Cambodia’s premier shuttlecock kickers, or doeurt sai players, receive a visit from their Vietnamese counterparts who teach them a new way to keep score
ON Saturday evenings, scores of passers-by and motorcyclists would stop on Phnom Penh's riverside in front of the palace to watch a circle of players perform their fascinating displays of shuttlecock-kicking mastery.
This Saturday, however, was a little different, as a visiting team from Ho Chi Minh City mingled with Cambodia's finest for an extra-special showcase. As the number of spectators grew, the road became blocked, and the police were forced to disperse the crowd, although the throng soon returned, eager to see the top-quality skills on display.
The game originated in China during the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), and spread throughout Asia over the centuries. In Vietnam, where it is a national sport, it is called dacau, whereas here in Cambodia it is known as doeurt sai (literally meaning "kick shuttle"). The game appeared in Europe in 1936 when it was demonstrated by Chinese athletes at the Berlin Olympic Games. Since then, official shuttlecock organisations have been founded across central and eastern Europe, and more recently in the US. Now, Cambodia's doeurt sai hierarchy is attempting to organise itself on a similar footing.
The Cambodian Shuttlecock Association (CSA) was founded in 2005 and has gathered significant momentum over the past year. Founding member and CSA Vice President Ros Kimsreng explained that members are working closely with their Vietnamese counterparts in an attempt to raise the game's profile in Cambodia. "It is widely played across the Kingdom, because we can use any space to play," said Ros Kimsreng Saturday. "But we want to get organised and compete at the highest levels."
Competition observes two disciplines; a court-based game, with rules similar to volleyball, and an artistic display, favoured by players here, which involves keeping the shuttlecock airborne with a series of stylised kicks judged according to perceived difficulty.
The touring Vietnamese players introduced the Cambodians to a points-scoring system for the first time at a meeting Sunday. According to the rules, a team, comprised of exactly seven players, form a circle and attempt to score as many points as possible over a fifteen-minute period.
A T-shirt worn by a Cambodian Shuttlecock Association member depicts their emblem.
Players kick the shuttle from behind their backs with swift strokes, connecting with the soles of their shoes and lofting it high in the air back to their teammates standing opposite. A point is awarded for any kick, but the team gains two for a kick through a large loop made from their outstretched arms, and three for the more difficult shot through a loop made with a single arm and the body. The team is deducted a single point for failing to return the shuttle.
Ros Kimsreng explained that the Cambodian players are benefiting from the sharing of techniques with the visitors, and plan a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in October to take part in a 'friendship match'.
Watching these masters of the game at the weekend was a real treat, especially the chance to view the techniques of one of the 'old masters', 63-year-old Muth Ron, a man who has dedicated his life to the sport.
Having entertained King Sihanouk with his playing in the past, he is a leading authority on the game and its history. Muth Ron, or Om Ron as he is affectionately known, also makes the highest-quality shuttles in Cambodia, beautifully handcrafted from four duck feathers, weighted by recycled plastic discs. Top players will always use his shuttles over cheaper, all-plastic varieties, although many admit the old type made from the scales of the Siamese giant carp - now illegal to use - were better for feel and durability. A genuine Muth Ron shuttle can be purchased at the riverside for 5,000 riels (US$1.18) each.
Muth Ron explained the key to good doeurt sai-playing is a relaxed style, comparing the actions to flowing movements of modern dance or boxing. The various kicks and poses have names derived from the ancient world; imagery referring to dragons swinging their tales, warriors drawing their swords and elephants turning their necks all appear in the descriptions of the more impressive moves.
The game is played in practically every park in the capital, and on many of the nation's streets, but the highest standard can be found on display on Phnom Penh's riverside, near the Royal Palace on Saturday evenings, or at Wat Phnom on Sunday mornings. Mot Ron is almost always there, as are other impressive CSA members, and they welcome an audience. When asked whether the CSA had any intention of forging links with Western federations, Ros Kimsreng insisted that doeurt sai is about having fun, with the association's primary aim to "preserve our traditional game".
The CSA invites member of the public to participate in their daily training sessions between 8am and 2pm at the badminton hall in the Olympic Stadium grounds, but warns that due to work commitments, all the top players are not always there. With popularity growing from the obvious aesthetic appeal of the sport that tests both agility and skill, the CSA is confident of receiving sponsorship to help promote the sport across the Kingdom, and beyond.
Photos by Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)