It's 6 am and the last day of P'chum Ben. The sun is shining, though rain is expected.
Wrestler Lon Mao looks at the ground rising up to meet him as his opponent Sok Sambo takes control in a traditional Khmer wrestling bout at Vihear Sure Village, Ksach Kandal district.
A'khmao (black) and A'sar (white) - a pair of buffaloes - are being dressed in colorful
materials to race against other animals in one hour's time.
The two beasts are quiet and offer no resistance as their owner decorates them
with a mantle of light-red cloth embroidered with small round mirrors to cover their
horns. The cloth is not only for decoration but also to protect the rider from the
sharp end of the horns. Many colorful pieces of cloth are strung between the horns
- pink, blue, green and purple. Around the buffaloes' necks, a yellow piece of cloth
and small bell are tied.
Veteran buffalo racer San Sem, 47, is busy dressing A'khmao and A'sar with their
"We must save our rich traditional culture, and follow our [ancestors] who started
this tradition for us," says Sem confidently.
At the Neakta Preah Srok spirit house, A'khmao, A'sar and around 30 other buffaloes
kneel down as their riders light incense to pay respect to the spirits before the
The time for the 400 meter sprints arrives and hundreds of spectators from the village
of Vihea Sure and nearby Ksach Kandal district of Kandal province are all along the
roadside to watch the competition.
For each race, two buffaloes compete. As the heats begin, the spectators cheer to
encourage the riders to go faster to win.
A'sar is the tallest, biggest and fastest buffalo among those competing; followed
by his brother A'khmao. The spectators focus on them because of their size and ability.
After two hours of racing, the results are not announced. The jockeys are given small
gifts by the organizers before they go back home. Spectators who haven't been to
the buffalo races before wait in vain for the results of the competition.
"We just want to keep our culture. The races are not about awards, winning or
losing," says Sem, who is also one of the organizers. "If we have some
[monetary] support, then maybe we will hold [competitions] that give the winner a
First Deputy Vihea Sure Commune Chief, Meng Chheang Heng, shares Sem's view.
Heng says that the authorities strongly support the races but do not have the money
to fund them.
"Because we lack money, we can't [give] the winner a [monetary award],"
he says. "So we just let them compete with each other and whether the rider
thinks he won or lost depends on them and the spectators who saw the race."
The exact origins of the racing traditions are unknown by the villagers, both old
Yim Yoeun is 69 years-old and recalls tales told by his grandparents about buffalo
"I remember when I was a child I used to crawl across the bridge because I wanted
to see the races," he smiles. "It's so funny and the buffaloes at that
time were much bigger and taller."
Many villagers complain that the buffaloes now are small. The tallest is about 1.3
meters and it's hard to find one bigger. Even a small buffalo costs between 1.5 to
2 million riels. But the villagers intend to keep their tradition alive.
Twenty-year-old Sem Soy, one of the buffalo jockeys, is proud to exclaim "I
like racing very much".
Buffaloes and riders gather in front of the Vihear Sure temple before pitting their skills against each other.
"I hope this racing will be continued by the new generation and that it will
not be lost," he said.
When the racing is finished the villagers turn their attention to traditional Khmer
wrestling. An audience of about 300 stand around a 10 x 10 meter square patch of
land that is marked off as a ring. Two lengths of red rope are tied between the trees
to prevent the audience from crowding in. The matches are organized by the local
authorities, with a little prize money chipped in by generous donors.
The method of selecting athletes is a simple one. The organizers just announce that
they are looking for two new competitors. Suddenly, some in the audience raise up
their hands and jump into the ring where three referees stand by. The niceties of
weight divisions are swept aside as long as both parties agree to compete. Contestants
must take off their long trousers and shirts and wear only Krama Chong Kben (the
two ends of a krama are rolled together, pulled back between the legs and tucked
in at the back).
"We like to keep this game forever," says one of the organizers.
Each year the competition attracts around 40 athletes in their 20's and 30's from
different villages in the same commune.
Twentytwo-year-old Chap Loeun has never lost a bout in his four-year wrestling career,
although he only trains for two weeks prior to each year's meet.
"I like this sport very much," he says with a smile just after winning
a match. "In the future, if I can't compete I will be a trainer to provide this
knowledge to the new generation."
Chan Chay, 56, said that the sports reflected a rich cultural heritage and that they
were undertaken as an offerering to spirits in the belief that they in turn would
help protect the villagers.
"What we celebrate is our traditional culture and to pay homage to the spirits
who can protect us from illness and ensure a good crop in the coming year,"
said Chan Chay.
Hok Chheang Kim, a trainer for the National Wrestling Team said that this was his
first opportunity to see traditional Khmer wrestling and he was eager to study it
"Traditional Khmer wrestling it quite similar to the modern version," he
said, "but the difference is the timing of the rounds and giving points."
According to Kim the government has plans to include traditional Khmer wrestling
in the national sport agenda.