Legend of Abducted Queen Entombed Within Phnom Bayan

kiri vong district, Takeo prov­ince – Sitting on the last stone steps leading to Phnom Bayan’s temple, Im Bun recalled the legend that has made the mountain  famous in Cambodia.

He and Muth Mit of nearby Traping Sarng village had just guided us—on a hot morning in September—through rice fields and banana plantations, and up the steep slopes of Bayan Moun­tain that rise 314 meters at the start of the Mekong Delta to the temple, believed to be the southernmost monument of the an­cient Khmer kingdom.

Had this been a season of heavy rainfall, the area would have been flooded and the mountain an island. But on that day, we could see the road unfolding in the flatland, toward the Viet­namese border a few kilometers away.

The legend is the story of a king named Bayan Kaur who lived on the mountain with his wife Neang Sak Kra’aop, or “woman with beautiful perfumed hair,” and their son Prince Dei Khlei, said Im Bun.

Rumors about Neang Sak Kra’aop’s beauty soon reached the king of Siam, the ancient    name of Thai­land, who came by ship to the foot of the mountain. There he lured her and her en­tourage on board with music and games, then sailed away before they had time to react.

When Prince Dei Khlei reached adulthood, he went in search of Neang Sak Kra’aop.

He met a woman so beautiful that he married her. She was his own mother but neither of them knew it. Later on, his father immediately recognized his former wife. King Bayan Kaur sentenced Prince Dei Khlei to build 12 ponds, saying that he could be reincarnated only when the ponds turned dry.

“Today, the ponds are still here,” said Muth Mit, referring to 12 ponds that still exist today in Takeo province. “They may be here for another 100 years, so I don’t know when the prince will be reincarnated.”

Whether the legend is based on historical fact will never be known, since so much of  Cam­bodia’s history remains a mystery. However, ships did come and go between southern Cam­bodia and all parts of Asia.

Phnom Bayan temple is in the Kiri Vong district of Takeo pro­vince. “The strength of the wall carvings, the subtlety of the details, and quality of the design” make it one of the country’s finest monuments, wrote Henri Maug­er in 1937, shortly after restoring the temple as a conservator of Cambodian monuments under the French administration.

According to a stone inscription on the mountain, its main tower-sanctuary was constructed in the seventh century, Mauger wrote. Although the inscription remains vague about the construction of the sanctuary itself, it mentions a statue brought to the site in

AD 604, and an ablutions basin installed in AD 624, said Mauger. This statue was a bronze of the Hindu deity Shiva that must have measured 2 meters, considering the size of the statue’s feet found at the site, he said.

At that time, Cambodia had entered a period of transition marking the end of the Funan era, as Chinese historical texts called it, said Michael Vickery in his book “Society, Economics and Politics in Pre-Angkor Cambodia.”

From the first to the sixth century, Funan in Southeast Cam­bodia had been a maritime trading region, he said. During the

sixth century, a direct shipping route between Indonesia and Chi­na began to bypass the Cam­bo­dian coast, and by the seventh century, political power, which had previously been based on the coast, was shifting inland while agriculture was growing in im­portance in the country’s economy, said Vickery.

Rather than one kingdom, Funan was a series of fiefdoms controlled by leading families that acknowledged a king but enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy, he said.

It was only later in the century that King Jayavarman I strengthened royal authority in the re­gion, which eventually led to the great Angkorian Empire in the

9th  century, said Vickery.

At Phnom Bayan, eight small towers would be erected around its central sanctuary and a library building added toward the end of the ninth century, Mauger said. During a devout Buddhist period in the 11th century, Hindu statues would be removed, and some structures replaced by poorly-built others, he said.

Today, Phnom Bayan attracts Cambodians from afar, said Long Heam, a Buddhist hermit who, with a group of aging nuns, lives on the mountain, preserving the temple and maintaining the grounds into a wilderness garden.

Of the stone stairs that once started at the bottom of the mountain, only the section going from 240 meters to the top still exists.

The temple is worth the climb. The walk may take one to three hours from Provincial Route 113, with no trail to speak of. People should go early in the morning because of the heat and distance, said Loran Vallier of the guest house Au Bout du Monde (The End of the World) in Kep municipality. He organizes excursions to little-known temple. Visitors, however, cannot spend the night on the mountain out of respect for the religious community up there, he said.

To reach Phnom Bayan from Takeo, visitors should take National Road 2, and then turn right on Road 113.

From Kep, take Provincial Road 33 to Provincial Road 31, until it reaches Road 113. To avoid disrupting cultivated fields and plantations, one should not ramble without asking a villager to guide one to the top.

Gifts such as rice, noodles or fish sauce, which can be purchased at roadway stalls near the mountain, are much appreciated by the aging religious people who mind the temple, Vallier said.

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