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An athletic offering to the world of spirits

An athletic offering to the world of spirits


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

festive headwear...

"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

race.

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

prize."

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

and young.

Yim Yoeun is 69 years-old and recalls tales told by his grandparents about buffalo

racing.

"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

further.

"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.

 

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