The folkloric legend of The Twelve Sisters, or Puthisen Neang Kong Rei in Khmer, is immensely popular in Southeast Asia. Though each country has its own version, we’re partial to the Cambodian take on events.
A father began his life as a wealthy and successful man, but the births of his twelve daughters quickly drove him into debt and poverty. So, he decided to leave the daughters in a forrest, where they were found by the giant Neang Santema who, it so happens, was looking for a group of servants for his daughter, the evil Santema. The girls were kidnapped and forced to work for the demanding and cruel giants for many years, until they formed a plan to escape. They escaped to the nearby kingdom and, thinking that a polygamist marriage (which would have been normal at the time) was preferable to life as a slave and would offer them relative amounts of freedom, married the province’s King, Preah Bath Rothasith.
Despite being a giant, the furious Santema disguised herself and tricked the King into making her his thirteenth wife. She then began to fake an incurable illness, which her distraight husband was unable to find a cure for, despite all his efforts. Santema insisted that only a potion made from the eyes of his first twelve wives, all of whom were now pregnant, could end her misery.
The King ordered the eyes cut out of all his wives but Neang Pov, who was allowed to keep one of hers. The blinded women were then forced to live in a cave, where they had to eat their newborns, one by one, to survive. Only Neang Pov’s son Puthisen was allowed to live. He grew up desperate for revenge, and plotted for it as he feasted on the flesh of his cousins.
Santema watched Puthisen grow and knew he wanted revenge. Worried he’d one day become King, Santema gave him a letter that allegedly gave him safe passage through the forrest of giants — but in reality, it was a message instructing Puthisen be eaten. A good-hearted hermit read the letter and changed it to read “When he arrives, marry him to my daughter Kong Rei.” Thus, Kong Rei, Santema’s daughter, and Puthisen, Santema’s enemy, were not only married, but Kong Rei also fell deeply in love with Puthisen. When Kong Rei confided in her husband and told him where the eyeballs of his aunts and mother were hidden, he stole them back and plotted his escape.
Heartbroken, Kong Rei chased after him as he fled, but Puthisen used a potion to flood the land between them. Kong Rei begged Puthisen to return to her, but he chose to remain loyal to his family instead. Kong Rei cried herself to death, and turned into a mountain called Phnom Kong Rei.
The myth is still popular today, and is frequently referenced in pop culture, music, and film. In the Kampong Chhnang province, the “Sleeping Lady” mountain range (or Phnom Kong Rei) is a popular destination among tourists and locals alike. Children are warned against angering the sleeping Kong Rei and are advised against eating leaf vegetables (the hair of Kong Rei.) Residents of nearby villages suggest that the caves throughout the mountain can help visitors reconnect with their spirituality, by hiking the mountain trails or visiting and praying with the monks living at the mountain’s base.
The folktale was made into the 1968 Khmer film “Puthisean Neang Kong Rey,” starring Virak Darra and Kong Sam Ouern. It remains one of the most successful Khmer films of all time.