Monday, January 31, 2005

Yesterday, after church, Tim and I met up with three of the boys from the student centers for what we would call in America a 'male bonding experience.' For the uninitiated, the weekend kickboxing matches are also an unforgettable cultural experience.

We arrived by 2pm at the boxing venue, a large metal pavilion that reminded me of one of the show barns at the Ohio State Fair. We were an hour early, but we wanted to make sure we'd get good seats. After we were frisked by a couple of humor-impaired security guards, we were issued our tickets and shown to our seats. Or, to be more precise, to our pen. The seats were certainly close to the ring, but 'good' is a relative term. We were on the floor, about 15 feet from ringside, in front of the stands, which rose behind us for about 30 or so rows.

At first, the plastic lawn chairs were comfortable enough, but as the crowd grew, our legroom shrunk and the temperature rose as hundreds of sweaty fans pressed in around us. These were not polite and landed gentry; most of the observers were a step above thugs and a notch below riffraff. There were very few women, and only a couple of children. I was careful not to mention the term "Muay Thai," the name by which the sport is known in most of the world. I had greatly irritated a Cambodian last year by using those words. "Why do you call it that?" He asked angrily. "It is traditional Khmer boxing, stolen from us by the Thais."


As the band took the stage and began to coax from their ancient instruments the turgid dirge of drum and recorder, a certain electricity could be felt in the arena. The games would soon begin. I was surprised to see two tiny fighters emerge from the eaves dressed in the shiny shorts commonly associated with "traditional Khmer boxing." The boys, no older than seven, entered the ring and conducted the ritual dance meant to honor the spirits of the ring.

For the next five rounds, the puny pugilists pounded each other with all their might. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt, and the red corner won by decision. I had placed my hopes on the boy in blue, but in fight after fight, the red side proved victorious. As the day progressed, each match was manned by fighters bigger and badder than the last. In between fights, the crowd was forced to endure the worst InSync imitation imaginable: six twinky Cambodian hip hop dancers prancing around the ring serendaded by a truly awful male pop star broadcast live via television and locally via the world's worst sound system.

Between the third and fourth fights, the 'musical' act was followed by a presentation to the Cambodian olympic boxing team who had returned after a successful tournament against blood-rivals, the Vietnamese. Finally, the Khmer middleweight champion entered the ring against an ill-fated Israeli fighter who was outmatched from the opening bell. The frenzied crowd cheered wildly in the fifth fight as another popular Cambodian boxer demolished a physically imposing but athletically outmatched Slovakian.

The sixth was clearly the main event. A tall, but somewhat old looking Israeli named Suki was matched against a shorter, but extremely well-built Khmer lad. For the first two rounds, it appeared that the match might end up tied. Both fighters were obviously more seasoned professionals than their predecessors; where the earlier fighters winked and pranced and taunted their opponents, these men were stern and resolute, especially the businesslike Suki. In the third round, the men traded blows until Suki unloaded a rocket of a right straight directly into the nose of the Cambodian, who went down for nine, before being saved by the bell at the round's end.

In the fourth, it was all over. Suki made short work of the woozy Khmer, who's trainer wisely threw in the towel after it was clear that the fighter was unable to remember his name, much less to keep his hands up.

The crowd was silent. The drummers, which had played for the entire evening, droned on, but the energy in the room went from exultation to exhaustion. Tim's thermometer read nearly 100 degrees, and we, along with most of the crowd, were sweatsoaked and more than ready to leave.

After fighting a half-hour's worth of moto traffic that would make I-270 at rush hour look like a Sunday drive in Amish country, we made it back to the guest house.

After dinner, we returned to the student centers.

I talked about love, and laid down one firm rule for all of the boys: You MUST marry a Christian wife. After much debate and discussion, we retired for the night. In bed by 1am and up by 6am, I'm a bit tired. I spent the day at New Life Christian School photographing the kids' medical checkups and entertaining the waiting room crowds.

Tonight, it's the student centers again. The boys want to talk about physical relationships between boys and girls. I asked Dr. Campbell, "Are they looking for technique?" We agreed that they're probably interested in other aspects.

Tomorrow, John and I leave for Kompong Tom province. We have an appointment with the parents of one of the kids from the student centers. Should be fun. Pray for safety and power.

Well, I gotta go. I ate something a little weird and I'm feeling dyspeptic. After I drop the kids off at the pool, I'm going to take a nap.



1 comment:

Kevin said...

You should have jumped in there with the Israelis and shown 'em a little of your Krav skills!

Keep up the good work and stay safe over there. And keep posting those pictures when you're able!