Nen thon

JULY 23, 2020;
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA;
C. KEO

Nen Thon is a khmer folktale originated at Sambor, a small village in the province of Kratié on the Mekong river. The story is about prejudice. So in other words, meaing, there are more sides a story. This gave me the idea for this illustration. As you can see, the artwork below can also be viewed upside down. That is why the RYYSA logo is also upside down.

The story

It was told that a young Buddhist monk named Thon raised a crocodile as a pet. For newly ordained monks, the designation of Nen is affixed to his first name to indicate he is still a novice. Thus, he was called Nen Thon. Later the crocodile became known as “Crocodile Nen Thon” or Krapoeu Nen Thon (Krapeu means crocodile in Cambodian language). The monk was very fond of his pet. Every evening, at sunset, he went to the river bank to talk and play with the crocodile. They both enjoyed seeing each other. People who lived in the nearby villages, men, women, children, monks of all ages used to come to the river for a swim and watch the master and his pet without fear, because the monk had power over his pet. Every evening, the monk firmly reminded the crocodile not to harm anyone. The monk also possessed healing powers; as such, he was well respected, well liked and sought after to restore health to sick people. His reputation spread beyond his hometown. At that time, the capital of Cambodia or Kampuchea was located at Oudong on the Bassac river. The king who had established his fortress in that town had a lovely young daughter. Suddenly, the princess contracted a mysterious disease and became very ill. Alarmed by this grave illness, he ordered his staff to find the best doctor in the kingdom to cure her. He had heard of Nen Thon’s reputation as a healer. He immediately sent for him. In those days, people traveled by small boats. It took several days to travel from Kratié to Oudong and the trip was treacherous and fraught with dangers. Between Kratié and the village of Chhlong on the Mekong river, there were other fearful crocodiles, cataracts, and sharp rocks which could easily sink small boats and drown their passengers. Even so, the monk arrived safely at the King’s palace. He immediately began to apply his healing powers to the little princess. After a few weeks, the princess regained her strength and energy, and her good health had returned. However, fearful that his daughter’s illness would recur, the king ordered the monk to stay longer.

At Kratié, the crocodile very much missed his master whom he had not seen for several months. Every evening he went to the same spot to look for any sign of his master’s return. Full of sadness, he decided to go to Oudong to fetch his beloved monk. Upon his arrival at a place near Chhlong called Phnom Soparkaly or Mount Soparkaly, he encountered a fierce enemy, a nasty counterpart. The latter, thinking that crocodile Nen Thon was intruding in this territory, was ready to attack and destroy him. Crocodile Nen Thon, on the other hand, although bigger and more powerful, was in no mood for fighting. He was in a hurry to fin his master. Wisely, he avoided the fight, but promised to himself that he would come back one day and deal with this impudent enemy.

When he arrived at oudong, he hid himself from inhabitatnts living along the river in deep waters. He knew that they would not understand the frindship betweetn a crocodile and a monk. They would certainly be frightened and outraged to see such a large crocodile in the neighborhood. He kept hoping that one day, his master would come to the bank of the river to bathe or admire the sunset. Sure enough, one evening, the monk came by and sat upon a bamboo raft. Seeing his master, he lifted himself to the surface of the water and swam toward him. The monk delightedly recognized his pet at once. However, without warning, crocodile Nen Thon quickly decided to take his master home. He smashed the raft with his tail, slid himself under his master and carried him on his back toward his hometown.

After a few days of travel, both Crocodile Nen Thon and the monk arrived a the same spot where the crocodile’s enemy lived. Athon (this was the crocodile’s nickname) thought to himself: ” This crocodile is looking for a fight. But he does not know I am stronger and more powerful than him. He does not know that whoever wants to fight with me must perish. Well, I am going to teach him a lesson.” Then he had a second thought: “If I fight him, my master will be in danger. He would be thrown off my back and drown or eaten by my enemy. I must save my master. And the only way to do that is to hide him in my stomach.”

Having said that, Crocodile Nen Thon swallowed his master whole and attacked his fierce enemy in full force. The fight lasted several hours. Finally the battle was over. Having succesfully killed his opponent, he continued his journey toward Sambor, where he intended to spit up his master as soon as he landed. At his arrival, young children, monks and people living near the temple gathered to cheer him. They were happy to see him back and were hoping to see the monk also. Athon crawled to the sand on the bank of the river and spat up his master. Alas, to his deep sorrow, his master died several hours ago.

The people shouted at him: “What a horrible animal you are! You killed our beloved monk!” 

Full of regret and sadness, Crocodile Nen Thon moved back into deep waters looking for a place to mourn his master and abate his sorrow. He was very sorry that he had to swallow his master, thus causing his death. He wished he could do something to bring the monk back to life. He said to himself: “I love my master very much. I did not intent to harm him. If he died, it was not entirely my fault. The cause of my master’s death was th king’s daughter. Had she not been ill, my master would not have been called to cure her illness. Therefore, she must be punished.” 

He then disappeared in deep waters again and swam toward Oudong with every intention to avenge his master’s death. When he arrived, he waited near the bank of the river for opportunity to seaze the princess should she come to take a bath. The story did not say how long he had to wait. But one day, the princess indeed went to the river with her retinue and maids. While she was enjoying herself with her entourage in the water, Krapeu Nen Thon seized her, swallowed her, and left the area immediately. Needless to say, the king was devastated at this sad news! He ordered all his staff to pursue the crocodile and capture him at all coasts. It was believed that he brought with him a seer (a fortune teller) who could tell the exact whereabouts of the crocodile. 

Krapeu Nen Thon swam all the way to the Laotian border, near a place called the Khone Falls and back to Kratié. Seeing he was intensively searched for in this area, he continued his travel looking for a safer place to hide. He swam through Prek Chhlong, a tributary of the Mekong river. Unfortunately, it was there that he was captured and split open to retrieve the princess. Like the monk, alas, the princess was long dead. Her body was brought back to Sambor for a royal creamation. The Crocodile Nen thon was cut into pieces and his meat was salted and dried for food consumption. The story said this place was called Veal Hal Ngiet the “plain to dry meat.”