Kmean Phnek

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egalitarian-nonsense4 12/19/2020 (Sat) 04:23:11 #10537749

I was born in Cambodia in the early '90s as a frail little boy.

Naturalization after migrating to the US has smeared much of whatever fragments of childhood away, but religion is a different subject. Living with my grandparents had never felt so unbearable when I first came here — all their nagging about becoming a breadwinner, praying to Buddha, having children and meeting the significant other always failed to work as they intended.

In the house, aside from miniature replicas of Buddha statues and incense sticks, you would see a lot of empty picture frames, and I mean, a lot. Probably more than 15, scattered all around the house, sitting comfortably on nearly every piece of furniture. I couldn't tell chitea1 at the time, since — respect for the elders, but, I finally had the chance to stow them away for good after attaining the freedom.

I… just really didn't like them being around. Sleeping in the living room, surrounded by plain white rectangles were somehow more terrifying than a face for each one.

My elders have the habit of keeping an item that meant dearly to us — be it a pen, or a pebble they once used for a match of bay khom. Family members would keep it until they pass on, after which the items once under their care, together with their own personal antiquities, are given down to the children — a never-ending procession, as a remembrance.

I once asked chitea about why — among all things — empty photo frames.

He never gave me a direct answer.

egalitarian-nonsense4 12/19/2020 (Sat) 04:31:09 #10537749


Hazy, but profoundly popular among the rural folks back in my former homeland: a tale about the kmean phnek2.

I got along with other colleagues stationed in Cambodia for maintenance works back in 2018, the only difference being that they stayed longer than I have. They were struggling financially, especially with meager pays by the government and general neglect of common utilities, but they manage to get through with a humble smile.

Once in a while, they would share folklore and keep me up to date with local news. All were entertaining, but there was one that stood out. According to him, some of the oldest members of the hill tribes claimed to have sighted the kmean phnek; even asserting that their predecessors during the Angkorian era had also seen him.

After the defeat of the Khmer Empire in 1594, its citizens were under the fists of the Kingdoms of Ayutthaya and Vietnam. Hardship was never an unfamiliar term among the people, so they pushed on in times of adversity, seeking whatever scraps they could find on dirt paths and wats, only to be told off by the monks there. Many were considering leaving the homeland until the kmean phnek came along.

Described as a blindfolded old man wearing ragged clothing and a wooden cane in his hand, farmers and peasants would hear a loud rumble, before they found themselves standing before an elephant, towering in height and with majestic ivory tusks. The kmean phnek would hop off and approach the villagers, before shaking their hand and thanking them for their hard work. He would then rummage through a sack he slung around his shoulder and grab a few gemstones for the villagers to take. Initially dumbfounded, they accept and keep the stones in gratitude.

Asked why there were bloodstains on the blindfold, he would remain silent, smile, and hop back on the elephant, before plodding on, never to be seen again for the next few years.

egalitarian-nonsense4 12/19/2020 (Sat) 04:56:42 #10537749

Everyone would be diving into whatever hole they could find.


With the war raging to its east in the early days of 1971, it was a no-brainer for Cambodia to be dragged into the conflict. This portion of history has been extensively covered, sometimes white-washed for the purpose of inciting a spirit of patriotism. But what the textbooks never mention or touch on is the re-emergence of the old man.

Villages, irrigation plots, crops and towns were filled with craters. Most of the time, the people could duck for cover, either in their homes, or migrate from the eastern border. For a handful, some were not so lucky.

Tattered, bloodied remains of what used to be a hardworking farmer, a dedicated mother, or a resilient factory worker, are all that is left in the center of the crater. Some of the bodies are more intact, if you would ignore the thousands of shrapnel buried deep in their flesh.

One of my colleague's grandparents who were survivors of the war recalled cutting weed stalks near their crops on a hot afternoon in Svay Rieng, before the distant air raid sirens bellowed. The townsfolk frantically ran for shelter, as gunshots rang out from the woods to the western outskirts of the town. The couple waited for the rumble to cease, and cautiously walked out of their homes to see the same landscape — mere debris.

They saw one of their neighbors weeping near a child's body near the crater; they thought he had died from the shrapnel, but later grimaced in disgust and horror.

The child's upper body lay limp, hanging onto the rim of the crater, while his lower body was nowhere to be seen, except for exposed intestines and burnt masses of flesh. An hour later, the townsfolk were ordered to evacuate due to an impending aerial bombardment and crossfire, leaving the boy behind in eerie silence.

As the couple took final glances at their former home, they saw the kmean phnek stand over the body, before scooping up dirt with his bare hands and burying the body. With his arms wrapped with tourniquet cloth, he unfurled a portion of the cloth to wipe his face, before tearing it off and throwing it away.

egalitarian-nonsense4 12/19/2020 (Sat) 05:08:27 #10537749

Then came the red terror.

Armed with the hammer and sickle, the resulting government succeeding the Khmer Republic of 1975 struck down any voice who dared to oppose the Party. In fact, so many lives were lost that it was extremely difficult and taxing to find a living survivor of the regime who knew of the kmean phnek than in the 16th century.

One of the last surviving witnesses mentioned sightings of a blindfolded old man in a straw hat dragging a wooden bandwagon along deserted streets and raided homes. The main difference was how bony the kmean phnek looked — his ribcage was nearly showing whenever a gust of wind blew against his checkered shirt. The tourniquet cloth covered both his arms and legs, which shook with every step.

Coming across impoverished children playing tres, hopscotch, slipper throws, and bay khom, the old man would stop, reach over into the bandwagon and bring out several small plastic Jurassic-era dinosaurs. He squats, extends out his arm and opens up his palm for the children to take. For some reason, the kids never questioned it, and immediately snatched the toys away, fiddling with it. Kmean phnek stands and pulls his bandwagon into the distance.

He was never sighted again.

Regular broadcasts continuously bombarded citizens with the call for revolution and restructuring to build anew, to stray away from religion and enter the embrace of the man himself. Soon, scattered witness testimonies claim to have heard rumors of a "strange old man" spreading among the soldiers. More civilians began to disappear in a blink of an eye.

Following the months before the collapse of Democratic Kampuchea in 1979, the regime spread rumors of "hidden reactionary forces within the people", and prompted Cambodians to "destroy the enemy before they can even stand back up."

Several sources across the region sighted kmean phnek in his last observed attire, still trodding along with his bandwagon. He would hand out small unbranded plastic boxes, each with a plastic toy soldier inside, a rare item to find at the time. The children would excitedly pounce upon them and try to take it for themselves, leading to a disastrous tug of war that would send the toy soldier's limbs flying.

I wouldn't know since I wasn't there when it happened, and it's most probable that the toy soldiers don't exist anymore by now. But, there is a small, but growing superstition within the local populace that just maybe, one would be able to find it, somewhere. But the old man would never be seen for decades to come. Some say the kmean phnek gave up on them, just like one of those neak ta3 who were sold over to the fortunes of the regime's elitists.

Some even say that a white fog periodically forms on the surface of the plastic casing, directly above the toy soldier's mouth. And I don't yet know where my parents are right now.

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