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…