Training With the Khmers - A Brooklyn Monk Studies Martial Arts in Cambodia By Antoni

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Training With the Khmers
A Brooklyn Monk Studies Martial Arts in Cambodia
By Antonio Graceffo

My goal was to live in every country in Asia, learn their language and study their martial arts. So far, my plan had worked well in China, Taiwan, and Thailand. But when I got to Cambodia I discovered that the ancient Khmer Kung Fu had nearly been lost. In fact, other than a single Khmer Kung Fu instructor in Australia, I almost couldn’t find anyone to train with or to write about.

I tried practicing Kung Fu with the only club in Phnom Penh, but after training at the Shaolin Temple and in a monastery in Thailand, the idea of training in kung fu for only an hour and a half per day just seemed like a let down. Given the fact that the Khmers, unlike my friends in China and Taiwan, had lives outside of their martial arts, however, their skills were impressive. They could do all the leaps, jumps, and handsprings, which my teammates could do in other countries. They also practiced jumping over the heads of their training partners. The instructor, Chiva, in spite of being about thirty pounds overweight, could jump over five students, standing in a line. The higher-level students could do as many as four or five kicks, without setting their foot back down on the ground.

I stuck it out for a while, learning patterns and stances. But I periodically go through phases where traditional, demonstration class, martial arts just seem so pointless to me. The students practice strikes and blocks, which they could never use in a real fight. When I get in these moods, which tend to last for periods of months, or even years, I have to go back to professional fighting.

Giving up on Khmer Kung Fu, I turned my attention to the national sport, which is Khmer Kickboxing. My training was to begin on a Monday. So, Sunday evening, my Khmer friend, Samedth, took me to watch the fights at the television studio.

It turned out that most of the fighters in Cambodia are under contract to one or the other of the television studios, which are constantly vying for control of viewers and athletes alike.

Once I began my training, my Khmer teammates would tell me that the studio paid them a salary of $20 per month to support their training. They generally received about $20 - $25 for their fights, and fought who and when the studio ordered them to.

The deeper I got into the world of professional kickboxing in Cambodia the more it made professional wrestling, back in the States, look honest. In fact, Don King had nothing on the slave contracts and shenanigans going on in Phnom Penh’s fight community.

The two fighters came out, and did an abbreviated version of the Wy Kru (a dance, with cultural and religious significance, performed before Muy Thai matches). The same traditional music played, which you would hear in Lumpini Stadium, in Bangkok.

“That’s just like Thailand.” I pointed out.
“Absolutely not.” Shouted a number of Khmers. They were offended that I would suggest that their national sport of Khmer Kickboxing even slightly resembled any sport being played in Thailand. The Khmers hated everything Thai.

The opponents were stripped to the waist, barefoot, and wearing boxing gloves.
“Look at that.” I said to Samedth. “They are wearing Muay Thai shorts.”
“No, they aren’t. They re wearing Khmer boxing short.”

The fighter’ uniforms had jut turned into the emperor’s new clothes. But I wasn’t going to be the one to point out to a bunch of half drunk, extremely rowdy, fight fans that they didn’t know their national sport.

A bell signaled the beginning of the first round, and the men began feeling each other out, kicking, punching, using elbows, knees, and clinching. In short, it looked exactly like Muay Thai. The rules were even the same, five rounds, with two minutes in between.

I would later learn that there were no differences between Khmer Kickboxing and Muay Thai. The Khmers claim they invented the art. So they were very touchy about people referring to it as Muay Thai.

The rhythm was even the same as Muay Thai. The only way to win in the first two rounds was by knock out. And the judges, as a rule didn’t record points scored in those rounds. So, the first two rounds were slower, just a way of getting warmed up, and sizing up the other man. Rounds three and four were where the bulk of the action took place. Whoever won those rounds would most likely win the fight, unless he got knocked out. Now round five was problematic. If blue won rounds three and four, red would know that he had no chance of winning. So, he would take it easy. Blue would also take it easy, not wanting to take any chances that could upset his victory. In this case, round five would be boring. If red won round three, and blue won round four, on the other hand, then the fifth round was make or break. The men would be pounding each other for all they were worth. And the spectators would be on their feet the whole time, shouting their bets.

My teammates would give me another reason for some sleepy rounds, and boring fights. Since fighters were basically only allowed to fight other athletes contracted to the same TV station, this meant when you fought, you were fighting your own teammate, who you trained with every day. And, since the world of Phnom Penh is so small, you would wind up fighting the same guy again and again.

The only time the fighters from the different camps faced each other was in the national championships, held once per year.

As the fights held every single weekend are an important source of entertainment for people living in the city, Khmers have a huge number of fights in their career. Eh Phou Thoung, the national Khmer Boxing champion, was a primary example of this. He has had over 150 fights, already. And with no retirement plan, and no way to save retirement money from a purse of $25, he had no plans on quitting.

At 78 KGs, which is huge for a Khmer, and with 150 fights, there must be some opponents that he has fought five or six times. In the world of western boxing in Cambodia the situation was even more extreme. The boxing community was tiny, so there weren’t a lot of opponents in any given weight class. I was helping my teammate, Main, prepare for the national championships. “Are you nervous about getting matched up with someone better than you?” I asked.

“No.” He answered flatly. “I already know I will have to fight my best friend.”
“Can you beat him?”
“Sometimes.” He answered. It turned out that they had already fought each other six times.

The first thing you’ll notice when you walk in a gym in Phnom Penh is that every Khmer man, almost without exception, can kick. Everyone, from young boys to out of shape, middle-aged businessmen couldn’t resist the opportunity to throw a few deadly roundhouse kicks at the bag when they walked past it. At first it was very intimidating.

“They can all kick better than me.” I thought.

But the next thing you will notice, once you start training with Cambodians is that by western standards they have no idea how to train. None of the gyms I visited used a ring timer. In the west, kickboxers and boxers live and die in three-minute intervals. You get so that you could time a round in your sleep. But in Cambodia, training was very free-form. Next, you will see people throwing leg-shattering kicks at the bag. But if you watch more closely, you will see that they never practice combinations of kicks. They just stand at the bag, throw a few hellacious kicks, then wander over to drink some water, or to chat with their friends. They don’t lift weights. They don’t practice hand and foot combinations. And, when they spar, it is just like a mini-fight, with a winner and looser, rather than a learning experience.

After trying a number of different teachers, I eventually wound up with Patty Carson, a South African boxing and kickboxing instructor, who had trained fighters in Thailand for years, before coming to Phnom Penh. This wasn’t Bangkok. Very few Westerners train in Cambodia. And Patty may be the only westerner who teaches.

Normally, I prefer to train with a local instructor, to learn more about the culture. But In Cambodia, I chose Patty as my teacher, and learned culture through my teammates, all whom, save one, were Khmer. The fact that a Khmer would go to a foreigner to learn his national sport is also an unprecedented first. But once people saw the advantages of western training methods, slowly, Patty began acquiring Khmer students.

Patty did all of his training by the book. Workouts were broken into three-minute rounds, with one minute in between. Every day started with three to five rounds of focus pad work, just hands. This would be followed by two rounds of kicking and punching.

All pad work was done in combinations, and Patty would vary the pace depending upon what we were working on, on a given day. Some days the focus was on cardio. So, we threw a high volume of punches, with Patty calling out combinations in rapid-fire succession. “Give me two, give four, give me two, two, give me five, give me three, five.” All of the fighters, including the Khmers, learned the English codes for the combinations. Two meant a simple left right. Three was a left right hook. Two, two was a left right, followed by two hooks. Five was left, right, left, right, hook. And so on.

He did the same with kicks, sometimes calling for as many as ten consecutive kicks before changing legs. Another cardio exercise was holding onto Patty’s neck, and throwing knees into his padded mid-section for an entire round. If your pace slowed at all, Patty would hit you back. The first time we did this exercise I only lasted thirty seconds.

Other days, we worked on strength. On those days, we threw less punches, but they had to be hard. Other variations were technique days, where Patty would monitor every aspect of every kick or punch thrown. Sometimes some small suggestion, made after an observation, would increase your power by ten percent.

Cambodia still has the feel of the Wild West. So, Khmers will come in and challenge the gym. Patty would always tell them they had to go with him, on the focus pads, for one round. If they survived that, they could fight anyone in the gym. Most wilted after thirty to forty-five seconds of throwing punches.

The Khmers start their training as children. And if they win by knockout it is often from a kick to the head. Only in Cambodia did I see fighters doing the roundhouse to the head in the traditional manner. In ancient kickboxing, the knockout didn’t come from the shin hitting the temple. It came from the top of the foot impacting in the back of the neck. This means the leg has to go up, almost over the opponent’s head, and then change direction, and crash down into the back of his neck. Most westerners can’t even learn this kick, because our bodies are just aren’t designed that way.

So, Patty trained his students differently.

“They have been throwing those kicks their whole life.” He explained. “They are more limber than you are. They eat less meat. They are leaner, and have a different physiology. If you try to beat them at their game, you will loose.” So, for this reason, he was strict on hand training and on cardio.

Most of the Khmer boxers had terrible hands. The only punch they ever threw well was a roundhouse right to the side of the head. But it was almost never part of a combination. And it was always too far away to have the knockout power of a disciplined hook. In a pure boxing match most Khmers couldn’t cut it. Their strength definitely lay in their kicks, throwing their steel-hard shins into your ribs or thighs, with pinpoint precision.

Conversely, a Khmer could withstand kicks to the body that would kill a westerner. But, the same Khmer would be defenseless against a tight right hook to the body.

My teammate Peter, a New Zealander who had been fighting in professional kickboxing in Thailand before coming to Cambodia definitely found that having superior cardio and superior hands was winning fights for him. After a number of sparing sessions and pro-fights the two of us decided that if you could weather the brutally painful kicks at the beginning of a fight you could wear your opponent down with punches. The second strategy that we came up with was to turn up the heat, and press the fight in the first two rounds, which the Khmers were used to coasting through. As their stamina wasn’t as good as ours, we could tire them out.

When Khmer fighters came in close together, they would clinch and hit each other with knees until they either fell on the ground, or until the ref separated them. So, another strategy we came up with was, when the man came in for the clinch, we would punch. They would leave their entire center mast open, reaching for your neck and shoulder with both hands. This was the time to throw a heavy barrage of short, powerful punches.

Comparing living and fighting as a foreigner in Cambodia, to living and fighting as a foreigner in Thailand, I would have to say there were advantages on both sides. Training in Cambodia is infinitely cheaper than training in Thailand. A whole month of training with a Khmer instructor would only cost $20. In Chiang Mai, Thailand I paid $10 per day. And there were other programs, which cost much more. The quality of kickboxers in both countries was about the same. The difference, of course, is that with more and more foreigners fighting in Thailand, the quality of Thai fighters is increasing. The Thais are slowly beginning to alter their training and fighting techniques. Most Khmers have never fought a foreigner. Many don’t have television. And even if they have TV not many foreign broadcasts are translated into Khmer language. So they would be unaware of K1, MMA, UFC, or any of the other new developments happening in the west.

As for western boxing, Thailand definitely has some excellent western boxers, with a well-developed professional boxing circuit. According to Patty, “Believe it or not, boxing pays better than kickboxing in Thailand.” The other huge advantage with boxing is that the athletes can go abroad and compete in world sanctioned fights.

In both countries you would find unlimited sparing partners. But if you are a heavyweight, you might have trouble finding people your own size. I weigh 90 KGs and have never had a training partner anywhere close to my size. Oddly, in both my recent fights in Thailand, they managed to match me with a Thai who was bigger than me. Peter weighs 78 KG and has a few Khmer sparing partners, and was also overmatched in Thailand.

Fighting professionally in Thailand is hands down better than fighting in Phnom Penh. Peter and I both train in Cambodia but fight only in Thailand. In Phnom Penh you pretty much have to be on contract with a television studio. And they may only pay you $20 for a fight. Also, you may have to pay a bribe to get a boxing license at all. In Thailand, on the other hand, there are so many venues with weekly fights, you could fight every day of the week, if you wanted to. And you wouldn’t need any kind of license or permission. Peter and I both found that, as a foreigner, we could walk into a stadium the day of, or the day before, a fight, and not only get a match, but get a purse of 5,000 Baht (about $120). The Thais like to see the big westerners fight. Obviously they prefer if we loose. But the Thais will generally find a match for us. One of my training partners in Chiang Mai, an Irish guy named Rory, earned a salary of 3,000 Baht per month, plus 6,000 Baht per fight, plus he fought once a week in bar boxing, earning as much as 3-4,000 Baht per night.

Bar boxing is a strange phenomenon, which hasn’t reached Phnom Penh yet. Basically there will be a food-court of bars, like an outdoor beer garden, surrounding a boxing ring. Every night they have fake fights in the ring, as entertainment. Afterwards, the fighters go around the audience and collect tips. Foreign fighters always do pretty well on tips. If you want to live in Thailand and train long term, bar boxing is a good way to supplement your income without getting injured.

At the end of the day, it depends what you are looking for. If you want to have a unique cultural experience, and meet the Khmers, a group of people most westerners know nothing about, Cambodia is the way to go. If you are looking to improve your kickboxing and make some money, Thailand is the better choice.

I have been training in Phnom Penh for about seven months now, while I attend language courses. Now that my Khmer language is nearly fluent, I am looking forward to living in a boxing camp in the provinces, to see what that experience would be like.

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