Khmer Traditional Wrestling Revived
By: Ly Vanna.Picture by:Touch Sinath. ( August, 2002 Volume 2 No.8 )

Traditional wrestling is a popular activity in most regions throughout Cambodia. It is seen not only as a competitive sport, but also as a way to exercise and a chance to entertain in the ceremonies of the village. In the past, it served three important roles in Khmer life: It prevented fighting; it also involved exercising - to make our body healthy, and it kept them able to fight in a battle if needed. Nowadays, the younger Khmer generations wrestle as a competitive sport. They also take part for fun on special occasions, such as Khmer New Year, Bonn Phchum Ben, Bonn Kathen. On such occasions, the wrestlers walk from one place to another to find competitors. It would be incorrect to assume that this was not an activity for the fairer sex. Many women take part and have done so throughout the history of the sport. Sometimes even beating the most experienced male fighters. During a special ceremony at the pagoda, the young wrestler, with a strong body and a great love for this sport, begins by choosing his own competitor. He does this by shouting: "Come and pay for the food" - what this means is that since we eat the food in the pagoda therefore we must entertain on this happy occasion to thank those who offered the food. After saying this he jumps and runs around topless through the crowd in the pagoda, showing off his techniques and his physique. A few minutes later another person will reply, "Here is the food payer" and then he does the same as the first man. They have found a competitor. The competition attracts many villagers, who either stand or sit in a circle and cheer for the man they support. An old man, who is usually an old-hand wrestler, is an adjudicator for this game. Before competing they talk about the rules and what kind of competition it will be - just a friendly spar, showing their techniques or until death. The latter is not very common nowadays. During these bouts, passions run high for competitors and the audience alike. Sometimes the supporters get carried away and fight amongst themselves. Wrestling first appeared when the Khmer territory was being established.

The sport provided a means of choosing tribal and regional leaders to control the newly acquired land mass. They used their strength and techniques to throw their competitors down and thus to be the winner. During that time it was simply a match of strength and technique. The only weapons were their individual arms and legs and skill was crucial for the outcome. The best wrestlers were the strongest and most powerful. Since there was no school for training wrestlers then, the elders always train the children in the village. On the full moon night after harvesting is over, the elders select young men with the same weight, height and age to compete among themselves to find the best students to be trained. The best place for competing is on a rice paddy, under the moonlight, near their village. As it is a folk sport, untrained people can wrestle also if they wish. Every one knows how to wrestle through their experiences with the elders in their village.
This traditional wrestling is still alive in Kampong Chhnang, Pursat, Kandal, Prey Veng, Takeo, and Battambang provinces. They joined together as a group or association and they trained the young wrestlers to prepare for competing with those of other groups. "Recently, there are about 28 wrestlers who are trained regularly by three wrestling coaches from the Association" said Mr. Som Vannet, Director of Thmor Keo Khmer Traditional Wrestling Association, in Pursat province.

"There are many wrestlers in Pursat, especially in the rural areas, but they are very poor so their priority is with work and their families instead of training. For the 28 wrestlers and three wrestling coaches they get only a little support from traditional wrestling supporters through the Association" Mr. Vannet complained. "The Cambodian Amateur Wrestling Federation has recruited traditional wrestlers from every corner of Cambodia, to form a Wrestling Association since 2000" said Mr. Vath Chamroeun, Secretary General of the Cambodia Amateur Wrestling Federation.

Khmer wrestlers always practice and share techniques. They test their strength with people in their village and occasionally too, with those from the other villages, in order to prepare for competitions during special ceremonies in their village. The Khmer traditional wrestling competition consists of three rounds and is accompanied by two drums (called Skor Ngey - Chhmol - which means female drum and male drum). The drums draw the wrestlers and the watchers focus on the competition. The wrestlers always react to the beats of the drums by dancing. To become the winner, the wrestler is dependent on his ability to throw the competitor down and to make sure the competitor's back lies against the ground. After the first round, the spectators will ask the loser, "Horb" (meaning - continue) or "Ngorm" (meaning - stop and accept defeat). Although a wrestler seldom accepts defeat only after the first round, it is customary for the question to be floored.
If a wrestler can force his competitor's back against the ground at least twice out of three rounds, he or she is considered to be the winner. During the Angkorian period wrestling played an important role in the selection of warriors to form the army. It was seen on the bas-reliefs of some temples. In the Banteay Srei temple, female wrestlers are also depicted in the bas-reliefs; this highlights the antiquity and the unisex nature of the sport. In June this year, when the Cambodian Amateur Wrestling Federation held the first official Khmer traditional wrestling championship, eight women participated out of the 53 who competed. "The number of wrestlers will increase for the next annual championship in 2003" Mr. Vath Chamroeun confirmed. An ancient legacy and one that is still being handed down through the generations. Rather than using it to find strong suitable soldiers, it is now more about bravado and sportsmanship.