Category Archives: Cambodia
I’m in Siem Reap to visit the Angkor temples. As I enter a random restaurant for breakfast, a television is broadcasting a kickboxing match. I approach the young guy who’s watching it and, having seen his involvement, I ask ‘You like Thai boxing, uh?”. The guy looks at me with a hint of irritation and explains that what he’s watching is Pradal Serey, Cambodian Kickboxing.
Today Thai boxing or Muay Thai is the most exported and famous model of kickboxing, however the Khmer will tell you with pride that kickboxing originated in Cambodia and early forms of Pradal Serey have been around since the good old times of the glorious Kingdom of Angkor.
It was with the French, during the colonial period, that Cambodian kickboxing became a proper sport – rings, gloves, timed rounds and rules were introduced. During Pol Pot’s regime, from 1975 to 1979, Pradal Serey was forbidden and many boxers were executed as part of the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to erase any form of entertainment and create a communist agricultural society.
Pradal Serey was re-established in the post-Pol Pot period, and it continues to be a popular sport in present-day Cambodia, among the many challenges it faces – especially the scarcity of financial funding. Young Khmer kickboxers can earn between $10 and $100 per match, with some of the most experienced fighters being able to earn up to $250.
A few weeks later I’m in Phnom Penh, at the end of the Cambodian part of my round the world trip, and I think to myself that I can’t leave Cambodia without going to a Pradal Serey match. I start asking around and find out that the Cambodian Television Network (CTN) holds live tournaments during the weekend – I’m lucky because I’ll stay for the weekend. Next, I’m talking to a tuk-tuk driver and negotiating a price.
On Saturday, early afternoon, the tuk-tuk comes to pick us at street 125 and drops us a few kilometres away on the national highway 5 – a big white sign reads “Cambodian Television Network”. When we get into the stadium the match has already started but we are able to find a seat close to the ring. The energy is high and from time to time someone stands up and screams something in support of one or the other fighter.
Eventually the first match finishes and new fighters come in. They begin going slowly in circles into the ring, one after the other, then stop at opposite corners and shuffle their fists as in a sort of tribal dance. One minute later they are on their knees looking at opposite portions of audience – their heads go down to the floor and up again. While the fighters perform their pre-match ritual (or Kun Kru), which is intended as a homage to their trainers, spectators and family, a band plays some traditional Cambodian music.
I realize my position in the audience is not ideal if I want to take some pictures, and I start looking for an alternative. There is what looks like a press area in front of us, beyond the ring -This area offers a different, better perspective as it is as high as the ring itself. A couple of cameramen are filming the match from there, not far from them the man who makes the announcements sits quietly at his desk, while on further away a few spectators (journalists?) hang around and the Cambodian musicians wait their turn to blow some music into their instruments.
I approach the security guy and show him my camera. He doesn’t even look at me, so I try again. Nothing. I decide to go ahead. As nobody stops me on my way to my advantage point, I understand nobody really cares whether I’m there or not. Good thing, I think into myself.
Now I have a perfect perspective on the ring and I can start putting my zoom lens to good use.
A few matches later I think of my tuk-tuk driver who is outside, alone, waiting for us, and decide to head back into town with some pictures and some more knowledge about Cambodian kickboxing.
Plus, I think, I made it up to the guy in the restaurant in Siem Reap. If I could only talk to him now…
Psah Toul Tom Poung, also known as Russian market, is a buzzing spot located out of the mainstream tourist trail, south of Mao Tse Tung boulevard, in Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh.
This covered market got to be known as Russian market during the 1980s because it was popular with Russian expats living in Cambodia.
Today, inside the Russian market it is possible to find gold and jewels, cheap fake designer clothes, fabrics, carvings, souvenirs, pirated software, movies and music, books and many other things.
The Russian market is also home to the best ice coffee in town. You can’t be wrong: look for a big Brazilian flag and you’ll find it. Oh and make sure to join their Facebook page.
Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei, which translate respectively as man hill and woman hill (you can read the legend behind these names here), are situated at approximately 7 kilometers out of Kampong Cham on the road to Phnom Penh. These hills are a nice side-trip for those who visit the Kampong Cham province. Many go there to enjoy the views and the tranquility, or to visit the pagodas.
When we arrived in Phnom Pros on the motorbike we’d rented for the day, the atmosphere was serene and peaceful. At the back of the building a number of monkeys where sitting quietly and seemingly enjoying the silence around.
We were greeted by an old man who for some reasons happened to stand right in front of the temple’s door. The man invited us in, and we where introduced to other people including Buddhist monks, some extremely young. In Cambodia and in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, where a big Khmer community lives, we’ve seen many young monks. In the Khmer Buddhist tradition one can become a monk very early in life – some become novices as early as ten years of age, but nobody is obliged to take vows permanently, so not all remain monks for all their life.
While a few people, including women, were cleaning and seemingly doing some maintenance work, someone else was waving incense sticks in the air, engaging in what looked like a prayer or a spiritual practice.
Even if we weren’t able to communicate, as nobody spoke English (and our Khmer is also not that good either ), we still managed to have two of the monks and some of the old men pose for us. Actually they loved to be photographed and their eyes sparkled when they saw our camera.
We stayed for a while into the temple with our hosts and then decided to move on. When we went out in the yard on our way to the motorbike a monkey started fighting with a dog (see my other photo essay Monkey vs. Dog for the pictures). Going to Phnom Srei was in our original plan, but in the end we thought we’d give it a miss, because we were more curious about the village of Cheungkok.
Situated not far from Phnom Pros, continuing for less than a kilometer in the direction of Phnom Penh, but on the opposite side of the road, this little village of 600 people is a minor attraction and it is only briefly touched on in guidebooks we’ve had at hand – I’m not even sure we would have visited it if our friends didn’t tell us its story and recommend us to go.
This village relied for a long time on rice cultivation but resources such as water and cultivable land became scarce over time and the village had to diversify and look for alternative sources of income (you can read more about the story here). That’s when this philanthropic organization called AMICA (Assistance Médiation Internationale pour le Cambodge) came in. AMICA supported Cheungkok by investing in long term projects, introducing the concept of ecotourism and facilitating the learning of new skills (including scarf weaving and other traditional crafts) to help villagers to recover from their crisis.
We parked our motorbike close to what looked like an open-air school – we found out later that that was the place where children and adults learn French and English with the help of volunteer teachers from abroad. After a short walk among the various stilt houses we came across a lady who weaved kramas. A krama is a typical Khmer cloth and it has many uses, including bandanna or head-cover, but it can be used also as a towel or to carry children. We stopped by her loom and she showed us her technique – subsequently she invited us in her house, introduced us to one of her friends and showed us her many kramas. As I knew I couldn’t leave Cambodia without a souvenir for myself, I ended up buying one. But because I didn’t know how to fix it on my head, the other lady gave me a helping hand.
Soon after that, we had another stroll into the village and met other people, some of whom were able to speak English. We also managed to take another couple of pictures before we headed for the guesthouse.
This was the last of our wanderings around Kampong Cham. The day after we continued our trip to Phnom Penh, where we planned to stay for a couple of days to sort out our visa to Vietnam.
It was sad to leave Kampong Cham as the time we spent there was so good that we felt at home all the time.
A big thank you to Antonio, Jen, Camille, Stella, all the guys at Médecins Sans Frontières, and the other NGO workers for their great company, which made our stay unforgettable, and for helping us to discover little Cambodian gems that would have otherwise been left unseen.