Saturday, January 21, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Bokator


As with most vacations, once the end is in sight you have a slight panic attack. A lot of things go through your mind, but the one question that seems to consistently pop up is "Do I have enough time to do everything I want to do?". Some places you may never return to again, and it's all too important to leave feeling fulfilled. 

For myself, I move fast. Very fast. So, I assume, that at the end of my vacation I may never return to this place again. Finding that fulfillment is my mission, and often the last couple days are such a whirlwind of events that I board that plane ride home exhausted.

This trip, however, showed me the importance of taking things slow. 8 days in Siem Reap is way more than I needed, and it allowed me to take my time and do things I wouldn't normally do on vacation. I read books. I took naps. I talked with strangers. I got lost whenever I could. It allowed me to see Cambodia more intimately.

It also allowed me to do some really stupid things like train in the middle of a village in the Cambodian martial art of Bokator.

This story started about 2 days ago, when I was sitting in the lobby of my guesthouse chomping my way through the second book of "The Hunger Games". One of the guys that works here was standing behind the desk, and I noticed how thin yet how strong he looked. It's a much different build than most Cambodians, who are more interested in getting a decent meal than working out. 

I asked him what kind of sports he liked to play. I have this obsession with playing soccer in 3rd world countries and, although I've kicked the ball around at the local schoolyard already and satisfied my 'mission', I was always looking for another game. Turns out…he trains in Bokator as a fighter.

Coming off the heels of my trip to Thailand and having a small infatuation with Mixed Martial Arts in Southeast Asia, I started asking him questions. Is it like Muay Thai? Where do you train? Who do you fight? How long have you been training? Rather than answer my questions…he invites me to train with him. As an adventurer, I say 'yes' without a second thought. 

Flash forward to today (Saturday). Although I have plans to visit another village and help with the soup kitchen for the 3rd time, I delay my start time for 2 hours so I can train in the morning. 7am comes around and, after a quick breakfast, we both grab a bicycle and head out.

Our bicycle ride takes us through the part of Cambodia that tourists rarely see. There is trash everywhere on the streets. Naked children play in the sewage-infested waters that straddle the highway. Bicycles are everywhere and Tuk-Tuks are non-existent in this part of the country. Everything smells funny…

I started to notice, after half an hour of riding, that everyone is staring at me. At first, I'm glad that I left my camera at home. If I was going to get mugged, they would get $15US and an unmarked room key. Then I started to see those smiles. The Cambodian smile. They were happy to see me! I don't know why…I wasn't going to talk to them. I was just going through to the gym. Maybe it's just the way they greet visitors. All I know is I felt much safer here than in the tourist-infested streets of Siem Reap.

We turned off the highway on a back-alley that cuts through another trash-filled street. Crap is everywhere…literally crap. Dog crap. Human crap. It smells, and I'm glad I have my scarf to mute it all. Fortunately, we go right through and arrive at the gym.

The 'gym' that these guys work out at is what we call in the Western world an oil change shop. Literally….they took a place where they change oil, took out the machines, laid some matts down, and started working out there. It was dirty. The 'locker' room was infested with God-knows what. I opted on changing outside. I don't mind being naked for a moment...

That's when I notice how the 'gym' is very clean and well kept…well, for the equipment that they do have. They have a Buddhist shrine for their former teachers. On the wall is an assortment of awards and dated pictures. There's a certificate or two, all written in native Khmer. On the pad shelf are about 5 pairs of different pads, all worn and torn to the point where many are wrapped in duct tape. It's clear that they have seen better days, but that the pride in their gym hasn't wavered.

For the class today, it was myself, the friend from the guesthouse, and the teacher. Small class, right? We start with some stretches that really tested my fitness. They were weird, nothing I've done before. One was some kind of Matrix-like dodge move that would crack my back on every rotation. I was definitely out of my element. From here, we learn about throat jabs.

Bokator is a kind of fighting style that is based around hand-to-hand combat in the battlefield. These moves are meant to neutralize an opponent as quickly as possible or, in some cases, kill. It uses much of the same techniques as Muay Thai and, if you ask any Khemer, they'll tell you that Bokator came first.

Training was intense. My first day and I was learning leg sweeps and elbow counters. My teacher showed no mercy. He's about a foot smaller than me, but I could see it in his moves that he could kill me in 3 moves if he wanted to. Much like the fighters in Thailand, however, these people are kind. Very kind. They don't abuse that power, and in fact try to empower others to help in self defense.

2 hours later and I'm about to pass out in a pile of my own sweat. After 50 sit-ups using old tires to hold down my feet, we are finished. For the 2 hour training session, I pay the guy $5. I'm immediately greeted with that Cambodian smile and we head back to the guesthouse. 

At this point I'm exhausted and sweaty, and by the time I get back to the guesthouse I notice that I have missed the caravan to the village to help with the soup kitchen. Fortunately, I know that they have more than enough help today, and that yesterday I already bought the kilos of rice and sugar for the older Khmer lady, so I don't feel as bad. The rest of the day I take the bike out and ride around Angkor Wat.

The bikes here are solid metal, have one speed, and are sturdy as a rock. They cost about $30, and are indispensable in terms of getting people around Cambodia. Many kids have them to get to school, which could be 10km away. At first, I felt bad because it was so hot and I would ride around in a Tuk Tuk. After riding my bike all day to the point where I can't move my legs, I realized how meditative and therapeutic bike riding through the jungle is. It doesn't take long to get to places, and you can appreciate nature and everything around you with a sense of immediacy. You're outside, in the open, cool wind through your hair. You feel alive.

I got home around 3, when the sun was strongest and the heat was unbearable. I had my long sleeves out and my scarf protecting me from the sun, but that was just enough. After a shower, I hit my bed and slept till 7. Best nap ever.

Today I found that fulfillment. I've officially done everything I wanted to do here, and more! I have the pictures to prove it (which I will post when I'm back in Korea. Internet is still fussy…), and have met many friends. I still have 1 more day, which will probably be spent on the porch of Bloom Guesthouse reading the final chapters of "Catching Fire" and packing my stuff to go home. It's been a wonderful ride, and I feel tired yet satisfied.

Stay tuned though, as I have a couple more stories I've been saving for you. It's airport writing, however. I'd rather reflect on them for a bit.

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