I arrive in Cambodia in the heart of the rainy season, and despite the skies being clear the humidity is overwhelming. As I step off the plane my shirt immediately sticks to my body. The air is thick, making breathing difficult. I hurry inside looking for an exchange booth, I need some Cambodian currency to pay for my visa. Unable to find a booth I spot an ATM, punch in my pin, and become confused as the machine spits out crisp US $20 bills. I did no research in coming here, and did not realize Cambodia uses US dollars. Cambodian currency is so devalued it is almost worthless.
I pay for my visa, pick up my bag, and make my way to the front of the tiny airport. I am in Siem Reap, a place I have never been. I step outside into the muggy air, to see a chaos of people all looking as if they know where they are going. My heart is starting to race. I take off my hat just to put it back on, and feel the cool line of sweat that has formed around the rim. I have no Idea where to go, but that is part of the plan. I am lost on purpose.
I scan the crowd looking for someone friendly enough to ask about cheap accommodation. I spot a jolly fat man in a Hawaiian style shirt, wearing a hat resembling the one worn by Sam Neill in Jurassic Park. “Excuse me” I say, and ask him if he knows of any hostels. He responds politely in an Australian accent, “First time here mate?” I nod and he tells me to check out Pub Street. Then adds, “One of these guys can take you there, stop by a bar and ask the backpackers where to stay.” I thank him, and walk to the taxi pickup area he pointed at. After a short wait, I hop in a cab and make my way to Pub Street. The driver a well dressed Khmer man suggests a hotel, being too tired to find one myself I let him take me to one.
I arrive at the hotel and awkwardly take off my shoes as I notice no one in the lobby is wearing any. A young Khmer girl maybe 12 checks me in. The girl seems very polite and professional for her age, informing me of checkout time and how the A/C works. I thank her and settle in for the night. The room is stuffy with no windows, and reeks of mold and dust. Only an hour into my stay the electricity goes out, and does not return until morning. In the morning I check out, and go in search of a new room. Just across the street I find Cambodian Backpacker, a hostel with beds for only $3. Despite the dirt cheap price the rooms are surprisingly clean, and the power stays on.
On my first real day in Siem Reap, I take a stroll down Pub Street, as the name implies it is filled with western style bars and restaurants. It is where all the tourist come to party. As I am casually walking taking everything in I see something that catches my eye, an event flier for Khmer boxing. I have never heard of Khmer boxing, and I am intrigued. The flier is taped to the inside window of a small travel agency office. I slide open the door to the office, and feel a cold draft of air hit my face. I ask the lady behind the desk if she sells tickets, she smiles and says yes. “The fights are held twice a week on Monday and Thursday” She adds. I buy my ticket, and anxiously await the next event.
A few nights pass, and its finally fight night. I run out of my hostel into a down pour of rain. I find what I am looking for in a tuk tuk driver waiting across the street. I ask him to take me to Angkor arena, and he holds up 3 fingers to let me know the price. When it’s raining the drivers jack up the fairs so instead of the normal $1 its $3, but I don’t care. I arrive at the arena, and make my way through the muddy parking lot, being sure to avoid the large puddles. At the entrance stands a tall slender bald man in his fifties. He stops me and asks “Would you like to sit at a V.I.P. table?” A little surprised, I say yes. He leads me to a table full of foreigners he has randomly selected. He introduces himself as Paddy Carson the promoter of the event, and walks away.
A Typical Day in the Rainy Season
The seats were great, situated directly behind the announcers table on an elevated stage. The first fight was under way, It ended in a devastating elbow perfectly placed between the guard of a young fighter. If I did not know any better I would think I was watching Muay Thai as the techniques and rituals are almost identical. I would later learn that Muay Thai is the younger cousin of Pradal Serey aka Khmer boxing. The night rounded out with some excellent performances and a few knock outs. After the fights concluded I knew I had to find a place to train Pradal Serey.
I scan the crowd for Paddy, I knew he would know of a place to train. I quickly spot him and approach him with my question. His answer disappoints me, he explains there is not anyplace nearby that caters to foreigners. He then offers to coach me himself, not knowing Paddy’s background I was a little hesitant. Paddy does not resemble a fighter in the least bit, he looks somewhat feeble with hunched shoulders and a slight limp when he walks, but with no other option I agree.
The next day I meet Paddy at a small shopping center and we both head over to a gym he use to own. We arrive at the gym to find nobody there, and the door locked. As we wait for someone to unlock the door, I have a long, very interesting talk with Paddy. Paddy as it turns out, was once a bare knuckle Karate fighter in South Africa, he then transitioned into boxing. Decades ago he moved to Thailand and helped mold Thai champions by improving their boxing skills. Paddy has trained 5 world champions. About 10 years ago he moved to Cambodia, where he now promotes Pradal Serey and trains fighters.
When we finally got around to training I quickly realize Paddy is not the frail man I think he is. The limp in Paddys leg is due to a titanium rod that replaces the bone he lost to cancer. Despite the metal infused leg he still uses it to kick, demonstrating the proper form of a round kick on the heavy bag. After several rounds of Pads with Paddy, I can barely catch my breath. We finish up the session with 500 crunches, which Paddy does not hesitate to lead by example and knock out 500 beside me. From then on I had a new found respect for Paddy.
Below is a video of some great pointers Paddy gave me from the day I worked pads with him. I hope you enjoy!