A punch flew to the face followed by a swift kick to the stomach. The crowd chanted in rhythm to the blows that landed. The men, wearing nothing but red and blue shorts, moved steadily across the mat, inching closer and closer to the ropes. A little girl in the crowd danced along. The only thing separating my husband and me from the fighters were a few rows of local fans. Rocky, our Tuk Tuk driver, anxiously gauged our reactions. By the combination of grimaces and fascination on our faces, he could probably tell that we are not a couple who frequent “the fights.” And yet, here we were, on our last night in Southeast Asia, watching a man from Thailand kick a man from Cambodia in the face.
Cambodian kickboxing, or Pradal Serey, is a popular sport in Cambodia with a strong following. Fighters from different regions compete against fighters from other countries in hopes of winning a championship belt and a monetary prize. At no cost, spectators of all ages can watch the fights be filmed at a TV studio.
However, when we had stepped off the night bus that transported us from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we were unaware of the phenomenon of Pradal Serey. Instead, we were equipped with a list of stops we wanted to make: the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, the markets and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A man with a kind smile and an imitation Louis Vuitton seat cover became our Tuk Tuk driver. His name was Rocky, and he took it upon himself to be our tour guide.
After taking us all over the city, giving us advice on getting a good deal at the Central Market, and showing us pictures of his family, we developed a strong repertoire with Rocky. So on our last night, when he asked us if we wanted to go with him to a kickboxing event, I should’ve jumped at the opportunity. Instead, I hesitated. It just wasn’t my scene. Sensing my reluctance, Rocky claimed “a lot of tourists go!” If this was meant to entice me, it worked. Not because I actually believed that it would be swarmed with tourists, but, rather, it suddenly occurred to me that there probably wouldn’t be any tourists. And like any world traveler can understand, it’s the gems from the off-the-beaten path that we really seek.
As we entered the small stadium at Cambodia News Channel on National Highway 5, the music was playing and the lights were dimming. Rocky squeezed us onto the bleachers just in time for the announcer to present the fighters amid the roaring cheers from the crowd. We couldn’t understand a word, we didn’t know who these fighters were and we didn’t fully comprehend the rules. As I had anticipated, there wasn’t a tourist in sight. It was perfect.
In Cambodia, the popularity of Pradal Serey represents something more substantial than ribbons and fame. It serves as a form of expression that was nearly made extinct. Only 40 years earlier, the Khmer Rouge regime overthrew the government and coordinated the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979. They were responsible for killing three million civilians. In their efforts to dismantle status and install an agrarian society, they targeted intellectuals, professionals and even Pradal Serey fighters, as they were public figures with popular support. It wasn’t easy for Pradal Serey to be integrated back into mainstream culture. The fighting we were witnessing was more than a sport; it was an expression of identity, culture and passion. It was a sign of Cambodian resilience, and the new future the country was building after tragedy. The smile on Rocky’s face and the enthusiasm and cheers from the crowd impressed upon us that they weren’t reflecting on the past. Instead they were embracing the present and standing hopeful for the future in defiance of their oppressors.
After two hours of matches and a halftime show complete with a singer, we headed back to our Tuk Tuk. Rocky wore a huge grin on his face, as exuberant as any sports fan. “What did you think?” he asked us, putting on his helmet. I stopped to reflect before answering him.
The following morning, we would get on a plane and resume the normalcy of our daily lives. We’d probably share this story with our friends and they’d laugh in disbelief at the thought of us at a kickboxing event. But just like how photos never perfectly capture the beauty of a sunset, we would never accurately convey the significance of this last night.
When we had planned our first trip to Southeast Asia, we knew that we’d visit ancient temples, relax on beautiful beaches and taste new cuisines. What we didn’t expect was to be so welcomed into a cherished pastime that we knew little about until that day. Watching the pure joy of the attendees against the backdrop of the fierce Pradal Serey fighters gave us an inimitable perspective of the warmth and resilience of Cambodian culture.
That’s what makes traveling worthwhile. It’s not about the canned photos or the endless list of “must- see” attractions, but those intangible memories that we can reflect upon when the repetition of life gets too stifling and we’re ready for the next adventure.
I climbed into the Tuk Tuk and settled in for the winding drive. “Rocky, it was worth it.”