Written by a Cambodian legendary novelist Kong Bunchhoeun, ‘Preah Reach Samphea’ is a story that book enthusiasts, writers and poets should never ever miss reading. The book critically highlights events in Cambodian society – from the king’s leadership, evolution of poetry to the consequences of sexual desires.
The book starts with the death of King Chey Chettha, who is married to a Yuon (Vietnamese) wife. Before his death, the king has already arranged for his son, Ponhea To, to take the reign and marry Preah Neang Chann Votey. Set in the 17th century of the Udong era, Ponhea To is too focused on his pursuit of knowledge. He refuses to leave monkhood; thus, declining to take his father’s power. Ponhea tells his uncle, Upayoreach, to take control of the kingdom. At this point, Ponhea is already very determined to write poetry and spread Buddha’s teachings.
But when Upayoreach sits in the throne, conflicts arise. He falls in love with Ponhea’s fiancée. He lies and tells the woman that Ponhea has decided to become a monk. Hurt by her discovery, Preah Neang Chann Votey agrees to mary Upayoreach.
The news of his uncle’s marriage reaches Punhea at the temple. He gets hurt, but he is more worried for his mother who lives alone in the palace. He comes back to the palace and expresses his desire to become king. He then changes his name to Preah Srey Thoma Reachea. This is when his love for his former fiancée re-emerges; the woman feels the same. Yet, they talk to each other using a poetic language as brother and sister, scared that Upayoreach may know their real feelings.
The king brings success and prosperity in the kingdom. He wins over Siam, and his fame gradually spreads throughout other kingdoms. He later moves from Udong to Koh Thom because his mother has had committed sexual violations. He also does not want his uncle to fear that he would steal his wife.
After Preah Reach Samphea settles at the new place, Preah Neang Chann Votey shows her love towards him and always sends letter of poems to him. They later fall deeply in love through their own ‘language’ and Preah Neang Chann Votey always tricks her husband to meet the king.
Their illicit affair, despite being founded by true love and affection, reaches to a dangerous level. Preah Reach Samphea and Preah Neang Chann Votey spend nights and days together inside a temple, not knowing that the whole country is being attacked by the neighbouring nation.
Upayoreach sends Portuguese soldiers to kill the king, saying that he has put his kingdom in great danger and steals his wife.
Before he is shot, Preah Reach Samphea etches a poem on the palm leaf, telling people to not be fooled by their sexual desires like him. He leaves a significant message to his people, indirectly apologising for his own shortcomings as king and as an honorable man.
Preah Neang Chann Votey kills herself after seeing the dead king. She tries to prove that what they felt was true love, and decides to follow him in the afterlife.
Author: Kong Bunchhoeun
Publication: Chhorpon Raingsey Library, 2002
Kong Bunchhoeun was born in 1939 in Battambang province and grew up during the French Occupation, the Japanese Occupation, and the struggles following independence. His long career as a popular novelist, playwright, poet, and lyricist began in the 1950s. His prose works often combine the romantic and the supernatural, and his satiric novels attack corruption, exploitation of the weak and social injustice. During the Pol Pot regime, he escaped execution thanks to a Khmer Rouge cadre who had read his novels and testified that he was a writer with a “profound sense of social justice.” In 1981, he returned to Cambodia. However, in 2000, he was forced to flee the country as a result of publishing The Destiny of Marina, a novel based on an acid attack on his niece.