The Cambodia Daily , WEEKEND Saturday, October 4, 2003

 

Holy Games

A Kandal Province Commune Revives Pchum Ben Traditions

By Daniel Ten Kate and Kay Kimsong
The Cambodia Daily

khsach kandal district, Kandal province - Down a long dirt road lined with onlookers, Dom Doung rides his buffalo through the gates of the famed Wat Vihear Sour.

On any other morning, this might be an odd sight. But not this day. It’s Sept 25, the final day of the Pchum Ben festival in Vihear Sour commune, and thousands have traveled by car, motorcycle, bicycle or on foot to witness the annual buffalo racing and traditional wrestling held here.

Tapping the buffalo lightly with a wooden stick, Dom Doung parks it in front of the temple steps. He hops off and grabs the buffalo by the reins.

Compared to Dom Doung, a muscular 25-year-old rice farmer clad only in shorts, the buffalo is more elaborately dressed. Its head and horns are covered in a red mask laced with decorations. Circular reflectors are pasted throughout the headdress. Yellow flowers stick randomly to the cloth and a purple border lines the holes cut out for its eyes.

As more buffaloes pile in through the pagoda gate, all similarly masked, Dom Doung’s buffalo becomes restless. It bobs its head up and down and shifts from side to side. Dom Doung watches it carefully, keeping a tight grip on the rope tied through its nostrils to hold it in place.

Once 24 buffaloes have filled the long, narrow temple entrance, Dom Doung and his fellow riders grab the ropes and force the beasts onto their knees. Before they race, the buffaloes must pray to the spirits in the temple, a tradition that began 75 years ago.

•••

In 1928, villagers in this commune started the buffalo racing and traditional wrestling on the final day of the Pchum Ben festival. They did it to honor the spirits for protecting them from a diarrhea epidemic and their livestock from animal diseases. The races served to thank the gods for peace and a plentiful rice harvest.

“Buffalo racing and the wrestling are a prayer to the pagoda spirit to give us happiness,” said Nong Seng Ly, 57, who organized this year’s events. “It is our good culture.”

The racing and traditional wrestling grew in popularity over the years. During then Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s reign in the 1960s and the Lon Nol government of the early 1970s, buffalo racing attracted large crowds. Villagers trained for months in preparation for the event. Buffaloes raced in pairs and the winning jockey received money. The races were tightly organized and competitive.

As with most everything in Cambodia, however, the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s changed buffalo racing for good. Buddhism was banned throughout the country, and the Pchum Ben festival became a memory. Khmer Rouge soldiers destroyed Wat Vihear Sour with missiles and littered the pagoda grounds with land mines.

After the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, nearly five years passed before the racing and traditional wrestling resumed in this commune. Wat Vihear Sour was rebuilt, but the buffalo racing became a shadow of its former self. While the elaborate headdresses remain, and the crowds are slowly building to pre-Khmer Rouge regime levels, gone are the months of training and competitive races.

“It’s not so organized today,” laments Kong Dom, 72, as he sits with his legs crossed in front of a Buddha shrine, where villagers pray and burn incense to remember their ancestors.

“Now it’s not a win-lose thing like it was before the Khmer Rouge. Before, we raced the very big buffalo, not small like this,” he says, motioning toward the buffaloes in front of the temple steps.

Kong Dom was born here in 1931. He began racing buffaloes at age 22 and continued until the Khmer Rouge regime.

Though the buffalo racing has diminished in quality, Kong Dom is glad the tradition is still alive. He is also happy that the village has been peaceful.

“More people are coming to live here,” he says, smiling. “And more people are coming to pray.”

•••

The riders take the animals from their knees and lead them back out the temple gates. Children, adults and a few monks follow them to the main road.

With Dom Doung leading the way, the 24 buffaloes walk down the small dirt road until they are at the starting line, about 400 meters away from the pagoda, where they are turned around. A few hundred people wait back at the temple gates, which double as the finish line. Then, without warning, the race begins.

Crouched high on his buffalo’s back, Dom Doung whips the animal as it lumbers down the road. He passes the crowd, which offers mild shouts of approval, and crosses through the gates first. Twenty-one buffaloes follow close behind.

The last two buffaloes in the group lag well behind the others. Two boys, no older than 13, sit on their backs. With wooden sticks, they hit the buffaloes in vain as the animals veer off the side of the road about 10 meters from the temple gates and start to munch on some grass. To the crowd’s delight, one buffalo lays down in a pile of mud.

After some pushing and prodding by villagers, the boys finally steer all of the buffaloes across the finish line. Then the riders march the buffaloes back down the road and run in the same disorganized fashion five more times. It is never clear when the race begins. It is never clear who wins. To most, however, it does not matter.

“I joined the event to pray to the god of Wat Vihear Sour for happiness and strong animals to help in farming,” says Dom Doung, covered in sweat after the race.

“It’s tradition,” says Sam Sun, 23, after racing his family’s buffalo for the third consecutive year. “You cannot lose the tradition.”.

•••

Whereas buffalo racing hangs on primarily for the sake of tradition, the wrestling here is alive and vibrant. It’s organized, well attended and filled with energy.

After the buffalo racing concludes, thousands gather around a makeshift wrestling pit at a school a few hundred meters from Wat Vihear Sour. Villagers stretch to see over the crowd. Children sit on tree branches and on top of swing sets to get a glimpse of the action.

It works like this: One volunteer steps forward from one side of the crowd. He strips down to his underwear and a blue skirt is wrapped around his waist. On the other side of the crowd, a challenger volunteers. A red skirt is tied around his waist. The announcer introduces the wrestlers and the crowd begins to shout. Five men wearing yellow robes start to bang on drums. The fight is on.

In traditional wrestling, the dancing is as important as the fighting. For at least a minute, before there is any physical contact, the wrestlers move to the music, circling each other while hopping wildly on one leg and flailing their arms. Though they are about to fight, they smile.

The match lasts for three rounds. The first to pin the other on his back twice wins. The winner receives $0.75. The loser gets $0.50. If the wrestlers put on a good show, the crowd offers them more money.

On this day, the national wrestling coach, Vath Chamroeun, sits in the front row. Cambodian Wrestling Federation Vice President Nang Ravuth sits beside him. They are scouting for wrestlers and helped fund the event.

After about 20 matches, the announcer steps out into the ring as far as the cord attached to his microphone will let him. “Anyone can fight anyone,” he bellows. “We are looking for a volunteer.”

Him Hing, 33, steps forward. He is tall and strong, yet not as muscular as the 20-year-olds who fought before him.

Wearing a broad smile, Him Hing dances. Every step is exaggerated and every movement is unexpected. The crowd claps and shouts, erupting at his antics.

Him Hing’s opponent stands flat-footed, as transfixed by him as the crowd appears to be. Though his opponent is bigger, Him Hing is crafty. Distracting his opponent with eccentric dancing, he pins the man twice.

After the fight, Him Hing continues to smile.

“I’ve liked to play since I was a child,” said Him Hing, a local construction worker. “I’ve won three years in a row now.”

On the day that villagers remember their ancestors, Him Hing talks about how this generation can develop the commune for the next one. He says he wants the village youth—including his three children—to become serious wrestlers.

“They all want to practice at length, but they have no coach to train them,” he says.

That may change soon. Nang Ravuth invites five wrestlers to participate in a nationally televised traditional wrestling event in Phnom Penh. He says plans are being made to build a wrestling training center in Vihear Sour and that some local wrestlers will be asked to train with the national team.

“Of course, we never want them to forget the traditional style,” Nang Ravuth says after the event. “But learning the modern style will give them the opportunity to compete outside the village—and outside the country.”