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Sacred mountain's tale gouged by stonemasons

Sacred mountain's tale gouged by stonemasons

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The skyline of Phnom Baseth from Route 5 north-west of Phnom Penh traces ancient and modern legend and history.

A huge quarry dug out of Phnom Baseth, visible from National Route 5 about 15 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh, is the locale for yet another typically lurid Cambodian legend of murder and redemption.

It is here, according to legend, that Baksei Cham Krong, a royal heir, sought sanctuary from the cruel and inexplicably murderous excesses of Preah Bath Ponea Krek in the 11th century.

The successor to Krong's father, Krek sought to eliminate the threat of potential rivals to his throne by initiating a campaign of murder against all other male royal progeny.

Unbeknownst to Krek, Krong's mother fled to the countryside as a means of protecting her unborn son.

Krek was satisfied that his reign would be unchallenged until a consultation with a fortune teller revealed Krek's existence. The helpful fortuneteller followed up that initial tip with complete details as to Krong's mother's whereabouts.

The king's troops tracked her down and publicly disemboweled her to prevent the birth of her son. Unwilling to accept such a fate, Krong's unborn baby dodged the swords that ravaged his mother's abdomen and then crawled out of her gaping wound to seek safety.

A large bird, attracted by the smell of fresh offal, took pity on the still-fetal Krong and used its wing to protect him from the fierce sun until a kind-hearted individual by the name of Ta Ko Hey stepped in to rescue the child.

Seven years later, however, Krek again consulted his fortune teller, who again revealed the existence of Krong. Unable to discern Krong's location this time round, the fortune teller instead divined that Krong had on his hand a distinctive chakra.

Krek declared that all of the kingdom's children must be thumb-printed, with the soldiers ordered to immediately put to death any children with chakras on their hands.

Advised of their true intent when the royal thumbprinters reached his village, Ta Ko Key fled to a nearby mountain where Krong lived safely until he himself assumed the throne upon reaching manhood.

In recognition of the mount-ain's utility in preserving his life, Krong christened the mountain Phnom Rusey Sith, a name later changed to Phnom Baseth for unknown reasons.

Baseth mountain is now a popular weekend and holiday tourist site. A new paved road currently under construction that leads to the top of the mountain is expected to attract even greater numbers of visitors upon completion.

Visitors to the mountain can make offerings to a 27 meter reclining Buddha statue as well as visit the Neang Lak temple, itself the fabled entrance of a tunnel once said to run between the mountain and the former Royal capital of Oudong.

Environmentally, the combination of rampant, uncontrolled quarrying at the base of the mountain and reported land grabbing and deforestation is a source of growing concern for neighboring residents.

So Sac, 53, a self-appointed forester and mountain guardian, says that his attempts to prevent land grabbing and illegal tree-felling have led to Krek-like threats against his life on more than one occasion.

"This is our national property and if they continue to treat the mountain like this our culture and mountain will be destroyed soon," he said sadly.

Another element of discord in the area is the construction of the Kong So Em Chinese Taoist temple on the mountain's summit in the early 1990s.

"We are just concerned about our history... we don't discriminate but people must not make religious trouble," said Sok Doung, 63, in reference to the Taoist Kong So Em temple.

"Cambodia has a lot of open space... why did they not build [the Taoist temple] there? Why did they build it near a revered Buddhist pagoda?"

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