I’m definitely not the violent type, but one of my favourite things to do on a quiet Phnom Penh weekend is going to a kick-boxing match. It’s free, it’s noisy and it’s a totally Cambodian experience.
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. On arrival, head to the warehouse building to find a good viewing spot on the makeshift grandstands or go standing room only near the ring. Keep an eye out for the illegal betting and men with clumps of cellphones stuck together or displayed on a board — they’re calling in their view of the fight to bookies in cafes across town.
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 history. 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.