For more than a century, Cambodia’s traditional archery was dormant. Knowledge of bow-making in the Khmer style disappeared, and with it went the know-how to shoot with the country’s distinctive bows and arrows.
The arcane sport, however, is beginning to re-emerge.
In a sweaty boxing gym above a parking garage near Orussey Market, Thach Visalsambath leads a pair of students in paying thanks to king and country before walking them through the beginner steps of Khmer traditional archery.
“It’s a temporary location,” Visalsambath explains. The dark indoor space hardly provides enough room to shoot a makeshift target of stacked foam mats.
The 23-year-old instructor is working to open a partner chapter of Siem Reap’s Royal Archery Club, which opened in late 2016, in the capital within a month, though he’s still trying to finalise a space.
Visalsambath explains the steps involved in Khmer archery to his students – like the first, a wide-stanced squat, followed with a shot lunging forward. “It’s so you can shoot while moving in the battlefield,” Visalsambath says. “It’s a part of Khmer martial arts, like bokator.”
Khmer archery is an art that was completely lost until revived by Visalsambath’s teacher, Channlin Til.
On the first floor of a half-finished borey development in Siem Reap town, 27-year-old Til and four apprentices have set up a workshop where they craft bows and arrows from the wood of the treang palm.
Enthralled by archery since he was 12, when Til made a toy bow out of bamboo, the workshop is the result of years of research beginning in 2009.
“I didn’t see Khmer bows in movies, on the news, or anywhere,” he says.
But by studying a 19th century bow at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, examining the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat of Khmer archers, and conducting interviews with old men in the provinces who once used traditional-style bows to hunt, he says he cobbled together enough information to recreate his first traditional bow in 2012.
“For the old people I spoke to . . . I considered myself all of what they told me,” he says. “The pictures in Angkor Wat show many styles of bow and the different stances for shooting.”
At the nearby range of the Royal Archery Club he points to a rack of traditional bows, explaining how, based on strength and ornamentation, each one is styled for a foot soldier, a group leader, a general or the king.
“The Khmer bow has a lot of power, because the style of shooting is different from other [traditional] bows like the Korean or Chinese,” he says.
Shooting a Khmer traditional bow involves a fuller range of movement to modern sport archery. Instead of standing stationary, archers squat, lunge or stand on one foot. The sturdy treang wood puts more tension on the draw, and there’s no hold on the bow to guide the arrow. An archer must rely on the steadiness of both hands to take a shot.
In all, Til devised a series of eight “steps” or different shooting stances that can be practiced in sequence and serve different combat functions, such as shooting while running, or at an enemy approaching from behind. According to Til, he has managed to shoot an arrow 180 meters with his bow – equivalent to a modern longbow, but he reckons the Angkorians managed further.
Nonetheless, he’s made a few concessions on authenticity. The bowstring is the same as a modern archery bow, and the arrows have feathers instead of palm leaves. In the interest of practicality, his arrows are also shorter than the 1.2-metre length of the past.
In all, making a bow is about a monthlong process, involving soaking, drying, shaving, treating and stringing. Til sells his bows, with a starting price of $75, through the Royal Archery Club where the public can try traditional or modern archery, for a fee.
The club was established in late 2016. Director Sa Dina, 32, says that as the sole member of the Cambodian Archery Federation, his goal is to build up interest for the sport among young Cambodians.
“It’s part of preparing for Cambodia to be the host of the Southeast Asia games in 2023,” he says. And while only modern bows are used in international competitions, Dina and the handful of trainees at the club see the SEA Games – as well as the next national games – as an opportunity to showcase the traditional bow.
“A lot of teenagers especially are interested and want to give their support,” Dina says, “but in Phnom Penh it’s very crowded.”
Visalsambath has his sights set on the future. He hopes that with enough skilled archers the sport may soon make its debut at an international traditional archery festival.
For the last one in Tianshui, China, he says, they were unable to field a team with the minimum requirement of four archers.
“When we have a club in Phnom Penh, and enough archers . . . with ability, we can join that event,” he says.
But with growing interest he hopes Khmer archery will soon take its place alongside the traditional bows from around the globe.
“We want to let the world know that Cambodians have got their own culture of archery also,” he says.