Folklore / 3 Southeast Asian love stories to fill your Valentine’s Day void

Posted on: February 14, 2019 | Featured

Every country has folk stories. Some speak of heroes, some of villains, but more often than not, they speak of love. Here are three stories from Southeast Asia to get you in the mood for romance this Valentine’s Day

Daragang Magayon and Panganoron

In a  story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, the tragic lovers Daragang Magayon and Panganoron are now forever immortalised in the Philippines not only as a popular folktale but also an active, threatening volcano that has been named after them. And they say romance is dead.

Daragang Magayon, which means beautiful maiden, was the only daughter of a great chieftain. The beautiful maiden soon grew into a beautiful woman and was sought after by men far and wide. But Magayon was not interested in anyone, not even Pagtuga, a great hunter and chief of the Iniga people who showered her with expensive – and ultimately futile – gifts.

One day, Magayon was bathing in the river when Panganoron, the son of a chief from the Tagalog region, spotted her. He became so enthralled by her beauty that he lost his footing and fell into the river. Once submerged, he noticed that Magayon was not in fact bathing, but actually on the verge of drowning. Leaping into action, Panganoron rescued Magayon and romance, as they say, blossomed.

Panganoron proposed and with Magayon’s father’s blessing, the two were all set for a happily ever after.

Until…

Pagtuga, the chief of the Iniga, became mad with jealousy and took Magayon’s father hostage, demanding the maiden’s hand in marriage in exchange for her father’s life. When Panganoron learned about this, he rallied his warriors together and marched against Pagtuga, meeting him on the field of battle and slaying him in a clash of the titans better expressed through film.  

Magayon was overjoyed for both her lover and her father, running onto the battlefield and into Panganoron’s arms to kiss him. Cue romantic music.

Until…

Tragedy occurred as one of Pagtuga’s men fired an arrow, piercing Panganoron’s heart and killing him just as the two embraced. In distress and disbelief, Magayon took a knife from Panganoron’s belt and took her own life, crying out his name one final time.

Magayon’s father buried the two lovers together. From their  grave grew the mighty Mount Mayon, named after Magayon. Legend tells that Magayon is the volcano and Panganoron is the clouds surrounding it.

In a January 2018 eruption, the smoke around the volcano reportedly created a vision of the two lovers locked in one last embrace. Judge for yourself…

Tam and Cam

This story has been described as the Vietnamese Cinderella, and it certainly bears resemblance to the popular fable, but with a more sinister ending.

An overworked, overlooked woman named Tam is cast into a life of servitude and misery at the hands of her jealous stepmother and her sister Cam. One day, the king announces a search for a queen, and calls on women from all over to gather. In classic Cinderella style, Tam, with the help of But (a benevolent deity), gets all dressed up and races to the gathering on horseback. She loses a slipper on the way, which is discovered by the king who instinctively knows that the wearer of the slipper must be his future queen – one wonders what else he can perceive from shoes – and consequently discovers the beautiful Tam, whom he swiftly weds.

Here, the story takes a turn. The stepmother and Cam are incensed, and murder the poor Tam. Cam replaces Tam as the wife of the king – who believes Tam’s death was an accident – but, perhaps understandably, he never really takes to Cam.

But you can’t keep a good heroine down. First, Tam reincarnates as a bird, which the perceptive king recognises as his dead queen. Cam, still jealous, butchers the bird and buries the feathers in the palace gardens. The feathers grow into two peach trees, which the relentless Cam cuts down to make it into a loom. While weaving one day, she hears Tam’s voice scolding her, so Cam decides to burn the loom and scatters the ashes to the wind. The fallen ashes grow into a tree that bears one golden apple.

After a series of unlikely – and surprisingly domestic – supernatural encounters with the fruit, an old lady peels the skin from the apple,  releasing the spirit trapped inside. She adopts Tam as her daughter and they live peacefully together for a while before the king passes by one day and is reunited with Tam. She returns to the king’s palace, where she finds Cam.

Rightfully annoyed at her sister at this point for killing her so many times, Tam tricks Cam into bathing in boiling water where she dies in agony. Upon discovering this, the stepmother cries herself to death.

A dramatic adventure film based on the fable was released in 2016, titled TamCam: the Untold Story.

Puteri Gunung Ledang

This is the story of a mountain, a princess and a misguided king.

Gunung Ledang is the Malay name for Mount Ophir, a mountain in Johor on the south of the Malay peninsula.

Sultan Mahmud Shah was in mourning. His wife had recently died. But then whispers of a mysterious and beautiful princess who lived on a mountain reached his ears, and the king became obsessed. He sent three of his finest warriors to seek out the princess and demand her hand in marriage.

Only one, the elderly Tun Mamat, made it to the mountain’s peak to relay the sultan’s proposal. Sending a message through her guardian, the princess told Mamat that she would marry the sultan only if he could fulfil seven demands:

  1. That he build a golden bridge connecting the mountain to his palace
  2. That he build a second, silver bridge so that once there, she may walk back to the mountain
  3. Give her seven trays of mosquito hearts
  4. Give her seven trays of the hearts of germs
  5. Give her seven jars of virgin’s tears for her to bathe in
  6. Give her seven bowls of young betel nut juice
  7. Give her one bowl of his son’s blood

Sound reasonable?

This is where the story grows hazy. Some versions state that the sultan did not try to meet any of the demands – others, that he completed the first six and caused the ruination of his kingdom. Another version claims that he was just moments from draining the blood of his son when the princess magically appeared to him to scold him, believing – perhaps optimistically – that the lovesick sultan would understand that her requests were so unreasonable he would never attempt to meet them.

Not exactly a true love story then. But some versions of the folk tale suggest that the reason the princess lived on the mountain was because she was heartbroken after the death of her husband and declared that she would never marry again, which should put your lonely Valentine’s Day dinner-for-one into perspective.

The story was made into a black-and-white film in 1961, and then served as the basis for the first big-budget Malaysian film ever made in 2004 before being adapted into a successful musical.