Eh Phuthong is Cambodia’s most famous and decorated kickboxer. Now he uses his skills to help those less fortunate
ALKING through Damneak Trayeaung Village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I come across a small home with a few children intently hitting a punching bag suspended in the driveway. I walk towards them and wave at a toddler who is armed with petite boxing gloves and a look of playful mischief. After a moment’s inspection he punches my leg with impressive form, and I know for certain that I am in the right place.
The house belongs to Eh Phuthong, a man who needs no introduction in the Kingdom. Hailed as the greatest kickboxer Cambodia has ever produced, 40-year-old Eh Phuthong has already attained legendary status within just three years of his official retirement.
Born into a family of kickboxers, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and began training at the age of 12 under their tutelage. His natural ability did not go unnoticed, and at 16 he moved to Phnom Penh from his home in Koh Kong province to train with Chhit Sarim at the Ministry of Defence Boxing Club. He competed in his first fight a year later at the tender age of 17, and the rest is kickboxing history.
In the two decades that followed, Eh Phuthong amassed an astounding record of more than 200 wins to just seven losses and five draws, and has multiple Kun Khmer championships to show for it. He is famous for a thunderous right kick, which was responsible for shattering countless arms.
To the 20 children that currently share his home with him, however, none of the records or titles matter much. To these kids he is simply the closest thing most of them have to a father. In the past, most of them were forced to scavenge on the streets to find money any way they could, until a partnership between Eh Phuthong and Australia-based NGO Child Wise changed the course of the children’s lives forever.
Kristy Fleming, Child Wise’s International Child Protection Program Manager, explains how her organisation got in contact with the Kingdom’s kickboxing king.
“When the children first started coming to the community centre they were very independent as they had to fend for themselves on the street for most of their childhood – they would not continue coming to the centre if they felt we were pressuring them to go to school or forcing them to meet any rigid structure. After a few months of gaining the children’s trust, we wanted to introduce some structure into the community centre program without scaring the children away. As the children would often play-fight each other at the community centre, we felt that they may be enthusiastic about participating in kickboxing classes.
“I remember having a conversation with Barb Eason, the manager of the Community Centre Project, about how we could introduce kickboxing classes for the children.
“I asked her: ‘Who could we get to do kickboxing classes?’ and she said: ‘What about Eh Phuthong?’ I thought: ‘There’s no way we could get Eh Phuthong.’”
But Fleming had miscalculated the compassion lying within the heart of Cambodia’s most lethal man. After tracking him down, Child Wise was surprised to find that Eh Phuthong was already giving free kickboxing lessons to many of the poorest children in his village, and he was eager to partner with Child Wise when they approached him.
“When Child Wise first contacted me about a year ago, I had no idea who they were or what they did. They told me they had children at their centre in Phnom Penh who wanted to learn kickboxing,” recalls Eh Phuthong. What started as one free class turned into a mentorship, and has ultimately blossomed into a much deeper relationship.
“It’s not that I want them all to become kickboxers,” explains Eh Phuthong. “I just want to show them how to defend themselves, especially from strangers and gangsters. I also educate them to stay away from drugs and to stay in school and study hard so that they can make a living when they are older. School is the first priority.”
Busy balancing his humanitarian work with running his fight club, the Eh Phuthong Tonle Bassac Club, where he coaches eight teenage fighters at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, Eh Phuthong is supported in his efforts by his wife Somaly, who is just as eager as he is to care for the children.
Child Wise has provided training to the couple, instructing them in how to deal with the kids when they are having emotional problems or are feeling depressed.
Eh Phuthong’s empathy for the children may be grounded in the fact that he and his family are victims of a governmental injustice that is all too familiar to those in the Kingdom. Together, they comprise just a fraction of the more than 1000 families that were forcefully evicted from their homes in the Dei Kroham slums in 2009.
The residents were moved as a group to Damneak Trayeaung village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where each family was allotted a small pot of land by 7NG Group, the company responsible for displacing them. Eh Phuthong was given two small dwellings as repayment, but many less fortunate others were cheated out of even an attempt at fair compensation. Abandoned with no electricity or running water, and having lost many of their possessions in the evacuation, families were left to rebuild the fractured pieces of their lives in a new home that had even less to offer than the slums they were originally taken from.
“The relocation process has had a devastating effect on nearly everyone in the community,” explains Fleming. “There are very few job opportunities, there is minimal infrastructure and they are now located approximately 20 kilometres from the city centre – too far for most to commute. There is an open sewer in the centre of the village and a high prevalence of domestic violence and child abuse which is exacerbated by their social and economic circumstances.”
When the collaboration between Eh Phuthong and Child Wise began a year ago, the children involved in the project worked long hours every day collecting cans on the street and hustling for money in whatever ways they could.
Often unable to collect enough money for food to eat they regularly were forced to scavenge through the garbage for meals. “The children were particularly vulnerable to abuse and at risk of being trafficked due to their social and economic situation,” adds Fleming.
In connecting with the children in a way that few foreign NGO workers are capable of, Eh Phuthong has proven to be an invaluable mentor.
“Eh Phuthong’s personal story resonates closely with the children we work with and that makes him a particular inspiration for them – he too was very poor when he was a child and did not have the opportunity to go to school,” says Fleming. “Kickboxing was Eh Phutong’s way out of extreme poverty. His kickboxing classes give the children something to look forward to, improve their self-esteem and teaches them discipline and personal safety.
“Before meeting Eh Phuthong, most of the children did not want to go to school at all, preferring instead to work on the streets to earn money for their families. Directly after their first lesson with Eh Phutong, many of the children stayed behind to ask Child Wise if we could help them go to school. Eh Phutong and Somaly are amazing positive role models for the children and Child Wise is very honoured to have them as part of our team.”
Eh Phuthong and his family, comprised of his wife Somaly and their three children, currently share their home with 20 kids. This number may almost seem feasible if he were living in a large estate, but Phuthong’s home is anything but luxurious or spacious. Somehow, they find a way to make it work.
“The Child Wise Centre is in Phnom Penh, and it would be too far for the children to travel back and forth between there and my house. They wanted to stay with me and my family, so we decided to open up our house,” says Eh Phutong.
Declining the offer to work with the kids for a salary, Eh Phuthong instead uses the little money that Child Wise can offer to fund one meal a day for the children. The other two meals he covers out of his own pocket.
“The $5 a day Child Wise gives me is not enough to take care of the kids,” he says.
“It only covers their lunch. I know that I will have to spend even more in the future to provide the kids with what they need. I am prepared to do that, but I am also searching for more sponsors to help me cover the costs because I just don’t have enough myself.”
When asked if he had plans to take in more children, Eh Phuthong was open to the idea but lamented his inability to handle any more kids.
“I can’t take in any more. Child Wise has limited me to 20, but if any other kids are hungry and want to come join us for meals, they are always welcome.”