The quintessential Cambodian children’s street game is a group of kids kicking their flip-flops at a little pile of dirty riel notes. And today, for the first time, I decided to find out what it’s all about. (You’ll have to excuse the phonetic spellings here – the English alphabet was never meant to carry the weight of Khmer sounds).
The game is called leang cheu (“play-kick”, the kicking game), or leang cheu sbai-cheung (“play-kick-shoe”, the shoe-kicking game), or even cheu si-loy (the money-eating game, which it certainly is).
These are the rules of the game as explained to me by three boys, Ratana, Seiha and, so help me God, a boy called Him.
The game usually has two to seven players. The top age is around 20, and interest drops off rapidly after the mid-teens – this is a game for children.
There are two forms, easy and hard, and both begin with the same set-up, a starting line for kicking and a vong for the stake-money. I believe vong means circle, but it can be a circle, square or rectangle. It’s the target where the money goes. In the version Seiha and Him and their nameless friend were playing the circle was a square (I know, I know) with one side touching the starting line, but it can also be inside the playing area at a distance set by the players. Small boys will understandably have a much closer circle than a group of 18 year olds.
The game is won by kicking money out of the circle, but each player’s first kick must not touch the money. The first player will probably try to kick his flip-flop as far as possible, because the next round of kicks will be led off by the player whose flip-flop is furthest from the circle.
Later players have a choice: they can either try to kick the flip-flop further than the first player, if they think they can still kick accurately, or they can try to put it just beyond the circle in a position to block more distant players.
In the “easy” version the player whose flip-flop is furthest from the circle takes a direct aim at the money and tries to knock it out of the circle, and whatever money he knocks out is his to keep. The remaining players then follow in turn. Any money knocked out can be replaced if the players agree, and the game continues until everyone runs out of money. Players who fail to hit the circle at all can place their flip-flop on the starting line for their next shot; alternatively, he might deliberately land short of the circle in order to block another player.
In the “hard” version players cannot kick directly at the circle but have to ricochet off another player’s flip-flop – either flip-flop can then hit the money. Any player who fails to hit another flip-flop is eliminated from the game, and if all players fail to hit a second flip-flop the last player gets a free kick directly at the stash.
Any player who winds up on the wrong side of the starting line is eliminated. There is optional rule that allows the game to revert to direct kicks after a certain number of ricochet shots.
The shoe-kicking game may be a fairly recent invention. My friend Socheat is now 37 and spent his childhood in Sihanoukville and in Kandal. Instead of leang cheu sbai-cheung he played a game called kup vong, “circle-throwing”. Kup vong was a game for festivals, especially Khmer New Year, which is still a time for playing traditional games, and was typically played in the grounds of the village monastery.
The rules were very like the “easy” form of the flip-flop game, but instead of being kicked the flip-flops were thrown. Everyone could aim at the target stash from the first throw, which could be “strong”, with an over-arm delivery, but subsequent throws had to be “weak”, delivered under-arm.
My personal theory is that leang cheu sbai-cheung has evolved from kup vong. It also seems to me that the flip-flop game is slowly dying out – there seem to be far fewer kids playing it now than there were ten years ago. That, of course, is just an impression. It might be a good thing if it does die out – walking or running around barefoot on bare earth is a great way to get hookworm.