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The crocodile tears of Phnom Sampov

The crocodile tears of Phnom Sampov

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Phnom Sampov, 12 kilometers west of Battambang, is the locale for a Homeric Khmer

legend in which the machinations of a sentient crocodile were foiled by the stroke

of a maiden's hair.

The story begins in the old Khmer capital in the Dangkrek Mountains, where Prince

Reach Kol fell in love with Neang Sovan Macha. Along with her beauty, Sovan Macha

was noted for her close friendship with a talking crocodile named Athon.

But as in contemporary royal families, worries arose over the appropriateness of

Sovan Macha's involvement with a prince. Sovan Macha, after all, was poor and her

relationship with an intelligent crocodile was a source of no small concern

Kol decided to end his relationship and to cement the severing of his son's ties

to Sovan Macha, Kol's father asked his loyalists to find a princess to marry his

son.

Soon enough a suitable match was found in Princess Rom Say Sork of a neighboring

kingdom. Along with the royal blood that flowed in her veins, Say Sork's most notable

other attribute was a head of divine hair that allowed her the granting of any wish

with one stroke of her silky mane.

After the betrothal was finalized, Reach Kol ordered his people to load the engagement

presents onto a ship to retrieve his new wife.

When Sovan Macha learned of this, she flew into a jealous rage and ordered her pet

crocodile Athon to block the ship from leaving port. Attempts by Reach Kol to reason

with Athon were met with the obstinate reply of "I serve only those who feed

me."

That prompted a shower of vegetables, chickens and ducks tossed into the harbor by

Kol and his retinue in the hope that Athon would switch his allegience to them. Athon

chastely ignored the barrage of tempting edibles raining down around him and continued

his blockade of the ship.

Desperate, Reach Kol prayed for divine intervention to allow him to reach his beloved.

A helpful spirit passed on his yearnings to Rom Say Sork herself.

In order to break the control that Athon the crocodile had on her nuptial bliss,

she began stroking her hair and wished that the sea would recede.

The result of her strokes were soon apparent: Athon was soon floundering on the now-empty

sea bottom among the remains of the food that he had declined. He died soon after,

his body becoming a mountain called Crocodile Mountain (Phnom Kroh Peu) within sight

of Phnom Sampov.

Smaller mountains sprang up around Crocodile Mountain, made up of chicken and duck

carcasses and their former cages.

Phnom Sampov is now one of the foremost tourist sites of Battambang province. Both

tourists and locals flock to the area each day to visit the small stupas and temple

at the mountain summit and to view the geological monument to Athon the crocodile

looming in the near distance.

Others pay homage to the lesser-known grisly remnants of the recent past - the Khmer

Rouge-era "killing caves" of Laang Teng Kloun, Lang Lkoun, Laang Pka Sla

and their piles of bleaching bones.

Sadly, those Khmer Rouge victims have not found peace in death. Villagers report

that many of the heads of the victims have been stolen from the caves. Locals speculate

that the heads have been deployed as protective talismans or used by sorcerers to

make magic.

Shrapnel damage on the now-peaceful stu-pas betray the fact that Phnom Sampov

was a front line position for Lon Nol forces during the 1970-1975 civil war.

Hout Phalla, a monk who lives on the mountain's summit, is initiating projects to

develop the area in line with the principles of Buddhist belief.

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