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Crocodile flags, a rite of death

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The 100-column temple in Kratie Province. Photograph: Phak Seangly/Phnom Penh Post

Cambodian people traditionally place a white cloth with a crocodile drawn on it, tied to a bamboo stick, when a family member dies and they prepare for the funeral of their loved one.

It’s a public sign of the death of their relative. It’s called “Tong Kroper” or “Crocodile Flag”, a tribute to the departed.

The tradition has lasted 500 hundred years after an unusual event occurred in the Cambodian royal family.

A tour guide in Kratie province, Heng Chan Sithy, explains the story about the “crocodile flag” to tourists. He says the daughter of King Chan Reachea, known as Kropom Chhouk, 18, was eaten by a crocodile when she was swimming in the Tonle Sap river at Long Vek.

The king ordered his officials to track down the crocodile and catch it alive. A fortune teller believed the crocodile had dived deep into Mekong river. But finally, the beast was found in a river in Ratanakkiri province.

“They brought the crocodile to Kratie province, about 100km from where they found it,” Heng Chan Sithy said.

They gutted the crocodile and retrieved the body of Kropom Chhouk from its stomach, and then skinned it. The king ordered that a stupa be built to bury his dead daughter.

He also ordered his officials to build a wooden Buddhist temple known as Wat Sorsor Muoyruoy – a 100-column temple – nearby. Today her grave is in the Sampo district in Keng Brasath village, about 36km from the Kratie town. The wooden temple was replaced with a new concrete complex in 1997 after the original was destroyed during the war of the 1970s.

Uy Rem, the Buddhist priest at Panha pagoda in Battambang province, said that Cambodian people had adopted the tradition of symbolising the crocodile skin on white flags before funeral ceremonies ever since the king’s daughter was eaten by the crocodile.

“They traditionally placed up to two dried crocodile skins before the funeral and would never remove them even though the funeral was over,’’ he said.

“They just left crocodile skin to rot naturally in the hope the dead person can be reborn afresh.

“But crocodile skin eventually became so expensive that ordinary people could not afford it, so they adapted by drawing a picture of the crocodile on the white cloth instead.”

When the king originally ordered his officials to build the stupa, they executed 20 women and buried them there in the hope their souls would protect the complex from any destruction by haunting it.

During the reign of Chan Reachea, people believed that to execute and bury dead bodies beneath the bridges, reservoirs or temples would help to protect the structures.

It too became a tradition.

But by the 1970s people were scared of bridges. Sok Sokheng, 59, a former solider, said Cambodians were worried about being kidnapped, murdered and buried under bridges as a sacrifice to protect the structures.

“Old people didn’t allow their children to get out of their house because there was a rumour that young people were killed and buried under the Sangkum Reah Niyum bridge, or the Cambodia-Japan Friendship bridge, so that their souls would protect the Khmer Rouge from land mines,” he said.

At the time, Sangkum Reah Niyum bridge was the main transportation for war supplies from Phnom Penh to the battle fields, so the Khmer Rouge wanted to destroy it.

“At that time, children from around 10 years of age disappeared from their families,’’ the old soldier said.

“People believed they were sacrificed for the bridge to save it. But I don’t think so. I think they were kidnapped by Khmer Rouge and taken for military training deep in the jungle. That’s why we saw so many young Khmer Rouge soldiers when they entered Phnom Penh.”

But the crocodile on a white flag remains a tradition which continued during the KR period as children disappeared.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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