Local legend has it that the hill on the far side of the Tonle Sap lake is actually the body of the lovestruck giantess Kong Rei, her hair flowing across the ground to the southeast, her feet to the northwest. The story (based on an apochryphal Jataka tale and found in various forms across Southeast Asia) tells of twelve sisters abandoned by their father in a forest and taken into the service of the giantess Santema and her family. Tiring of their life slaving for the giants, the sisters eventually escaped and made their way to a neighbouring kingdom, where they were married en masse to King Preah Bath Rothasith. And lived happily ever after.

Or at least might have done, had Santema not decided to pursue them. Santema began by disguising herself and charming the king into taking her as his thirteenth wife, then caused him to pluck out the eyes of the twelve sisters (save one, Neang Pov, who was permitted to retain a single eye). At Santema’s command, the hapless sisters were then confined to a cave and forced to eat their own newborn children. Only one child survived, Puthisen, who lived in the cave with his one-eyed mother and eleven blind aunts, forced to survive by consuming the flesh of his dead cousins, and dreaming – not surprisingly – of revenge.

Years passed. Santema, increasingly fearful, plotted to destroy Puthisen, now grown to manhood, by sending him into the forest of the giants and having him killed. Unfortunately her plan backfired, and her own daughter, Kong Rei, fell in love with the wandering hero. The two were subsequently married, after which Kong Rei revealed the true nature of her mother, Santema. Unfortunately for Kong Rei, Puthisen’s filial devotion proved stronger than his new conjugal ties, and he proceeded to take back the stolen eyeballs of his unfortunate mother and aunts, along with various magic potions, and make good his escape, using the potions to create a river (the Tonle Sap) between himself and his pursuing wife. The grief-stricken Kong Rei subsequently cried herself to death and transformed into the mountain you see today. Puthisen, meanwhile, returned, killed Santema and restored his mother and aunts’ stolen sight, after which everyone really did live happily ever after.

In 1972 the legend was made into a classic Khmer film, Puthisen Neang Kong Rey, while a statue of the ill-fated couple can be seen near Kompong Chhnang’s Independence Monument.

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