In Cambodia’s rapidly changing culture, contestants say, the preservation of their traditional form of Khmer wrestling is more important than ever before
I really enjoy testing the ability of warriors from a variety of places.
The raucous crowd surrounds a circular stage constructed of wooden posts and ropes. Its cheers coincide with two drums hit simultaneously as some of Cambodia’s finest wrestlers grapple for superiority in the circle.
Wrestlers and audiences alike travel from far and wide to attend bok cham bad tournaments, a traditional form of Khmer wrestling in which a winner is decided by the simple feat of forcing his opponent’s back to the ground.
And at an age when many Westerners are making plans for retirement, 55-year-old Cheun Saing is still keen to indulge his passion for grappling, competing in a tournament in the Punlei Buddhist Monastery in Kampong Chhnang province.
“It is a traditional style of Khmer wrestling, so I feel we all have a duty to preserve it and prevent it from dying,” Cheun Saing says.
Before the match, wrestlers dance and move to the music. Immortalised in carvings at Banteay Srei temple, bok cham bad wrestling dates back to the Angkor era. While it is now male-dominated, the sport was once practised by both men and women.
The most experienced wrestler taking part in today’s event, Cheun Saing has participated in the colours of eight different monasteries over a staggering 40 years in the ring.
“I have observed many different styles, but I only like traditional Khmer wresting,” he says.
His skill is evident. Having first taken up the sport in 1970, the veteran combatant received a solid grounding in the ways of the wrestler, with three months of training at Punlei monastery before disaster struck and he broke his arm just three years later.
Yet this early setback only served to strengthen his resolve. Since recovering from his injury, Cheun Saing has indulged his passion for the traditional fighting form at pagodas across Cambodia. A true enthusiast, he never leaves until the final bout has ended, often be the following morning.
Sharing his enthusiasm, if not his experience, 20-year-old Vorn Vith is attending for the second year.
He says he enjoys the camaraderie of the competition, and pitting himself against wrestlers from all corners of the Kingdom.
“I want to meet new friends here each year and enjoy testing the ability of warriors from a variety of places,” he said.
His opponent, 26-year-old Norng Bunthoeun, says that although the sport has obvious health benefits, it is the sounds of the skor ngey and chhmol (the female and male drum) that drive him to compete.
“Just hearing the sound of those drums is enough,” he says. “It pulses right through me and makes me ambitious to get involved.”
The ancient form originated many hundreds of years ago and has been passed down from generation to generation. Nowadays, tournaments take place mostly during the full moon of the moon festival.
Sam Pin, of the Punlei monastery committee which organised the event, believes it is important to continue the ancient tradition.
“The older generation celebrated it every year, so we, the next generation, have followed it traditionally,” he said.