Getting some Boxing Kicks in Phnom Penh…

I’m pretty confident this is what it feels like to be returned to earth after an alien abduction.  It’s been one of the more bizarre experiences of my travels so far.  I can’t honestly recall how this particular outing came about, but such details are a minor consideration.  This afternoon was spent at SEATV. This is the Phnom Penh TV station studios, which hosts live kick boxing on Saturday afternoons. Well, I presume it’s a regular thing, I honestly have no idea.

It was mentioned by someone at some point, and one of the local staff at CWF was game to go too, so a little posse of us went en masse today in a convoy of two tuk-tuks containing such CWF volunteers possessed with either bloodlust or limited foresight and two of the local staff on scooters, with a small child coming along too as a mascot I think.  We met at CWF and our friendly neighbourhood tuk tuk driver (Mr Lucky) was waiting to whisk us off.

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As we assembled, and people started speculating on what to expect, it dawned on me that, not for the first time, I hadn’t really thought this through.  Kick boxing is fighting in the raw it seems, there will be blood on the floor along with sweat and spit. I don’t really like violent sports. I fully recognise that I might get swept up in the adrenalin rush of it all whilst simultaneously being appalled at what I am witnessing.  In the event, I can report that watching kick boxing in Phnom Penh is way up there with favourite things I’ve done here, and that makes me either an open-minded traveler or a consummate hypocrite, depending on your point of view.  Today, I’m going with the former, because my attendance was really an accident, so it would be unfair to judge me yes?

We bounced along in the tuk tuk, that was good in itself.  It is such a great way to travel, and I love watching the streets of Phnom Penh, that novelty never goes away. Every outing is an adventure.  Walking the streets is another matter, but watching them unfold from the vantage point of some form of transport is generally glorious. Today’s offerings included the Khmer-Soviet Friendship hospital, where one of my students works night shifts and I was interested to see.  Also the CIA first international school which was a surprise and a missed photo opportunity if ever there was one. Fortunately it seems this is what Googlemaps imaging is for.  Hooray.  We may have surrendered all privacy, but I get to post a picture in my blog by way of illustration.  Result!  Strictly speaking, this isn’t even the sign I saw, but it will serve the purpose just as well.

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Mind you, I also regretted not being able to snap the ‘ministry of women’s affairs‘ building earlier on today. That’s splendid isn’t it, having a government department to allocate infidelities, or even just liaisons in an orderly fashion.  I don’t know if they only help locals, or if there may be a sub-office to assist ex-pats.  I’m running out of time to find out!  Sorry, I know that’s childish, but what with the alien abduction incident and everything else that’s happened today I’m feeling a bit giddy!

Here are some random street scenes though, to get you in the mood.

So after about 15 minutes or so of bouncing about in the dust, we pulled up at the SEATV studio building, which looks like a huge warehouse basically.

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Our tuk tuk drivers were going in too, so they pulled up right at the back, where a security guard handed out little receipts for each vehicle – including tuk tuks.  Mostly tuk-tuks are occupied, it was slightly unsettling to abandon them in the car park.  We went in through a side door to the warehouse.  We were actually a bit late, as we entered a security guy did a cursory frisk of some of the people ahead and requested that dark glasses and hats were removed.  I don’t know if that’s to do with security, or to do with the TV pictures relayed later.  Anyway, we obliged, then through towering entrance into a noisy pit of explosive sound and light. The place was beyond packed.  To our left was a high seating stand squashed full of spectators, then around the centrally placed boxing arena was a sort of free for all standing zone.  People were spilling out into the entrance area where we stood blinking.  Powerful music boomed out, and massive TV screens were visible overhead. Lights, dry ice, and a vocal, boisterous crowd.  It was a complete assault on the senses.  We hesitated.  I too some photos by just randomly holding the phone above my head, they capture the scene surprisingly well with all its light and crowds.

I wondered whether to push through the crowd to get nearer the front, I couldn’t really see a thing where I was, but you can still soak in the atmosphere which is impressive enough. However, no need.

After a few minutes, we were pulled back and directed to sneak past the heaving crowd along the perimeter wall of breeze blocks to the other side.  This was an adventure in itself.  It was pitch black at the outer edges of the studio.  Pushing through faceless bodies that gave way without so much as a mutter of discontent.  It was like being present in some miracle, like the parting of the red sea or wherever, or more prosaically like understanding for the first time the miracle of how it is that motorbikes are apparently able to progress through Phnom Penh traffic, that you’d happily swear to be completely gridlocked.  Then we hit a not-very-effective low-level security barrier, and the security man just opened it and usherered us through like we were VIPS or something.  It was really bizarre!  We were now back-stage.  I walked past a boxer waiting to go on, bare-chested and nervous.  People working a sound or lighting rig, all sorts of back-stage support staff, I love that kind of thing.   Picking my way over various electrical cables and past black screens, pumping dry ice machines and numerous bright spot lights I emerged at the tail of our group to the TV stage area of the studio.

On the stage, was a big red sofa, where the event sponsor (or at any rate the most important person of the day) was seated on his own.   In front of him was  a table laden with… well I’m not sure quite what because I couldn’t really see, but it looked like fruit, water bottles, incense and assorted treats.  The sofa was absolutely vast.  I’m talking easily accommodate 7 people, considerably more if they are Cambodian nationals.  Those who know me well, understand that I have always believed the correct number of occupants for a sofa is in fact one.  As they are best enjoyed horizontally.  However, even I would have shared this squidgy red number without a murmur of protest.  Behind this spectacular sofa, were rows of the ubiquitous blue plastic chairs, more were produced to accommodate us.  Here it seems were seated other westerners.  Whether we were here to prevent us ruining it for the locals, sort of to kettle us in some way, or whether we were being given privileged treatment was unclear – though it did feel a bit like the latter.  From where we were we were further from the ring, but had an unobstructed view. Behind us was a massive TV screen, relaying the action. To our side was an Khmer orchestra, which provided stirring musical accompaniment to the bouts.  Overhead and all around were bright TV lights.  Behind the ring was a tower of seated, roaring locals.  Camera men (they were all men) trained hand held cameras on the action, and another camera on an enormous boom bore down on the fighters at key moments.  It was just amazing.

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One of our number captured some of the kick boxing ambience on her camera, but really you do need to go for yourself.

We seemed to have arrived mid-fight.  I have no idea at all what was going on, in the sense that it was all pretty brutal, kicking and punching and I had no clue who was winning and what was or was not allowed.  I don’t know if it was the first or second fight when one boxer kicked his opponent forcefully (but I don’t think deliberately) in the testicles.  It was excruciating to witness and possibly life-changing to receive.  The cameras caught it all, and whilst the poor man was trying to get back to his feet we had endless slow-mo images of it all repeated on these huge over-head screens, just in case we’d missed the moment of impact.  I could hardly watch… and also couldn’t look away.  It is an ugly truth about me, if not about everyone, that there is something compelling about watching the live-action fighting.  It feels so important at the time, and it is really exciting.

So here are a selection of ‘action shots’ which don’t really do the occasion justice, but I can’t bring myself to edit down  into a more manageable number of snaps for you to view.  Sorry about that.  Only not very sorry really.  It is after all contributory negligence on your part if you insist on sitting through the endless slide show.  You can always walk away from it. Which is more that the boxer who lost the last match was able to do.

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The fighters did not seem especially evenly matched.  It looked in most cases obvious who was going to lose from early on.  The bouts we saw seemed to consist of a couple of warm up rounds, and then the big fight.  It was completely absorbing. The boxers are muscled but lean. They wore sort of ‘silk’ shiny shorts with some sort of logo on the butt which was eye-catching but definitely weird.  I hope they were wearing boxes to protect their assets too, but if they were, they weren’t working all that well as the incident above suggests. They had boxing gloves but no other protection. Bare feet, though some had sort of foot support bandages, like you wear if you are injured.  They didn’t look like they’d offer much in the way of support or protection.  There was a great deal of kicking – how do they not break all the delicate little bones in their feet? Or maybe they do.  My feet are terrible at the minute, walking is really painful, I can’t imagine deliberately kicking someone with the top of my feet, I’d pass out in the pain and inflict nothing on my opponent in the doing.  ARthritic hobbit feet are not good to have.  It’s not even funny any more.  I really hope it’s just the heat and they’ll suddenly improve on my return.

So the format seemed to be (but I’m guessing) first couple of rounds was mostly posturing.  Not much in the way of actual fighting or contact.  They are saving themselves for the later rounds.  There was however lots of ritual.  The boxers greet each other with bowed heads, it was very disciplined, they broke up whenever the latex-glove wearing referee tapped on them to indicate they should do so.  At each break (I don’t know if that was dictated by time or by ‘play’) the boxers took to their respective corners.  Their coach would leap on, pour cold water down their throats and on their backs. Well, that was the conventional way of doing things.  One of the boxers did a sort of high leap into the arms of his coach every time.  I really wanted a shot of that, but epic fail on my part.  You will have to imagine. Think of a small child hurling itself into the outstretched arms of an adoring parent who then holds the child up high over his head with euphoria and you get the general idea.  The same coach also kept doing a violent looking rib punch to his boxing gladiator between rounds.  It looked like he was administering something like a cross between CPR and the Heimlich manoeuvre.  No really.  The boxer’s spine curved backwards at the impact, and I would happily swear I heard it crack and shatter as it did so!  Then the boxer leapt up and did and exaggerated pull up on the side wires of the ring.  All spectacular.  I have no idea if it was for show, or for some physical purpose.  Or maybe he was trying to escape?  It didn’t look all that much fun in the ring to be honest, and he was winning!  I spent a lot of time gasping out loud, cringing and hiding behind my hands whilst peering through the gaps in my fingers just in case I’d miss something. Yes I was conflicted.

At intervals huge light displays advertising products showered the screen.  Ads for alcohol and scratch cards seemed to predominate as far as I could tell, but I couldn’t tell all that much.

An unexpected but glorious addition to the proceedings was the entertainment between bouts.  Whether this was broadcast on TV or simply to occupy us during the commercial breaks I also don’t know.  I know, I know nothing. Sorry about that.  Anyways, to my considerable delight, a troupe of dancers, backlit and with dry ice and everything, came on stage to perform a couple of numbers.  The lead singer was on leopard print high heels and had dyed blonde hair. Behind her a number of ‘dancers’ in sailor suits and a very fine smorgasbord of shoe selections did some sort of Khmer influenced dance moves behind her.  Honestly, I think we have done more demanding moves at the Olympic Stadium. Hey, here they even all got to face the same way, no elaborate turns or anything.  It is possible they were hired on attributes other than their dancing ability.  It was nevertheless glorious. It was like a full on Khmer concert.

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I was desperate to get up and join them, but fortunately (or possibly unfortunately) my ‘that’s not socially acceptable‘ filter was still fully operational. (I still blush at the memory of a fellow student at university, who some thirty years ago took it upon himself to try to stop a surrealist theatre performance because they were seemingly trapped in an endless cycle of physical workouts.  Guess what people, you know that invisible barrier between the stage and the audience in a theatre space?  You aren’t supposed to cross it.  Alternative theatre just isn’t that alternative after all!  – That anecdote is for you EWFM).  Even so, I was nursing a fantasy that one of the dancers would break both her legs and they’d beg for someone in the audience to step up and save the day.  I so would have. Though they’d have had to sew together about three of their Cambodian women sized costumes to cover me, and that would have left some of the other dancers naked.  Still, don’t think that would have been too much of an issue. Such women as were present (self excluded) were generally for decorative purposes.  Tiny framed women in miniscule stretch dresses stepped out to hold out signs declaring ‘Round 1’ or whatever, but otherwise it was all men at the event. Men as boxers; men as presenters; men as camera operatives; men as sponsors; men as coaches; men as bet takers; men as scorers; men as referees; men as security officials; men as media staff.  A wall of men.  It felt comfortable though, it really did. There were mostly men as spectators, but although it was a noisy and gritty affair, it was good-natured, it would be fine to go on your own as a woman I’m sure. Though way more fun in a group – you will need to share your experience with someone afterwards otherwise how will you know if it all really happened!  We all had a ball though, completely gripped by the action and surrounding entertainments.  Check out red-sofa man, the judges and the presenter in the shots below.  You don’t need to bring your own knitting to watch the boxing unless you especially want to invite comparison with Mme Defarge, the tricoteuse who sat knitting by the guillotine at the time of the French Revolution.  It’s up to you though.

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So after a couple of bouts, the mood suddenly ratcheted up. They can certainly generate an atmosphere here. Even though I don’t speak any Khmer, it was obvious we were moving into a more serious stage of the afternoon.  The huge overhead screens beamed out statistics of the upcoming contenders.  It didn’t look like a very even match though. One had won loads of fights the other few, one had lost 10 the other had lost 21, one was heavier than the other, hell even in their pictures one looked half-starved and the other on steroids.  Oh well.  All’s fair in kick boxing apparently.  The musical interlude ramped up too.  A youthful looking dude in a rapper-esque long coat and with serious attitude did some awe-inspiring number as the backing dancers gyrated behind.  It was hilarious, but also gripping.  Thing gangnam style (which I know is Korean, but even so).  I really wanted to dance.  More accurately, I wanted to dance badly, in every sense!  Sadly, real life is not like strictly ballroom.  No legs were broken, my fifteen minutes of fame will have to wait.

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These boxers were announced and made an entrance to swirling spotlights onto the main stage.  The important sponsor guy on the sofa, gave them both a garland of flowers.  There is a lot of ritual in all of this.  It’s a bit of a blur, but there were bows exchanged.  When they got in the ring they did lots of genuflecting.  Each boxer had a meditative moment with their coach, hands pressed together as if in prayer, foreheads touching.  Then they took off their jasmine garlands and headbands, greeted their competitors and it was game on. It is reminiscent of cock-fighting to begin with.  Colourful posturing and leaping, avoiding making contact at first, but it ratcheted up quick quickly.  Within a couple of minutes the stronger contender put in a succession of brutal punches and his opponent in blue was on the ground.  His eyes were open, but he was literally ‘out for the count’ and once the count had finished, medical staff ran on surrounding him, and the TV screen cut off, covering all the broadcast with a massive logo of an antelope skull ( I think that’s what it is, no idea really.  It is another aspect of the whole affair of which I am entirely ignorant).

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It was horrible, but yep, you guessed it, totally compelling.  After a bit, he was sort of manhandled off, and was apparently conscious, though it wasn’t looking good.  Then it ended really abruptly!  That was it the fight was all over, and everyone started to troupe out.  We took a moment to pose en masse for a group shot:

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 and then we were sort of catapulted out into the light. Where I found myself back in a tuk tuk, whizzing (I use the term loosely) along the streets of Phnom Penh back to CWF.

On arrival, $2 each which was fair enough ($1 each way in the tuk tuk). I ended up paying for everyone and collecting the money, in the process being given a dodgy dollar by one of the volunteers, which I did not think fair, also the same volunteer short-changed me by 1000 reil.  I don’t mind about paying a bit extra, if she couldn’t afford it, or hadn’t the cash.  I do mind about being duped into doing so. I felt a bit down about it to be honest, like I’d been conned somehow.  It’s hard to explain because it isn’t about the money, the sums are trivial, and I’d had a great day, it was more that it seemed a mean thing to do. I’d never do that.  I queried it, and they said basically just palm it off on someone else more fool you.  I was shocked, I’d never give a dud note to a trader here.  Different values maybe, or maybe  I have caused some inadvertent offence and this was pay back time.  Oh well  I commenced the walk back home dejected.  After a bit, the usual chorus of ‘moto’ and ‘tuk tuk’ behind me brought me back to attention as I waved them on – until one was Mr Lucky – he was going my way anyway, and offered a free ride.  I think this is partly a ruse because I was asking him about a ride back to the airport, and partly because he witnessed the whole ‘hang on, what is this dollar’ exchange, and I wondered if he felt a bit responsible because it was he who had rejected it.

Honestly, it would be so much easier being me if I didn’t dwell on everything.  I’d rather be the person duped than the person attempting to dupe, also, I can afford a dollar.  I shall let go.  It isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to me alas, and today was a mighty fine day.  Truthfully Phnom Penh felt grand today in fact.  I’d even go so far as to say I could imagine staying longer.  This is the secret of settling anywhere, do as the locals do.   This goes to show something, I’m just not sure what exactly.

Typing this I looked up and out the window.  The moon is full and sort of orange, breathtakingly beautiful.  It’s a wonderful world sometimes it really is.  I have been lucky today indeed.  I can’t imagine what my life will be like three weeks from now, best not think about that, just stare at the sky a bit longer instead.  Tomorrow will come whether I’m ready or no.

Oh the practical stuff, well I think basically you need to ask a local where the boxing is kicking off.  Then just go. Embrace it. Oh it’s free, did I not say?

And if you can’t get enough, and want to view the action on grainy YouTube clips, enjoy the offerings below, since thanks to either online video piracy or lax broadcasting regulation, you can experience some of the excitement for yourself:

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One response to “Getting some Boxing Kicks in Phnom Penh…

  1. Pingback: What do you mean money can’t buy luck? | Cambodia Calling·

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