Fencing might be more associated with musketeers and manicured lawns than Southeast Asian soil, but when the sixties were in full swing in Cambodia, so was the sabre. Albeit a mere handful of them.
Like many arts, film and literature, the sport was largely forgotten after the destructive Khmer Rouge regime, but today it is undergoing a resurgence of interest.
Khout Rotona, now 61 and a filmmaker, was one of five fencers who practiced and competed in 1960s Cambodia. Just three are still alive today. He was the youngest competitor, but one of the greatest, taking home a medal from a grand national championship held at Olympic Stadium.
Rotona originally found fencing after a wandering experimentation with all kinds of sports - from Taiwan Do, Karate Do to Labokator and fencing - he said, speaking over the phone from his home in Phnom Penh.
“During the Khmer Rouge period, nobody was allowed to learn. They only wore black clothes. There was no market, no money, no pagoda – only farming.”
A small but dedicated group of enthusiasts have taken up the art of delicate fighting, last month staging the country’s first national fencing competition, and even taking home some medals on the international stage.
The revival is of deep satisfaction to retired Rotana. “I might not be a fencer now, but I am so glad to see the younger generation recover it back,” he said.
On a recent evening, on the first floor of a modest house on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, 29-year-old Sok Ang took a class of eager students through their paces.
Once a fencing champion, Sok Ang is now the tall, friendly, unpaid coach at Hysa Club. In the mornings, he helps his parents sell groceries at their shop. In the evenings, six nights a week, he teaches young men and women to fence.
In 2006, he volunteered to teach fencing for free, out of sheer passion for the sport.
“Fencing is one of the best sports for the body: for both health and mental reflection,” he said during a break from practice.
Since he started teaching at Hysa, four more fencing clubs have opened in Phnom Penh, and some 50 fencing trainees have signed up to classes in the capital.
Some have had success on the international stage, competing both individually and as a group in the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam.
At home, the sport is gaining ground. In July, the Fencing Federation of Cambodia (FFC), in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, held a tournament at the Royal University of Phnom Penh – the first of many, organisers hope.
One the star fighters of that competition was bronze medalist 16-year-old San Sok Seyha, a boisterous fighter who trains at Hysa.
The teenager has learned for two years both here and in the Philippines, competing four times internationally.
In January, he scored third place in the last Southeast Asia Championship in Brunei. Now his sights are set on first.
“When I first started fencing, I found it boring, but now it makes me happy. I want to become an international bout champion in the future,” he said.
While the sport is gaining more fans, there are obstacles to widespread popularity.
First off, the learning process is long and arduous. Students are taught to use foils, epees and sabres, all of which require different techniques. Stance is important, and students can get frustrated with early basic classes.
“[Students] need to commit, and concentrate on their performance,” said Sok Ang.
The sport can also be very expensive. To compete, students need to invest in protective gear including a jacket, gloves, masks and even special underwear.
The total cost can be anywhere between $350 to $1600, though, for some fighters are sponsored by the International Fencing Federation.
Other reservations include a perception that the sport is dangerous.
None of that matters to You Chinkheng, 17, who has trained at Hysa for about a month. At first, he didn’t tell his parents, but when they saw him win a medal, he was showered with praise.
He credits the sport with a new feeling of strength, flexibility, creativity and patience.
“Even though some of my friends don’t like it, I do what I like, and it will be good for me in the future.”
Free fencing classes are held every Saturday morning at Hysa Fencing Club, #35BE4, St. 298, SK. Toul Svay Prey I, KH. Chamkamon.
Other lessons take place at the Hosana Club, Honey Mav Mav Club, PSE Club and Cambodian Country Club.