For a couple of years, I lived in the city of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and also a hub of culture, history, and traditions mixed with new ideas and influenced from the outside, modern world. I’d walk or travel by tuk-tuk over the same city streets every day, and always passed by this narrow three-story building squeezed into a row of cafes, food shops, cell phone kiosks, homes, and an Irish pub.
Speeding past, I’d also notice it because glancing in the open front doors, I’d always see the most beautiful dancers, Khmer (Cambodian) women in traditional costumes doing graceful, slow, powerful cultural dances. So I was surprised that when I Googled boxing and martial arts classes in Phnom Penh, the same address came up. So I decided to stop and go in the next time I drove by, and was introduced to the wonderful Selapak Cultural Center.
I found out that it’s a center solely devoted to preserving and promoting the rich, profound, and often forgotten history of the Khmer people. They have the dancing classes on the first floor, with mostly local women but occasionally a foreign tourist girl jumping in to learn.
But I’ve also seen that they have language classes there during down times, with tutors slowly and patiently going through the most basic building blocks you need to learn the incredibly complex and hard-to-pronounce Khmer language.They also have art classes, teaching historical techniques working with silks, fabrics, ceramics, or other handcrafts.
But my destination was on the second floor, up a steep and dark set of stairs. It was there that I found the martial arts training center that I grew to love.
The instructor at the Selapak Cultural Center taught YutakunKhom, or Khom Khmer, the traditional Khmer martial art. While each Southeast Asian country has their own special form or brand of martial arts, like Muay Thai in Thailand, Bokator in the Philippines, etc., the Cambodian fighting arts were far from sport. In fact, these skills of war were taught to the King’s guards and palace soldiers centuries ago in the rich Khmer Empire from 1200 to 1500.
Their unique fighting art, mixed with costume, religious traditions and reverence for Buddhism, flourished and spread over the many years, and even survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that tried to wipe it out. But it’s seeing a revival of late, with about masters still teaching it in Cambodia.
The two instructors I met there – I won’t mention their names to respect their privacy since they want to remain pure to their KhomKhmer roots – became not only my martial arts instructors, cultural attaches, spiritual advisors, and friends.
Our workouts were always fun, with afternoon group classes among foreigners from all over the world, of all different skill levels, training side by side with eager young Cambodian youth. The vibe was always great even though the training was serious.
The best part is that the Selapak Cultural Center only costs a few dollars to jump into a martial arts lesson, with no monthly or high membership fees. It’s perfect for male or female travelers to stop through and get to know the people, learn about the culture by joining a class, learning the language, training or just watching. Try them out!