On the way, Q told us the legend of the mountains: “From the first century until the sixth century, the woman asked the man to marry her. This worked fine for appealing women, they had no trouble asking a man to marry them, but the women didn't think it was fair to the women who were not so appealing. So they said to the men 'now it is your turn to ask us to marry you.'
The men shook their heads and said, ‘No, no, we like things just the way they are.'
So the women challenged them, saying, 'We will each build a mountain in one night. We will have until the morning star comes up. When the star rises we stop work. Whichever team has built the biggest mountain, wins.’
The men grinned, this was going to be easy.
'But,’ said the leader of the women. ’If the women win, the men have to ask us to marry you from this day forward. If the men build a bigger mountain, we continue as it is.'
That night they started to build. The women went into a huddle. 'We are not as strong or as fast as the men,' their leader warned. ‘We are going to have to think of another way to win.'
So the women got a lantern that when lit looked just like the morning star. They hung the lantern where the star would rise and the men would be looking for it. The men saw it and, thinking the night was over, quit working and went to bed. The women carried on for two more hours when the real morning star rose. When the men woke up, they realized they had been tricked but it was too late, the women's mountain was higher. So, from that day on, men have had to ask women to marry them.”
A Buddhist temple was built on Phnom Pros. “During the time of the Khmer Rouge, the temple was seized and used as a prison. The way the Khmer Rouge got the people to come with them tamely was they said, 'we are changing your collective, or we are taking you to the pagoda to get the rice’. Then they would arrest them and bring them to prison. Here they were executed and the valley between the two only mountains became a killing field with many mass graves.”
We walked a little further to a memorial built to house a large pile of skulls and bones, so far no one has been able to identify them, although people come from all over to try to do so. The bones are held within a sculpted lotus flower. They are so small, these skulls.
The memorial's guardian is an old man who came back to the district in 1979 to find his wife and children. He believes their remains are within the memorial. He is frail and almost blind, destitute except for the donations he receives at the memorial, but he sits there daily, burning incense and saying his prayers to honour his dead family.
The Buddha garden
This garden is built over some of the mass graves. It consists of many massive gilded Buddha statues illustrating the life of Buddha, also some magnificent stupas erected here to honour the dead from the nearby Khmer Rouge killing field. Another temple was built.
“Why was this all built over the graves?” Q pushed his glasses up as he asked the question. “Because the spirits of the dead were angry. Even if they were guilty of a small crime - complaining about the work hours, or the lack of food, or rest, maybe a little stealing of food they were executed. The punishment didn't fit the crime. So the spirits say 'why did you kill me? It was unjust! So they stay and don't go on to be reborn. They want revenge on the person who killed them.”
I learned later that the Khmer Rouge killed three generations so there was no one left in the family to come back and exact revenge. ‘Pull the grass out by the roots’ was their saying.
“So the temple and garden was built,” Q continued. “If the spirits heard the prayers every day and learned the dharma of the Buddha, their anger would diminish and they would go to be reborn. If the lust for revenge isn't stopped, it never ends.”
“This is the same thinking that led the government of Cambodia to extend amnesty to the Khmer Rouge fighters in 1994. The government saw this as the only way to stop the guerrilla war and rebuild the country - otherwise the fighting, the revenge killing, would continue to today. But they didn't wish to forget and so the Day of Hatred was changed to the Day of Remembrance in 2001. Still celebrated on May 20th. Cambodia is a strongly Buddhist country and the Buddha teaches that you let go of the anger and forgive. This doesn't mean saying what happened was alright. It means letting it go and moving forward.”
Photo: R. Marion
Coming up next: Gold, Silver and a Missing Emerald