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The Mountains of Matrimonial Manners

The Mountains of Matrimonial Manners


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 sky.

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

beauty.

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

say no."

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."

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