On the verge of disappearing only five years ago, the ancient warrior fighting art of Bokator Khmer is making a comeback, with the first tournament in nearly 1,000 years scheduled for this September.
Depicted in bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, Bokator Khmer is the hand-to-hand combat system used by the ancient Angkorean army. The art bears much responsibility for Cambodia’s domination during the Angkorean era.
Like so many Cambodian traditions, the sport was nearly lost during the country’s conflicts of the late 20th century. Not until 2001, when Grand Master Sam Kim Saen returned to his homeland after decades abroad, did the sport have a teacher or patron.
“During the Khmer Rouge time, masters of traditional arts, such as painting, dancing, music and martial arts were hunted down and killed,” Sam explains. “All of my training brothers and students, as well as two of my children, were killed by the Khmer Rouge.”
Not long after coming home, Sam started teaching again. But it wasn’t enough. Reviving the lost fighting art would take more. He began combing the countryside looking for old Bokator teachers.
The men he found at first had little interest in returning to the art. The suppression of Bokator under the Khmer Rouge, and later the occupying Vietnamese army, still filled many of them with fear. They told him teaching the sport openly was crazy.
“I tried to tell them it was okay, we already had permission from the government. But they wouldn’t listen,” Sam says.
“You have a great gift which was given to you by our ancestors,” he pleaded. “Do you want to steal it from our children? When you die, the art will die with you.”
In the end, his pleas worked.
“In April of 2004 we held the first Bokator conference in Phnom Penh,” Sam says. “Now there are schools in eight provinces, and we are preparing for national championships.”
Bokator, like Chinese Kung Fu, has various styles that teach students to emulate the fighting of a particular animal. Bokator uses colored kramas instead of belts and contains ten animal styles. The five “white kramas” animal forms are king monkey, lion, elephant, apsara and crocodile. The “green krama” forms are duck, crab, horse, bird and dragon.
Bokator is a complete martial art. It uses strikes, throws, drags, trapping, locking and includes ground-fighting techniques. Every single part of the body can be used as a weapon. Bokator practitioners are trained to strike with knees, hands, elbows, feet, shins, and head. Even the fingers, hip, jaw, and shoulders can be used to pound an opponent.
The first national Bokator competition will be held at Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, from September 26-29. The competition will comprise 20 teachers, leading teams from nine provinces.