Under the hot afternoon sun in Kampong Chhnang province, the drums begin and the fighters start dancing. In a blue Kbin, a Khmer loin cloth, Pich Kimhey hops around imitating a monkey, while across from him Sith Soul impersonates with his long arms a crocodile opening its mouth. And then the fighting starts.
The two grapple ferociously before Soul slams Kimhey to the ground and the referee blows his whistle. Soul wins the second round as well, and the referee lifts the fighter’s arm in victory. The two wrestlers shake hands and dance again for about half a minute before leaving the mat.
The men have taken the day off from their jobs for Kimhey construction work and for Soul farming – to practice this arcane sport, called Cham Bab, which is the country’s oldest form of wrestling. Helping to keep the sport alive are veteran enthusiasts like Som Vankin, a traditional wrestling master and the owner of Rithisen Mean Rith, Kampong Chhnang’s Wrestling Club.
“It used to be far more popular in the ancient time,” Vankin says. A 70-year-old retired army lieutenant, the master’s fighting experience is displayed from head to toe – through tattoos, bruises and scars on his weathered frame. “Many Cambodian men used to practice it, since it was the symbol of manhood and strength, but women could also do it,” he explains.
Vankin started learning Cham Bab from monks in a pagoda when he was eight years old. By the early 1970s, Vankin was known as the champion of his province, when he joined Lon Nol’s army and then the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces after the fall of Khmer Rouge. He retired a decade ago and has since devoted his life to teaching Cham Bab while living on his small pension and the earnings of his wife’s small business.
Sitting at the club, he explains that the rules are similar to those of freestyle amateur wrestling, which is contested at the Olympic Games. To win the match, the wrestlers have to force their opponents onto their backs in two out of three rounds. But the dancing is what gives Cham Bab its unique flavour.
“The wrestlers dance before and during the match to pay respect to their masters but it is also meant to tease and intimidate their opponent,” Vankin says. “If a wrestler gets angry, he could lose the match easily. One has to be mentally strong.”
The drummers’ pace dictates the match, with one beat signalling that it is time to grapple, while another tells the fighters to dance as a way to tease and rile up their opponents. Meanwhile, the post-match dancing, according to Vankin, symbolises the sportsmanship and friendship of the wrestlers.
Cham Bab dates back to before the Angkorian Era. Along with Bokator and Pradal Serey, or Khmer kickboxing, it is a part of Cambodia’s martial arts heritage and thus national identity, says Hok Chheangkim, a martial arts legend and researcher.
“The earliest form of Cambodia’s wrestling is called Maloyuth, created in 788 by a Brahmin [Hindu priest] named Timu,” says Chheangkim, who is also a veteran wrestling coach and the co-founder of Wrestling Federation of Cambodia (WFC). “At the end of the Chenla Period [in the 8th century], it evolved into Cham Bab.”
Chheangkim explains that while Maloyuth involved a “deadly art of grappling”, including chokeholds and body throwing, Cham Bab is a sport that focuses on strategy, agility and strength, bound by rules that do not allow life-threatening moves. The sport’s place in ancient Khmer civilization is cemented on the bas-reliefs of the country’s ancient temples, like Banteay Srei and Baphuon in Angkor Archaeological Park.
Traditionally, Cham Bab tournaments would have been held to celebrate the harvest, as well as around holidays like Khmer New Year or Pchum Ben. It was also included in the military training as a way to decide military leaders. Like most traditional pastimes in Cambodia, it virtually died out under the Khmer Rouge regime, when many coaches and masters were killed. Even after the Khmer Rouge, under the Vietnamese occupation the sport was banned, Chheangkim says.
Before the creation of the WFC in 1997, Cham Bab was taught in secret by surviving masters, like Chheangkim and Vankin, at their homes. Vankin remembers the glory days of this sport, when each region sent its champion to an annual tournament hosted by the king, during which the eventual winners received valuable prizes.
“I kept training students for free because I love this sport, but not many people are interested in it,” Vankin says. “Some parents here call it a useless thing, and they prefer having their children helping them on their farms.”
According to a 2013-2016 WFC report, there are eight wrestling clubs in Cambodia, with three in the capital and two in Kampong Chhnang. Most of them focus on freestyle and Greco-Roman styles, while only those in Pursat and Kampong Chhnang teach the traditional form of wrestling.
While Chheangkim is optimistic about the future of this sport due to the efforts of the WFC, which also organises an annual national tournament for all styles of wrestling, Vankin is worried that the original form will be lost, especially the dance and the music.
“In many places, Cham Bab is contested without the music, though it is the most important part,” Vankin says. “Here, in Kampong Chhnang, only my son, my grandson and I could play the drums.”
The obstacles in the way of returning Cham Bab to its former glory are apparent at Vankin’s club, which is actually just the open compound of his house. The equipment for training here consists only of a few cement dumbbells made by his students, a sandbag, and a wrestling mat given by the WFC.
His 20 students have to stop their training when the rain comes or when the sun is too hot. When it is time for the tournament, they barely have any money to go Phnom Penh to attend, where the prize money is very small.
“I have a piece of shrapnel in my back from the war, and I could not even afford a surgery to remove it,” Vankin says. “Where can I get the money to buy the equipment, or pay for my students’ stay in Phnom Penh?”