Yim Phala’s training routine begins with crunches, each rep completed by a shirtless young man walloping her stomach with a concrete pole, followed by 30 punches to the face from her trainer wearing with a jab pad. By 6 a.m., as the Cambodian sun begins baking the capital, Yim is halfway into a 10-kilometer run through Phnom Penh’s outlying slums and roadways. Later, she practices endless combinations of punches and kicks and spars with her fellow students, many of them male—all to master the brutal martial art known as Pradal Serey, or Khmer Kickboxing.
Yim, an eighteen-year-old girl from a village in Kratie Province, about 60 miles northeast of Phnom Penh, is one of the sport’s few female competitors. She moved to the city last year to live and train at Pho Chey boxing club, which is little more than a covered area between two single-story dwellings on the outskirts of the city. This morning, a ragged hen followed by a brood of chicks runs under two punching bags, and boxing gloves and jab pads hang from nails on the wall.
Yim Phala sits in the makeshift locker room at the Bayon TV arena near Phnom Penh. Photo by Lauren DeCicca.
Pradal Serey, which combines kicks and punches with elbow and knee strikes, dates as far back as the 9th century and is one of the most popular sports in Cambodia. In the Phnom Penh region, there are some fifty Pradal Serey matches each week. The sport remains heavily male-dominated; in a country with a dismal score on the United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index, and where women are expected to marry young and stay at home, female fighters like Yim are rare. But with the Cambodian government pledging to combat gender inequality, coupled with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s vocal support for women’s inclusion in the national boxing championships has led to the ranks of female kickboxers swelling with rural girls keen to train and take a shot at the big prize money.
Yim looks older than her years, with wide shoulders, thick limbs, and a reserved manner. She is the youngest of six children and has three years left of schooling, but her parents are supportive of her decision to pursue boxing. “My family supports me 100 percent. They worry about me getting injured, but give me the freedom to do what I’m interested in,” she says. “I have always been interested in boxing. I like to learn self-defense and I can have a good standard of living doing this.”