A gritty good time
Chances are you may have heard of muay Thai (Thai kick boxing), but what about Kun Khmer (also known as Pradal Serey)? Want to know more? Khmer kick boxing is on every Friday through Sunday and best of all it is free.
Most people’s first encounter with Khmer boxing is walking past a cafe full of shouting, grunting men and thinking it’s all about to kick off in there. It’s not; they’re just gathered around their iced coffees getting in the spirit of the sport on TV. While this is an event in itself, the best way to appreciate a boxing match is up close and personal, next to the ring.
Ask your guesthouse or a friendly tuk tuk driver which TV station is staging a fight—generally, it’s TV5 on Fridays and Saturdays, Bayon and CTN on Saturdays and Sundays. The CTN studio is the easiest to get to, just six kilometres from the city centre, but as we had slotted in Sunday as being boxing day, we headed to Bayon.
On arrival, after a brief frisk down and removing our cap, we headed to the warehouse building (along with our tuk tuk driver who was way more excited about being there than we were), led by a man in a silver suit (yes really) through a black curtain and into the stadium. A special ringside area is put aside for foreigners, so after passing by the judging panel, we sat down with perhaps a dozen other travellers and awaited the spectacle.
We saw three fights on the night. All three were the real deal—this isn’t a floor show for tourists. In the second bout the loser was knocked out shortly into the first round (ending the fight), while in the final fight we thought both boxers were going to end up outside the ring.
Between matches there is a floorshow and there are plenty of opportunities to get on Cambodian TV—we managed it at least twice. It is good to go with a driver who can act as a bit of a translator for what is going on, but, at the end of the day you’re there to watch two grown men try to beat each other senseless, so not too much explanation is needed.
The easiest way to lose friends at the match is to refer to this sport as muay Thai. Khmers are proud of their history and will inform you that Kun Khmer (also known as Pradal Serey) is most certainly a Cambodian invention. From the ceremonial prayer at each corner of the ropes to the hypnotising music played on drums and flutes, the sport is loaded with tradition. It dates back to the ninth century, when soldiers in the Khmer Empire used their skills in battle with punches and kicks, elbows and knees. If you look closely around temples at Angkor Wat, including the Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom, you’ll see bas-reliefs showing kick-boxing fights.
These days, the sport is becoming big business, although a five-round battering may only result in a $25 fee for a newbie fighter from the provinces. Boxers are respected and admired, but you’ll still see them getting ready in the public toilets and going home on a moto. It’s this gritty reality, as much as the action itself, that makes a Khmer boxing match so thrilling.
Admission to the boxing is free. Guesthouses offer round trip packages for around $15 for up to four people. Be sure to allow enough time to get there as the traffic can be fierce.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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