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A recent Ricochet Dueling Book Club question asked about children’s picture books, and it occurred to me that I had never read any Khmer children’s books, picture or otherwise, growing up. I don’t think there are any worth mentioning. But what we have, though, are folktales.
Khmer people have always prided themselves on being clever. And they took great pleasure in cleverly composed discourses. The use of words and witticisms, riddles, rhyming, and quickly formed punning and spoonerism were and continue to be a Khmer national habit. And this habit is reflected in our folktales. Khmer folktales are classified into two groups: children and adults, and wit and cleverness reign supreme in both. Though wit and cleverness aren’t necessarily used in the pursuit of justice, they are used for self-preservation and sometimes for pure pleasure. Folktales are full of mischief and humor. They have lively spontaneity, vigor, and realism. To Khmer people, folktales, along with songs, are considered to be the real literature of Cambodia. Their style is quite simple, with plenty of colloquial speeches. A lot of tales are concerned with stupidity. Some are quite dark, with chaos and exploitation as the main themes and talking animals as the stars. Cynicism and satire abound. Puns and sophistry are very common.
The collection of Khmer folktales is so extensive that I could barely remember even a fraction of them, especially those meant to entertain children. I will share a few tales starring Sophea Tuansaay. He is a hare who uses his wits and cleverness to escape death over and over again. In some tales, he is described as a judge who helps the right man or animal by unconventional means. He once sat on a tree stump that had recently been cut down and was stuck. A baby elephant came to drink from the pond nearby. Sophea Tuansaay told the elephant, “You can’t drink here. Lord Indra has made me the guardian of this pond.” The elephant ran off to fetch his mother. Sophea Tuansaay said to the mother, “I won’t die if you pummel me to the ground.” She punched him upward, therefore freeing him from the stump.
One day Sophea Tuansaay lay down, pretending to be dead, in the path of a banana vendor with a basket on her head. The woman stopped, picked him up, and put him inside the basket, and he ate all her bananas. He ran away when she put the basket down to sell to a customer.
Another time Sophea Tuansaay wanted to cross a river, so he persuaded a crocodile to take him to the other shore. He promised the crocodile he would cure the scurvy that marred his skin. Once he crossed the river, he told the crocodile that his scurvy was inherited and incurable. The crocodile was so mad that he decided to eat the hare. He would float on the water every day, pretending to be a log. Sophea Tuansaay called out to the log and said, “If you’re a crocodile, float with the current. If not, float against the current.” The crocodile was again beaten by the hare.
Every morning, Sophea Tuansaay would go to a plantation to eat cucumbers. He was caught in a trap one morning. A toad came by. And just like with the crocodile, the hare promised the toad that he would cure his scurvy if the toad helped him. And again, he told the toad that his scurvy was incurable when freed. Returning to the plantation several days later, the hare was again caught in a trap. And the toad refused to help him this time. Sophea Tuansaay explained that he did not know the cure then, but he does now. And he told the toad that there were pretty girls three a penny at the capital. Once the toad freed him, he again called out that the scurvy was incurable. Mad at being cheated again, the toad set off for the capital’s pretty girls. The toad met a dung beetle and told him that he was going to the capital and would be back for breakfast. Trying to outdo the toad’s outrageous statement, the dung beetle said he could make cartwheel hubs by making two halves first. The toad continued on, telling everyone on his way that he was going to the capital for a wife, until he was eaten by a giant snake.
Another morning, Sophea Tuansaay stopped at a small pond to take a sip, but a snail atop a lotus leaf told the hare that he was not allowed to drink his water. The hare replied, “This water does not belong to anyone, not you nor your ancestors! How dare you, slow, gnarly snail, stop me?” The snail was furious at being insulted by the hare, he shouted, “How dare I! How dare I! I would have you know I can journey to Mount Kailash to seek an audience with Lord Shiva and be back here by dinner.” Sophea Tuansaay scoffed at the snail’s outrageous statement. The snail went on, “Would you dare to race me for the right to this water, Brother Hare?” The hare found the proposal amusing. “Brother Snail, why are you asking for this race? Don’t you see my long legs?” The snail got angrier and angrier. “Come back tomorrow morning for the race!” The hare agreed. The snail thought he was in big trouble after the hare left. “How can I win a race when I can hardly crawl a few feet at a time?” He thought hard and finally came up with a brilliant idea. The snail called all his snail relatives for a meeting. He told them about the race tomorrow. “I need you all to hide yourselves around the pond. When the hare calls out to find my position, the one ahead of him answers his call.” The snails all agreed. When Sophea Tuansaay arrived the next morning, he shouted out, “Brother Snail, are you ready for our race?” “Yes, let’s go!” the snail replied. So the two started. A short moment later, the hare called out, “Brother Snail!” and the snail ahead of him answered his call, “Yes!” A moment later, the hare called out again, and the snail ahead answered. And on and on, the same thing happened. Sophea Tuansaay was in a panic. “How could this slow poke beat me?” At the end, the hare lost the race.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason why hares and rabbits don’t drink directly from ponds, streams, or lakes. Just a few life lessons if you ever encounter talking animals in the wild.Published in