15 May 2017
For more than a century, Cambodia’s traditional archery was dormant. Knowledge of bow-making in the Khmer style disappeared, and with it went the know-how to shoot with the country’s distinctive bows and arrows.
The arcane sport, however, is beginning to re-emerge.
In a sweaty boxing gym above a parking garage near Orussey Market, Thach Visalsambath leads a pair of students in paying thanks to king and country before walking them through the beginner steps of Khmer traditional archery.
“It’s a temporary location,” Visalsambath explains. The dark indoor space hardly provides enough room to shoot a makeshift target of stacked foam mats.
The 23-year-old instructor is working to open a partner chapter of Siem Reap’s Royal Archery Club, which opened in late 2016, in the capital within a month, though he’s still trying to finalise a space.
Visalsambath explains the steps involved in Khmer archery to his students – like the first, a wide-stanced squat, followed with a shot lunging forward. “It’s so you can shoot while moving in the battlefield,” Visalsambath says. “It’s a part of Khmer martial arts, like bokator.”
Khmer archery is an art that was completely lost until revived by Visalsambath’s teacher, Channlin Til.
On the first floor of a half-finished borey development in Siem Reap town, 27-year-old Til and four apprentices have set up a workshop where they craft bows and arrows from the wood of the treang palm.
Enthralled by archery since he was 12, when Til made a toy bow out of bamboo, the workshop is the result of years of research beginning in 2009.
“I didn’t see Khmer bows in movies, on the news, or anywhere,” he says.
But by studying a 19th century bow at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, examining the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat of Khmer archers, and conducting interviews with old men in the provinces who once used traditional-style bows to hunt, he says he cobbled together enough information to recreate his first traditional bow in 2012.
“For the old people I spoke to . . . I considered myself all of what they told me,” he says. “The pictures in Angkor Wat show many styles of bow and the different stances for shooting.”
At the nearby range of the Royal Archery Club he points to a rack of traditional bows, explaining how, based on strength and ornamentation, each one is styled for a foot soldier, a group leader, a general or the king.
“The Khmer bow has a lot of power, because the style of shooting is different from other [traditional] bows like the Korean or Chinese,” he says.
Shooting a Khmer traditional bow involves a fuller range of movement to modern sport archery. Instead of standing stationary, archers squat, lunge or stand on one foot. The sturdy treang wood puts more tension on the draw, and there’s no hold on the bow to guide the arrow. An archer must rely on the steadiness of both hands to take a shot.