“Bokator belongs to Cambodia. Our great, great, great grandfathers and great kings from thousands of years ago practised it,” says Grandmaster San Kim Sean, one of a handful of bokator masters who survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.
With its roots steeped deep in history — carvings of bokator fighters can be found in abundance on the walls of Angkor Wat — the martial art was crafted by Angkorian armies to help the Khmer Empire keep its grip on the region from the 9th to 15th centuries.
Believed to be the father of other Southeast Asian fighting forms, bokator is esteemed for its weapons techniques and was carved into a deadly fighting tool to help crush the empire’s invading enemies.
However, the test of time has seen bokator fade into the shadows of other martial arts, such as Cambodian kickboxing (kun Khmer) or neighbouring Thailand’s Muay Thai.
And with the skills being passed down in typical Khmer fashion — orally from generation to generation — when the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge ruled the country from 1975 to 1979, bokator masters were targeted, along with other artists and intellects. Almost a quarter of the population was killed or perished under the communist regime.
However, bokator is now fighting back, as the few remaining masters pass on their skills to the next generation of fighters, who are taking on the task of keeping their heritage alive and kicking.
What is bokator?
Formally referred to as lobokkatao, bokator is an ancient Cambodian martial art that was developed by Angkor as a close-quarter combat system.
The term itself translates into “pounding a lion”, with bok meaning to pound and tor meaning lion.
Unlike the combat sport of kickboxing, bokator was designed with one main purpose: to win on the battlefield. This means it includes a diverse range of knee and elbow strikes, shin kicks, submissions and ground fighting.
The knees, hands, elbows, feet, shins, head, shoulders, hip, jaw, fingers — you name it — can be used to strike an opponent into submission today, or to cause death in Angkorian times.
And it isn’t just body parts that are used in the fighting; weapons form part of it too, with bamboo sticks, spears and even the krama — a traditional Cambodian scarf — used in many of the tens of thousands of bokator moves.
Like many of the region’s martial arts, bokator moves are based on animals, such as the tiger, horse, eagle and naga, with the moves’ origins stemming from the animals’ styles. Masters will select an animal from 341 sets upon which the art is based.
Even today, fighters wear the traditional bokator uniform, which is a krama around the waist and blue and red silk cords (sangvar) toed around the biceps and waist. The colour of the krama signifies the combatant’s level, with white being first grade, followed by green, blue, red, brown and finally, black.
A total of 100 moves must be learned for the white krama, with 1,000 out of the more than 10,000 moves required for the black krama. The gold krama is the highest level and is only attained by the great masters of the art, such as Kim Sean.
To achieve this, fighters must wear the black krama for at least a decade and be completely devoted to the art, as well as do something great for bokator.
Fight for survival
Kim Sean started learning bokator at the age of 13 from his uncle and other elders in the remote village he grew up in. Proving himself to be a natural, he travelled across Cambodia learning the fine details of the art form from masters countrywide.
In April 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, and the genocidal regime started its four-year campaign to transform the country into an agrarian society.
At the age of 30, Kim Sean, like his fellow countrymen and women, was evacuated into the countryside and forced to work the land. Food was scarce, death was always close by, and Kim Sean only survived by hiding his profession. Bokator fighters were among the intellects and artists who were targeted by the Khmer Rouge.
After the Khmer Rouge was ousted, Kim Sean fled to America as a refugee, eventually settling in Long Beach, California, where many Cambodians were relocated.
Devoted to his art, he started teaching bokator to Khmers there, moving back to Cambodia in 1992 with the aim of reviving bokator in his homeland and elevating it to international fame.
“I had dedicated my life to martial arts and was very concerned and sad when I saw bokator was dying,” he says. “I worried very much that it will get lost — thousands of years of history gone. Many Cambodians didn’t even know what it was. I knew I had to do something.”
Kim Sean set about trying to weed out the few surviving bokator masters who had survived, but he was met with resistance. The few he managed to find were ageing and scared. After suffering years of oppression, they remained wary of openly teaching the martial art.
However, Kim Sean’s power of persuasion saw them eventually agree and in 2004, with government approval, he launched Cambodia Bokator Federation and Cambodia Bokator Academy.
He encouraged the masters across the country to set up classes to pass on their knowledge to the next generation and started training youth from his Phnom Penh-based school.
Kim Sean has also been working with the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia to secure bokator UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status. Apsara dancing and Sbèk Thom, or shadow puppet theatre, have already been added to the list.
“This is my ultimate dream,” says Kim Sean. “If we get that, then my life is OK. If I die, then I can die happy.”
Since the inauguration of Cambodia Bokator Federation, a series of gyms and training centres have mushroomed across the country, with more of the country’s young men and women taking up the sport.
It has also been given a huge boost by the release of a string of home-grown martial arts films, including Jailbreak (2017) and the rise in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), with leading fighters, such as bokator expert Chan Rothana, taking to the international ring.
The government is also recognising its importance in the country’s rich culture and heritage, with grade seven to nine students starting to learn bokator as part of sports classes.
“We are definitely seeing more of the country’s young taking an interest in bokator,” says Kim Sean, who is the main star in Surviving Bokator, a recently-released documentary that follows his fight to revive the tradition. “This is very positive.”