Cover Image

A Weapon and a Tool

 October 9, 2023    Asian Arms

This particular piece is from an intriguing family of weapons, most commonly found in Cambodia but also in Thailand and parts of Laos and Vietnam, often known to collectors as a ‘mak’ but locally known as a ‘kokok’  or 'phkeak’. The exact source of the term ‘mak’ is currently not known to me but for some reason has become the term of choice among western collectors. Similar to a phenomenon seen with other ethnographic weapons where a label that may belong to only one language or people group is applied as a blanket term over time.

In any case, I will stick to the term ‘phkeak’ for the sake of this brief article. These weapons resemble a cross between an ax and a polearm with a wide variety of sizes and handle lengths. Many are very simple in form, with the most basic being a straight handle of wood, with a near 90 degree curve at the end (much like a walking stick) and a blade of iron or steel mounted on the top of the curve. These are still a tool in use for the remote hilltribes or montagnards of Cambodia, Laos and parts of Vietnam. This most basic form was noted by Boisselier (La statuaire khmere et son evolution, 1955), with the distinctive 90 degree curve, to be found mainly around the Tonle Sap, although pictorial evidence such as the image below seems to suggest the range certainly was wider in later times. The wooden shafts are commonly made from the mempat tree, but other woods can be used.

From the collection of the Musee du quai Branly - 1956 portrait of a montagnard (hilltribesman) in Laos.

The type is obviously quite ancient with the exact same form depicted on base reliefs of Angkor period temples. Interestingly this basic form is seen both as an infantry and cavalry weapon.

Image source: Wiki Commons

These images give us a clear idea that far from this being simply a useful tool that could be repurposed in war, from the time of Angkor Wat in the 12th century it was also a dedicated weapon of war, as cavalry would have been from the upper class of society and unlikely to carry weapons that were not dedicated to the pursuit of war. In fact on a relief in the south gallery of Angkor king Suryavarman II, the builder and patron of Angkor, can be seen carrying a pakak as part of a triumphant procession with his soldiers. 

Original image taken from:

The weapon appears to have evolved over time, always retaining a degree of its unusual geometry but becoming both a longer polearm, including for use from elephant back, as well as a shorter hand axe for lack of a better term. A typical relatively modern example can be seen in the image below formerly from my own collection, this basic shape with a variety of handle lengths seems to have been a staple form, likely from at least the 16th or 17th centuries onwards.

Which brings us to the piece I really want to showcase for this article, the best made and perhaps most unusual example of the type I have encountered. This is a shorter example but highly unusual for several reasons. 

Firstly the blade is beautifully decorated with incised floral patterning and intricate forging and filing work on the spine, this takes the form of a series of 'knobs' which are in excess of the typical single 'finial' seen on the top of most pakak, but rather has this motif extended along the entire spine. This type of phkeak is known as a 'phkeak krieng'.

The handle is made from a core of what seems to be bone, likely water buffalo but possibly elephant, banded with samrit fittings and finished with a large samrit pommel cap. These are not materials for a weapon for a member of the lower classes and while we will never be sure of the exact age and holder of this item, I feel confident saying that it is definitely the oldest example I have seen and also likely to have been owned by someone who served a person of status. While only pure speculation, a member of the royal elephant troops would have a degree of plausibility. This is a formidable weapon, being as heavy as most full sized swords while significantly shorter, due to the very thick blade. 

The care and attention to detail given to the blade and its decoration is in fact in excess of most of the high end dha/daab I have owned or handled.

While the use of samrit is not unknown for these weapons, I have not seen another with a similar pommel cap in place. 

It is intriguing to see archaic features such as the 90 degree curve preserved within the geometry of this blade, something not necessary in this case as no curved wooden pole is used, retained within the skillful forging of the weapon, showing a clear lineage with the very weapons we see preserved on the walls of the ancient Khmer temples. It has been an absolute pleasure to acquire this piece and there is much research left to carry out on this example with many questions still to answer in terms of the exact evolution of the weapon and its form and I look forward to publishing further articles on this most unusual of weapons in due course.