After spending time with Apsara dancers, I turned my attention to another Cambodian activity where grace and agility are required, 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, which translates as freestyle fighting.
I know, 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. In fact, 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 go experience Pradal Serey (Khmer kickboxing).
Actually, 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 can be found 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 most certainly 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 a fight going outside the ring in a Cambodian kickboxing stadium, just 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 boxers can train and a few large stadiums that host fights every week. Those fights are regularly televised on the local networks to the delight of the many fans. And in recent years, Cambodian boxers have won international championships.
In Phnom Penh, I visited a kickboxing gym 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 seriously hard training session. There were a number of young men and a few women 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 a number of 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.
My last night in Siem Reap I was able to see an exhibition fight. Looking at the boxers in the ring under stage lights, I really felt like I was watching dancers again. Or maybe I was just hoping I was!