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  • Writer's picturePrumsodun Ok


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.

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