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មតិ | MATI

Ideas     Insight     Inspirations


Updated: Jan 4

My fingers below the name “Mera,” inscribed at the tenth-century temple of Baksei Chamkrong. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

“Where are you going? Where do you come from? What will you do?”[1]

These are the words of Chheng Phon,[2] an eminent figure in the world of Khmer art and culture. The artist was instrumental in reviving shadow play and inventing the genre of folk dance, leading as Minister of Culture and Information after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Lok Ta (Grandfather), as I and many others know him, passed away earlier this year. But his poetic soul and astute philosophy lives on in his students and their students, and in the many forms of dance, music, and performing arts currently practiced in the country.

I would like to dedicate this writing to Lok Ta, and to use his words to explore where we are as a people and where we need to be. I will do so by digging into our creation stories, into our first-known conceptions of self, nationhood, world, and universe. For it is only with understanding of the past, as the great teacher so poignantly suggests, that we can forge higher possibilities and futures.

Naga women next to their serpentine form at the Terrace of the Leper King. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

The earliest Khmer founding myth is Preah Thaong Neang Neak. It is cited in fifth-century Chinese sources,[3] and in a seventh-century inscription tracing the Cham king’s legitimacy to Khmer King Isanavarmann I.[4] Even the Tamil epic Manimekhalai, dated from the sixth century of the Common Era, incorporates a version of the narrative.[5]

Before I recount the story, it is important to bear in mind that different peoples, places, and times have left us with variations of Preah Thaong Neang Neak. Therefore, what follows is the tale only as I carry it:

Once, in a faraway land, there was a brahmin named Preah Thaong. The young man worshipped a deity with deep devotion, and dreamt the god gave him a bow and ordered him to set sail. When he woke up the next morning, Preah Thaong went to pay his respects at the temple. And, to his surprise, he found the same bow at the base of the god’s sacred tree.

Taking this as a good omen, Preah Thaong journeyed with his men into unknown waters, into the domain of a naga (serpent) princess named Neang Neak. Seeing the intruders, the princess raised her army to defend her territory. Preah Thaong fired an arrow into the bow of her ship however, and Neang Neak surrendered upon seeing its powerful magic.

The brahmin demanded that the naga princess marry him, but the ceremony could only be completed in the subterranean realm. Neang Neak therefore transformed into her true serpentine form. The princess swam to the kingdom of the naga as the brahmin hung onto her tail.

Their wedding was celebrated with great festivity by the creatures of the ocean, who sang and danced with an elated joy. Neang Neak’s father, the naga king, swallowed an entire sea in honor of the sacred union. He revealed a most fertile land and named it Kambujadesa, and gave it to the newlyweds to rule.

Kambujadesa—“land born of Kambu”—is known as Kampuchea or Cambodia today. It was known this way by the fifth century of the Common Era, as Chinese records described “Kambuja aliens” making tribute to their court in the first century.[6] We may never know when our ancestors first referred to the country as Kambuja, but let this not stop us from diving deeper into the tale.

Through Preah Thaong Neang Neak, we know that Cambodia has always been a hybridity, a coming together of different peoples, cultures, and realms. Preah Thaong exemplifies the masculine, foreign, and human forces while Neang Neak embodies the feminine, local, and divine. This connection and interchange between different spheres of being and thought is what gave rise to our earliest nation, described as Funan by the Chinese, transliterated as “phnom” by French scholar George Cœdès, but described as Kambuja by our ancestors.

Secondly, kambu is a Pali word for “gold.”[7] Kambujadesa, therefore, means “land born of gold.” This creates a direct connection to ancient concepts of Suvarnabhumi or Sovannaphum, the “land of gold” where many South Asian merchants traveled to trade. In fact, ancient Cambodia was a prime center for trade between India and China, with artifacts of Greek, Roman, and Persian provenance unearthed at Óc Eo in modern day Vietnam.[8] This translation can explain why the name Kampu[9] is used interchangeably with Preah Thaong, as thaong is commonly understood to mean “gold.”

Kampu is associated with another Khmer founding story however, and we must explore it to further understand what creates and animates us as a people. That story is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a story of Hindu origin, but interpreted below based on the bas-relief at Angkor Wat:

Once, a long time ago, the tevea (gods) and yeak wanted to procure amrita. Whoever drank this elixir would be granted the power of immortality. As both sides saw mutual gain, they agreed to join forces.

They decided to have a tug of war to decide who would win the prize. The god Visnu transformed into a giant tortoise to hold up Mount Mandara, the pivot of the contest. And Vasuki, the naga of Siva, wrapped around the mountain to serve as a rope.

For hundreds and thousands of years, the tevea and yeak pulled and pulled but no side seemed to prevail. They pulled until white milk started to bleed and seep from the naga’s body, the fluid quickly forming a vast ocean.

The deities continued to pull and pull, their competition killing the many creatures of the sea. The ocean began to foam as they continued to turn and pivot, some of the bubbles floating into the air and transforming into heavenly dancers known as apsara.

The most talented and beautiful of these apsara—their queen—was Mera. She was given by Siva as a wife to the sage Kampu Svayambhuva, or “Kampu the Self-Born.” It is the union of Kampu and Mera from whom we, Khmer people, originated.

Beyond the name Kampu, there are many things which connect our two founding myths. First is water, sea, and ocean. Even the apsara indicate this, as they take their name from the Sanskrit root ap (water). At the core of our founding myths then are the forces of motion, movement, interchange, and adaptability, as water takes the shape of its container. Secondly, the naga, creatures associated with water and its ability to deliver life and fertility, serve as bridges between different worlds in both stories: between human and non-human, surface and below the surface in the prior; godly and ungodly, mortal and immortal in the latter. Thirdly, there is the generative competition and union of complementary forces. In the first story, a battle produces our land, people, and nation. In the second, a tug of war produces the apsara, and eventually our people.

It is interesting to note that the reptilian naga and heavenly apsara are but one expression of the bridge. Their mutual purpose can be seen in robam kbach boran (classical dance), whose origins are traced to the primal, animist roots of the naga as well as the apsara of Hindu conception. This interchange of naga and apsara, of local[10] and foreign, is mirrored in the way that Khmer kings traced their lineage to both stories, which respectively represented the nation’s lunar and solar dynasties.

Furthermore, the battle between Preah Thaong and Neang Neak always appears to be non-violent. This is mirrored in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat, in which the yeak seem to be handsome, benign, and collaborative. They are nowhere near attacking the tevea in malice, and lack the vicious ferocity seen in their counterparts from India, Tibet, and other parts of Hindu and Buddhist Asia.

This may seem contrary to modern conceptions of yeak, which is often translated as “demon” or “ogre,” but I would like to share the words of my Khmer language teacher: “In the beginning the yeak were beautiful. People wanted to show their power however, so they drew fangs and gave them angry faces to make people respect them.”[11] Furthermore, in Samdech Chuon Nath’s dictionary, the word yeak is defined as​ a “non-human, invisible deity of land, object, or place; an asora; an evil spirit; either good- or bad-hearted that humans venerate and make offerings to.” In fact, the yeak are to the tevea as the titans are to the Olympian gods of ancient Greece (and the apsara are comparable to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty who was born from sea foam).

Yeak in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

If Preah Thaong and Neang Neak and the tevea and yeak of Angkor Wat teach us how to join different communities and ways of thinking, Mera and the apsara teach us how to transcend conflicts that may result from that process.

Indeed, of all the gifts to emerge from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Khmer artists depicted only the apsara at Angkor Wat. They are shown flying with their hands in the dance gesture known as stuoy—the gesture of strength, victory, pride, greatness, celebration, and uplifting. They emerge in astounding numbers like a powerful cloud and demarcate the heavens, flying as if they might raise the entire temple up to the sky.

The apsara are born from the tug of war between tevea and yeak, between right and left, but they are neither tevea nor yeak, neither right nor left. Furthermore, they are polar-opposites of the dead and butchered sea creatures depicted on the bottom of the relief panel. The apsara appear at the top of the scene, springing to life from the forces of competition and conflict, born of violence but neither broken nor destroyed by it, born of violence but transcendent. They also represent a rebirth, in a sense—the force of the central axis sucking in the sea creatures at the bottom, lifting them up and transforming them, and spewing them out as resplendent apsara above.

The apsara then are the triumph of the middle point and path, the balance, power, and creative force of convergences and intersections. Chheng Phon has described them further as “the symbol of the surety of a life free from anxiety . . . [beings] trying to find this surety for others.”[12]

So what might this mean for us today?

Churning of the Ocean of Milk bas-relief at Angkor Wat. Notice the sea creatures that have been split—destroyed at the central axis—as opposed to the apsara who emerge and shoot out from the center at the top. Photo: Kent Davis.

Cambodia is a nation that has been shaped by centuries of war, and our people have been both the conquerors and the defeated. The temples of Angkor—symbols of Khmer victory—are celebrated with great pride as they represent the height of Khmer power and cultural sophistication. On the other hand, the periods after Angkor—when Thailand and Vietnam ate at our country’s territories—is perceived as a time of lost glory, a time conceptualized by French colonials as a “dark age” and imprinted onto the popular Cambodian imagination.

In the modern era, violence manifested in the genocide initiated by the Khmer Rouge, which saw the deaths of a third of the entire population,[13] including ninety percent of Khmer artists. The effects of this conflict are still visible in the country and diaspora today, ranging from landmine victims with missing limbs to the genetic passage of post-traumatic stress disorder. In Long Beach, CA, for example, a survey conducted by Khmer Girls in Action and the University of California – Los Angeles showed that nearly half of Khmer American youth participants possessed symptoms of depression.[14]

War and violence creates a cycle of fear all over the world. The victors manipulate those around them by instilling fear, and in turn fear the possibility of betrayal and revenge. On the other hand, the defeated and oppressed come to fear people and ideas from the outside, manifested in a fear of lost land, lost identity, lost sovereignty, and lost heritage. This culture of fear, and its debilitating effects on Cambodia, is aptly described by Khmer social psychologist Dr. Seanglim Bit:

“Fear is a constant reality in the Cambodian psyche . . . the fear stems from the centuries of complex history, the religious and mythological belief systems and the social arrangements which characterize Cambodian society. Through the systematic use of force to gain advantage, the Cambodian population has become conditioned to accept and tolerate fear as the expected human condition. Compounding the effects of fear in the Cambodian experience is the fact that it is submerged and hidden behind a façade of social characteristics which present a superficial picture of harmony and humility, at least until the recent period of civil strife. Fear is neither identified nor openly recognized as a primary determinant in human psychology or in the conduct of public affairs by those who would assist Cambodia to resolve its contemporary problems or indeed by Cambodians themselves. Fear restrains the exercises of creativity, the ability to conceive new solutions, adaptations or innovations for contributing to general society. Attitudes of self-glorification based on cultural triumphs long past but incompletely understood, have denied present society a source of inspiration for the changes it must make to reform its cultural values. The triad of fear-oppression-false pride creates an infertile ground for progressive self-development. The net result of this triad operating at the various levels of social interaction is a society which does not have the full benefit of its own internal human resources to generate its own self-development and manage incremental social change.”[15]

To root Dr. Bit’s observation in everyday Khmer life, I would like to share an example from the world of classical dance, one that touches upon our methods of pedagogy as well as our interpersonal relationships and social hierarchies. Soth Sam On, my teacher’s teacher, the star performer of yeak roles from the 1950s to 1970s, was once interviewed for the Khmer Dance Project. The late dance master rationalized being hit as a young student by her very strict teacher Lok Khun Mit: “It all depends on fear. If the students are not afraid, they will not learn . . . If they are not afraid, nothing is possible.”[16]

Love, devotion, respect, and fear are often intertwined in Khmer dance and culture. This can be understood somewhat through the word awe, which originally described the wonder and fear one experiences upon seeing a god. Interestingly, in Cambodia, we say that there are three types of gods: the first being our parents who gave us life, the second being our teachers who illuminate our lives, and the third being the Buddha who enlightens our world.

That said, Soth Sam On distinguished between fearing the beating stick and respecting the teacher in her interview. And my own late father has once said, “Making people fear you is not the same as making them respect you.”

The yeak at Angkor Wat have been carved to be respected, not feared. The temple they appear in, in turn, has garnered the admiration of numerous Khmer individuals and groups, appearing on our nation’s flag and inspiring the creation of dance, music, sculpture, and film for generations. It is this grand religious structure that I will address last, as it is perhaps the most potent point of origination for Khmer identity and consciousness today.

Angkor Wat. By sam garza (originally posted to Flickr as Angkor Wat) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

As a people, we take great pride in being the children of Angkor. Dr. Bit writes astutely of this in his essential book The Warrior Heritage:

“To be Cambodian is to be the warrior, the creator and the builder of Angkor Wat. More accurately, to be a Cambodian is to be a descendant of a people that produced architectural masterpieces of the Angkor era which rival the achievements of any of the ancient civilizations.”[17]

In other words, as Khmer, we carry the legacies of the warrior and the artist. We are both the destroyer and the creator, a fact made evident in the many scenes of battle and war exquisitely depicted at Angkor Wat, and in Shiva, the deity most venerated by royalty in ancient Cambodia, whose cosmic dance both destroys and recreates the universe.

Due to centuries of on-going war however, the warrior spirit has prevailed in Cambodia. The positive side of this is a certain strength, vigor, perseverance, urgency, immediacy, and action; its negative is a subtractive, fear-driven mentality, a this-or-that, you-or-me, us-or-them, life-or-death way of thinking and behaving. This must now be balanced by our rich artist spirit, the fertile force that nurtures, grows, connects, creates, invents, and builds. We must become more of a this-and-that, you-and-me, us-and-them, life-and-life-through-death people. Perhaps then we will have new sources of hope, peace, genius, and inspiration, and push our country to a new era of enlightenment, prosperity, wealth, and abundance.

Satellite image of Phnom Penh. Imagery 2017 TerraMetrics, Map data 2017 Google.

As we strive for this then, we must bear in mind and heart the stories of where we come from. They exist in the spaces of the in-between—between history and mythology, body and memory, reality and emotion, person and society, Cambodia and the world. In our work to lift our people and country beyond war and genocide, let us not succumb to fear and the anger, mistrust, divisiveness, and violence that it breeds. This will only render us the sea animals depicted in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, whose bodies are mercilessly broken, torn, and ripped apart at the relief’s central axis.

Instead, let us aim high and strive for the divine apsara. Let us revalue them as more than pretty decorations, carry them for their fullest power and transcendent resilience. In fact, in Java, the apsara are known as vidyadhari, as “holders of knowledge.” And knowledge is liberating.

How will Cambodia nurture its next generation of svayambhuva—those who are born of themselves, those who are self-made and self-creating? How will it attract and retain the brightest minds and visionary talents who constantly define their fields and disciplines, from inside and outside of its borders? And what must we do to allow these leaders to contribute fully to our systems of culture and education, health and urban planning, environmental conservation and industrial development?

On our journey forward then, let us remember Lok Ta’s words which reminds us to constantly assess, understand, and re-chart our trajectories. Let us strive to interact in non-violent generative union, without demonizing the other in our moments of tension and conflict. And let us shed away our skins of fear, transforming our historical wounds and painful legacies into sources of strength, imagining and creating new stories, meanings, and possibilities for our individual selves, our families, our communities, and our country.

For example, contrary to popular Khmer belief, a smaller Cambodia is not necessarily a sign of weakness nor decay. It is an opportunity. Smaller requires fewer resources, enables greater precision and care, is easier to manage and faster to mobilize. And, if the development of technology and medicine is any indication, size is neither a marker of strength, efficacy, impact, power, nor influence.

Therefore, let us be like tiny, precious diamonds that form under immense heat and pressure. And let us be like beautiful pearls, which form in response to illness and danger.

Phnom Penh, the current capital of our country, was once called the “Pearl of Asia.”[18] The city was also once known as Krong Chatumok, the “City of Four Faces,” as it sits on the convergence of multiple rivers. This intersection mirrors our earliest founding stories and the wisdom of our ancestors, which emphasizes the generative capacities of connection, intersection, interchange, adaptability, and hybridity. It is a ritual image of creative power, universal omniscience, and cosmic radiance—not unlike the mandala upon which Angkor Wat was modeled.

Let the past, present, and future converge in and through us then. And let the most groundbreaking people, ideas, images, approaches, narratives, systems, and technologies converge on our city. Let us filter, transform, and improve all these things—creating, developing, and inventing those of our own ingenuity—so that they may flow to the rest of Cambodia and beyond, uplifting our people and country, and with that, the world.

- - - - -

[1] The phrase in Khmer is: ទៅណាមកពីណាធ្វើអី?

[2] My friend Anjan pointed out that this is very similar to Gauguin’s famous questions, written on the back of one of his works.

[3] Yung Wai-Chuen, Peter. Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals. Oxford University Press, 2000. Page 10.

[4] Southward, William A. “The Coastal States of Champa.” Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History, edited by Ian Glover and Peter Bellwood, RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, pp. 224.

[5] Even Japan's eighth-century Kojiki, or "Record of Ancient Matters," includes a creation myth nearly identical to Preah Thaong Neang Neak. Please see the story of Toyotama-hime and Yamasachi-hiko, the grandparents of Emperor Jimmu (Japan's first emperor).

[6] Yung Wai-Chuen, Peter. Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals. Oxford University Press, 2000. Page 10.

[7] My friend Trent Walker, a scholar of Buddhism and performer of smot (dharma chanting), tells me that it can mean “gold” but also “a piece of jewelry” or “conch.” All these meanings are attested in Samdech Chuon Nath’s dictionary, with “gold” being the first and primary definition.

[8] The name Óc Eo is a French transliteration of the Khmer Or Kaiv, which means “glass” or “crystal canal.”

[9] I am interchanging Kambu and Kampu here, the first being the romanization of Sanskrit and the latter being the common, contemporary spelling. No matter what, it refers to the same thing and person.

[10] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987. Pages 265 - 267. The word naga is believed to have been incorporated into the vocabulary of India from Southeast Asia. And the Manimekhalai may have adopted the being and its associated narratives from there as well.

[11] Name has been omitted. Personal communication, 2016.

[12] Shapiro-Phim, Toni. Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1994. Page 77.

[13] Shapiro-Phim, Toni. “Flight and Renewal.” Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso, edited by Prumsodun Ok, self-published, 2013, pp. 10 - 13. Be advised that numbers vary for this estimate.

[14] Minasian, Stephanie. “Khmer Girls in Action Fight for Youth Rights.”, 2 Nov. 2011, Accessed 4 Sept. 2017.

[15] Bit, Seanglim. The Warrior Heritage. Self-Published, 1991. Pages 135 – 136.

[16] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Soth Sam On, 2008-03-30" The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

[17] Bit, Seanglim. The Warrior Heritage. Self-Published, 1991. Page 3.

[18] My friend Roger Nelson, an Australian curator and art historian, says that many cities in Asia have been described, or have described themselves, as the “Pearl of Asia.” Personal communication, September 2017.

Originally published on Facebook on June 16, 2023.

Getting ready to read AFTERPARTIES. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

I rarely have the time to read these days, to the point where academic reading for research has become a guilty pleasure. So now that I’ve returned home, and have a bit of a break, I took this chance to read AFTERPARTIES by the late queer Khmer American author Anthony Veasna So. I just want to say, to see Khmer American writers achieve the attention and success that he did—it makes me proud and hopeful. May we, in the near future, and far into it, be delighted, surprised, challenged, nurtured, and empowered by many more Khmer and Khmer American writers and artists to come.

First off, to appreciate the value of this book, I think it’s necessary to understand the situation and environment of many Khmer Americans. For those of us who are second-generation like Anthony and myself, our parents and siblings survived the unfathomable horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide, pushed through the human trafficking and lack of resources in refugee camps along the Thai border, and were thrown into American communities of cyclical poverty, violence, and suffering that were exacerbated by barriers of race, culture, and language. In many ways, we inherited a legacy of loss, brokenness, and fracturing, as was constantly conveyed to us in newspapers, books, movies, and television segments.

Following the tropes of American literature and media, the dichotomy of being neither Khmer nor American enough was hammered into us. And we came to think of ourselves and see the world that way. Even when people talked about anything Asian, Khmer and other Southeast Asian communities were largely invisible—unless, of course, there was a gang shooting down the street or it had something to do with the Khmer Rouge. This double-pronged reality of being unseen while being allowed only certain images, spaces, and possibilities was the reality for many second-generation Khmer Americans such as Anthony and myself. And, in the case of Anthony and I, as two gay Khmer American men, myself now the founder of Cambodia’s first gay dance company, we had the added weight of only seeing crude caricatures of LGBTQ people in movies and shows like Jerry Springer. We got the message: We were not enough.

With this in mind, we can recognize the value of Anthony’s book, which, in many ways, represents the intergenerational journey, growth, and transcendence that reflects the experiences of many refugee and immigrant communities. It is that flower that breaks through concrete and shatters earth and stone, to be commended for its sheer will, resilient existence, and individual character.

Reading AFTERPARTIES, I am constantly aware of Anthony’s personal perspective and world, which spans richly across lands, lives, realms, and times through an interconnected web of family, friends, lovers, and realities (including those that may have been embellished and colored). It brings to light the struggles, spirituality, strength, and love of Khmer American families and communities, especially important as we often did not have the capacity to communicate and express the nature of these things amongst ourselves. The choices in transcription of Khmer words, although small details, such as in the word “Pou” which means “uncle” and which I would instead transcribe as “Pu,” as well as in “Cha” as opposed to the proper “Achar,” reflects the mishearing and misunderstanding that characterizes the gaps in language, culture, and history that has riddled our experiences as second-generation Khmer Americans. Furthermore, it emphasizes the personal experience of Anthony, as well as his individual idiosyncrasies and particularities.

AFTERPARTIES is wonderfully Anthony Veasna So. It also suffers from this fact as well. This is exemplified in the high school badminton players in “Superking Son Scores Again” and Rithy in “The Monks” who, despite differences in age, personality, and time, well, kind of all sound like Anthony. In fact, in a work that jumps between the experiences, perspectives, and spaces of different characters, everyone rather much sounds the same and seems to carry and speak with Anthony’s voice, humor, and cultural references. Perhaps it is the voice of Anthony, as a writer looking back, reflecting upon and even projecting onto the past. I was often unsure of what was being said in Khmer or English, and felt that changes in diction, grammar, and thought processes might have made for a more realistic, dynamic, and diverse intertwining of characters. The best example of this type of writing I can recall is William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.”

That said, Anthony shines brilliantly in stories such as “The Shop” and “Human Development,” segments exploring family, relationships, and life which seem to come from first-hand experience. There is a confidence and authenticity to these sections, which flow with a natural rhythm and power. The irreverent content, characterized by sex and modern loneliness, reflects a particularly American form of queer defiance, which may perhaps be a result of Anthony’s liberal college education and social circles. In fact, “Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly,” though written in another person’s perspective but is beautifully put to text (compare to “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts”), may partly be so believable and convincing because this character, a female nurse caring for her dying relative, shares with Anthony that experience of higher education that has been so unattainable for our parents and elders—and for many within second-generation Khmer America even.

In short, most recently, after a long hike in the mountains surrounding Seattle, I found myself at a dinner table eating pho with a chosen family of Khmer Americans. Like Anthony, some of us were born and raised on these unceded lands while others were born in the refugee camps or recently emigrated from Cambodia. In relaying my thoughts and feelings about the book, of wishing that I was pulled and absorbed into Anthony’s world through the senses, of how it sometimes felt too plot-driven, my beloved sister Bong Navin acknowledged my opinions and said, “But I have never felt more seen. You want him to be the writer that he would have been in five or ten years.”

Indeed, AFTERPARTIES in its shortcomings and strengths left me wanting and wishing, left me hungry for more. I felt I was offered a potent seed of possibility, in the writing and life of a fellow Khmer American writer and artist who has led, and in many ways, could have been the torch bearer for contemporary Khmer American literature. Like Bong Navin, I am thankful for Anthony’s journey as a writer which has been wonderfully encapsulated in such a meaningful book, and for being seen and made seen by Anthony. Furthermore, I want to thank Anthony for, despite the harshness and complexities of life, making our generation enough. More than enough, even. And I hope that, Anthony, wherever in the universe you are, I hope that you return to us across the borders of lives and times to continue to share your gift of a self.

The following is a transcript of a talk I delivered at the Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA Home Studio on April 9, 2023, in celebration of the Khmer New Year. An unscripted retelling of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso was made on that day, which has been replaced in this post with a TED-Ed animation I wrote. At the end of this transcript is a video documenting an excerpted, thirty-minute performance of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso from that evening.

Wooden window panels at the National Museum in Phnom Penh depict Ream Eyso's pursuit of Moni Mekhala through the skies. Interestingly, the goddess's name has been uniquely rendered here as Meghala, emphasizing her connection to the "megha" or rain clouds. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is today arguably the most sacred work of the Khmer classical dance canon. Performed annually in the elaborate buong suong ceremony, the nearly three-hour drama invokes the forces of water, earth, fire, air, and ether, is a prayer for the fall and flow of life-giving waters. A story exploring nature and cosmos, gender and leadership, ingenuity and innovation, Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso has stood the tests of war and time, living in the hearts of Khmer people from one generation to the next, manifesting in the form of painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, animation, and song.

In this talk, we will explore the origins, characters, and thematic elements of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, by examining a diverse array of multicultural and multidisciplinary sources spanning more than 1,000 years. In so doing, we will gain insight into and illuminate a beloved tale whose telling through body, voice, and sound is believed to stir the powers of life itself.

Therefore, to begin our journey, I will now share the story of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, passed on to me from my teacher, who received it from her teachers, and so on.  

As we can see, the story of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso revolves around five characters (or groups of characters). There is the heroine Moni Mekhala, goddess of the ocean, master of lightning, who represents water. There is Vorachhun, a human prince whose solo traditionally opens the dance drama, who represents earth. There is the thundering demon Ream Eyso, whose anger and fury represents fire. There are the gods and goddesses who protect Moni Mekhala, acting as clouds Ream Eyso must rip through in the dance drama; they represent air. And finally there is Lok Ta Moni Eisei, who creates space for his students by passing on his knowledge as a teacher, as well as space for the drama to unfold by conceiving of the competition and disappearing from the narrative thereafter. Lok Ta represents the force of ether. Our characters then, represent the five cosmic forces of the sacred universe.

To further understand the origins of this tale, let us now turn to an analysis of the three central characters.

The shining star of the drama is the sea goddess Moni Mekhala. In the standard Sanskrit spelling, her name means “girdle of gems” or “jeweled belt”—perhaps inspired by how a band of sunlight twinkles on water, or to glistening ocean, river, and lake waters themselves. Moni Mekhala appears in Buddhist jataka tales, ancient Tamil epic literature, and various versions of the Ramayana as found in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Some scholars posit that she is an indigenous Southeast Asian goddess, watching over the ocean from the southeast of India all the way to these shores of Suvarnabhumi (which was the ancient Indian name for Southeast Asia, and a name Khmers used since at least the seventh century). She conforms to an Asian pattern of female deities who protect travelers—exemplified by Lok Yeay Mao of Cambodia, Java’s Queen of the Southern Seas Nyai Roro Kidul, Ma-tsu and Tin Hau of Chinese cultures, and the Munakata Goddesses of Japan. Interestingly, this image of the nurturing, female life-saver may reflect the psyches and subconscious sexual desires of men at the mercy of the ocean; their psyches and subconscious sexual desires, as well as the tumultuous force of ocean and nature, may also reflect her image as a playful trickster as well.

Before moving on, I will now briefly highlight some mentions of the sea goddess Moni Mekhala.

In the Mahajanaka Jataka, which belongs to a large collection of tales exploring the Sakyamuni Buddha’s previous lives, Moni Mekhala saves the bodhisattva who has been floating in the ocean for seven days after a shipwreck. She had been too consumed by the dance and song of heavenly festivities, that she failed to notice him in his struggle.

In the ancient Tamil epic Manimekhalai, the heroine Manimekhalai is named after the sea goddess Manimekhala as the latter had once saved Manimekhalai’s ancestor. The goddess aids Manimekhalai in her avoidance of Prince Udayakumara, so that she can sever ties of karma and desire in her journey towards enlightenment. In a religiously diverse and competitive environment, the Manimekhalai describes the goddess as such:      

“Manimekhala, the goddess of the ocean . . . [d]escended from heaven like a ray of light . . . the solitary and distant goddess, endowed with immense wisdom and knowledge of all things past and future . . . declaim[ed] the Buddha’s praise . . . Manimekhala, the goddess of the ocean, like a glittering jewel . . . who in her heavenly form is as brilliant as lightning . . . Manimekhala, the divine protectress of the immense ocean, whom the whole world worships.”[1]

The epic goes on to relate how, distraught by the death of his half-naga child, “the Chola king Neduvil Killi . . . neglected to celebrate the annual festival in Indra’s honor, which provoked the god’s fury.  The sovereign of the gods then summoned Manimekhala, the sea goddess, to order the sea to swallow up Puhar.”[2]

In the literature of Cambodia, Moni Mekhala appears in the Reamker or Khmer version of the Ramayana, where, as recited by the bard Lok Ta Chak, she protects Neang Seda or Sita who has been cast into a box and thrown into the waters from Langka. She has the infant suckle on her finger as she delivers her to the safety of shore. In the oldest extant written Khmer version, composed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Moni Mekhala tricks the destructive buffalo Dubhi into challenging Peali (Valin).

The setting sun creates a belt of light on the ocean waters of Seattle. This natural phenomenon may be an origin source for the name Manimekhala. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Let us now turn our attention to Ream Eyso. In the Reamker, he has additionally been named as Ream Boromasor, Reamasor, and Reamesor. Ream Boromasor, the name from the oldest extant Khmer text, can be translated as “Rama, the Supreme Sound” or “Rama, the Supreme Demon”. Despite being regarded as a demon in Khmer culture, Ream Eyso is actually Parasurama or Rama of the Axe, an avatar of the Hindu god Visnu. A symbol of strength, morality, and familial obeisance, he is celebrated by Hindus as an immortal who fought off the ocean to claim India’s southwestern coasts. The divine, sagely warrior Parasurama likely evolved into the demon Ream Eyso due to the complicated violence which surrounded his life.

One such example is how his brahmin father—feeling that his own wife was impure and filled with desire—ordered Parasurama to kill his own mother. Fulfilling his duty as a faithful son, Parasurama used his heavenly axe gifted from the god Siva to end her life. Receiving a boon from his father for his piety, Parasurama asks his father to restore his mother’s life. In another example, upon the murdering of his father by the king Arjuna Kartavirya, Parasurama kills and rids the world of the ksatriya caste—save a family to which he had descent.   

As a killer of mother and destroyer of royalty then, Parasurama turned Ream Eyso was antithetical to the values of Khmer elite. Although referred to as a “divine risi, a heavenly sage adorned and ruling with satyadharma,” in the sixteenth century Reamker, he was fatally painted as someone who is jealous, brash, haughty, violent, prideful, and foolish.[3] And, in Cambodia today, in this Buddhist country, Ream Eyso is often seen as a symbol of ignorance and darkness.  

Here is a brief excerpt from the Reamker, from a translation I have in progress, to give you an idea of his character:

That time,

Ramaparamasura, Rama the Supreme Sound, 

Vicious and aggressive, audacious and daring,

Great teacher of skillful, magic arrows.

Heard echoing, ‘Teja! Oh great glorious teja! Victory!’

In regards to Rama, royal son of the supreme,

Stainless venerable one full of flaming teja, Dasaratha.

Such a grandiose courage and bravery, a might ever real,

To even dare and choose,

That sacred name, ‘His Sacredness Lord Rama,’ ultimate and victorious.

Ramaparamasura, that demon he,

Thought in his heart,

Considering and examining, regretting his name.

Erupting in a vicious fury, burning and scorching in a powerful pained offense,

He flew off in bold and brash arrogance,

Intent with his weapons and arms.

Holding arrows and bows and even an axe,

Sharp, precise, and clear they were, as was his wish to destroy,

And to test his austere tapa ever imposing and majestic.

In that instant he floated upon the army of His Sacredness, the Great,

Janaka, royal father,

Of Lord Rama, one of blazing, glorious teja, and Lord Laksmana.

Saying, “Hey Dasaratha, why did you,

Choose for your own son,

My own sacred name, ‘Lord Rama.’

Your bing of a child transgressing teachers a weakling,

Only brave and valorous, having teja in accord with,

The sphere and domain of the human world.

Yet you dare to regard your son as divinity,

As a manifestation of god, calling him great,

Dragging our reputations down to the bottom, insulting us—a most heavy crime.

I will destroy and extinguish, rid the age and life,

Of your bing of a son,

Ruin him, now, oh in this very instant!”

His Sacred Feet Lord Dasaratha replied in return,

“Oh divine risi, heavenly sage adorned and ruling,

With satyadharma, with the true ways of the world.

Regarding the name of my son here,

I was not present,

To refer to you from my heart.

But the great risi of one hundred thousand holy chambers did conceive it,

Gathered around with their mastery and magic,

Including the great risi, the Muni.

The name was chosen for the reason, oh,

That my royal son, eldest and foremost,

Possesses a teja, a spiritual fire most powerful.

Therefore all those royal isi, courtly sages gathered round,

Along with the heavenly, the divine, the god that is Muni,

Endowed with sacred names and blessings.

They all called him Rama Deba, God Rama, excellent and exquisite,

Full of power, abundant,

Complete in punya, in unbreakable blessings and merit, oh for this reason.”[4]

Ream Boromasor then flies off to fight for his name with Preah Ream, to whom he loses.

Let us now turn to Vorachhun. In Cambodia, Vorachhun is regarded as a human prince. His death and revival in the dance drama is a symbol for the cycle and renewal of life. As such, his wearing of gold can be likened to a ripened rice field ready for harvest. In the dance drama, Vorachhun clashes with an angry Ream Eyso looking to pick a fight. The latter does so by—mirroring his confrontation with Dasaratha and Preah Ream—questioning Vorachhun if he knows his name which can be heard throughout the Treta Yuga. Vorachhun responds: “Hey now! As for my name, the name Vorachhun resounding throughout the Treta, I flew by way of the path in the sky, without stepping on anybody’s head. Even with the likes of ten-headed, twenty-armed Reab, I was victorious, capturing and binding him.”

From this detail in the dance drama, of Vorachhun besting Reab or Ravana, we know clearly that Vorachhun is Arjuna Kartavirya. The Valmiki Ramayana describes a scene in which Arjuna Kartavirya dams up a powerful river so that his wives may bathe. Ravana, full of lust, attempts to seize the women but he is engaged by Arjuna Kartavirya and beaten and humiliated. As a result, in other tellings of the Ramayana, Ravana is only freed after Parasurama kills Arjuna Kartavirya—when he kills the king who robbed and murdered his father.

It is interesting to explore how the name Arjuna can go to Vorachhun, or why it might have gone that way. In the Khmer language, there exists a pattern of labial and labio-dental sounds morphing into a guttural “a” sound. Examples of this include បណ្ឌិត (paṇḍit) to អណ្ទិត (aṇdit) and ភ្នំពេញ (Phnom Penh) to អំពេញ (Am Penh). It is not unlike the Japanese particle を, which was read as “wo” in ancient days, is read as “o” today, but is often read as “wo” in song and poetry. 

However, this sonic switch is likely a deliberate choice of Khmer poets to compound deities and embed further meaning into the drama. It is my hypothesis that Vorachhun, as he is known in Cambodia, is Arjuna Kartavirya conflated with the Vedic deity Parjunya—one of twelve aditya who take turns presiding over the sun. Specifically, Parjunya rules over the sun during the rainy season, bringing rain. This would further explain why the character is associated with the color gold in Khmer dance practice, and linguistic evidence further solidifies this relationship. Middle Khmer បស្សា (passā) is synonymous with the more standard Pali វស្សា (vassā) meaning “rain” and “rainy season”, which in turn makes us think about the popular Indian male name Varshan which means “Lord of Rain” or “Falling of Rain”. Ream Eyso throwing Vorachhun against Mount Meru then, represents the piercing and puncturing, the breaking of rain clouds to deliver the seeds of life.

What binds these three characters then is the Reamker. And the Reamker, and the many versions of the Ramayana, makes ample use of frame tales, or stories within stories that are used to foil and entangle characters and plots. So for example, the exiled Preah Ream and his half-brother Bhirut who assumes the throne of Ayudhyea are foiled against the monkey brothers Peali and Sugrib and demon brothers Reab and Biphek to explore what is the proper and improper thought and action of an elder and younger brother. When Neang Seda runs away from Preah Ream, who has faked his death to get her to return to Ayudhyea, he is likened to Reamesor pursuing Moni Mekhala through the skies. In fact, the indigenous-Buddhist sea goddess Moni Mekhala—who does not appear in South Asian versions of the Ramayana—foils Neang Seda in that she is never caught or overpowered by her aggressor. She also foils the apsara Rambha, dressed in blue regalia, who, in the Valmiki Ramayana, Ravana rapes mid-air as she makes her way to marry his nephew. The introduction of Moni Mekhala into the Reamker then, would have amplified and pronounced the tragedy and danger of Neang Seda’s abduction and confinement. And it would not be far of stretch to say that the tragedy of Rambha, as well as the Tamil heroine Manimekhalai’s avoidance of Prince Udayakumara in her pursuit of enlightenment, also might have informed ancient Khmer poets in constructing the image of Moni Mekhala who bears the image of a chaste, upright woman.

Looking inside and outside of the Reamker, we will understand Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso even further. For example, there are certain images and themes that connect the Ramayana with the Mahabharata. Specifically, the battles between the monkey brother’s Peali and Sugrib and the demi-god brothers Arjuna and Karna. In each of these pairs, one is the son of Indra, the god of thunder and storms, while the other is the son of Surya, the sun god. Their battles then become a symbol for the integral relationship and interplay of sun and rain that is essential to agricultural life. To perform these scenes then, beyond their moralistic aspects, may have been a ritualistic, cosmological invocation. In fact, conflict and rain are intertwined in the Khmer psyche as can be seen in the words ច្បាំងរាំងជល (chhbang ramng chul) which Samdech Choun Nath translates as having “war and drought.” Perhaps the rains will come when there is a winner.

Likewise, Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is a drama rife with battles used to invoke the fall of rain and flow of water. The dance drama is opened by Vorachhun, whose name already suggests the seasonal and heavenly rains Cambodia had and continues to rely upon. He is killed by Ream Eyso which further releases water, for Vorachhun, as Arjuna Kartavirya, had dammed a mighty river in India’s epic literature. Ream Eyso’s engagement with Moni Mekhala, further stoking battle, then brings the conflict between female and male, passive and active, royal and ascetic, Buddhist and Hindu, indigenous and foreign to the fore. 

For it is in looking at the story as one of religious competition where we see the drama as one of competing cultic vajra. In Buddhism, vajra refers to “diamond.” It is the origin of the Khmer word ពេជ្រ (IAST: bejra, but commonly romanized as pich in Khmer transliteration conventions). In Hinduism however, vajra is generally interpreted as “thunder.”[5] Respectively, diamond and thunder represent “a nature that cannot be destroyed” and “a force that cannot be resisted.” Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is the story of these two opposing poles of thought, which come together in generative conflict to create lightning, thunder, rain, and life. It is the story of feminine, indigenous, and Buddhist triumph, manifested by a goddess whose cintamani or wish-fulfilling jewel shines with the power of her ingenuity, innovation, and leadership. She in fact, is herself the jewel, powerfully brilliant, flashing, and blinding, wonderfully rare, fleeting, and unattainable, like the joy and wonder of Buddhist enlightenment.

Excerpt of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso performed by dance artists of Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA on April 9, 2023. Moni Mekhala is played by Soeurn Chamreoun; Ream Eyso by Morn Sopharoth; and Vorachhun by Dy Puthik. Music by Royal University of Fine Arts and Sophiline Arts Ensemble. Translation and subtitles by Prumsodun Ok.

[1] Merchant-Prince Shattan, translated by Alain Danielou.  Manimekhalai: The Dancer with the Magic Bowl.  New Directions Books, 1989.  Page 21 – 23, 120.

[2] Merchant-Prince Shattan, translated by Alain Danielou.  Manimekhalai: The Dancer with the Magic Bowl.  New Directions Books, 1989.  Page 150.

[3] Ramakerti. Buddhist Institute, 1995. Fascicle 1, page 21.

[4] Ramakerti. Buddhist Institute, 1995. Fascicle 1, page 20 - 22.

[5]  “Vajra or Dorje.” Religion and Spirituality. Web. 24 Dec. 2023.


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