Today I learnt that Thai boxing isn't Thai. It is Cambodian.
"You like Pradal Serey (Khmer Boxing)?" my driver,a young enthusiastic man,asked me.
"Yes," [I lied, well I didn't quiet know what it was] I said. "Do you?"
"Yes very much", he beamed
I seemed to have hit a chord here - for my usually quiet moto driver started to spurt out large continuous sentences in broken English about the sport - it was was as if I had asked an Indian if he/she liked cricket. He went on to tell me how he once housed dreams of becoming a boxer himself but he had to stop when his girl friend frowned upon it (a very sad story indeed).
The gym, was a converted open-air garage with all the sweat, dedication, and poor-boy desperation of classic boxing gyms of yore. It had no ring, some punching bags, and padded equipment strewn across the floor. As I was changing in the back, I noticed three students taking a siesta on hammocks tied to a pillar at one end and what looked like a broken down military truck at the other. It was 2 p.m. Given the muscle-sapping heat of Cambodia, Khmer boxers practice early in the morning and late in the afternoon, sleeping the humid midday hours away.
I was lucky to find my instructor - Sang Kim Sean, a Grand Master of Khmer Bokator. Though more than sixty years old, he looked as if he was in his forties, and moved like a man much younger. I was scared.
We started with the basics, which are always the hardest to learn. Khmer fighters start with their hands high and their elbows out to create a cage around their head. When elbow strikes are an option, you would much rather create an impenetrable defense around your skull and leave your rib cage open than the other way around.
It took all of 10 minutes—OK, it was more like 3 — before I was gasping for breath and Sang was sitting me down and handing me a bottle of water.
"Siem Reap is hot," he said, trying to look sympathetic towards this barang [foreigner].
Khmer Boxing Training
The key to Khmer Boxing is shin kicks, delivered in roundhouses to the legs, ribs, and head. Khmer fighters start training in year-round camps at the age of 10 or 11. Many start their professional careers at 13. If they are lucky, they will make it and continue to fight till 25. To turn their shins into weapons, they spend hours beating them with wooden staffs to calcify the bone. Sang's shins looked like they had barnacles beneath the skin.
"Pradal Serey is not karate. Drive through the body," Sang said, as we practiced the full commitment of a Khmer roundhouse.
When I was a boy, we used to have a game where two of us would exchange punches to the arm until one of us quit. This is Khmer Boxing, only with kicks, punches, knees, and elbows.
I had had enough by this point and I turned from fighter to spectator. The training was pretty brutal, each fighter had locked his arms around the other's head, and they exchanged brutal knees to each other's chests. Back and forth it went until one gasped for air and then they stopped. I assumed that was it, and they would return to fighting strategically, looking for an advantage to win decisively. Again they ran toward each other, locked up, and spent the next three minutes exchanging knees, one-for-one. Again, they did the same routine. I've never seen anything like it. Their chests were pulped like raw meat, but they didn't seem to care. It was a test of fortitude to see who could remain standing. The fight over, they exchanged smiles and shook hands, the gloves were off and we went on a series of warm-up exercises.
Hopefully I'll get to see a real fight when I get to Phnom Penn - I've been told take plenty of pictures and bet 5 dollars on a Khmer box in a blue shorts whose name I can't quite remember.