Three years have passed since Toun Socheat got his degree in laboratory medicine. But these days, instead of analysing blood, he focuses on making and preserving weapons once used to shed it.
In a workshop on Street 484, the short but sturdy 26-year-old oversees his workers attaching a long, single-edged blade to a wooden hilt to make a dao, a type of Khmer sword dating back centuries. After it is attached, he swings it violently back and forth to test its fitting.
“Business has been quite good, and I think working in the lab would not fetch such income,” Socheat says.
“But, it is not only about money. It is about doing what I really love.”
Socheat grew up idolising his maternal great-grandfather, Toun Hem, a famous Khmer martial artist from Banteay Meanchey, despite his having died before Socheat was born. At 7, Socheat began training in l’Bokator under a master in the village.
“The part of l’Bokator I was the best at was sword-fighting,” he says. “I love Khmer swords without any reason, and I want to learn more about them and how they are made.”
Socheat first studied the form and shape of dao with his l’Bokator master, and then with a monk named Chom Chet in Battambang, who had studied blacksmithing under elder monks in the pagoda.
By interviewing both masters he learned the different forms of Khmer swords. For example, a dao slab (or “wing sword”) is light and has a thin blade, while a dao kontuy antung (“eel-tailed sword”) has a long hilt and a blade with sharper points.
So three years ago, Socheat felt ready to make his own swords for himself. When he posted pictures on Facebook, though, the comments offering to buy them kept coming in, so a business idea emerged. His family, however, was not pleased.
“My mother keeps asking me to stop making and selling swords because she thinks I will have problems with the police,” Socheat said. “However, nothing has happened so far.”
In 2009, Phnom Penh authorities banned the selling of so-called “samurai swords”, which look similar to Khmer dao, because of their use by local gangsters. Then-municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth called the swords the second most deadly weapons on the streets after firearms, and ordered the shutdown of any factories found to be making the swords unless they switched to producing knives for kitchen use only.
Socheat insists that his products are meant “for decorative purposes only”.
“The swords made in my workshop do not have sharp blades,” he said. “I don’t sell to anyone who is underage, and I have to know my client clearly first before I decided to sell them.”
According to Socheat, most of the clients are military officers who buy the swords to hang on their wall or to put on the shrine of their kru, or protective deities. The prices range from $10 to $350, based on their types and materials. The cheapest is an ordinary rubber model while the most precious is a Preah Khan, the royal sword with a pointed tip, made of the high-quality steel and wood.
According to Dr Michel Tranet, a historian and anthropologist and the former deputy minister of culture and fine arts, swords have a relatively short history in Cambodia compared to other weapons like bows, spears and the p’kak, a long-handled knife believed to be the oldest Khmer tool of war.
He said that like the Vietnamese and Japanese, Cambodians first learned to make swords from the Chinese, whose sword-making history dates back to around 1,000 BC.
“Cambodians, like the other two peoples, adopted the idea, and shaped their own distinguished swords,” he said.
The historian speculates that Khmer swords first appeared during the Kingdom’s Iron Age, somewhere between the first and sixth century.
Despite its foreign influence, Socheat sees distinct cultural value in the swords. Currently, he is writing a book about their history, and also plans to found an association to preserve traditional weapons.
“I believe swords are a big part of Cambodia’s martial arts and war history,” he says. “And like other traditional weapons, they contributed to the birth of the Khmer Empire, along with its glory and protection in the past.”