Roeung Preng Khmer


Khmer Folk Tales

 S tory-telling is one of the oldest forms of entertainment and education in the world. As well as for fun and relaxation, people tell stories and tales as a way of transmitting beliefs, wisdom, customs, life experiences, moral codes of conduct, societal values and norms, protocols, warnings, advice and even religious doctrines. Story-tellers in Cambodia are typically older men or archar (village/pagoda elders), and of course, by grandparents.

Some well-known 'roeung preng' or folk tales are as follows:
1. Thmenh Chey or Thun Chey
    - Thmenh Chey Komar  or                                                       Story of Thmenh Chey - The Young Lad
    - Thmenh Chey - Neak Prach (Thmenh Chey - The Sage)
    - Achey Mi-Krort (Mr and Mrs Chey) 
2.  Roeung Bororh Buon Naek Rian Sell-Sah or                             Story of 'the Four Friends Studying the Science of Magic'
3.  Roeung Slar Malou or                                                            Story of 'Areca Nut Tree and Betel Vine'
4.  Roeung Kann Daav Sampaeh Kaar or                                      Story of  'Holding Sword during Wedding Ceremony'
. Roeung Kon-saeng Slar Dorck or                                             Story of  'Cloth-wrapped Betel Nut'
.  Roeung Srei Mnaek Nung Satt Skar or                                    Story of A Woman and a Mongoose
7.  Roeung Sethei Nung Chkae Pramm Rooy or                             Story of A Tycoon and Five Hundred Dogs 
8.  Roeung Sdach Nung Satt Seik or                                            Story of A King and A Parrot
9. Roeung Ontuong Veng Chhnang Veng
10. Roeung Tum Teav
11. Roeung Preah Veisondoor
12. Neang Moranak Meada
13. Roeung Ream-Ker or Ramayana
14. Roeung A-Lev
15. Male and Female Mountain
16. Neang Kang-Rei Mountain
17. Story of Phnom Penh
18. Satra Kakei
19. Roeung Mia Yeung or the                                                   Story of Our Uncle & a Woman with Holes in her Basket'
20. Roeung Pithi Bandaet Pratib,
     Sampaeh Preah Khae & Ork Ambok
or                                Story of 'Floating Illuminated Vessels, Moon Salutation & Eating Rice Flakes' 
21. Chav Chak Smok


In Cambodia, in the past, apart from the Buddhist monks, the majority of the population were illiterate especially the countryside people. Because of this, story-telling was almost the only form of entertainment, relaxation and education for most of the rural Khmer people in that era. Story-telling sessions were normally held in the evenings after a hard day's toil in the fields. As it got dark at 6pm and there was no electricity, more than often, the session took place in the dark or under moon-light. So, if a ghost story was being told, one could guarantee that there would be a lot of commotion in the crowd, which was generated by the scared listeners who sought support from each other.  Story-telling could also take place during the day whilst farmers stop for their lunch break. This usually happens during the dry seaon after the harvest when the farmers could take some time to relax with their   children whilst they were guarding cows, horses or buffalos. They would sit in the shade of a tree, listening to the story whilst keeping an eye on their animals grazing in the field.


 Chapei Dong Veng (traditional guitar)
Not only are the story-tellers gifted with exceptional memory, they can also be very skillful. They can convey stories in a very exciting, absorbing, scary, thought-provoking, heart-throbbing and hilarious ways.  

Nowadays, professional story-telling performances still take place during ceremonial and festive occasions. The story-teller sits on a high platform and plays a traditional guitar called'chapei dong veng' (photo on the left) to accompany his story-telling which is conducted in rhyme (a bit like singing). Facial expressions, body movements and gestures are also used to enliven the story. This would create deep emotions, tears and laughter in the audience depending on the type of story.  A story could last  many hours or sometimes many days to coincide with the length of the ceremony or festival . Large audiences of young and old, love it. 

I can still remember vividly seeing what the people in the village did to prepare themselves for the storytelling performance.  They would arrive to the designated place an hour or so beforehand, carrying straw mats or a piece of cloth to spread on the grass to claim their spot as near to the stage as possible. Some would even bring blankets and pillows for the children in anticipation that the story would last until the small hours of the morning.  



 Ayai Chlorng Chleuy (Khmer Stand-Up Comedy) 
Ayai is another form of story-telling which involves two people singing and dancing whilst telling stories. This performance is accompanied by a traditional Khmer band. They are more like a pair of comedians rather than formal story-tellers. They tell funny / risqué stories which are guaranteed to make people laugh. 

Lkaon Basak (Khmer Opera)
This is a type of opera - a relatively new form of telling stories which was brought into Cambodia from Basak province in the 1930s. Basak was a Khmer province in 'Kampuchea Krom' - Lower Cambodia, a former Khmer territory which is now part of Vietnam. 
 As any opera, 'lkaon basak' involves many actors and actresses, music, various painted curtains and elaborate costumes.  

Naing Sbek (Shadow Theatre/show)
This shadow puppet theatre is a dying art which has declined in popularity due to the introduction of modern entertainment. There are two types of 'naing sbek'. The first is 'naing sbek thom'which is a formal shadow puppet show involving narration accompanied by songs and music by 'Pinpeat' orchestra (Khmer traditional & formal music).  This show mainly features religious stories such as 'Reamker' (Ramayana) and 'Tar Chuchuk' .  The second type is 'naing Kalum' which is a simplified version of the show, and is commonly presented in rural areas. For the latter, much smaller transparent leather puppets are used  to tell a wide range of short stories, and is conducted without proper music - only a small drum is used to emphasize the narration or to separate the scenes.   

Lkhaon Khaol (Masked Theatre) & Royal Classical Ballet
Both are masked theatre performances accompanied by a traditional orchestra called 'Pinpeat'; and the story is narrated by three or four people sitting at the side of the stage. The actors or actresses do not speak instead they act out the story being told by the narrators. The differences between the two performance are: lkhaon khaol is performed by a group of male dancers in all roles including those of women. However, the classical ballet is only performed by  professional female dancers on formal theatrical settings. For the latter, to play a man's role or that of a monkey (or a giant), a woman would wear a relevant mask and outfit - and, of course, act accordingly. It is a very formal performance, much more than the lkhaon klaol. Traditionally, they present the story of 'ReamKer ' - a Hindu story known as 'Ramayana' in other cultures (Note: the Rama & Sida characters are not masked). As this is a considerably long story, the performance could last four to five days. 


Tror_-_thumbnail Yike Theatre (Dance Drama Theatre)
Yike (pronounced 'yeekay') is the most popular dance drama after 'lkhaon bassac'. It has strong influences from Cham (ethnic Khmer group) culture. Yike normally starts with an opening dance called 'robam yike homrong'. The dance is accompanied by a 'skor yike' (a drum) and a 'tror' - a Khmer violin (photo on the left). The most common performance is of the ‘Tom Teav’ story – a Khmer Romeo and Juliet tale, though other Jataka stories such as the stories of Buddha's life are also performed . Yike is performed in nearly every province of Cambodia and in Kampuchea Krom communities in southern Vietnam.


Types of Tales
'Roeung preng' or folktales have been told and retold orally from one generation to the Lnext before the existence of paper. Then around the fifteenth century some of the stories were written on 'sloeuk ritt' , a type of palm leaf which was very strong and resilient. Those talTes were called 'sastra jiadorck' or jataka tales , and were about the previous life of the Buddha. They were also depicted as paintings on the walls of the vihara in the pagodas around the country. All the tales
 were then recopied on to papers at the beginning of the 20th century. 

'Prachum Reuang Preng Khmer' or Collected Khmer Folktales
Thanks to the 'Commission des Moeurs et Coutumes du Cambodge' established in the 1920s (during the French protectorate of Cambodia), Khmer folktales were collected from around the country. They were then compiled into several volumes and published under the name of 'Prachum Reuang Preng Khmer', Collected Khmer Folktales. Unfortunately, some of them were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime. It has been estimated that around 80 percent of the books and manuscripts in the National Library were destroyed. The grounds around the library were used for raising pigs and the library itself as a storage facility. The problem facing Cambodia today is the possible disappearance of local legends and tales. This is because most of the older people who had the knowledge, either died or have lost their memories as a result of the sufferings under the Pol Pot regime. 

Although stories can now be heard (seen or read) via radio, movies, DVD, theatre and of course through the internet, folktales have remained part of the culture of Khmer people especially in the countryside. Excerpts and expressions from these folktales and chbaps are quoted by people during their conversations or at various debates in everyday lives - the same way as proverbs are used to explain or illustrate ideas or concepts.  This could be a problem facing some foreigners who live and work in Cambodia. Even if they can speak Khmer fluently, they would not be able to follow or understand the conversation  properly unless they've known the story from which the expression is being used, For example, if someone said to you: 'you are a real a-Chey!', meaning your behaviour epitomizes one of Thmey-Chey's behaviour  in  the 'Thmenh Chey' story - good or bad will depend on the context of the conversation.