Khmer Traditional Wrestling
Fighting in the Dirt is a Matter of Preserving Khmer Heritage

Two drums beat. Wrestlers, dressed in colorful konsain (loin cloths) dance. As they whirl around the mats, they take the forms of various animals - the monkey, the crocodile, or the dragon. The dancing, which could last several minutes, serves the dual purpose of warming up their muscles and paying respect to their trainers.

When the signal is given, they tear at each other in a frenzy, trying to throw one another. The drum beats faster. The men look like two crocodiles locked up in a battle to the death. Seeing that neither will gain an advantage, they break off, and resume their dance. The bout continues in this fashion, with the men alternately wrestling and dancing. Finally, one manages to throw the other. There is a scramble on the ground until one opponent allows either his shoulder blades or chest to touch the floor. The referee steps in and declares a winner.

After receiving his trophy, the winner dances again. The Khmer Traditional Wrestling Championships take place each August in the Olympic stadium along side the modern Olympic Wrestling Championships. Although held on the same day, the two sports differ dramatically in both execution and outcome. Olympic wrestling is a sport, played by modern athletes wearing singlets made of spandex. The national team, based in Phnom Penh, is composed of 16 members, ten men and six women. Naturally, they lead the nation in the number of medals won. Both of the team’s coaches were trained abroad, one in Russia and one in North Korea. In addition to having proper equipment and twice-daily training sessions, the members of the national team receive a monthly cash stipend of thirty dollars, which, although a paltry sum by western standards, is slightly higher than the average income of $26 in Cambodia. With so many advantages, it is nearly impossible for provincial teams to compete.

The world of traditional wrestling, on the other hand, is a level playing field, dominated by the teams from Pursat and Kandal provinces. According to Vath Chamreun, a wrestling official and leading trainer in Phnom Penh, “The best wrestlers are from Pursat Province.” He is quick to point out that entrants in the Olympic wrestling competition are barred from participation in the traditional wrestling competition.

While the sport of Khmer wrestling is dying out, many see preservation of the sport as a matter of national pride and culture. “Before the Khmer Rouge, nearly every village wrestled,” explains Vath Chamreun. “They wrestled at festivals and on holidays, such as Khmer New Year or Pchum Benh. But the art was banned during the Khmer Rouge time and many of the top wrestlers and coaches were killed.” In the 1980’s, under the Vietnamese, Khmer wrestling was still banned. “In 1985, Pursat was the first province to have wrestling again. It was not official, they just started doing it.” Vath Chamreun laughs and makes it sound as if some village men, drunk on rice wine, started having a go at each other. And this was the rebirth of Khmer traditional wrestling.

After the end of the Vietnamese domination of Cambodia, some villages resumed wrestling, although most did not. The first official championships were not held until 2001. “In some provinces the wrestling has started up again, but it has been incorporated into Bokator and other traditional Khmer martial arts. So, it is no longer pure wrestling. There were many martial arts in Cambodia, dating back to the Angkorian or pre-Ankorian period,” explains Vath Chamreun, who is working on a book about Khmer fighting arts. “Khmer wrestling was just one part of Khmer martial arts. They used wrestling to choose the strongest men to be the military leaders. They also incorporated wrestling into military training. First, the soldiers trained wrestling. Later, they trained with swords, sticks, and other weapons.” As historical proof, Vath Chamreun references the bas reliefs carved on the walls of the ancient temples, such as Angkor Wat, depicting soldiers in wrestling poses.

“Each year, the king’s representatives called all the people from the provinces and organized a wrestling tournament. Anyone could fight. There were no weight divisions. One person would enter the circle and the official would say, who will fight him? And, volunteers came. They used incense sticks, cut in half, to time the rounds.” They fought three rounds. “If you lost a round they would ask you, are you strong or do you want to quit?” If you quit, you lost. If you continued, the first person to get three wins won the event. A pin was not needed. When you were thrown on the ground, that was a lose. “There were no technical rules, just throw the man down,” laughs Vath Chamreun.

“At the time of Angkor, you could also use some martial arts techniques such as kicks.” Apparently, if a man was being thrown, he was allowed to kick, but only when he was in the air. When Vath Chamreun was a child, some old men told him about the days when you could kick. “It was very dangerous, since nearly all the kicks were to the head. People got killed all the time.” As a result, today, strikes are are not allowed.

Comparing Khmer wrestling with other martial arts, Vath Chamreun says,“When a wrestler and a martial artist fight, the wrestler must get very low, so he cannot be hit.” Demonstrating, Vath Chamreun ducks under my punch and grabs the nerve beneath my lat muscle. Then he twists his body and grabs my leg. He lifts and throws me on my back. “Wrestler against boxer, the wrestler has to be willing to sacrifice. He will get hit several times. But then he can throw the boxer.”

He demonstrates another technique where he grabs me around my middle and turns his knuckles into the small of my back. When he applies pressure, I can feel bone grinding on bone. Once again, he lifts and throws me. He assures me that both moves can be done with gloves on. “In the old days, Khmer boxing, Pradal Serey, was done without gloves and no rules. These types of grappling moves were common.” In another scenario, throwing from the boxing clinch, Vath Chamreun lands on top of me, head-butting me in the jaw. Done at full speed, a single head butt to the jaw can end a fight quickly.

The continued existence of Khmer wrestling is greatly dependent upon the provincial people. Unfortunately, resurrecting any cultural asset in the provinces is problematic. Most provincial families are subsistence farmers, concerned more with earning a living and having enough to eat than they are about playing sports. The poverty also robs them of strength, making it impossible to train. Even for the national sport, Khmer boxing (Pradal Serey), it is difficult to keep the tradition alive.

Most provincial boxing coaches say that their students only train in the dry season, because the roads are impassable in the rainy season and because the boys are needed back at their family farms. At least with boxing there is the chance of someday turning pro and earning an income. But most provincial families see wrestling and other sports as a dead end. They would invest a lot of time and energy for nothing. As a result, traditional wrestling teams do not have regular practices. Most only prepare for a few days before the competitions.

For many villages, the only competition they participate in is the National Championships. The Khmer Traditional Wrestling Championships are a sterile affair. To see the real event, practiced as it once was, you need to visit a village in Kandal Province on Pchum Benh holiday. The village inhabitants wake up at 5:00 AM and walk to the Wat, where they toss food offerings on the ground in honor of their ancestors. Next, they go to the shrine and receive a blessing from the monks. The first event of the day is the buffalo racing, which is done in pairs, racing three hundred to five hundred meters beginning at the temple. The winner normally receives a small cash prize of about 10,000 Riels ($2.50) provided by the local government.

When everyone has had a chance to race, the wrestlers change clothes. To form the wrestling ring, incense sticks are lit at the temple and inserted into the ground in a circle. The wrestlers can earn small sums of money put up by village officials, and sometimes they also receive tips from visiting dignitaries or tourists. A small ensemble of two drums play as the men wrestle.

Traditional stick fighting also takes place at the village. The stick fights, like the wrestling and boxing, are accompanied by music and preceded by dance. In these battles, the men fight with long staffs, really striking at each other. Every time they make contact with their opponent’s head or body, they earn a point. The one with the most points wins. The stick fighting is different from other types of stick fighting I have seen elsewhere in Asia. The men often hold the stick at its end and swung it like a baseball bat. Another common technique is thrusting, where the stick is held like a spear and one opponent stabs at the other. “This is a real fight,” insists Japleun (Chaploeun), one of Phnom Penh’s leading wrestlers and a native son of the Kandal Village. “The men are really fighting, because they want to win.”

Other than the obvious dangers associated with hitting each other in the head with a six-foot wooden pole, it seems that great care was taken to preserve the health and safety of the village competitors. For example, when I train with Japleun at the Olympic Stadium, I once saw him win by suplex, tossing an opponent over his head. But here in the village, such techniques are banned as they might cause injury. In most bouts, when one opponent manages to get into a throwing position, the bout is stopped and a win is awarded.

The day Japleun takes me to his village, the rain is pouring, turning the dirt road into a sea of mud. We swerve to avoid hitting a young boy riding a water buffalo. Our car skids to a halt in Vihear Sour village, Kandal province. My companions are Hok Chheang Kim the head coach of the national wrestling team and Japleun, the 27-year-old, 73kg Cambodian wrestling champion. In spite of the heavy rain, the villagers come out in droves to welcome the hero home.

While Japleum signs autographs, Coach Kim tells me about the days when he trained in Russia. “I went there to learn to be a wrestling coach. It was snowing in September, when I arrived and still snowing six months later when I left.” The villagers ties a diaper around my waist and under my legs. All the men in the village are wearing similar attire. Half wear red and half wear blue, like in kickboxing. The rules are simple. Place your opponent’s back on the ground and you get a point. Best out of three wins, so the fight is over when the score reaches two to zero.

The fights are quick and furious. One wrestler shoots in but in the muddy, dirty ground, it is hard to do a controlled slide. The fighters lock up, toss and roll. Japleun is exceptionally skilled from his years of experience training in Phnom Penh. He does some complicated maneuvers, such as lifting and flipping his opponents. When it is my turn, I find it hard not to let my back touch the gound.

In freestyle fighting (Mixed Martial Arts), fighting from your back is perfectly acceptable and even often advantageous. Several times, my opponent and I lock up. I am able to get him in a reverse full nelson, then spin around and take his back. Normally at this point I would throw my weight backwards pulling him down on top of me, lock my legs around his (grape hooks) and choke him out (rear naked choke). In Khmer wrestling, unfortunately for me, the second my back hits the ground I lose.

Wrestling on a clean mat in Phnom Penh is one thing, but wrestling barefoot, in the dirt, as it is traditionally done, is something else entirely. The rain and sweat make it hard to grab your opponent. The mud is gritty and grinds into your butt crack and abrases the skin. Wet sand runs into my mouth and I suddenly knew how an oyster feels. I make a pearl the size of an orange. My fights have a bit of panache, but I lose all of my bouts. This is particularly pathetic since I outweigh most of my opponents by about forty kilos. Of course, the weight difference is allowed since there are no weight divisions in Khmer Traditional Wrestling.

Seeing how badly I do, one very old woman says,“Please come back for Pchum Benh.” I think she is planning to match me with the smallest guy in the village and bet against me. Japleun introduces me to the village wrestling coach, The Thain, who explains that they do not practice regularly like the team at the Olympic Stadium. According to him, every man, woman and child in the village can wrestle. Even the women compete in traditional wrestling. “They do not need to train,” said The Thain. “When they bring the buffalo to the rice fields, they wrestle amongst themselves. Particularly, one month before Pchum Benh, they wrestle in the fields to prepare for the big day.” The Thain explains that wrestling is a kind of play for the village boys who are bored with their farm work. “Some only train three days or one night before Pchum Benh.”

My wrestling ordeal behind me, all the wrestlers and I take a shower, Khmer village style. Normally, people in these kinds of villages do not even have running water, so they stand outside their house and dump buckets over their head while wearing a sarong. In this village, however, one man has a compressor pump. He fires it up, attaches a fire hose to it, and we all get hosed off like in a prison movie.

After we change our clothes, Japleun takes me to the temple, Wat Vihear Sua, where he shows me the statue of the village patron saint, General Meun Ek. He is the military commander who defended Cambodia from Thailand. Before boys from the village go to the army, they first pray before the statue. They take a small piece of dirt from behind the statue and carry it with them for protection.

“Every club prays before they wrestle,” says Japleun. “They have small Hindu statues and give thanks to the ancestors for creating martial arts. We pray, please stay in my heart and make me strong.” Inside the temple, there is yet another live band playing music. “We pray for the spirit of the Wat,” Japleun says, pointing at a Buddha statue. “If they play music the spirit will welcome you,” explains Kimsong, who is an expert on Khmer religion and culture. “After that, he will recognize you and protect you wherever you go. In our mind we can say, Buddha please protect us from enemies and give us success and prosperity.” Kimsong ends by telling me, “The music is a language for us to communicate with the spirits of the gods.” Perhaps playing music at traditional wrestling, boxing, stick fighting and other events is a way of asking the gods to preserve the Khmer culture.

by Antonio Graceffo

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