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Angkor Wat in Cambodia
the world's largest religious monument built in the 12th century
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Roeung Khun Chhaang Khun Phaen
Khun Chhaang Khun Phaen Story

scenery - Khun Chhaang Khun Phaen Stupa - thumbnail

The Khun Chharng Khun Phaen story is a legend told to Khmer children from generation to generation. It is a sad story of a love-triangle, war, circumstances and Khmer beliefs.

In 2011, I went back to Cambodia and took my family to visit Koh Kong and the surrounding provinces. In Koh Kong, about 1km from the provincial town, while crossing the bridge to Koh Kong Island, a stupa can be seen on the left-hand side. It is built on a rock in the middle of the water. With the help of kind donors, the provincial authority built a wooden bridge to enable visitors to actually walk to the stupa. Once there, we joined a group of people standing around an elderly man listening to him telling the story of the stupa. As we didn’t get to hear the story from the beginning, back in the car, I asked our driver who was also a guide to tell us the complete story.

The main characters in this story are Khun Chhaang, Khun Phaen and Phimvilalai (known as Phim)Khun Chhaang, a bald-headed and plain looking man, was the son of a very wealthy family. Khun Phaen, a dashing-handsome man though not rich, was the son of Chak-Krey, the commander in chief of the Cambodian armed forces. Phim was the beautiful daughter of a middle class widow called Siprachan who was a very good friend of Khun Phaen’s mother.

Despite being very good friends, both Khun Chhaang and Khun Phaen fell deeply in love with the same woman, Phim. However, it was obvious to the locals that Phim loved Khun Phaen and hated Khun Chhaang. Khun Chhaang realised this but could not stop loving Phim.  

Chak-Krey, Khun Phaen’s father, possessed magical skills, and over time passed on all he knew to his son from when he was very young.

One day, the King wanted to go buffalo hunting. He gave orders to Chak-Krey to organise the event. The night before, as was his usual practice, Chak-Krai prayed for protection and success – but, all his candles went out at the same time for no reason which he thought was a bad omen. The next day, during the hunt, despite him being extra careful, the large herd of buffaloes got out of control and crashed through the King’s tent. Though very shaken, the King luckily escaped unharmed. Outraged at Chak-Krey ‘s carelessness, the King ordered his execution.   Just before he was killed, he was able to ask his deputy to deliver an urgent message to his wife and son advising them to escape in case they too would be killed because of his mistake.

Having successfully escaped, Khun Phaens mother took him to a faraway pagoda and entrusted him to the care of the pagoda’s Abbot. The Abbot who knew of his father and his good reputation, agreed to help Khun Phaen. He promised to her that he would teach Khun Phaen everything he knew. With her son safe as a young ‘Nen’ (Khmer word for a novice monk) in the pagoda, Khun Phaen’s mother, now homeless, hid herself in a nearby village.

Over many years, Khun Phaen studied very hard. In addition to the many skills taught to him by his father, he now achieved invulnerability – the Khmers called it kabb min mutt, dott min chheh which meant he could not be cut or burnt.

Every morning, Nen Khun Phaen would go out with other monks to the neighbouring villages to ask for offerings in the form of food. One day, when Phim and her family, were waiting as usual at the roadside to offer food to the monks, Khun Phaen and Phim recognized each other. As tradition imposed, they were not allowed to speak to each other, however, they continued to see each other in this way each day – no words spoken just stolen glances. Khun Phaen also made excuses to visit the village more often during the day just to have a chance of seeing Phim.  

Having learnt what the Abbot had to teach him, Khun Phean was allowed to disrobe (resign from his monkhood). That night, he went straight to Phim’s house and managed to persuade her lady-maid to let him into the house. After making love to Phim, he felt guilty and promised her that, in line with Khmer tradition, he would ask his mother to come and ask for her hand in marriage.

Meanwhile, Khun Chhaang managed to persuade his own mother to go and ask for Phim’s hand in marriage too. Siprachan had now two marriage offers for her daughter and so had to decide which to choose. Having been a very good friend to Khun Phaen’s mother, and knowing her daughter’s feelings for him, Siprachan decided to give Phim to Khun Phaen.

Distraught and deeply disappointed, Khun Chhaang plotted against Khun Phaen. At that time, there was a rebellious army in the country. Having heard that the King was looking for a powerful man to lead his army to fight against the rebels, Khun Chhaang seized the opportunity and went to see the King. He told the King about Khun Phaen and suggested that, as he was the son of Chak-Krey and was invulnerable, he would be perfect to lead the army. The King sent for Khun Phaen and had him tested for his invulnerability. The King was satisfied and appointed him as commander in chief to lead his army. Before going to war, Khun Phaen went to say goodbye to his new wife. Then they planted a ‘Bo’ tree to symbolize their love; and Khun Phaen used his magical skill to place a spell on the tree – if he died, the tree would also die.

During the battle with the rebels, the old generals were not convinced that young Khun Phaen was experienced enough to lead them in war. They undermined his leadership and this demoralized the troops. At one point, they ordered the troops to withdraw without consulting Khun Phaen. Having been left alone to fight, Khun Phaen got hurt and in trying to escape, fell off his horse and rolled down into a deep ravine. Rumours spread that he had been killed by the enemy. The war continued without him.

At the same time, a beautiful tribal girl called Bua-Kri who was hunting in that area, found Khun Phaen unconscious. She felt sorry for him and summoned her father’s men to come and take him back to their cave lair where her father, Meun Hean was the bandit chief.   He allowed her to nurse Khun Phaen back to health. Before long, they fell for each other. Their romance was soon reported to her father who was furious. Bua-kri repeatedly asked for his forgiveness but to no avail. Meun Hean ordered that Khun Phaen should be killed there and then. However, they soon realized that no sword could slash him. So, they made a huge bonfire to try to burn him – which also failed. Seeing that Khun Phaen’s power could be useful for his gang, Meun Hean decided to forgive him and even gave his daughter to Khun Phaen in marriage.

Meanwhile, in the village, Khun Chhaang heard the rumour about Khun Phaen being killed. He hired a lady-mediator to try to persuade Phim’s mother, Siprachan to let Phim marry him. The mediator falsely told Siprachan that the King would punish her and her daughter because Khun Phaen had lost the battle. The only way to avoid the punishment would be to detach themselves from Khun Phaen by letting Phim marry Khun Chhaang.   Siprachan was very frightened so she tried to force Phim into marrying Khun Chhaang. Phim resisted and flatly refused to marry him because she believed that her husband was still alive.

Khun Chhaang had another plan up his sleeve. He and his men sneaked into Phim’s garden and poured boiling water over the ‘Bo’ tree. This caused the tree to wilt. Upon seeing this, Phim cried uncontrollably and in order to save her mother and herself she agreed to marry Khun Chhaang.

Back in the bandit’s cave, Meun Hean asked Khun Phaen to join him and his gang in their activities – stealing, plundering and killing people in the surrounding villages. When met with a firm refusal from his son-in-law, Meun Hean plotted to kill him as he was of no use to the gang. So, he took an opportunity when Bua-kri took food to her husband, to put some poison in it. When she refused to take it to her husband, he hypnotized her.   Off she went to her husband with a tray of food, looking dazed.   Seeing this strange behaviour, Khun Phaen used his magical insight to reveal the poison. He then broke Bua-kri out of her hypnotic trance. Seeing his plan fail, Meun Hean ordered his men to do what they could to kill both Khun Phaen and his daughter who was by then three months’ pregnant.

Sensing the imminent danger, Khun Phaen and Bua-kri decided to flee with the gang close behind. After a while, Bua-kri became exhausted, and at one point, she fell down a bank and broke her leg. She begged Khun Phaen to leave her but he refused.   As night fell, and seeing the gang’s torches approaching, Khun Phaen tried to make his mind up. Suddenly, he remembered a story his father told him about
‘Kaun krork’(Goldchild) which could help him to become very powerful. He kneeled down and asked Bua-kri if he could have their unborn baby. Bua-kri, exhausted and in pain agreed to her husband’s request.   He then proceeded to cut her stomach open and retrieved the unborn baby. In order to preserve it, he grilled the foetus, wrapped it in a cloth tied with a long string and wore it round his neck.

Khun Phaen used his magical insight to pinpoint where his army was and travelled there.   His unexpected reappearance shocked them. The soldiers were happy to see him, and the old generals admitted their mistake in doubting him. Khum Phaen forgave them and started to make strategic plans for attacking the rebel strongholds. Khun Phaen even managed to use his power to raise hundreds of the dead to help his army. And, as he expected, his Goldchild did effectively assist him in winning the battle until overall victory was achieved. The King was very pleased and gave him three months’ leave so he could be with his family.

Meanwhile, at the village, Phim was now heavily pregnant. She eventually gave birth to a son whom she and Khun Chharng named Pang. Although he knew that it was not his baby, Khun Chhaang acted like a doting father to gain Phim’s heart. However, in reality he was plotting to get rid of the child. When an opportunity arose, he carried Pang deep into the forest and hit him on the head with a large stick meaning to kill him. After Khun Chhaang left, the spirit of the Goldchild who foresaw the event, came to rescue Pang who was his half-brother. He introduced himself and told Pang that Khun Phaen was their real father. He then led Phim and the search group to Pang to take him home.

The Goldchild then told his father, Khum Phaen, about Pang being his other son.   Khun Phaen could not wait to see Phim and Pang. He travelled as fast as he could to his home but was shocked to see Phim and Khun Chhaang sitting together relaxing in the garden. He was outraged and threatened to kill Khun Chhaang but Phim stepped between them and tried to explain the situation. Still extremely bitter and full of jealousy, khun Phaen impulsively went to the King and accused Khun Chhaang of stealing his wife.

Wanting to hear the full story, the King summoned Phim and Khun Chhaang to his court. The three stated their case. The King seemed to accept that it was pure circumstance which had created this situation. He did not blame anyone of them but turned to Phim and asked her to choose one of the two men. As she was trying to make her mind up, the King explained to her: ‘According our country’s law, a woman can only have one husband. Therefore, you must choose either Khun Chhaang or Khun Phaen. Then, in order to prevent future problems in this love triangle, the unwanted man has to be put to death.’ This explanation made it even more difficult for Phim to make a decision. She always loved Khun Phaen and wanted to choose him but she did not want Khun Chhaang to be killed.

When pressed, Phim fearfully told the King that she could not make her mind up. The King then asked why she found it difficult to do so. In a flood of tears, she honestly said: ‘I love Khun Phaen but my heart is full of pity for Khun Chhaang.’ Upon hearing this admission, the King became very angry. He accused her of being a woman with ‘two hearts’ which was utterly disgraceful in Khmer society.   He immediately ordered for her to be taken away and executed before sunrise.   Both Khun Phaen and Khun Chhaang were horrified at this development. They begged the King to forgive Phim, and both said they would agree to the other having Phim. However, the King was adamant and refused to change his decision.

The two husbands followed Phim to the place where she was to be executed.   They cried and cried along with her family. All of a sudden, Khun Phaen turned to Samdech Yumreach, the chief executioner, and begged him to delay the execution. Khun Phaen explained that he would like to give Phim one last chance by going to beg the King’s forgiveness once again. Samdech Yumreach agreed to wait but warned him to come back before sunrise as the sentence had to be carried out before then.   Khun Phaen rode his horse as fast as he could. Unfortunately, when he arrived at the royal palace, the King had already gone to sleep. No-one dared to wake him up.   Khun Phaen had to wait impatiently. The King finally got up just before dawn.   After listening to Khun Phaen’ s pleading, the King conceded to pardon Phim and asked Khun Phaen to take his royal white flag with him to show to Samdech Yumreach who would understand what it meant – to stop the execution.

Samdech Yumreach waited until dawn but, when the sun began to rise he could wait no longer. He had to follow his orders otherwise he himself would be at risk of being killed. Khun Phaen arrived back at the place just as the executioner dropped his sword on Phim’s neck – he was just a few seconds too late! The love of his life Phim was dead.

In order that Phim’s soul could be reincarnated, Khun Chhaang asked for a tall post, with a ‘Tuong (a soul flag) attached at the top, to be installed at the exact place where Phim died. As a result, that place became known as Dorng Tuong’ (a soul flag post) – a name which is still used for that district today. It is situated on the east bank of the tributary.

Afterwards, Khun Chhaang chose a place on the other side of the tributary facing the ‘
Dorng Tuong’ to build a Chetdey (a stupa) to store Phim’s remains. The area nearby is now called Phum Chetdey (Chetdey village).

Because of their love for Phim, the two men went regularly to the stupa to pray for her soul. They visited so often that this stupa became known as Chetdey Khun Chhaang Khun Phaen (Khun Chhaang Khun Phaen’s stupa). It is still known as that today.