant and the goddess reoccurs every year, around the time of the Cambodian New Year in mid-April. This is the height of the dry hot season, just before monsoon rains wash away the dust and bring nourishment to the fields. When Cambodians see dark clouds forming in the sky, they know that Ream Eyso and Moni Mekhala will soon be engaging in their eternal battle, and the rice fields will soon be flooded. They also know that the giant will be vanquished, but only temporarily. Sooner or later he will reappear.

This legend has been enacted for centuries at least once a year as part of a sacred ceremony known as the "buong suong." Held under royal patronage, buong suong is a way to ask the deities for blessings in exchange for offerings of elaborately presented fruits, meats and other foods, incense, flowers, and most importantly, sacred music and dance. Swathed in velvet and brocade, with a golden tiara or fearsome mask on their heads and delicate flowers over their ears, the dancers personifying Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso recreate this most essential of battles. In reenacting this legend, the dancers serve as messengers between the king and the gods, asking for fertility of the land and well-being for the people.

The classical dance of Cambodia has a long history interwoven with that of religions and kings and, more recently, modern nation states. The dancers, whose poses of extraordinary suppleness and flexibility are immortalized in stone carvings that grace the walls of the 12th-century temple complex of Angkor Wat, have variously been messengers between the royalty and the gods, symbols of the independent country of Cambodia and entertainers. In all these guises they have remained vehicles for the maintenance and passing on of tradition. Just like Moni Mekhala who guards something so precious and potent (her sparkling ball), the dancers have been granted possession by their spiritual teacher of a priceless jewel: the dance. 

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Hanuman and Sovann Macha (The Monkey and The Mermaid)

Retold by Toni Shapiro

The monkey general Hanuman was a very close aid of the Prince. When the Prince's lovely wife Sita was kidnapped and taken prisoner, the Prince asked Hanuman to help him rescue her.

Hanuman didn't hesitate. He called the monkey army together and devised a plan. First they would construct a bridge across the ocean. Then they would cross waters to the land where the Princess was being held, fight off her captors, and bring her safely home.

One-by-one, the monkeys started lifting heavy boulders, and placing them on the sea. They would heave one huge stone after the other, and put them all down close together to form a causeway. But, as they were working, they noticed something strange. After struggling to move a big stone into place, the monkeys turned around to get another boulder. When they returned with the next stone, the one they had just left had disappeared. This happened again and again, until, finally, they went to inform Hanuman, their leader.

How unusual, thought the monkey general. "Don't worry," he told the soldiers. "We'll get to the bottom of this." He ordered them to fly with him into the sea to try to discover what the problem might be. Down and down they swam until, from a distance, they noticed mermaids moving in the water. But the mermaids weren't just swimming. They were holding huge stones. In fact, it was these mermaids who were removing the monkey's boulders, and disrupting the progress of their bridge construction.

Slowly, the monkeys crept up on the mermaids. They swam around and around, trying to catch them. Off to the side Hanuman spotted Sovann Macha, the leader of the mermaids. He figured that if he could catch her, he could convince her to tell the others to stop destroying the bridge.

He tried to reach her without letting her see him. From the back, from the side, he attempted to grab her. But she kept swimming in her beautiful, graceful style, oblivious to his antics. Eventually, he knocked her down. She was not only surprised; she was angry. She swam away. He swam after her. He did somersaults and cartwheels; she kept her balance and never stopped moving.

But while they were involved in this struggle, Hanuman realized that he had fallen in love with Sovann Macha. So he tried to woo her rather than attack her. For her part, she eventually realized she shared his feelings. And she told the other mermaids to not only stop interfering with the monkey soldiers' work, but also to help them complete the bridge.

Thus, in the end, the Prince was able to cross the bridge with the monkey army, and rescue the Princess.

This story is an excerpt from the epic talk the Ramayana (with origins in India), known in Khmer as the Riemker. The dance of Hanuman and Sovann Macha is often performed on its own. It can also be one scene in the longer Riemker dance-drama.



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Last modified: 10/25/2000 11:14:19