08 Aug 2017
Under a billowing mulberry tree on the grounds of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, around 30 martial artists undergo their daily training under the instruction of a master.
They each stand on one leg while punching and elbowing the air for exactly 42 seconds, and then repeat the exercise with the other leg as support. Meanwhile, the master walks around kicking each student’s weight-bearing leg. If their stances are not firm enough, they will fall. For Narak Neakak, a master of the ancient Khmer martial art Yuthakun Khorm, the session is not simply an exercise – it’s an essential part of survival.
“Yuthakun Khorm is not something you take for granted,” Neakak says. “It could be a matter of life and death.”
While the origins of the martial art are disputed, one thing is clear: the seldom-discussed form is meant for real fighting.
According to You Sinet, the founder and chairman of the Yuthakun Khorm Federation, the martial art is one of the three components that made up Moha Yuthakun Khorm, or the Art of War. The other two involved magic spells and military strategy.
“In the past, our ancestors created one of the biggest empires in Asia,” Sinet says. “They must have had a great art of war in order to expand and defend the country. Our research found that Yuthakun Khorm was created and applied by King Jayavarman VII.”
While Kun Khmer, a form of kickboxing whose competitions are broadcast almost every day on local TV channels, and l’Bokator, another ancient form of self-defence, have growing visibility, Yuthakun Khorm is less well known despite its long history in Cambodia.
Nonetheless, in recent years the sport has received a bit of a boost, with classes being introduced two years ago into the curriculum at universities, according to the federation, which is responsible for coaching and preserving it. It is also being taught to certain units in the military. Currently, approximately 2,000 people are learning the martial art nationwide.
Despite the rough training – including 360-degree jumps and sparring involving punching, kneeing, elbowing and kicking – most of Neakak’s students are accustomed to the pain.