Of swords, spirits and the King

Eileen McCormick and Say Tola / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
The wood for the sword handle is carefully chosen. Eileen McCormick

Traditional Khmer swords are considered prized possessions in the kingdom. The swords, which come in different styles and sizes, were believed to have been initially used between the first and sixth century. And the swords are not for everyone. Each kind represents a specific status, which means that each class in the society has its unique sword. But traditional swords have become a rare sight in the country. Young Cambodians either do not know what a traditional sword looks like or they denigrate it by using it in gang fights. So, 26-year-old Toun Socheat decided to bring back the glory of Khmer swords. In his workshop in Boeng Keng Kang 1, he and his workers busily attach long blades to
wooden handles before the swords get delivered to their customers.
Socheat tells Eileen McCormick and Say Tola the story of his sword-making.

Toun Socheat, the sword-maker. Photo: Say Tola

Good Times2: What inspired you to make swords?

Socheat: One reason was because my great grandfather was a sword-maker during the French colonial period. There was no one who wanted to inherit his skill. And when I was young, I had seen a book left by him detailing the many different kinds of swords used by different levels of people, from the lowest (soldiers) to the highest (king).

The other reason is that I liked playing with swords, as toys, since I was young kid. While other kids played with plastic guns, I felt that it was more enjoyable to play with swords. I always cut off a piece of bamboo and turned it into sword. When I went to study in kindergarten, I was always beaten up by my classmates. I complained to my grandfather and when I started first grade, he sent me to study boxing with his friend. It was there that I discovered the many kinds of weapons like the spear, knife, short and long stick, and sword.

Intricate carvings on the blade of a traditional sword. Photo: Eileen McCormick

I did well in all kinds of weapons compared to my peers, but I was most keen in fighting swords. My instructor kept sharpening my sword-fighting skills, but unfortunately, he passed away three years later.

But I kept the passion for swords with me even when I was taking up Laboratory Medicine in college. I really wanted to make one for myself to remind me of what I learned from my grandfather’s book and my instructor. So I did. I posted my sword on Facebook and was surprised to see many people wanting to buy it. Honestly, I didn’t want to sell my sword because I thought it was illegal in Cambodia. But people kept insisting that they wanted one. That’s how I decided to run a business in 2014 and earn some money from selling swords.

Good Times2: Is the sword business giving you a decent income? What obstacles have you encountered in selling them?

Socheat: A year after I started my business, I got married. I kept selling swords and though we did not have a stable source of income, I thought that the sword business will help us survive. My wife didn’t like the idea, but I opted to stick with it. She divorced me in 2016, just a year after we got married. I suffered a lot that time, but I motivated myself to continue. Selling swords is not just about earning money. A big part of me wants to help preserve every kind of traditional sword in Cambodia.

Good Times2: You got lots of tattoos on your body. What do they represent in your sword-making rituals?

Socheat: It represents the warrior spirit. Cambodian people use weapons to connect with spirits of humans. The Japanese, for instance, believe that the spirit of a sword is influenced by the sword-maker and the owners of a sword. Here, the weapons also follow the level and fortune of their intended owners, calculated by the date of birth.

Before making a sword, I have to do some rituals for the spirit so that they can come to protect whoever that owns it. Like myself, there are many spirits of warriors living within me. Sometimes, when I sell a sword to someone and they go off with it, I ask myself: “How do I know if they’re the rightful owner?” My senses would tell me and sometimes, I’d know through my dreams.

Good Times2: Can the sword be sold to everyone?

Socheat: Not everyone can buy swords. Only the people with passion for swords can have them. I also look at people’s backgrounds because I don’t want them to use the weapon for fighting. You know, there are some gang members asking me to sell them swords. They even told me they’ll take it for twice the original price. I didn’t agree. It’s a definite no for these kind of people.

Good Times2: We know of a story of King Sihanouk before he went to China in 1970. His mother told him not to leave Cambodia after she saw the sword’s blade turn black after she drew it out of its scabbard. His mother said something bad would happen. That’s when General Lon Nol staged a coup, with the help of the CIA, and took over his throne. Was the story of the sword true?

Socheat: There’s a kind of sword that only kings can use. Before the king can take a sword into the palace there are many specific ceremonies that need to be performed. The people who work in the palace know this. They pull the sword out of its scabbard twice a month, and if they see something on the blade, they interpret it. I have heard that the palace people sometimes see blood on the blade, which means misfortune. The same goes with the blade of the sword turning black, after the king’s mother drew it out of its scabbard, before he flew off to China in 1970. That black blade bore a negative message for the king. Soon after he left for China, Gen. Lon Nol assumed power as head of state and King Sihanouk could not return home to his people.

The swords used by kings are different from ordinary ones. They’re unique and are not easy to copy. Based on what I know, King Jayavarman VII used the same kind of sword in the palace as he did in the battlefield.

Good Times2: How are the swords made?

Socheat: I know how to make swords, but I for the ones that I sell, I do not personally make them. I do the calculations on what kind of sword best fits my client, what kind of sword would bring him good fortune etc. After that, I scout for a good sword-maker that can follow what I want – the kind of blade and the scabbard.

In my shop in Boeng Keng Kang 1, I do have different types of wood that can be used to make the sword handle. I’ll then bring the wood to the sword-maker. It actually takes quite long to form a working collaboration with the sword-maker. It’s not an easy business at all.

Some jealous people have criticised my work, saying I am copying styles from Thailand. I believe Thailand and Cambodia are culturally and historically connected, so it’s normal to see similarities. I carry out my research carefully and make sure that I fully understand that all 22 kinds of swords in Cambodia are meant for all kinds of people – provided that the swords want to go them. I am not copying from anyone. In fact, I strictly follow what’s written and recorded in Khmer history.

Good Times2: Has anyone shown interest in following your footsteps?

Socheat: There were some foreigners who asked me to teach them, but I refused. I personally think that Cambodians do not want to learn because this job will not help them make a good income. Also, I think they are afraid of the law and being accused of making weapons.

Drawings showing how the design of a sword is first conceptualised. Photo: Eileen McCormick
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