The Rabbit and the Earthquake. A Cambodian folk tale.


While many Cambodian folk tales feature Judge Rabbit as the smart wise-guy, other tales portray the rabbit as a nervous, less intelligent animal. In this story, rabbit’s nervousness leads to mass hysteria and an encounter with a creature I never expected in Cambodian folklore: the lordly Lion.  I don’t know how this creature from Africa ever popped up in Cambodian folklore, but I guess these tales travelled at some stage along the silk road a thousand years ago.

The other thing that fascinates me about this story is the reference to an earthquake. There have not been many earthquakes in Cambodia, yet everyone knows they can be frightening.

This is my retelling of the story.


A nervous rabbit lived under a palm tree near a forest. Like most rabbits he was always listening out for danger.

On this hot afternoon he was sound asleep, when a ripe palm fruit fell down on the ground nearby. The crackling sound as the palm fruit fell on the dried palm leaves woke the rabbit with a start!

palmfruitAlarmed, the nervous rabbit jumped up: “It’s an earthquake!” Without looking behind he began running. There was no time for a backward glance, he had to escape the danger!

The herd of oxen saw him running past at high speed and, chewing on grass, one of them called out: “Rabbit! Why are you running so fast? What’s the matter?” Even the oxen were feeling jumpy now, after all, the rabbit looked totally frightened.

The Rabbit shouted in haste “Brother Oxen! It’s an earthquake! There’s no time to chew! Run for your lives!”

The Oxen began to run too. An earthquake? This could be dangerous!

The oxen and the rabbit soon met the Pigs and Deer. Startled, they too began running, joining the Oxen and the Rabbit. The Pigs heaved themselves forward and put on a burst of speed. No earthquake was going to catch these fat pigs!

When the Elephants saw them running, they too, asked “Why are you running? What is the matter?”

The Oxen told them “Haven’t you heard? The earthquake is coming!” Hearing this story, the Elephants joined them. When they all reached the Lion’s den, the clever Lion, seeing all the panic-stricken animals, stretched his paws and casually asked the Elephants, “What’s up? Why are you running?”

The Elephants were out of breath. “We don’t exactly know for sure. We saw the Oxen running. We heard something about an earthquake.”

So the Lion, lazily shook his mane and asked the Oxen, “Did you guys actually feel the earthquake?”

The Oxen confessed, “Well not directly, no.  We saw the Rabbit running, so we ran after him. He looked very frightened.”

The Lion asked the Deer and the Pigs, and they answered likewise.

“Hmmmn,” said the Lion. And he turned to face the Rabbit. “This earthquake.  Just how serious was it?” All the animals looked at the rabbit. They waited for his reply.

“I’m not too sure, myself. While I was sound asleep under a palm tree, I heard the sound of the earth breaking up.  It was a sharp crackling sound. I was afraid and began to run.”

“So you heard something but didn’t actually feel anything?” asked the Lion. “You didn’t feel the ground move beneath you?”

“No,” admitted the rabbit. “But the sound I heard; it was pretty terrifying.”

Arching his back and standing up, the Lion spoke: “All of you, come with me.” And slowly, swinging his tail, he led all the panicky animals to Rabbit’s palm tree. He showed them the cracked palm fruit lying on the ground. “There’s your earthquake,” said the Lion.

The embarrassed animals gave the Rabbit a sound rebuke and slowly went back to their own places.

Another folk tale from Cambodia. You can’t please anyone!

But here’s a mystery.



This story is from the 1993 collection of Cambodian folk tales entitled Cambodian Folk Tales from the Gatiloke.  I should preface the telling of the story by explaining a little bit about the Gatiloke: it is a vast body of hundreds of folk tales that has existed in Cambodia for many centuries and not committed to paper until the late 19th century.

In 1993 and American academic Muriel Paskin Carrison interviewed Cambodian refugee to the USA the Venerable Kong Chhean, a Buddhist monk who shared with Muriel a number of these folk stories. Coming in 1993, this set of stories provided one of the first glimpses of Cambodian culture available to the west since the tragic wars of the 1970s. The book is still available, and the stories are timeless, though many of the footnotes compiled for the volume have since been overtaken by modern history. For anybody wanting to teach in Cambodia, this volume is well worth reading, and I have often thought that it would make a great basis for a set of teaching modules.

In this particular tale called A Father, a Son and a Donkey,  a farmer and his son wish to take their young donkey to the local market to be sold. It is a long way to the market, and the father is concerned that the donkey will grow skinny and lean if they walk it all the way. So he comes up with a great idea; he will string the donkey upside down from a pole,  and carry it in the same manner as farmers might carry a squealing pig. So far so good.  His son agrees to carry the other end of the pole. They also have a heavy pack and several bags to carry, so they string these up as well.

However the father and son don’t get very far when they start drawing jeers and laughter from other farmers also en route to the market. ” I think you’ve confused your donkey for a pig!”  yells one farmer. ” I would hate to taste the pork from that pig!”  laughs another farmer. “What a pair of idiots,”  calls another.

Embarrassed by all this attention, the farmer lowers the donkey to the ground and un-strings it from the pole. ” I suppose we look pretty stupid,” he admits, “so let’s untie the donkey, and son – you ride him.”

” But won’t the donkey lose weight?”  asks the son.

” That’s okay, I’ll carry the pack as well as our other bags so that we don’t overload the donkey,”  explains the father.

” Good thinking,” says his son.

They set off, but again they don’t get very far before other travellers start to react. These other people look angry at the son and tell him that he is very ungrateful; riding in comfort on the back of the donkey while his father is forced to carry the pack and all those bags.

“What a terrible son!  No respect for your father!”

The father and son come up with a good solution. This time the father will ride on the donkey while the son carries the bags.  Surely this time everybody will be happy.

But no! As they approach a village they come across several young women washing clothes in a stream. The women look up and smile and remark what a handsome boy the son is. They also remark what a beautiful donkey he is leading.  The son smiles proudly. But then the group of young women turn their attention to the father sitting astride the donkey. ” He looks like an old monkey up there,” says one girl. Another calls out to the boy: “why don’t you get up on the donkey, you would look like a king.”

The boy is embarrassed and he whispers to his father,”we just don’t seem to do it right! Should we change places again?”

The father is getting clearly frustrated. “First we carry the donkey and everybody laughs at us, then they get angry when you ride the donkey, and now they seem to be upset when I ride the donkey. There is only one other option, and that is for us both to ride the donkey.”

“Great idea,”  says his faithful son. “Dad,  you always have the answers!”

So now the father and son ride the donkey carrying the heavy bags on their shoulders. As they approach a village they come across a customs officer who appraises the sight of the  father and the son and all the bags loading down the young donkey. “That’s just not right,” he tells them. “That donkey is very young and little and you two are cruelly weighing that poor little donkey down.”

“To be honest,  I agree with you,”  says the father. He turns to his son and says, “forget the pole, lets just carry the donkey instead.”

Now the father and the son are taking turns carrying the young donkey over their shoulders. They don’t get far, as they cross through a field of high grasses, when a local farmer calls out: “Hey you two! That field is full of  thorns and you could easily cut your legs. You really ought to ride the donkey and protect yourselves!”

The father lowers the donkey down, and the donkey starts chewing happily on the grass. ” whatever we do, we never seem to please anybody,” sighs the father. “what on earth are we going to do? How are we ever going to get to the market?”

And that is where the story ends. The moral is clear. If you rely solely on the opinions of other people, then you will never get anywhere in life.

I love this story, and it reminds me that Cambodians respect those who use their intelligence and possess a healthy dose of self-esteem. These two, the farmer and his son lack both.  But here’s a mystery: when I read Aesop’s Fables recently the same story was there!  Has somebody ripped-off Aesop – or have these stories traveled the silk road over the centuries?

You want another tale? For another folk story about the mischievous Judge Rabbit: click here.

Or how about the Nervous Rabbit and the Earthquake?

A collection of folk tales, on-line, has also been published. Cambodian folk tales.

Here’s a Traditional Khmer Folk Tale – Judge Rabbit


Cambodia has a rich culture of storytelling and many Khmer folktales revolve around an interesting character called Judge Rabbit. Judge Rabbit is undoubtedly an intelligent creature, but while he often resides on the side of truth and justice, there is an element of trickster about this character. Sometimes Judge Rabbit simply takes advantage of foolish people.

There are many published Judge Rabbit stories, and these provide an insight into the Khmer culture which clearly has little time for ignorance or for boastful pride. In a typical story, Judge Rabbit will fight for the underdog by pointing out the foolishness of those in power.

In one example, a young man asks a wealthy family for their daughter’s hand in marriage. The family sets a challenging task for the young man. They demand that he immerse himself in a lake for three days and make no moves to keep himself warm. If he can succeed in doing this, then he may marry the daughter.

And so the challenge begins, but after two days of immersion the man is shuddering with cold. He is scarcely conscious. On a distant hill he sees a fire, and lifting is hands above the waterline he reaches hopelessly – in his delirium – toward the fire. Aha! At that moment the wealthy family tells the young man that he has failed in his mission and that quite clearly he was keeping warm from the fire. He has failed in his task.

The young man seeks justice, and pleads before a local magistrate that it was impossible for him to gain any warmth from the distant flames, and that he had not broken his pledge. But the magistrate is friends with the wealthy family who have plied the magistrate with generous gifts. In his findings, the magistrate sides with a wealthy family, and to make matters worse for the young man, he orders the young man to prepare a large banquet, as reparation, in honour of the wealthy family.

The young man is distraught, but as he goes to the market together things for the banquet he meets Judge Rabbit who asks why he is so sad. The young man explains the story and Judge Rabbit takes sympathy. Judge Rabbit tells the young man to go ahead and prepare the banquet but not to use any salt when making the soup.” Make sure you use no salt!”  he instructs the young man, ” and place a salt container at the far end of the table from the magistrate. Then leave the rest to me. Together we will find justice.”

The banquet is held. Judge Rabbit makes sure he is in the district, and he duly gets invited to the banquet by the magistrate who is in the pocket of the wealthy family. “splendid!”  Says Judge Rabbit.

Now comes the first course, and the first dish to be served – as is tradition – is the soup. Naturally, the young man shows honour to the magistrate by serving him first.  the magistrate takes a mouthful of soup and splutters! “this is terrible, the soup is too bland, it needs salt!”

“Well that’s strange,”  says Judge Rabbit. “there is a salt container just here, and if a distant fire is capable of warming this young man’s hands, then surely this nearby salt container is capable of flavouring the soup. Don’t you think?”

The magistrate shifts uncomfortably,  and embarrassedly  agrees with Judge Rabbit. He reverses his decision, and says that the young man is hereby entitled to ask for the daughter’s hand in marriage.

Many cultures have folk stories similar to those of Judge Rabbit. Every culture appears to enjoy tales in which the rich and powerful are humbled and held to account by their own words. We love seeing ingenuity at work!  No child listening to a Judge Rabbit story could not be impressed by the intelligence and independent thinking of the lead character.

For an insight into Khmer culture I strongly recommend that, no matter how old you are, you get hold of some Judge Rabbit stories. They are by turns instructive, ingenious and hilarious.

  • For the cautionary folk tale of the Rabbit and the Earthquake – click here.
  • For more folk tales from Cambodia – click here.
  • For a Judge Rabbit book via Amazon click here. there are also several variations on the Judge Rabbit character, including tales of a smart rabbit or hare,  who manages to outfox – if that’s the right word – other bigger stronger members of the animal kingdom. Click here.
  • The delightful illustration above comes from a well regarded book: Brother Rabbit.

And here is another funny, insightful folk tale about A Farmer, His Son and a Donkey.