© Dan White. No repro without permission.
Filing past the armed soldiers at the gate of a small boxing stadium in Phnom Penh, Cambodia I am frisked by security before entry. Having neither guns nor knives I take my place in the crowd. There is a strange atmosphere in Phnom Penh and anger is building. The mood feels ugly. Thais are not popular these days in Cambodia. They are stealing Cambodian culture, Cambodian land and the wealth of Cambodia’s gem mines and forests. Above all they have stolen the art of ‘Kbach Kun Pradal’. That may sound like the cry of a constipated klingon, but it is actually the Cambodian art of kickboxing. Developed and refined over centuries by the ancient empire of Angkor it was stolen by the conquering Thais five hundred years ago and renamed ‘Muay Thai’ or ‘Thai kick boxing’.
It may be called “kick boxing” but to me it looks more like “elbow jabbing”…”knee crunching”…”nose splatting”…”bone crunching,” boxing. Defending Cambodia in the ring is Hok Yathey. Today he is one of Cambodia’s top kick boxers. Only a couple of years ago Yathey was fighting for something else. He was defending a vision of a world without fun, money or casual clothing. The job on his CV may now read national kick boxing champion but his previous experience was as a soldier in the Khmer Rouge, jungle army.
During the late seventies while everyone else in the world was getting on with the business of bad hair, flaired trousers and the horrors of disco, the Khmer Rouge set about turning Cambodia into one vast concentration camp. They emptied the towns of people and put them all to work in the rice fields, even though they were given no rice to eat. They abolished money, private property and families. Then they started abolishing people too. They killed three million of their own people in an orgy of death that will scar this country forever. In 1979 they were turfed out by an invading Vietnamese army. The Khmer Rouge spent the next twenty years prowling the jungles and mountains of Cambodia killing where they could and laying landmines on their day’s off. Hok Yathey was under the command of their murderous leader, Pol Pot, and his deputy, the cold-eyed Ta Mok. A one-legged killer known simply as, “The Butcher.”
The warm up fights at a close, Yathey and his Thai challenger climb under the ropes and into the ring as the sounds of the ‘Sralei’ starts up. It is a haunting free form musical drone of reed flute and drums that becomes ever more frenetic as the fight gains in pace and ferocity. At each corner of the ring stands a soldier from the elite squad of ‘Flying Tigers’ – military police, AK 47s at the ready.
But first the fighters must make their homage to the spirits of boxers and trainers past with a shuffling, looping dance that takes them to each corner of the ring for a word of prayer.
The bell rings for round one and the fighters circle each other probing their opponent with quick feints and jabs before Yathey explodes with a kick to the body of the Thai that makes a sound almost like the crack of a gun. This is followed by a barrage of punches and an elbow jab into the face that splits open the visitor’s cheek. Seeing blood the crowd starts to roar. The fight stops and the foreigner is wiped down and patched up by his team. He comes back out fighting, going for Yathey with a flurry of kicks and punches that puts him on the ropes and into a headlock repeatedly kneeing him in the gut before they are pulled apart by the referee.
As the rounds progress it looks like Yathey will be the easy winner on points. He lands more punches and kicks than the Thai and puts him on the ropes twice in the second round and once in the third. But in the fourth Yathey is suckered by a killer move. A misjudged kick puts him off balance. The Thai is on to him like a pitbull on speed. A lightening kick to the head has him on the ropes. Then an elbow jab from a running jump into the soft space between his neck and his collarbone drops him. It takes out the blood supply to his brain and Yathey is on the deck. It doesn’t look like is getting up in a hurry and the crowd goes beserk. Once again Cambodia is the loser and insult has been added to injury.
In the dressing room Yathey has his head in his hands. He has let his nation down and failed to pop the bubble of Thai arrogance. Never having been much of a diplomat, I tell him that I am going to Chiang Mai in Thailand for three weeks to train in a Thai boxing camp. It is hard to tell if he is scowling or smirking. “Come and see me when you have finished,” he says. “You can show us what you have learnt from the Thai,” he adds grimly.
The mood around town is building to a sullen intensity. It is being reported that a famous Thai soap opera star has said that she would “rather be a dog than a Cambodian.” Hun Sen, Cambodia’s one-eyed prime minister has proclaimed that she may be a famous actress but that the Thai are not worth, “two blades of Cambodian grass.”
Driving out to the airport I see gangs of young men riding through town. Some are waving flags. Others are shouting anti Thai slogans. From the plane I see that buildings are in flames. The mob has had enough. It looks like they have been given the green light to do their worst. Enraged by the insults to their nation they are rampaging through the streets of Phnom Penh looking for anything with the taint of Thailand. First they burn the Thai Embassy to the ground, the embassy staff only escaping death by the narrowest whisker. Then they systematically move through town burning and looting anything associated with the hated Thais.
In Bangkok the Thais too are lost in fury. For them the Khmer are little more than untamed savages and they have been stamping on a portrait of their beloved King. On the TV the talk is of war. Elite commandos are sent to Phnom Penh to evacuate Thai nationals. F16s are put on standby and an aircraft carrier is poised to enter Cambodian waters.
The atmosphere is still tense three weeks later. After, what I feel, is rigorous Muay Thai training and even more rigorous drinking, I am back in Cambodia and out on the tiles with Yathey and his boxing mates for a night of wine women and karaoke. After half a bottle too much of lethal home-brewed rice wine I start getting a bit cocky for a fat bloke from North London with all of three weeks patchy, kick boxing experience. Yathey issues a late night challenge. We establish the terms. It seems like a simple idea. We go into the ring. I have to make only one kick or punch, however feeble or fleeting, connect with his head or body and I win. If he can put me down before I do that then I am the loser. All on condition that he promises not to hurt me. “Nityay dtrong,” he tells me. “Honest.”
Hungover at a painfully early hour of the morning, I am in a ramshackle little boxing ring at the back of the police headquarters. I see Yathey smiling at me across the ropes as he puts on the gloves. The thought that his buddies brutally murdered three million of their own people over four years when in power in the 1970s is making me quite nervous. Knowing, as well, that until very recently, when they could get their hands on a foreigner or tourist, then they too would be tortured and killed isn’t making making me feel any better. In the mid 1990s three backpackers were captured and held for three weeks. When they tried to escape, the Khmer Rouge, literally, sliced their hamstrings so that they could only crawl and plead for mercy. Then they shot them in cold blood. As they would often say before they smashed a victim’s skull open with a sledgehammer, “to lose you is no loss, to keep you is no gain.”
But Cambodia has moved on in the last three years. The Khmer Rouge being light on personal loyalty, Pol Pot was poisoned by his own men just after he had murdered his own closest friend of thirty years by tying him up and running him over in a tank. Then he ran over the wife and kids. Not long after that little neighbourhood bloodbath between Khmer Rouge leaders, the last survivor of this murderous game of musical chairs was captured by the Cambodian government forces. The Butcher is now in a high security prison, hidden from the world’s curiosity. All this left Yathey and his mates out of a job.
It was never going to be a long contest. After lightly tapping me on my head and chest a few times and firing a couple of playful kicks at my knees I do the stupid thing and actually try and speed things along by attempting to stick one on him. It turns out to be a mistake. My inept attack meets nothing but air and in a millisecond of flailing feet and gloves Yathey has taken my feet out from under me and tapped me lightly enough to put me on my back before I can even think about doing it again. He gives me another chance. Feeling like I have just been rolled by an ocean breaker I grovel in the dust before getting up, dizzily, to my feet to see if it was just a lucky fluke on the part of my frightening friend. It doesn’t look like it. He is dancing from foot to foot kicking his knees in the air like a relic from the age of Ska shouting, “Ot mien dai! Ot mien dai!” meaning, “No hands! No hands!” He then puts his hands on his head and sticks his tongue out daring me to take another pop. There is an early morning chill in the February air and I am beginning to smell humiliation.
I know that Yathey is just playing with me as he might with an over ambitious slug, but honour requires me to see if I can at least touch a glove on him before he ritually flattens me once again. No chance. Each time I try to touch him he dances out of the way. A couple of times he kicks me lightly up the arse to demonstrate what he could do if he was being serious. Trying to meet fire with fire I make a clumsy attempt to boot him in the head. This is met by a knee to the gut. Then he Deftly taps my leg out from under me with a precision flick of his right foot. Once again I am on the deck Winded and looking foolish. I ponder my options deciding that my best plan is to remain horizontal for quite some time to come. Khmer Rouge 2, Loaded nil…… Game over. Point made.
It could have been worse. In his old job he might just have sliced out my liver and lightly sautéed it over an open fire for a late breakfast.
The art of Khmer Rouge cuisine may be dying out, but the art of putting the frighteners on your opponent, if only in jest, is alive and well. That and booting things harder than I have ever seen anyone boot anything in my life. Yathey invites me to attend one of their training sessions that afternoon. I soon realise that my gentle meanderings in the tourist boxing rings of Chiang Mai is kindergarten stuff. Every one of the boxers here is a battle hardened veteran of the thirty odd years of war that has defined this wrecked country. Looking at the way they can do two hundred sit-ups at a go is awesome. The fact that between each one the trainer jumps on their gut with both feet and his full weight is stupefying. I realise how easy going Yathey was in the ring. Seeing him kick the punch bag I realise that if he was a less kind man, that punch bag could have been me. Suddenly my insides start to feel very soft and vulnerable.
I even start to feel sorry for his next Thai opponent although it will be sometime before Yathey and the Thais have a re-match. In a place where wars can be started by soap operas it might be wise to hold the next bout in a neutral country.
BOX OUT/SIDE BAR – Sporting Despots
The despotic and bizarrely brutal ruler of Uganda in the seventies was also a huge sports enthusiast. In addition to butchering vast numbers of his own people, Idi Amin was also nine times heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda between 1951 and 1960. A big fan all things tartan, Amin declared himself to be ‘King of Scotland’. This can have hardly gone down well with his former British colonial masters. When he was a soldier in the King’s African Rifles he was described as, “a splendid type and a good rugby player,” but also, “virtually bone from the neck up and needs things explained in words of only one letter.” Kicked out of power in 1979 he now lives in that other liberal haven of tolerance and democracy, Saudi Arabia, where he is on record as getting into fishing and swimming. Lets hope the bastard gets eaten by sharks.
When the Romans went to the circus it wasn’t to see clowns and tame lions. It was to see people tare each other limb from limb or get savaged by poorly fed wild animals. After three or four centuries of this the Emperor Domitian thought the crowds would like something new. Thus the celebrated sport of lesbian dwarf fighting was launched. Sadly, it bored the crowd into a stupor so things went back to normal with the wildly popular sport of watching Christians pretend to be Kitekat.
Despite being the scourge of all things American, Fidel Castro’s greatest love is baseball. In the ’50s he was given a trial as a pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rejected for being shit, an embittered Castro decided to become a revolutionary despot. With the 1962 Cuban missile crisis he very nearly took his revenge against the United States with a nuclear home run. This all came to nothing when he fell at the last plate when his Soviet sponsors confiscated the bat.
General Franco, autocratic ruler of Spain from 1936 to 1975 was a massive Real Madrid fan. His death was largely attributed to his insistence on watching every single match of the 1974 world cup finals against medical advice. It’s a pity it didn’t happen sooner….. Like 1938.
Firmly adhering to the Alex Ferguson model of player motivation Mussolini took the beautiful game very seriously and he asked for 110% from the national team. Before the 1938 World Cup Finals he sent a telegram to the coach, Vittorio Pozzo saying “Win or die.” Luckily they played a blinder.
Presently one of the world’s nastiest men, Saddam’s psychotic eldest son tortured three national footie team members after losing to Japan in the Asian Cup. This specimen of deranged evil also had the entire squad whipped on the soles of their feet after losing a 1998 World Cup qualifying game. Their failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals was answered back in Baghdad by making them take turns to kick a concrete football. Those who were thought to have been particularly slow in the field were dragged through gravel pits and immersed in sewage tanks.