Young boxing hopefuls line up with their kru ta, Moeung Yun.
He may not have much in common yet with Eh Phu Thong, Cambodia's heavyweight kick-boxing
champion, but like many other eight-year-olds Yun Chhaya dreams of emulating his
He hopes that one day he too will find fame in the ring.
He is one of a group of small boys who gather around their 55-year-old trainer, Moeung
Yun, to learn about the mysteries of kick-boxing, as well as the value of a wider
"Before you come to learn about kick-boxing with the kru ta [elder trainer]
you have to go to school first," says Yun. "If you want to be a good fighter
then you have to respect this regulation."
That's not to underestimate Yun's commitment to the sport. He was a champion in the
late 1960s and early 1970s, before the rise of the Khmer Rouge forced him to quit.
Now his love of kick-boxing has been rekindled by a new generation of youngsters.
Children from his village, Punhealeu commune in Kandal province, take part in his
classes every weekend.
For Yun the sport is part of Cambodia's traditional way of life.
"Kick-boxing is one of the fighting styles carved on the walls of Angkor Wat,"
he says. "That shows to me that this combat skill used to play an important
role in helping to defend the country during the 11th century."
Yun blames part of the sport's decline since then on the rise of modern weapons,
which do much to make hand-to-hand fighting redundant. But he also criticizes the
rise of a passive entertainment culture, which produces people who would rather watch
television than take part in sport.
Roeun prepares for a ritual dance before his fight.
Such concerns led him to establish the Ponleu Kon Khmer (The Light of Khmer Children)
Club in 2000. Two years on he is happy that it has attracted 46 students, one of
whom is his son Chhaya.
At only 8-years-old, Chhaya is the youngest student, but he clearly has what it takes.
He has fought in nine bouts so far. In his latest he beat a 9-year-old boy over three
"I am not afraid," he says. "I like to fight."
Chhaya says that he and his friend Sokheng dream of one day turning professional
and then becoming famous champions. That is a long way off for an 8-year-old, but
his skills have already prov-ed valuable. His bout earlier this month earned him
It's not a large amount, but Yun says it proves useful for children from poor families,
as it allows them to buy schoolbooks and clothes.
Yun also shrugs off fears that the sport is bad for the children's health. He admits
they can be knocked out by blows to the head, even when wearing heavily-padded gloves,
but says his boys have suffered very few injuries.
Concerns about the welfare of children taking part in kick-boxing are certainly not
widespread, and consequently aren't much of an issue in Cambodia. In fact the sport
seems to be getting more popular at the village level, with fights between children
becoming more common, particularly during festivals.
Yun says he recently received around 800,000 riel ($210) from an official at the
national broadcaster TVK to help organize his club. Other finances have come from
local villagers and the commune's monks. They like the sport as it is a part of traditional
Khmer culture, and keeps youngsters away from the dangers of drugs.
Important though kick-boxing is, Yun refuses to let his charges compete against those
in other clubs. That, he says, could affect the quality of their schoolwork.
Yun Chhaya, at right, defends himself against Ros Roeun.
Clubs from as far afield as Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampong Cham province have
all asked to compete against the Punhealeu school, but Yun is firm.
"I believe that if there is a contest against other clubs, the children will
spend less time on studying. They will spend much of their time practicing their
skills and thinking only about how to win," he says.
His motivation, he explains, stems from the entertainment value of the sport and
its link to a classical past. He is not interested in showing children how to inflict
Oum Yourann, the deputy director of the Khmer Amateur Boxing Association, supports
the idea of teaching kick-boxing to children, but wants individual clubs to ask permission
from his association first. He is concerned that clubs not affiliated to the association,
which provides technical training to protect young boxers, might neglect the health
Despite the risks, he echoes Yun's thoughts about kick-boxing's benefits.
"I think that if more children were involved in the sport, it would help to
reduce [the number of] drug addicts in our society," Yourann says. "And
it would also allow help us to promote kick-boxing as part of Cambodia's culture."
Boys practice their kick-boxing techniques at the kru ta's home.
As there is no requirement for clubs to register with his association, he says, there
is no way to tell how many children are learning the sport. But it has surged in
popularity among adults over the past decade, with international contests staged
in Cambodia each month.
Around 400 Cambodian fighters take part in regular bouts, and many of those are televised.
October is no exception - on the 27th another high-profile contest will see the country's
kick-boxing champion Eh Phu Thong pitted against world champion, Sudan's Faisal Zakkaria.
No prizes for guessing which man the children in Kandal's Punhealeu commune will
be cheering for.