The Battle of Preserve Cambodia's Martial Arts Heritage
By Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D.
On the walls of Cambodian temples, bas-relief artwork dating back to the 13th century depicts men fighting with knee and elbow strikes. Other images show armed combat, including the use of sharpened bamboo poles that are tied to the forearms. Additionally, two large statues believed to represent ancient wrestlers have been unearthed in the country.
Given that Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia — sharing a border with Thailand, the birthplace of muay Thai, and Laos, the home of muay Lao, and not far from Myanmar, which has given the world lethwei — it seems logical that Cambodia should have spawned an ancient fighting art of its own. Sadly, however, there’s no written evidence of one, just a handful of carvings and statues that don’t even mention a name.
This is why there’s a battle over bokator.
From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was run by the Khmer Rouge, a repressive regime that attempted to extinguish all forms of traditional culture, including the martial arts. As a result, 20 to 25 percent of the population perished from execution or starvation. Because they were targeted, few martial arts masters escaped with their lives. One of those who did was San Kim Sean, who became a refugee and eventually relocated to the United States.
In 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ruled the country more or less as a colony until the late ’80s. Full independence for the beleaguered nation didn’t come until 1991. During most of that time, the martial arts were suppressed. Khmer boxing, or pradal serey, which is similar to muay Thai, was the first style to make a resurgence, primarily as a spectator sport.
In 2004 San returned to Cambodia from the States. He learned that while pradal serey was thriving as a televised sport, the traditional Khmer martial arts were facing extinction. After taking his case to the government, he was tasked with gathering up the surviving masters and rebuilding Cambodia’s martial heritage.
At San’s urging, nine masters assembled in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where they formed the first traditional martial arts federation the nation had seen in decades. The name “bokator” was chosen for the comprehensive system they would promote. It would incorporate three basic forms of combat: pradal serey kickboxing, traditional wrestling and bokator, which originally focused on animal styles and forms, as well as weapons.
The hand-to-hand element of the bokator amalgam they created was similar to that of Thailand’s muay boran, which incorporates all the moves of modern muay Thai, in addition to old-style kicks, elbows and knees. There was, however, a distinct difference between how bokator practitioners fought and how muay boran practitioners fought: Bokator included wrestling and submission locks, as well as basic ground fighting — thousands of techniques in all.
Most of the nine masters didn’t run schools. A few had small clubs that they operated in their homes, often out in the provinces where they taught only a handful of students. Consequently, there was little hope that bokator would be passed to the next generation.
Then in late 2004, San opened the first commercial bokator school in Phnom Penh. Because of its accessibility and the fact that he could speak English, he often was covered by the foreign press. He was featured on Human Weapon and other American TV shows, as well as on European and Japanese programs. He also hosted foreign martial arts students, eventually promoting three people — two Frenchmen and me — to black krama, the equivalent of black belt. Six years later, UNESCO took steps to recognize bokator as an intangible heritage of Cambodia.
Bokator was so frequently filmed because it presents a feast to the eyes. Practitioners wear traditional Cambodian garb, including a sarong and a scarf, or krama, on their head and around their waist. Encircling their upper arms are colored bands. Their hands are wrapped in ropes, which ancient fighters wore in place of gloves.
Taking a cue from modern martial arts, San Kim Sean instituted the use of colored cloth — the krama — to denote rank. Students begin at white krama and work their way up to black. During performances or fights, traditional music plays. Before every practice, students pay homage to the patron saints of bokator.
Each training session begins with a warm-up and a prayer, then moves to the repetition of fighting techniques, including knees, elbows, kicks and leaps. Next, students focus on animal forms that, like their kung fu counterparts, are physically challenging to perform. After a year of such training, they’re flexible and strong in the way that only Shaolin monks are.
In addition to the animal moves, students learn self-defense, grappling and techniques that use the krama as a weapon. Not all students fight, but those who are interested in it can engage in kickboxing. In those sessions, they strive to use the techniques they’ve practiced in their forms.
While San Kim Sean was in the limelight, trouble was brewing. Several of the masters in the federation had become annoyed at the media coverage and the money San was receiving, and they broke from the federation to form their own clubs.
One of them was Chan Buntheun, who called his art yuthakun khom. In 2007 I met him during the filming of a documentary about Cambodian martial arts. At the time, he had a team of athletes who trained at his house every day. They were all fit and muscular, skilled at jumping and kicking — similar to the bokator students of San Kim Saen. However, they were unlike San’s bokator students in that several of Chan’s guys were professional fighters.
When I met Chan again in 2018, he was very sick, forced to spend most of his days lying on a bamboo bed in his front yard. “In the old days, Khmer were the best fighters,” he said when I spoke with him. “They used magic combined with martial arts.”
I knew that all the Khmer arts shared a number of commonalities: traditional clothing, a dance component, and elbow and knee techniques. And I knew that they all talked about using combinations of physical techniques, magic and religion. When I asked Chan for more information, he said that bokator was not the real Cambodian martial art. Unfortunately, his claim had no more historical support than did bokator’s. The word “bokator” first appeared in print in 2004, while “yuthakun khom” didn’t appear until 2010.
To distinguish yuthakun khom from other Cambodian arts, Chan explained its philosophy: “The tiger fights with speed and cunning. The elephant fights with power and directness. In the Cambodian style, we use the elbows a lot, and they can kill people. In a fight with weapons, the Khmer have sutras, knives, sticks and magic. They can use magic to kill someone, to blind someone or to make them sick.”
He wasn’t alone in believing in the power of magic and religion — hence, his use of the word “sutras” to refer to the spiritual aspect of his art. He claimed to know how to use magic but didn’t because it could be a sin.
“In Cambodia today, fighters just use technique,” he said. “They don’t use magic much because most people who knew the magic are gone now. [In the old days], Khmer fighters could do magic. They could blow on their fist and then hit someone and kill them.”
Ross Serey, a member of the original nine who’s based in Siem Reap, also had a falling out with San Kim Sean. Ross hails from Kampuchea Krom, the lower part of Cambodia that was ceded to Vietnam as part of the Paris Peace Accords. Kampuchea Krom is very Cambodian. The people are ethnic Khmer and still speak the Khmer language. Theravada Buddhist temples are on every corner, and monks are in every community. It’s not hard to imagine a Khmer martial art being taught there, perhaps in secret.
Ross explained that pre-1980, there was a Khmer martial art in Vietnam that had been suppressed by the communist government. As a child, he trained in it secretly, mostly at night. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he moved to Cambodia and brought his traditional Khmer martial art with him.
He’s the only master who has any written support of his claims regarding the legitimacy of bokator. He showed me the 1967 dictionary of the Cambodian language that’s considered the standard. In it, the word “bokator” appears, but it refers only to a single weapon consisting of two short, pointed bamboo poles that are attached to the forearms and used for blocking and attacking. For this reason, Ross said he disagrees with San Kim Sean’s decision to call his art “bokator.” Ross insisted that bokator has never been the name of an entire system.
The art Ross practiced was different from the style taught by San, Ross said. “When I learned in the past, we call it ‘eight-door ancient kun Khmer.’ It’s about using the hands, legs and body. [These are] called ‘eight doors.’ From ninth to 12th door, it’s about using sword, long stick, krama scarf and the like. The 13th door is about locking the opponent.”
These old-school masters typically use the Khmer word for “door” to refer to the various levels of their martial art. It was interesting that in Ross’ case, the animal forms and hand and foot fighting lived at the lowest level, followed by weapons — with grappling and joint locking at the highest level.
On my request, he elaborated on the grappling: “It’s called clei. It’s used to train the police and soldiers to lock their opponents. The styles here are different. They have other names for it, but it’s originally Khmer. The styles ‘firing elbow’ and ‘flying knee’ in Thailand were actually created by Khmer.”
It seemed this was another common theme in the Cambodian martial arts: Every Khmer master believes that the Thai martial arts are copies of the Khmer martial arts. However, once again they have no proof.
“A large part of kun Khmer was lost during the Khmer Rouge regime,” Ross added. “Most fighters and masters were killed.”
This point I could not disagree with. We can only wonder how much knowledge was lost.
In 2010, at the apex of San Kim Sean’s bokator reign, a Canadian film crew led by director Mark Bochsler and producer Sandra Leuba began working on a documentary titled Surviving Bokator. The film was intended to highlight San and several of his students as they traveled to South Korea to compete in an event organized by the World Martial Arts Union — where they took second place, by the way.
The documentary also included footage of several rural bokator masters who complained that San had excluded them or failed to provide them with sufficient food and water and a proper place to sleep. Some said they lacked punching bags and gloves and were forced to practice fighting barehanded, which resulted in injuries.
Between 2007 and 2010, I interviewed a number of those masters and found that in some cases, their students did lack basic nutrition, and that made it difficult for them to train at a high level. I was told that several masters had to sell possessions to buy bus tickets to the capital so they could attend the national championship. Their students lost — how could they not lose against students who had plenty to eat? As a result of this, several of the rural masters separated from San.
Shortly after his return from Korea, San Kim Sean lost sponsorship for his academy in Phnom Penh and was forced to move 40 minutes outside the city. Unfortunately, the distance proved too far for local students, who couldn’t afford the commute. Foreign students would visit the new gym once for a lesson, then take a few photos to record the experience. Few of them, however, regarded it as a viable training option. As a result, membership dropped from more than 100 students to just a handful.
The lead instructor at the downtown academy had been Ung Darith. Even then, he complained about having to live an austere life, sleep at the facility and teach for free every day. And now that the academy had moved, he was separated from his friends in the capital. Some French students offered him a good salary if he’d teach in France for three months, but the grandmaster reportedly forbid him to go.
In the end, Ung did go to France, and this became one of the reasons for his falling out with San. Another reason surfaced when Darith and several students asked if they could open a bokator school in Phnom Penh. The grandmaster said yes, but they could teach only Khmer students. All foreigners would need to be sent to the new headquarters outside the city. Everyone knew that teaching foreign students paid well, and without them, there would be no easy way to keep the new school open.
In the summer of 2011, a professional bokator event pitting Cambodia against France was held at Angkor Wat. The French team decimated the Khmers, largely because of their better nutrition, modern training, and experience in kickboxing and MMA. One Khmer fighter named Sey Tevin, a bokator teacher under San, stood out as the hero of the day when he went the distance against his French foe. Although Sey wound up losing, the crowd cheered like he’d won.
During the bout, which was held outdoors, it began to rain, and the water slickened the fighting surface. During a break between rounds, the children from Sey’s bokator club took off their krama, ran onto the mat, dropped to their knees and used their scarves to dry the floor so their teacher would have a better chance of winning.
It was one of the most touching moments I experienced while researching bokator. It reminded me how important this martial art actually is. Every one of those kids was an orphan sponsored by a foreign NGO. All they had in life was donated food and clothing — and bokator. The people in charge of the children told me the youngsters had begun to view bokator as part of their cultural heritage, something they can keep for life.
The lesson I took away was that preserving this Khmer martial art is of the utmost importance. The name that ends up being used for the system — and whether it’s San Kim Sean, Chan Buntheun or Ross Serey using it — is irrelevant. What’s paramount is keeping this Khmer martial art alive and teaching it to as many young people as possible so they, in turn, will be able to spread it throughout their nation and around the world.
Antonio Graceffo’s book Warrior Odyssey is available at blackbeltmag.com/store.
ONE Connection Chan Buntheun’s son Chan Rothana is 30 years old and a well-known fighter, both in pradal serey and in MMA. He’s now under contract with ONE Championship, the largest MMA organization in Asia, and whenever he wins a high-profile fight, he’s the pride of the Cambodian people.