Incense and prayers should be packed for trips past the Yeay Mao statue in the village of Pich Nile. It is believed that travelers heading along National Road 4 to Sihanoukville's beautiful beaches must pay respect to the spirit of Yeay Mao or face a journey dotted with danger.
As legend has it, a young woman named Mao lived in the village of Pich Nile, in Prei Tayueng commune of Phnom Sruoch district in the province of Kampong Speu. Heeding the call to study magic, she left the village in search of a wise old hermit who lived atop the Pich Nile Mountain. It would be near this mountain that the statue of Yeay Mao ultimately would rest. A king's two sons joined Mao in her training with the hermit, but it was not just magic that the young woman studied. She also learned lessons of the heart, falling in love with the eldest of the two princes. Outside of the classroom, the country was in turmoil, as Siamese soldiers were invading Cambodia. The head of the Khmer army was in dire need of a competent soldier to lead the fight against the Siamese. The Khmer leader suggested that the soldier that prevailed in the fighting competition would be named army chief.
It was not the princes that put up a fight, but the ladylike Mao who defeated all her opponents. Contrary to society's preconceived notions about the weakness of women, Mao was named chief of soldiers. As she was preparing to leave her quiet classroom to face the world and serve her nation, Mao received a grave warning from the hermit. The wise man told his student that if one man defeated her, she would have bad karma with every man in the country.
Mao embarked on her journey with the hermit's words tucked into the corner of her mind. She fought bravely until one day a group of villagers requested a duel between Mao and her beaux. They wondered which of the two lovers was stronger. Although Mao clearly was more skilled than the prince, she pretended to lose out of respect for her lover. The competition passed without incident, and the dueling couple eventually married and produced one son. After the birth, life regained a sense of normalcy, and the prince asked to visit his father. With Mao's permission, the husband headed off to the royal palace. The king was so pleased to see his son that he forced the prince to marry a beautiful girl residing at the palace.
Since the king's younger son also loved Mao, he saw this twist of fate as his window of opportunity. Although he too was already married, he abandoned his wife to woo his brother's spouse. Lying to Mao, the prince said that his brother died in the war. He showed her a small pack believed to be his brother's relics. The second son was relentless in his admission of love and begged for her hand in marriage. Mao could no longer resist the younger prince's persuasiveness and agreed to love her brother-in-law. The odd couple married and later gave birth to a son.
Soon after, the first wife of Mao's new husband sought out her spouse and demanded that he return home with her. Surprised and angry, Mao refused to say goodbye to her new husband. She cried and cried until falling unconscious. Anger churned inside her, but Mao's rage sadly could not keep the prince by her side. He left the woman warrior and returned to his first love.
Mao's men abandoned her, but she refused to abandon her men. She still was responsible for an army of soldiers, and one day she headed out to check on their status at a remote camp. She unwisely left her two sons alone in their mountaintop house. Returning from her mission, she saw bright red blood staining the walls of the house and found the gnawed bodies of her young sons, eaten by wild tigers. Mao was so riddled with grief that she nearly lost sense of reality, her sanity washed away with each tear she shed. She mourned the loss of her sons and the desertion of her husbands. Unable to regain control of her sadness and regret, Mao decided to take her life. As the woeful woman placed her palm into death's cold hand, the hermit took pity on what had been a beautiful life. He used his magic to save his former student from death. Upon waking, Mao vowed to kill two million of the country's strongest men. When the bloodletting was over, she promised to become a priest. Legend has it that before entering the priesthood, Mao cut off the penis of every man that ever betrayed his wife.
Believers in this bloody fable claim that people who have died by the Pich Nile waterfall along National Road 4 are the victims of Yeay Mao's unfettered cruelty. Mr Khiev Rith, the caretaker of the Yeay Mao's statue, said the woman had lived in Pich Nile long before he was born. Although many believe Yeay Mao is simply a menacing myth, Khiev Rith said she was a powerful woman who still cares for National Road 4. To mark Yeay Mao's stomping grounds, a large shed was bought from Prei Veng province to house her statue in 1993. If people come across her shed without stopping to pray, it is believed that their journey will be riddled with danger, Khiev Rith said. He added that believers offer bananas, food and wooden penis as a sign of respect.
Lily, a Kampong Speu resident, said Yeay Mao's spirit is not as cruel as it was before. She believes peace has fallen upon the region because Yeay Mao finally has received enough penises. In ancient times, worshipers also left behind pairs of coconuts, pairs of cows, or SlarThor, the stem of a banana leaf or a green banana decorated with betel leaves, areca nuts and flowers.
Mr. Srey yar Phout Savdy, head of the Buddhist Institute's Mores and Tradition Department, said the spirit of Yeay Mao haunts not only the Pich Nile waterfall but also Chakkrey Ting village near National Road 3 in Phnom Thvear of Kampot. Phnom Chhay village, 15 km outside of Koh Kong province, is watched by another spirit, as is San Ke village in Treoung Khgagn commune of the Basack district in Vietnam.
Regardless of the validity of the myth, the tale will remain a permanent fixture of Khmer culture. In a country as economically impoverished as Cambodia, rich stories like the legend of Yeay Mao are invaluable.