Khmer folkstyle matches during the Pchum Ben festival (Ancestors' Day) in the village Vihear Sour, Kandal province, some 50 kilometers northeast Phnom Penh.

The wrestling field – 2007, Oct 11 and 2008, Sept 29

The Khmer traditional wrestling competition consists of three rounds and is accompanied by two drums. The drums draw the wrestlers and the watchers focus on the competition. The wrestlers always react to the beats of the drums by dancing. To become the winner, the wrestler is dependent on his ability to throw the competitor down and to make sure the competitor's back lies against the ground. After the first round, the spectators will ask the loser, "Horb" (meaning - continue) or "Ngorm" (meaning - stop and accept defeat). Although a wrestler seldom accepts defeat only after the first round, it is customary for the question to be floored. If a wrestler can force his competitor's back against the ground at least twice out of three rounds, he or she is considered to be the winner.
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Khmer wrestling on the Ancestors' Day in the village Vihear Sour in 2003

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.”

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a new event in 2008