New Book Tells of Forgotten Khmer Folk Tale

Since his childhood spent at the refugee camp Site Two on the Thai border, Cambodian artist Srey Bandol has never forgotten the story of a boy from Ratanak­kiri province who got lost in time.

He remembered it so well that when he discussed it with hill tribe people, although they could not recall the legend themselves,  they told him they used to capture elephants exactly the way he described it in his story.

This legend has become a book published by the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, with the support of the Kasumisou Foundation.

The book, with illustrations by Srey Bandol, will be launched tonight at the institute’s gallery, where the artist’s drawings for the book will be on exhibit.

The book project took form during a meeting between Srey Bandol and Rey­um’s co-directors, Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan, more than a year ago. “He had this story in his head, and he thought he would find it if he could only see the landscape, the light, and the people,” Muan said.

Reyum wanted to work with Srey Bandol, who now runs an art school with other artists in Bat­tambang, Ly Daravuth said. So the institute secured a small grant for him to go to Ratanakkiri and draw for a couple of months.

Srey Bandol was 10 years old when he arrived at Site Two camp in 1982, and 20 when he left the camp for Battambang province.

“I remember hearing the story from a teacher at the camp who thought it was 100 years old,” he said.

The tale is about hill tribe villagers who tame elephants to help them with heavy work. One day, the men go on an expedition to capture wild elephants, taking with them a young boy on his first hunt.

During a storm, the boy gets separated from the others and ventures deep into a cavern, where he discovers a monk. They talk and meditate together for a few days, until the monk sends the boy home.

When he reaches his village, everything has changed. People’s clothes and homes look different, and no one he knew lives there anymore. Only one old man re­calls hearing about a boy who never re­turned from an elephant hunt. Feeling there is no place for him in this time, the boy rides his elephant back to the jungle where, the legend says, they still live.

Like the boy in the legend, Srey Bandol said he was surprised by what he found in Ratanakkiri. Nowadays, people don’t really live the way his teacher had explained, and he could not find any hill tribe people who recalled the legend. How­­ever, some villagers confirmed that the traditions it tells of did exist, Srey Bandol said.

Srey Bandol learned drawing from French artist Veronique Decrop, who taught at Site Two from 1986 until the camp closed in 1993. In 1995, through the art association Phare, she opened the Battambang art school with some of her former students. The facility includes a children’s library and offers drawing, music and circus classes.

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