Friday, October 8, 2010

Notes on the legend of Ya-Mao

Ya-Mao is the central personage of a legend local to Sihanoukville and much of the Cambodian coast. She is a neak-ta, a powerful ancestor spirit that lords over a part of the country. Known as Ya-Mao, literally the Black Lady, her domain encompasses much of southwestern coastal Cambodia and she is the protector of sailors and other travelers of the area, both on and off shore. Locals from fisherman to taxi drivers are careful to make appropriate prayers and offerings (phallic objects and/or bananas)  to Ya-Mao for their safe passage.

Fishing boats that work the area waters hang a hand of bananas on the bridge as an offering to Ya-Mao, and phallic-stick offerings can still sometimes be found on the beaches near fishing camps. There is also a major shrine to Ya-Mao at Wat Krom in Sihanoukville. But perhaps the best known and most apparent manifestation of the veneration of Ya-Mao is the collection of spirit houses at the crest of the Pich Nil mountain pass on National Route #4, at the northern edge of Ya-Mao's domain half way between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Many if not most drivers on Route #4 stop at the shine to make offerings, and like the fishing boats, some drivers, especially taxi and truck drivers display a hand of bananas on the dashboard for Ya-Mao. Other significant roadside shrines for Ya-Mao can be found at the beginning of Route #4 in Sihanoukville and just outside Koh Kong City on Road #48.

Route #4, Pich Nil, Ya-Mao Shrine
Over the years, the legend has been reported by various media sources - local newspapers, the Phnom Penh Post and travel guides.  In my amateur research I have found that it seems to be known in one form or another to most all Khmer residents of Sihanoukville, who often also have accompanying tales of how Ya-Mao helped or hurt them or someone they know or heard about. The details of the tellings of the legend vary considerably with different tellers and are often much more vivid and colorful than more official tellings I've heard.

I first heard tell from my Khmer teacher. He related the legend quickly and rather casually. I asked if he would retell it when we had more time so that I could take notes. He agreed. Next time I saw him he told me that his wife had been injured in an accident on Route #4 and he feared it was because of his indiscretion telling me the legend. He eventually told me the legend a second time but only after praying to Ya-Mao about it and waiting for a dream to give him a sign of what he should do. Apparently I got a thumbs up. A couple of weeks after he discovered that the legend had recently been in the Khmer newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea and this lightened his burden considerably.

The following is his telling of the legend of Ya Mao, largely in his words. It has been altered slightly for sake of grammar, privacy and relevance.
"Her history begins perhaps more than 100 years ago. This area was called Kampong Som. It was a small village. Her husband was leader of the village. The people respected what he and his wife said. One time he had to go to Koh Kong for business. He had to stay there nearly one year. Ya-Mao missed her husband very much.

These people live by the ocean so they eat a lot of sea fish so they have a lot of protein so the men have a lot of semen. The people want to make love.

At the rainy season it is cold. So people like to make love. So she missed her husband. But she met a strong storm and the boat was flooded and sank. She drown. She died. Since then she has become a god. Most people say that Ya-Mao hates men. But I’m not sure. They say that she hates them because most of then people at sea are men. The women stay at home. So especially men die at sea. So they say that Ya-Mao hates men because they are the ones that die at the sea.

But Ya- Mao became a god. After she died her spirit entered through a man and said through him that she is Ya-Mao and that she died in the middle of the sea. And that she hates men that travel by the sea because her husband was the cause of her death. Because if she didn’t have to go to meet her husband she would not have died. So people pray to Ya-Mao ‘Oh Ya-Mao, please don’t make me anything bad. Please help me. Please help me. What do you want?’ And she wants a phallic symbol. And she wants this because her death was caused by this. Because she went to meet her husband (for) this. She wanted to go and sleep with her husband.

The sea shore men have a lot of semen and a lot of passion and living is difficult so the husband has a lot of passion. And so the people offer a phallic symbol to Ya-Mao.

After that there were a lot of strong winds, storms, ship sinkings and deaths of men. And the people didn’t know why. But when the spirit of Ya-Mao enters a person and that person speaks as Ya-Mao, they know! And they pray before they go fishing, before they go anywhere, they offer a phallic symbol.

People place phallic symbols on the beach, near trees, rocks and launching places of boats. They are small sticks place up in the sand. Before they go they pray.

In 1979 (the government said that Ya-Mao is old and she does not want the phallic symbol. Communist regimes do not allow this (sort of thing). She doesn’t need it because she is old. (Before this) you could see many sticks on the seashore. They now now she need only bananas.

Anybody can pray to Ya-Mao. Men or women. Sometimes women go fishing with their husband at night so they pray. But mostly men, sometimes women.
They say that the crocodile is the body guard of Ya-Mao.

And now I want to emphasize that Ya-Mao is a true story. The people still believe. I think perhaps you don’t believe me. But I have my experience. I have been here since 1979. Route #4 is a dangerous route.

She is responsible for the sea, along the seashore and the sea area and Route #4.

You should put one incense holder in your house. You can take an empty milk can and put dry rice in it and use it for an incense holder. You should put it against the wall. This is the place of Ya-Mao. If you want to go to Phnom Penh, you put banana and incense and sahtoo (praying hands) and say, ‘Oh Ya-Mao, I hope that I have no problem.'"

Stored under the shrine - the overflow of phallic offerings

Stories of Ya-Mao in action:

From the teller of the above story:
"Before we begin I want to say something for her because she has become a god. The Khmer people, especial those who live along the sea shore believe in Ya-Mao. Ya-Mao is a true story. It happened perhaps more than 100 years ago. You can see at the mountain at the middle of Route #4. They have built a lot of Ya-Mao houses and they are for passengers (and drivers). They go there, they stop the car and they take bananas and incense to pray to Ya-Mao to help them along the road. I have had an experience myself. I was the … in Kampong Som…I had been here since after 1979 after Pol Pot fell. So the USSR carried thing to Cambodia to help the Cambodian people. And the ships would berth at Kampong Som. I must go to Phnom Penh 3 or 4 time per month. But no problem. 1983-1984 the road was quiet. Pol Pot had not yet collected his troops….

Route #4 became dangerous. Sometimes they shoot behind me, sometimes they shoot before me. But they never shoot me. Mr. Dara had a bad accident. His Vietnamese consultant, his driver and bodyguard were killed. That day I went also. I went before him. But I became very hungry and I stopped to eat noodle soup in Kampong Speu. So Mr. Dara went before me. I later heard that a car had been attacked. Everybody died. It was Mr. Dara’s car. Only he survived but with serious injuries.

When troops secured the area and I went and looked and, ‘My God!’, Ya-Mao helped me. If I had gone before him I would have been shot. So I believe in Ya-Mao. When I got to Phnom Penh I brought a hand of bananas and three incense and to her prayed to Ya-Mao. "Oh Ya-Mao please help me tomorrow. I will go to Phnom Penh. If I dream no good I will not go to Phnom Penh. I will wait." If there is any danger on the road Ya-Mao will tell me in my dream. I think that. If I don’t dream that I’ll go. So I believe. So many people were killed along Route #4. But not me, because I believe in Ya-Mao.” 

'The Story of the Whirlpool'

I have heard the 'Story of the Whirlpool' from several people in Sihanoukville, often attached to a telling of the general legend. The story usually runs pretty much the same and seems to be told rather matter-of-factly. One significant difference in tellings is the dating of the story, ranging from 'last year' to 25 years ago.This version was told to me by an office assistant at a school. He said that his mother told him the story.
One day a woman and her children were on a boat going to a nearby island where her husband was working. One of the children cried throughout the voyage and could not be made to stop. After coaxing and reasoning the woman final resorted to threatening the child saying that she would throw him into the ocean if he did not stop. But the frightened child persisted.

At that moment the boat was swept up in a whirlpool. The boatmen fought to free the vessel but to no avail. One of the passengers speculated that it was the work of Ya-Mao, angered by the ill words and the unfulfilled threat to throw the child into the sea. Some passengers said ‘toss the child overboard’ but the woman refuse to give up her child. In its stead, the crew threw a pig into the ocean. Ya-Mao apparently appeased, the boat was almost immediately released from the whirlpool and proceeded to the island without further incident.

From my taxi driver to Sihanoukville:

One time he was driving a fare to Kampong Som from Phnom Penh. As he was leaving the city on Route #4 it occurred to him that he hadn’t made an offering to Ya-Mao. As he neared the crest of Pich Nil a truck in front of him kicked up a rock which smashed his windshield. He realized he was being punished or perhaps warned by Ya-Mao.

He immediately turned back and went to the nearby fruit stands, purchased some bananas and then returned to the spirit houses on Pich Nil to make offerings and pray for safe passage. The rest of the trip was uneventful.

Spirit houses line the road at Pich Nil


  1. I was so pleased to find this info in your blog post. I vIsited the roadside shrine on a trip through Cambodia, have photos but couldn't remember the legend about Ya-mao at Pich Nil. thanks again.

  2. Thank you for writing about the legend of Yay-Mao! I was wondering what all the penises and bananas were for!