Postcard from Phnom Penh: Like Bokator, Cambodia’s capital captures its past and present

Kun bokator, an ancient martial art dating back to the Khmer empire, is featuring for the first time at the SEA Games.

Jonathan Wong

Jonathan Wong

The Straits Times


Titsovathanak Kim and Vutha Yim from Cambodia competing in the men's duo performance in Kun Bokator on May 8. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

May 10, 2023

PHNOM PENH – Heavy metal music is blasting from the speakers in Hall C of the sprawling Chroy Changvar International Convention and Exhibition Centre, huge spotlights trained on bare-bodied fighters dressed in shorts, sashes and headbands striking and kicking on a raised platform.

Kun bokator, an ancient martial art dating back to the Khmer empire, is featuring for the first time at the SEA Games. And its debut captures what Phnom Penh is like for the first-time visitor: the past converging with the present.

For six days at the biennial Games, this quintessentially Cambodian sport with more than 1,000 years of history was showcased to a modern audience.

On Monday, the final round of competition, rows of benches were packed with spectators who had come to cheer on their local fighters. The mostly Gen Z-crowd toggled between their smartphones and lifting their heads to see the action on stage.

Panhchapor Ponleu, 23, works in a local bank but took leave to support her younger brother Pichmorokot, 19, who was competing in the mixed team event.

She said: “Bokator is popular among the young because it is taught in schools when we are five or six. We grow up learning why it is important to our culture. Yes, it is very old, but it belongs to us.”

And Phnom Penh is exactly that. A city that has evolved with the times but whose facade still bears the memory of a bygone era. Venerable temples, including the iconic Wat Phnom, dot the capital but they are often dwarfed by towering apartment blocks and commercial buildings.

Even tuk-tuks are not spared. The traditional four-wheeled Khmer version, known by the French word remorque (trailer in English), is a rarity now. They come with leather sofa seats and are able to accommodate more passengers, but the bulky vehicles are not suited for weaving through traffic and run on petrol.

Instead, they have been supplanted by the popular three-wheeled “India tuk-tuks” – they are manufactured in the South Asian country – which are connected to ride-hailing apps and cheaper for drivers to operate as they use liquefied petroleum gas. The Phnom Penh Post reported in 2022 there are at least 80,000 of these modern incarnations on the capital’s streets.

A five-minute trip costs about 4,000 riel or US$1 (S$1.33), roughly what you would pay for a warm bowl of num banh chok – Khmer rice noodles – at a local stall. Or for a less authentic meal, you could visit a revolving rooftop restaurant and pay US$150 for a tomahawk steak.

Some things, like bokator, are priceless. It was nearly erased by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s but survived and, in 2022, was inscribed on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Monday’s action brought further proof of its value. After Nget Deb was declared the winner of the men’s 55kg final, his Filipino opponent Ariel Lee Biadno Lampacan carried him on his back for a victory parade around the ring. The Cambodian then returned the favour to the delight of the crowd.

They were witnessing, after all, two timeless acts of sportsmanship.

Despite losing the men’s 55kg combat final, Ariel Lee Biadno Lampacan from the Philippines was gracious in defeat and carried Cambodian Nget Deb on his back for a victory parade around the ring. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

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