Farmers by Day, Martial Arts Masters by Night

Jan 13, 2014 at 11:09 AM ET

Em Sitha and Nou Srey Pov, a brother-sister pair from the outskirts of Phnom Penh, live in a home nearly twice the size of their neighbors’ houses. They’re farmers by day, like their family members and friends who live next door. But by night (or, rather, by afternoon), they’re amateur stars of one of Cambodia’s most competitive and lucrative national sports: Pradal Serey, or Free Boxing.

Pradal Serey is a form of unarmed martial arts—a lot like MMA or Thailand’s Muay Thai, but with more elbow use. Formerly known as Kun Khmer, the sport’s bouts used to be bloody and far more violent than they are today. That is, until the Khmer Rouge took power in the mid-1970s and banned the sport, intending to bury the fighting for good.

Since the Khmer Rouge’s demise, Pradal Serey has become commercialized and wildly popular, all thanks to Cambodian TV networks that air competitions weekly. And it’s especially popular among poor farm folk like Em Sitha and Nou Srey Pov, who can multiply their incomes eight-fold by learning to fight, thereby helping feed their families and, perhaps, leaving farming behind.

Photographer Arthur Nazaryan spent one week with with Em Sitha and Nou Srey Pov to learn more about their double lives as farmers and fighters. Below, his introduction to the world of Pradal Serey:

At 7 a.m. each morning, Nou Srey Pov, age 17, takes a boat out on the lake behind her house to harvest morning glory vegetable crops with her mother. She earns only $10 per week working out in the fields.

Most mornings, Em Sitha, 26, goes to the lake behind his house to collect fish caught in his net. He starts from one end of the tube-like net and shakes out each section until he has gathered all the fish at the other end—all while standing on the tip of a wooden boat. Here, he prepares to transfer the fish he has collected from the net to another bag.

Em Sitha and Nou Srey Pov’s house, where they live with their parents and six other siblings, along with Sitha’s wife and three children. The house is located in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, in a village that was recently incorporated into the city.

In the morning, Em Sitha runs from his home to his gym in Chom Kadong district, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Em Sitha practices with his trainer, Mak Sokon, at the Talay Dom Rey Mean Rith (Powerful Elephant) gym. Sokon and his father, Gniv Mak, opened the gym 25 years ago because of growing demand in their community to learn Pradal Serey kickboxing.

Gniv Mak does paperwork during an afternoon training session. Gniv Mak and his son both used to be kickboxers themselves. Now, they train fighters and coordinate with TV stations to arrange fights for them.

Nou Srey Pov stretches alongside her brother and other kickboxers at their gym. Women have not traditionally participated in Pradal Serey, and she is one of only two girls to have trained at the gym since it opened 25 years ago.

Nou Srey Pov gloves up before starting training at her gym.

Nou Srey Pov spars against her opponent. She is only one of two women to have ever gone to the gym. Her trainers admit that they are not experienced in working with female boxers, so they sometimes bring in other trainers who are.

Em Sitha competes with a friend and fellow kickboxer in a sparring match. When they have upcoming matches, their training is especially rigorous.

After work and boxing, Nou Srey Pov attends English class at Soma International School. She pays for the classes with some of the money she earns from kickboxing. Nou Srey Pov says she wants to be a professional referee, a role that will require her to learn English in order to referee matches with foreign fighters.

A female patron looks on at Nou Srey Pov, her little sister and a kickboxing friend as they prepare for one of Nou Srey Pov’s upcoming fights. Because so few women participate in the sport, the only space for female fighters to prepare is the restroom.

Spectators tensely watch a Pradal Serey fight at Bayon Stadium, which is owned by Bayon TV, a Cambodian TV network. The TV station broadcasts fights every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

A spectator stands up in frustration as he watches a Pradal Serey fight. Betting is traditionally a major part of Pradal Serey fighting, and still occurs at most matches.

Nou Srey Pov quickly says a prayer before going up to fight at Bayon Stadium. Fighters typically kneel and bow in prayer at each post of the ring before the fight. After each fight, Srey Pov also kneels in thanks to her trainer.

Nou Srey Pov rests against the ropes of the boxing ring in between rounds while a friend and fellow kickboxer fans her off with a towel. There are typically five rounds in a Pradal Serey match.

Nou Srey Pov punches her opponent, Khit Chenda, in the head on her way to winning the match. For every match, she is paid $80, with a $10 bonus for winning—substantially more than the $10 she makes every week from farming morning glory crops. Nou fights once or twice per month, depending on how successful she is.

Friends and fellow kickboxers pour water on Nou Srey Pov during the few minutes she has to rest between rounds.

Em Sitha lands a punch on his opponent, Kao Virak. He earns $105 per match and a $10 bonus if he wins. Sitha makes only $7 to $8 per week catching fish in the lake.

Em Sitha and his opponent, Kao Virak, walk out of the ring together.