In the first in a series of articles on locations that figure prominently in Cambodian
legend and how they've survived into modernity, BOU SAROEUN visits the twin
"male and female mountains" of Phnom Pros and Phnom Serei
"Male Mountain", at left, viewed from "Female Mountain"
About 116 km Northeast of Phnom Penh on National Route 7, a few kilometers west of
Kampong Cham town, there are two mountains popularly known as Phnom Pros and Phnom
Srei (male and female mountains). The shorter of the two mountains is Phnom Pros
and the taller is Phnom Srei.
In the annals of Khmer legend, the twin mountains were formed as the result of a
competition between the men and women of an ancient Cambodian kingdom to resolve
which sex would be responsible for wedding proposals.
The competition was necessitated by the rule of Princess Srei Ayoutyea, who found
that fear of her high position prevented men from asking her hand in marriage.
In order to circumvent the tradition that men should do the asking, Ayoutyea decreed
that women were responsible for proposing marriage.
While the princess's decree might have allowed her a measure of personal marital
bliss, a successive kingdom was rocked by protests by women who complained of the
risks of rejection that their role as marriage proposers entailed.
The stuff that Khmer legends are made of.
To resolve the matter, a mountain-building competition was organized between representative
teams of men and women to determine once and for all which sex should would be delegated
to proposing marriage.
The rules of the competition were clear - both sides could build the size of their
mountain until the morning star rose in the sky.
As night fell, the women's team could see that their mountain -building efforts were
falling behind those of their more powerful male competitors.
Therefore, the women quickly prepared a flying lantern which they then launched into
the northeastern sky.
Mistaking the lantern for the morning star, the men ceased their efforts and went
to sleep while the women redoubled their efforts until the star actually rose in
The men woke to find their mountain shorter than that of their female competitors
and thus the rules of Cambodian matrimony were changed forever.
In contemporary times, Phnom Srei and Phnom Pros were popular sight-seeing spots
prior to the civil war, drawing crowds of visitors attracted to the area's natural
Unfortunately, that same thick undergrowth attracted fighters of all sides and
the temples on both mountains suffered heavy damage.
After 1975, the area became one of Kampong Cham's main "killing fields",
where thousands of the Khmer Rouge revolution's "new people" were detained
and then murdered.
Nearby resident Kim Soy Piseth, 30, narrowly missed being executed at the site along
with his family in early 1977 when the group of detainees they had arrived with were
inexplicably sent back to their villages.
As a result of the recent peace and stability enjoyed by the country, the twin mountains
are again becoming day-tripper destinations for Cambodians.
Contributions from visitors have helped to rebuild the Ratanak Phnom Pros pagoda,
but at a price.
Land is being continually cleared for the construction of memorial stupas in the
name of luminaries such as Okhna Sim Vana, Poa Tre and former Kampong Cham Governor
Hun Neng, threatening to spoil the area's natural environment.
Mao Sophon, 67, a former monk at the pagoda, is concerned that the stupa-building
boom will increase the threat of erosion.
"They are very cunning," Sophon said of the stupa-builders. "They
donate quite a lot of money or other gifts before asking for pieces of land to build
a stupa. This makes is very difficult for the pagoda committee or the head monk to
The threat of the stupa-building to the area's natural beauty has motivated Kampong
Cham Governor Cheang Am to forbid any future construction in the area.
"This place is a tourist site and we want to develop it to attract tourists,"
Am said. "Stupa-builders can find somewhere else."