Two of Cambodia’s ancient traditions are, on the one hand, well known, and on the other hand, mysterious. The former is Apsara dancing, a delicate style of dancing also known as classical Khmer ballet. The latter is Cambodia Martial Arts or more propley known as Khmer Martial arts. Both stem from Cambodia’s distant past and have developed over the centuries into unique art forms.
Cambodian Dance and Cambodian Martial Arts
Apsaras are the nymphs you can see carved as statues or in bas-reliefs all over Angkor. Not only can Apsaras been seen at Angkor but at temples such as the seventh-century Sambor Prei Kuk temples in Kampong Thom province. As you can see the Apsara Dance has been part of Khmer culture for well over a millennium.
A visit to neighbouring countries, such as Thailand, will reveal the influence of the Khmer civilisation through art forms such as the Apsara dance.
Apsara actually means heavenly woman and these deities originally herald from Hindu mythology. In those Indian stories, these Apsaras are beautiful and supernatural female beings. They are also masterful dancers. They also, on occasion, seduce gods and men and not necessarily in that order.
There is a highly stylised form of the dance which at one time was exclusively performed at the royal palace and performed mainly by females. It was known as Robam Apsara, and the dancers of this style are often simply called Apsara dancers. In fact, there are many classical dance styles in the Kingdom. The carvings at Angkor represented some 1,500 Apsaras in different poses representing love, passion and other emotions: it is a very subtle and intricate dance style.
Cambodian Living Arts puts on evening shows at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, which takes in many traditional arts, including Cambodian ballet. There are also a host of venues in Siem Reap that hold performances and some offer dining. If you are lucky, and in the vicinity, you can catch Apsara dancers practicing in the courtyard of the Royal University of Fine Arts, just behind the National Museum.
A visit to Cambodia isn’t complete until you have attended an Apsara dance. It is a memorable occasion and the performance will leave an indelible memory.
Cambodian Martial Arts
Little known to foreigners are Khmer Martial Arts, or “Kbach Kun Khmer Boran”. This tradition also stretches back more than a thousand years. Once again, carvings and bas-reliefs on the Angkor temples provide evidence of the antiquity of this type of martial arts. The carvings reveal fierce competitions between combatants poised with stern looks on their faces and ready to strike down an opponent, or people grappling with each other attempting to throw down the other person. Originally used in combat, where it earned Khmer soldiers a fierce reputation, it is now used for sport and, if necessary, self-defence. The codes include Bokator, Pradal Serey, Baok Chambab, Kbach Kun Dambong Vèng, amongst others.
Khmer Pradal Serey
This fighting style is traditional Khmer kick boxing, a sport very popular with locals. When bouts are held, all you have to do is wander the streets of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or any town to determine its popularity. Many cafés and restaurants are crowded with mostly men shouting and cheering the fighters. At first you might think a brawl has broken out, but Cambodians are cheering on their champion, usually with a wager attached.
A match consists of five rounds and takes place in a boxing ring. There is a one- or two-minute break between rounds. Before the match starts, boxers perform praying rituals known as Kun Krou. During the match, traditional Cambodian music is played using a drum, the Skor Yaul, a flute-like instrument, the Sralai, and the stringed Chhing.
And the fighting is fierce. Boxers train intensely for years to reach the top of their game. When they fight, they no prisoners. Powerful kicks and punches are landed on each boxer and they have to keep moving, a kind of dance, around the ring to keep their opponent on their toes.
Victory is awarded when a boxer delivers a knockout blow or a boxer is knocked down. If the downed boxer is unable to continue the fight after a 10-second count by the referee, it’s game over. Victory is also decided at the end of the match when judges decide by points which fighter was more dominant. If the points are even, a draw is called.
Cambodian Martial Arts Live
Interested in seeing a live match? Ask the people at the place you are staying or a local Tuk Tuk driver which TV station is staging a fight. Usually, it’s TV5 on Fridays and Saturdays, Bayon and CTN on Saturdays and Sundays. The CTN studio is only six kilometres from the centre of town, a short ride past the Chroy Changvar Bridge, and is the easiest to get to. When you get there, walk to the warehouse and find a good seat to view the match. If you want to get closer to the ring, it is standing room only.
One of the oldest Cambodian martial arts, Bokator is said to be the close-quarter combat system used by soldiers during the Angkor era, and formidable opponents these soldiers would have been. The style, known formally as Labokatao, involves close hand-to-hand combat, ground techniques and weapons. Weapons include knives, poles, bow and arrows, and … scarves.
Practitioners are trained to attack with knees, elbows, hands, feet and even the head with blows to the legs, torso and head. People often cringe when they see a fighter bury his knee in an opponent’s ribs. Fighters can attack straight on or, literally, fly in and land a blow to the opponent’s head or shoulders.
This style is Khmer wrestling; a sport where two fighters try to pin down the other’s back to the ground. A match has of three rounds. Before the match, wrestlers perform ritual dancing. A wrestler wins a match by two out of three rounds. However, after each round, the loser is asked by the referee if he still wishes to continue with the match.
As is the case with many Khmer Martial Arts competitions, a Baok Chambab match is accompanied by traditional music: there are two drums, male and female ones known as Skor Nhy and Chhmol. Traditional matches are held at the Cambodian National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh during the Khmer New Year and other Cambodian holidays.
Kbach Kun Dambong Vèng
This style refers to an ancient Cambodian martial art form involving the use of a long staff. It has traditionally been practiced in preparation against enemies who attack villages. Now, it is popular with youths in Cambodian sports clubs.
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