Whenever I meet or see a person in Cambodia that is around 40 or older, I find myself wondering if they were part of the genocide that occurred some 25 odd years ago. I don’t dwell on it or I’d go crazy but the thought is always in the back of my mind. The people in the country are surprisingly open and friendly, considering all they have been through and it is the sort of place that slowly takes you over. It’s an odd place for sure but there is a sliver of normalcy squeezed in between the chaos. In the last few years, though, the country has finally started to show signs of progress. The main streets have had much of the garbage removed, there are casinos sprouting up and Western Union has finally made it possible to obtain any needed replenishment of funds.
But Cambodia is a poor, little thought of country. It is known to the world as a place where pedophiles prowl for children virtually unimpeded, where backpackers come in droves for cheap hotels and sightseeing, and where Thai expatriates come to renew their visas. The mainstream martial arts community often overlooks this impoverished, far-away country and focuses more on neighboring Thailand. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, traditional Khmer boxing was banned from being practiced and slowly began sliding into oblivion. Little do people know that the martial arts scene in Cambodia is experiencing a comeback and is returning to its pre-Khmer Rouge status.
Basically there are three martial arts that are well-liked and widely practiced in the country. The first two are Wushu and Tae Kwon Do and the last and most popular is traditional Khmer boxing, known by a variety of names such as Sovanna Phum (Golden Village boxing), Badai Serei, Kun Borran Khmer or simply kickboxing. Cambodians vehemently dislike the term Muay Thai as in their opinion Muay Thai originates from Cambodia. Either way, it’s extremely difficult to verify so I choose not to get in the middle of this dispute. There are approximately 75 gyms sprinkled throughout the country with many of the best fighters coming from Koh Kong. The gyms are generally poorly equipped, however, and many of the fighters often do not have money to eat. Yet despite it all, they fight on. Each week there are three to four fights in Phnom Penh and countless others in the countryside and fans come in droves to watch them.
Tickets to any of the weekly fights range from 40 cents to about 90 cents. Ringside seats for under a buck, imagine that. If you are lucky you may even get in for free. Granted, the quality of the fighters is not always the greatest but the fights are entertaining scraps, at times looking like schoolyard brawls. Cambodian fighters favor the use of elbows which often makes for exciting, bloody bouts, but while their level of skill is rising, they still have a long way to go to match the refined technique of the Thais. The longtime champion of traditional Khmer boxing is 25 year old E Pho Thoung. With approximately 175 fights and only 5 loses, he is well-known, liked by many and always the subject of the Khmer boxing fan. He has been champion for over three years and now makes movies when he is not fighting. By western standards, however, he leads a frugal existence. No fancy cars, no big house and no entourage. He leads a simple life, one that most westerners can not begin to fathom and instead of obtaining wealth, he achieves notoriety.
The average fighter is lucky to make $15-$20 per fight and as is the case in most countries, rarely do they make a living exclusively from boxing. Most Cambodian fighters are students or motorcycle taxi drivers and have a hard time making ends meet. Yet they fight on, for the sheer love of their sport.
At this point, it’s too early to tell what the future of Cambodian kickboxing will bring. The Cambodian public is always hungry for a good fight and with the help of two TV stations (Channel 5 and CTN) and sponsors like M150, Nestle and Caribao Daeng, Cambodian kickboxing is on the mend. It will take money, equipment, food, sponsors and marketing to bring out the very best of the Cambodian fighters and only time will tell if this can come about. Kickboxing in Cambodia has a long way to go but it’s come a long way already and gaining speed.