There is a small creek that runs below my home in New Zealand. It is adjoining the creek where we pump water up to my grandparents home, my house and the Marae (Meeting House) down the road. When my cousins and I were children we used to go swimming in water holes around this area. Nearly every summer we would spend the days walking along the creeks looking for eels, playing with clay found at the bottom of the creek, smoking cigarettes under the bridge, and eating stolen snacks from the pantry at home. We were all just young kids at the time and life seemed free and easy and of course we were a little mischief. Our parents, aunts and uncles, and elders would tell us not to go down the creek and play but the more they told us not to do anything we would do the opposite and go and do it.
One story that I recall is about the eels in the creeks we would swim in. We were told to be careful of an eel with red eyes as it was a kaitiaki / taniwha (guardian) that protected the creek we were swimming in. It was tapu (sacred) and not to be disturbed. The image of an eel with red eyes stayed in our minds and it still does to this day. We would go hunting eels often when we were young. We would tie worms on threads and make a big knot at the end strong enough for eels to lodge their teeth in the knot giving us time to pull it out of the water. Although we never saw any eels with red eyes it still remained in my head and I had this thought that the eel also has a taa moko (traditional tattoo) on its face. I’m not sure why I thought this but I guess as a child our imaginations stretched beyond its limits at times.
What I learnt as I got older was that the stories of kaitiaki/ taniwha (guardian) was a common folk story back home. Although I never really saw an eel with red eyes or a kaitiaki/ taniwha (guardian) there was still this sense of mysticism, reverence and respect for such stories and entities should they be encountered. There were also stories I heard of a dog having red eyes around the area I came from too. There were other stories of kaitiaki/ taniwha (guardian) out in the sea too in the form of a shark, a stingray or a hammerhead shark. Although I was young when these stories were told I never forgot them. Sometimes I wonder if these kaitiaki / taniwha (guardian) follow us wherever we go.
Years later in 2003 during my first year in Cambodia I went to a peace building meeting in Preak Ho just a little out of Ta Khamau, south of Phnom Penh the Capital. I was feeling some anxiety that weekend a little unsettled about something with a gut feeling that something wasn’t right back home in New Zealand. Our meeting was held at the Centre for Culture & Vipasana at Prek Ho located on a riverside. That evening we met outside under the shelter of a stage like dome complex. At the time I had my friend Sophearith sitting next me. During our discussions a bird called Kleng Srak ខ្លែងស្រាក (photo on the right) perched itself on the stage roof above our meeting and screeched before picking itself up to fly away. It was about 8pm in the evening. My friend turned to me and said that this bird brought bad news. He said that in Khmer tradition if this bird came and screeched around ones house at night it meant someone was going to die. Of course upon hearing this it confirmed my suspicions that something is not right back home.
Several days later I returned back to Phnom Penh and went to the internet shop to call my family back in New Zealand. To my astonishment I learned that my uncle had died several days earlier and my family was not able to get a hold of me during his funeral. For Maori a tangi (funeral) is usually a 3 day ceremony and through that time I had been out of phone contact. I was devastated and shaken from that experience although I knew my cousins and aunt, my uncles wife and children, were hurting just as much if not more at the time. My uncle was my mothers brother and my namesake. I never forgot this experience and think often of that time.
From this experience, Maori or Khmer, the similarities is that we are sometimes attuned to the natural and spiritual world around us and life and death is intricately linked to each other. Coincidental or not that things happen and animals have this sense that we as humans don’t it is important to know that these stories and traditions illustrate two different world views that portray two cultures and people as vastly dissimilar but similar at the same time. In a way maybe the Khmer tradition of the Kleng Srak ខ្លែងស្រាក (bird) could also be like that of the eel back home where they are kaitiaki/taniwha (guardians) and as such they bring news linked to the cycle of life and death whether it is good or bad. These stories are important to me as much as they are to many Khmer people. Maybe the lesson learned here is not just the story in itself but also the linking of two cultures sharing similar life values with each other. And just maybe our different traditions can actually bring us together. Peace.
Khmer Stories the ខ្លែងស្រាក Kleng Srak
The YouTube video below is a reflection about what this bird means in Khmer culture spoken in Khmer.
Maori Word Meanings
Kaitiaki – (caretaker, guardian, a role of ensuring the integrity and sovereignty of a people, environment, tribe, person, or collective group or organisation is maintained)
Taniwha – (another form of guardian with a similar role as kaitiaki but defined as a form of animal, lizard, whale, shark etc. with the role of guardianship for a specific environmental area).
Marae – (Meeting House. It is an open space before the front of a traditional Maori meeting house but it is also the whole complex of the building and surrounding areas attached to it. It is mostly used for community activities with specific rituals, rules and regulations observed to help Maori come together culturally).
Tangi – (To cry. The act of crying or to mourn the death of a loved on. Or a funeral enacted in Maori ceremony and tradition).
Tapu – (to be sacred or that which is sacred and requires a sense of respect and reverence. to be set aside for a specific sacred purpose).