Today we visited the grave of a Cambodian man-turned-hero-turned-deity. I wanted to do a little bit of internet research about the man before writing this post, but digging turned up a few glaring inaccuracies. If internet search results are anything to go by this tale isn’t very well-known outside of Cambodia, and so I’ll attempt to tell it one way, simply, then list the inaccuracies at the end. And stick with me because it gets a little odd.
The sources I found couldn’t seem to agree on the English name for our hero. Klang Moeung, Klang Meung, Klang Merng, Khleang Moeang, and Klaing Moeung were five that I came across.
I’ll use Klang Moeung.
From the year 1504 a king named Srey Sukonthor ruled the relatively new Kingdom of Cambodia. 1512 saw the end of his rule, when an enthusiastic rebellion successfully overthrew the crown and saw its leader, Sdach Korn, take the throne. History seems to have forgotten a great deal of information about Korn, but this person labels him as a jealous peasant whose sister was wed to King Sukonthor. Korn grew up, built an army, rebelled, drove out the king, and ultimately ended the 94-year Chaktomuk era of Cambodia. The displaced King Sukonthor was killed and his younger brother Chan Reachea – rightful heir to the throne – fled to Thailand (then ‘Siam’ with Sukhothai as the capital – our photos of the ancient city are in this post).
During his time in Siam, Chan Reachea became adept at hunting elephants. In 1516 he managed to convince the King of Siam (Ramathibodi II) that he’d found a 5-metre high elephant living in the eastern forests. The king excitedly gave Reachea 5000 armies, 100 elephants, food, and swords to capture it.
Reachea and his army followed the imaginary trail to the Cambodian border and then sent word to Ramathisbodi asking for more food. Unfortunately, the king had come to his senses and realised that there was actually no such thing as a giant elephant. Likely embarrassed, he ordered his armies to seize Reachea.
But before they could, Chan Reachea fled over the border back to his homeland and somehow managed to gather 10,000 armies to march on Pursat – the very town where I sit writing this post 500-years later. Presumably, the Thai king dropped the matter and returned back to his palace to engage in less embarrassing pursuits.
Back in Cambodia, battles between Korn and Reachea were won and lost, but at one point it looked like certain death for the rightful king – his remaining army was surrounded by Korn’s forces.
Enter our hero Klang Moeung. Klang was no warrior, but he did have a strong connection with the spirit world. Some accounts refer to him as a general, while others refer to him as more of a shaman. Whatever he was, he proved adept at sneaking through the enemy lines to learn of their battle plans, and he quickly realised that Reachea was in a predicament he couldn’t possibly fight his way out of.
Suddenly Klang had a great idea.
After digging a deep hole, Klang filled it with poison-tipped spears, and proceeded to dive in, killing himself instantly. Victory! Seeing this noble deed, Reachea’s step-sister Nakmaneang Kev jumped in after him, killing herself too. Two children (possibly theirs) also jumped in and died.
But that is not how the story of Klang ends. From there, he (and presumably Nakamaneang and the kids as well) commanded an army of ghosts which plagued King Korn’s forces with diseases, eventually helping to win back the throne for Chan Reachea in 1525, who then, to keep things confusing, changed his name to King Barom Reachea III.
Inconsistencies in the tale
It seems to be common knowledge that Reachea’s army were fighting against the Siamese during their invasion, but the Siamese had pulled out of Cambodia by 1431, which is about 168-years before these events unfolded. Also commonly mentioned is that everything happened in the Longvek Era, which doesn’t fit with the Siamese invasion, but does fit with the other dates. From this we can assume that our protagonists weren’t fighting the Siamese at all – it was purely a civil war.
The dates of the king seem strange too. On the list of Cambodian monarchs (on Wikipedia), Barom Reachea III wasn’t sitting on the throne until 1599, which is 74-years (and seven kings) later than the story suggests.
Another confusing aspect to the tale was where Klang sacrificed himself. Some accounts say it happened in Pursat, central Cambodia, while other accounts put it at Banteay Chas Village. I can’t uncover where that village might have been 500-years ago, but now it is a small street in the French Quarter of Siem Reap – 270 kilometres away.
Another argument is whether or not Nakmaneang Kev was actually the step-sister of the king. Common knowledge is that she was the wife of Klang, but one convincing account listed ‘historical documents’ that showed she was indeed the King’s step-sister. Exactly what these documents are, and whether or not they are accessible is unclear. This theory doesn’t explain who the children were that jumped in as well, but all accounts list them as belonging to Klang and Nakmaneang. Perhaps Nakmaneang was both the wife of Klang and the step-sister of the king? Certainly, stranger things have happened.
Cambodians now refer to Klang as ‘Neak Ta Klang Moeung’, or Ouknga Klang Moeung. ‘Neak Ta’, put simply, means ‘a spiritual energy force’ (it has a greater meaning – this is very watered down). We visited his grave on our clunky rented motorcycle. It’s situated on a 3-hectare site in Khom Pong Svay village – a twenty-minute drive from Pursat.
The site was relatively empty when we visited, but a big annual event in Cambodia is Bonn Visak Bochea which occurs on the sixth full moon of the lunar calendar. On this day, people flock here to pay respects, worship, and pray for happiness. Traditional Khmer dancing fills the little hall, and sounds of the Cambodian-style Gamelan resonates.
We met one of the Gamelan players outside the shrine, selling ice creams that didn’t look like the packet they came in. He showed us a video of himself playing the dissonant instrument, and then he held us captive for 30 minutes as he cycled through his selfies on Facebook while we feigned interest.
Unfortunately, due to our language barrier, we couldn’t ask our Gamelan friend much about the site itself, but he did introduce us to a sculptor who was currently working on a pair of elephants. They were beautifully done, and were complimentary to the rest of the surrounding area – a hodge podge collection of animal sculptures, dioramas of dancers, and disco-zodiac creatures.
It was well worth the visit.
A magic tree