After spending time with Apsara dancers, I turned my attention to another Cambodian activity requiring grace and agility, namely Khmer “kickboxing”. Officially known in Cambodia as Kbach Boran Khmer (abbreviated as Kun Khmer), the locals colloquially refer to this national sport as Pradal Serey, meaning freestyle fighting.
I know, going from ancient ritual dancing to boxing seems like an odd juxtaposition, and I am the first to admit that I am not a boxing fan. My only other contact with the sport (no pun intended) was at a Filipino Boxing Club where I photograph boxers in training (Boxing in the Philippines). (My idea of a rough sport to watch is a Grand Slam tennis match, as I am always afraid someone will get injured.) But as they say, when in Rome…and in this case, when in Cambodia, do as the Khmers do and experience Pradal Serey (Khmer kickboxing).
There is more than nimbleness in common between Kun Khmer and Khmer classical dance. They were both practiced as early as the 9th century during the kingdom of Angkor. In my last post, I mentioned that representations of Apsara are carved on the bas-relief of the magnificent Angkor Wat temples, so too, are depictions of “kickboxing fights.” This is one of the reasons why Cambodians believe that this martial art originates from Cambodia as opposed to Thailand, even though the Thai people have made kickboxing internationally known under the name of Muay Thai. (By the way, if you want to get in a fight outside the ring in a Cambodian kickboxing stadium, refer to the sport as Muay Thai.)
And just as was the case with Khmer classical dance, kickboxing was banned during the Khmer Rouge era. Many boxers were executed, and the sport nearly disappeared. But kickboxing has now made a big comeback. There are numerous gyms where fighters can train and a few large stadiums that host weekly fights. Those fights are regularly televised on the local networks to the delight of many fans. And in recent years, Cambodian boxers have won international championships.
I visited a kickboxing gym in Phnom Penh to see how the aspiring boxers trained. Equipment does not seem to be the secret, as what is there is pretty simple. Punching bags, skipping ropes, a mirror, some pads, and loud music seem to be all that is needed for a tough training session. Several young men and a few women were working hard at the gym, two of the men sparring with one another.
I also went to a fight at the recently opened facility in Siem Reap, the CTN Angkor Arena. Local fans were watching intensely as several young men fought one another. At the beginning of each match, the boxers practice the praying rituals known as the kun kru. A match consists of five three-minute rounds with a short break between each round. Interestingly, at the end of the match, the boxers go around the crowd and collect money from the fans for their performance.
On my last night in Siem Reap, I saw an exhibition fight. Looking at the boxers in the ring under stage lights, I felt like I was watching dancers again. Or maybe I was hoping I was!