In a partially constructed building tucked away behind Wat Polanka, around thirty young people are neatly lined up, dressed in white, all eyes on their instructor. This is the Okhu Juku Karate-Do Club, which meets once a week to train under former Cambodian national champion, Song Chhay Leang.
The club’s youngest member is five, and it has been going for a year. The building site setting and somewhat hidden location lend the place an air of ‘secret fight club’ – to reach it you have to go through a walled garden to encounter a seemingly deserted building. Inside, it is all grey concrete posts, exposed brickwork and Japanese writing on the walls. The building is actually a Japanese language school – or will be when it is finished.
Song Chhay Leang, 28, started practicing karate at age 17, in Kampong Cham province. Having won numerous competitions, he is now a blackbelt holding two dans – dans are a rank and there are eleven dans in a blackbelt. Song is also eleven time national taekwondo champion.
“When I was young I liked martial arts, but in my village they only had taekwondo and karate,” he says. “I started training in karate in 2002. In 2003, I joined the Cambodian national team and became the national champion. In 2004, I went to tournaments in Japan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Vietnam. I won maybe 22 or 23 medals. I also used to train in Vietnam and Japan.”
Song, no longer competing, now dedicates his time to training children and young adults. He teaches the Wadoryu style of karate at the Japanese school every weekend to both boys and girls of various nationalities, and to Khmer children at SOS school. He also teaches Khmer aerobics on the riverside twice daily.
“Here I have Khmers but I also have Japanese, Chinese and French. We have some girls – but not so many!” he says. “The youngest is five years old and the oldest maybe nearly thirty.”
Song says he prefers karate to taekwondo because it is all about speed and control. He demonstrates a whiplash-quick kick on a young trainee.
“I’m interested in karate because it’s very, very fast,” he says. “Karate is very safe because you have control. You’re just thinking about speed and control. There’s no contact, only a small touch.”
He adds that while some martial arts are dependent on body types, for example wrestlers being heavily built, the ideal build for karate is, “not too big, just a small body because you need to be very fast.”
Although there is not a huge interest in karate in Cambodia at the moment – Khmer boxing being more popular –it is slowly building and Song thinks in the future there will be a significant following.
“In Phnom Penh there are maybe thirty or forty karate clubs. In Siem Reap, just me,” he smiles.
He adds that the name, Okhu Juku Karate-Do Club, came from his teacher and mentor.
“My teacher comes from Japan,” says Song. “He has always supported me, he comes to teach us twice a year. It was his idea to open this club, so he found the name. It means sakura flower and karate. He always says this is a very good meaning in Japanese.”
Song’s club is open to all, and classes are $7 a month.