When Toun Socheat was about 10-years-old he took a keen interest in the “sastravuth” or metal weapons he saw and read about in his grandfather’s martial arts books. They fired his imagination and his attention was fixed to the photos of them on the books’ pages.
Years later – when Socheat was studying at university – he learned the history and lore behind those ancient weapons and embraced the legacy of his ancestors from eight generations back. As crazy as this might sound in the 21st century he decided to pursue a career as a Khmer ancient weapon smith.
One of Socheat’s hundreds of clients is Hun Manith, one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sons. Manith serves in the RCAF as a four-star general and deputy head of military intelligence. He purchased several kinds of swords from Socheat, including the more elaborate “royal” swords.
Socheat proudly posted a photo of himself, the swords and Manith to his Facebook page, noting that for hundreds of years the Kingdom’s senior commanders used such weapons to lead their armies into battle against countless enemies.
“When I made those swords for [Manith] it was a very unusual situation because he ordered eight of them at once! I spent almost a year making all of them and making sure they were perfect or at least the very best work I could do. He was very happy with them and he used some of them to decorate his home because he loves ancient-style things and he also gave away some as gifts,” Socheat tells The Post.
After starting his career by making two swords in 2014, Socheat – who is a very large but soft spoken man – says he never expected to have so many customers or that so many people were interested in ancient Khmer weapons.
He recalled his grandfather’s stories that eight generations ago one of his ancestors was a person of some importance who most likely held the rank of Khun or “royal envoy” – a sort civil servant, in a sense, but one with the nobility of a royal title and who would also be called on to lead men in battle.
His grandfather told him that his ancestor led men to victory in many battles against bandits and against invading Siamese armies. However, over time the family lost its martial knowledge and only had the stories of their ancestor’s deeds left while no longer possessing any of his martial skills.
“Back when my grandfather was alive – when I was a child – he had a library of old books and I was always very excited to look at the pictures of these Khmer weapons in them. I saw the term ‘sastravuth’ and I wondered what it meant. I was fascinated by the swords while just looking at pictures of them – I never imagined I would own them or make them – and I could spend hours flipping through the pages,” says Socheat.
Socheat went to college and graduated with an associate’s degree as a medical lab technician, but his true passion began to show itself and he eagerly researched and learned about how traditional Khmer weapons were made.
“I made two swords to practice sword fighting with myself. When I finally finished them and people got a look at them, there were several who wanted to buy them, so I began to think bigger. I sold the first two swords and used the money to make four more and then I sold those and funded the creation of eight more swords,” he says.
“It started out as a hobby and then became a business because the income was higher than what I’d make doing what I got my degree in, so it’s certainly enough for me to be happy with. From one batch to another I refined and developed the quality of the swords and you could tell just by looking at them. I’ve learned a lot at this point and I gradually got better and better at it,” Socheat says.
Custom weapons for weekend warriors
Socheat details the method of making swords called “samlork”. The process involves the use of rhyming words, hand measurement of the weapon and predictions about the fate of the user based on that person’s date of birth.
“The carved artistic designs on the swords are – at a glance – the same or similar to each other. But actually, they are not the same. They vary in height, width and length depending on the size, strength and energy of that person’s zodiac sign,” he says.
In ancient times, men could determine each other’s rank and status by looking at their personal swords, which had symbols on them that served the same function as the stripes and stars that exist on military uniforms today.
Socheat says that there were many types of swords in the old days, but for royal officials each sword had seven possible levels, which indicated the status of the user: Pol Meun, Meun, Khun, Preah, Oknha and Nea Meun. Above that rank was none other than the king and no other but the king.
Socheat says that in order for the weapon to be right for each user he has to ask them a lot of information about his their background as well as about their reasons for wanting to buy such a weapon.
“I ask their date of birth to find out their zodiac sign. And I ask what they do for a living and if they are in a more exalted position in society that determines what level of sword they should have.
Socheat says that he then measures the user’s height to determine the correct blade length for them and then the entire weapon is measured out according to the rules of samlork.
The order for measuring goes: Handle (chab dorng); crossguard (rong chherng); ricasso or the dull part of the blade just above the pommel (veng torng); fuller or groove to widen the blade (rong sambath); the blade’s edge (pat norkor); its central ridge (vorak chey) and its sword tip (bang krab satrov).
Magical swords, lucky amulets
“All of my metal-smithing techniques I learned through research and especially from living resources – old folks – in rural areas. When the time came, it seems like someone came to guide me and point me to the places that I should go,” says Socheat.
He mentions that because he was doing work handed down from the ancestors he couldn’t ignore the spiritual aspects of it. Professionally-made swords must be made along with an offering to one of the sensei who helps the wielder determine their path as warriors.
In addition to making offerings for the spirits of the past masters there are magic spells cast on the swords and an accompanying amulet to prevent any dark forces from attaching themselves to the weapon or its user.
“For magical swords, we do a ceremony with offerings for the ancestors. We have fruit, betel leaves and nuts and beverages and flowers for them along with our prayers and entreaties.
“We say: Please, lords of battle, senseis and warriors come to take the offerings and bring us one of your soldiers’ spirits to station in this weapon.
“When the final product is ready we do another ceremony. Then you can begin using it properly. If you keep it at home or near you much of the time it can adjust your fate. In fact, in some cases previously, there were people who used to be afraid and chicken-hearted and now they feel confident believe in themselves like never before,” says Socheat.
21st-century sword salesman
The eight swords that Manith ordered were all completed in just one year because of his obvious importance and rank but an ordinary person ordering that many at once might wait up to three years to receive them because of the volume of orders he gets and the lack of qualified people around to do the carvings on them.
Socheat decided to learn the skill of carving the designs into the blades himself because it had become such a bottleneck in his production process. He struggled mightily to get it right and for the first few months he often injured himself with slips and mishaps when working with chisels.
The carved swords are more expensive than the plain ones, says Socheat, and he prefers to do the cheaper ones since it’s a much faster turn around and his customers don’t have to wait for too long.
Anyone can buy a sword from Socheat as long as they are 18 years old and can prove it with ID.
“If you are contacting me through Facebook messenger you must have a real name and be at least 18-years-old. You could be a student or employee or a businessmen, as long as it’s a legal profession. We examine you on social media and look for any signs of trouble before selling you any weapons,” says Socheat.
As part of Socheat’s self-imposed background check requirement you can also expect to answer some questions about why exactly you want to buy a sword.
“If your answer meets our criteria like it is for worship offerings or decoration or to hand down to your sons, those reasons are acceptable, but overall since I first started doing this job almost ten years ago, I have never had any problems,” he says, adding that he has turned people down in the past but very seldomly.
Socheat says that Hanuman Weapons will custom make swords, knives, royal swords, spears, daggers and bows for any reputable person of good character.
For more details call or message him at 085 95 22 68 or visit his Facebook page:@KhmerTraditonalArtWorker