Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The 26-year-old bringing Cambodian history to life through swords

The 26-year-old bringing Cambodian history to life through swords

Toun Socheat earlier this week with a pair of dao, or Khmer swords. Socheat began making the decorative weapons three years ago for himself before deciding to turn his craftwork into a business.
Toun Socheat earlier this week with a pair of dao, or Khmer swords. Socheat began making the decorative weapons three years ago for himself before deciding to turn his craftwork into a business.

The 26-year-old bringing Cambodian history to life through swords

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.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Investors’ $14.4M projects approved

    New investments from local and foreign sources continue to pour into Cambodia despite the Covid-19 pandemic remaining a lingering threat to regional and global economies. This comes as the Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to contract between one and 2.9 per cent this

  • NagaWorld casinos set to reopen, schools to follow

    NAGACORP Ltd has requested that it be allowed to reopen its NagaWorld integrated resorts in Phnom Penh after the government recently approved casinos to operate again, provided they follow Covid-19 prevention measures set by the Ministry of Health. Mey Vann, the director-general of the Ministry

  • Rubber exports stretch 17%

    Cambodia exported 97,175 tonnes of natural rubber in the first five months of this year, surging 17 per cent compared to the same period last year as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches on, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official Khuong Phalla told The Post on Thursday. Phalla,

  • ASEM supports Kingdom’s proposal to postpone meeting amid Covid

    The 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM13) scheduled to be held in Cambodia in November has been postponed until mid-2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation press statement released on Saturday said. The decision was made during a two-day meeting

  • Coffee maker roasted for producing fake product

    The Ministry of Interior’s Counter Counterfeit Committee will send a suspect to court on Monday after she allegedly roasted coffee mixed with soybeans and other ingredients, creating a product which could pose a high risk to consumers’ health. On the afternoon of July 2, the

  • Cash handout programme 80% complete

    Minister of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation Vong Soth confirmed on Thursday that the implementation of the Cash Transfer Programme For Poor and Vulnerable Households During Covid-19 had been implemented for more than 80% of the over 560,000 families. The programme was introduced one week ago.

  • Cambodia armed with money laundering laws

    Money laundering will now carry a penalty of up to five years in prison while those convicted of financing terrorists will be jailed for up to 20 years, according to new laws promulgated by King Norodom Sihamoni and seen by The Post on Thursday. Comprising nine

  • Where is Cambodia’s exit strategy that can save the economy?

    With the prospect of being slammed by a double whammy, the government is working on an economic recovery plan to deliver it from Covid-19 and the EU’s partial withdrawal of the Everything But Arms scheme in the next two to three years Cambodia is

  • Schools to be reopened in ‘three stages’

    With guidance from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, is in the process of reopening schools in three stages. But no timeline has been set, ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said on Thursday. Soveacha said the first stage will be to

  • Kingdom, UN discuss rights

    A year after Cambodia received 198 recommendations from UN member countries, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR-Cambodia) met with the Cambodia Human Rights Committee (CHRC) to discuss following-up on the Kingdom’s third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and