Bokator/Boxkator, or more formally, Labok Katao(to fight lion), Khmer martial art is possibly the predecessor of all Southeast Asian kickboxing styles. It is easy to believe that Bokator was the close quarter combat system used by the ancient armies of Angkor. The modern practitioner of martial arts will recognize the more military style of Bokator.
Angkorian Warriors will have been a key factor in enabling a succession of Angkorian Kings to dominate South East Asia for more than 600 years from 800 AD. Bokator may have indirectly held much of the responsibility for Cambodia's domination during that era. Popular belief is that Jayavarman VII, the ruler of the Khmer Empire, was a practitioner of Bokator.
Unlike kick boxing, which is a sport fighting art, Bokator was a soldier’s art, designed to be used on the battlefield. It can be considered a complete martial art, using a diverse array of elbow and knee strikes, shin kicks, submissions and ground fighting.
When fighting, Bokator practitioners still wear the uniforms of ancient Khmer armies. A kroma (scarf) is folded around their waist and blue and red silk cords called sangvar day, are tied around the combatants head and biceps. In the past it is said that the cords were enchanted to increase strength, although now they are just ceremonial.
The kroma (a cotton scarf worn around the waist) shows the fighter’s level of expertise. The first grade is white, followed by green, blue, red, brown and then black which has 10 degrees.
The art contains 341 different styles based on the study of life in nature. For example horse, bird, dragon, eagle, crane. Each style contains several techniques.
Reference; David P. Chandler, History of Cambodia. Chandler does not mention Bokator but does provide the best available picture of Angkor and early Cambodian history. Angkor was a city state of about 100,000 people when London was a population of 50,000. It was located in what is now north - western Cambodia.
Angkor was a wealthy empire that dominated South East Asia from 800 AD to 1400 AD. It was a Monarchy which ruled a vast heirachy of Officials, Elite, peasants and slaves and built some of the most spectacular buildings in the ancient world such as the famous Angkor Wat. The Ankorians were often at war, and often with their Cham neighbours from what is now the area surrounding Saigon in South Vietnam. Warriors fought hand to hand. Given this scenario is it easy to assume that some martial art was developed at this time.
The name Bokator is itself possibly an indicator of the age of Bokator. Pronounced bok - u -tau', 'tau' translates as Lion. There have never been lions in South East Asia. However lions were found in western India. Indian culture and philosophy was the major influence in Angkor. All the great buildings of Ankgor are inscribed in Sanskrit and are devoted to Hindu Gods, notably Vishnu and Shiva. Religious life was dominated by Brahmins. The concept of the lion and of a martial art named 'striking a lion' will probably have coincided with the reign of the Angkorean Kings and during this Indian influence. The influence of the Brahmins diminished with the rise of Buddhism almost a thousand years ago.
Modern Decline and Revival
San Kim Sean (English name order: Sean Kim San) is largely credited with reviving Bokator Khmer and is often referred to as the father of modern Bokator in Cambodia.
Unfortunately, during the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979) those who practiced traditional arts were either systematically exterminated by the Khmer Rouge, fled as refugees or stopped teaching and hid. After the Khmer Rouge Regime, the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia began and the martial arts were completely outlawed.
During this time San Kim Sean had to flee Cambodia accused by the Vietnamese of teaching Hapkido and Bokator, which he was, and starting to form an army, which he wasn't.
Once in America he started teaching Hapkido at a local YMCA in Houston, Texas and later moved to Long Beach, California. After living in the United Sates and teaching and promoting Hapkido for a while. He found that no one had ever heard of Bokator. He left the United States in 1992 and returned home to Cambodia to give Bokator back to his people and to do his best to make Bokator known to the world.
In 2001 moved back to Phnom Penh and after getting permission from the new king began teaching Bokator to local youth. That same year in the hopes of bringing all of the remaining living masters together he began traveling the country, seeking out Bokator lakrus, or instructors, who had survived the regime. The few men he found were old ranging from sixty to ninety years of age and weary of 30 years of oppression; many were afraid to teach the art openly. After much persuasion and with government approval, the former masters relented, and Sean effectively reintroduced Bokator to the Cambodian people.
The first ever National Bokator competition was held in Phnom Penh at the Olympic Stadium, from September 26 through the 29, 2006. The competition comprised of 20 lakrus leading teams from 9 provinces.
Pradal Serey or Traditional Khmer boxing is a popular sport in Cambodia. A match consists of 5 sets of 3 minute rounds and takes place in a 6.1 meter square boxing ring. A one or two minute break occurs between each round. At the beginning of each match boxers practice the praying rituals known as the Kun Kru. Traditional Cambodian music is played during the match. The music is played used the instruments of the skor yaul (a type of drum), the sraliai (a flute like instrument) and the stringed chhing. Boxers wear leather gloves and shorts.
Pradal Serey is the Khmer name for a system of Indochinese martial arts practiced in several Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand (where it is called Muay Thai), Malaysia (where it is called Tomoi), Laos (where it is called Muay Lao) and as a similar style in Myanmar (called Lethwei). Pradal means fight and serey means free. Translated literally, it means "Free Fighting". Pradal Serey is founded on four techniques which consists of: blows of the fist, kicks (comprising kicks from the shin and feet), blows of the elbow, and blows of the knee. The clinch is also used to wear down the opponent.
Compared to their Thai counterparts, the Cambodians tend to be more elusive and shifty in their fighting stances. The Khmer style also tends to use more elbow techniques than the other regions.
The modern Pradal Serey differs from the original art. The technique and moves of the art have changed to support the sport version seen today. It is considered one of the national sports of Cambodia. It is also known as Kbach Kun Khmer, Sovanna Phum, Traditional Khmer Boxing or Brodal Serei depending on the translation.
Rules and Match Set Up
A match consists of 5 sets of 3 minute rounds and takes place in a 6.1 meter square boxing ring. A one or two minute break occurs between each round. At the beginning of each match boxers practice the praying rituals known as the Kun Kru. Traditional Cambodian music is played during the match. The music is played used the instruments of the skor yaul (a type of drum), the sraliai (a flute like instrument) and the stringed chhing. Boxers wear leather gloves and shorts.
- 1. A boxer is not allowed to strike his opponent while he is on the ground.
- 2. A boxer is not allowed to bite.
- 3. When an opponent can not fight anymore, the referee stops the fight.
- 4. Blows to the back of the opponent are not allowed.
- 5. A boxer may not hold on to the ropes.
- 6. Blows to the genitals are prohibted.
Victory can be obtained by knockout. A knockout occurs when a boxer is knocked down to the ground and can not continue fighting after a 10 second count by the referee. Victory is also obtained from the end of the match when judges decide by a point system which fighter was more effective. If fighters end up with the same score a draw is called.
History of Pradal Serey
Styles of boxing have been practiced in Southeast Asia since ancient times. In the Angkor era, both armed and unarmed martial arts were practiced by the Khmers. Evidence shows that a style resembling Pradal Serey existed around the 9th century. The art is believed to be the fighting system of the Angkor army and one of the reasons why the Khmer empire was such a dominant force in South East Asia.
At this time, the kingdom of Angkor dominated and controlled most of what is now Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. This leads the Khmer to believe that Pradal Serey predates other Southeast Asian forms of kickboxing. The basis of this argument is the bas-relief left behind by early Khmers in the ancient temples of the Bayon and other Angkor temples. Much of the writing on ancient Khmer art has either been destroyed or adopted by the invading Thai armies when the Siamese sacked and looted Angkor and took Khmer captives including members of the Khmer royal court back to Ayutthaya. There have been heated debates between nations about the true origins of South East Asian kickboxing.
Bayon bas-relief of the Cambodian military getting ready to go war using Pradal Serey and War elephants.
Khmer traditional wrestling is a folk wrestling style from Cambodia. Bas-reliefs of certain Angkor temples depict both men and women competing in this form of wrestling. Female wrestlers are displayed on the Banteay Srei temple.
A traditional Khmer wrestling match consists of three rounds. A round may be won by forcing an opponent to his back. A wrestler wins the match by winning two of the three rounds. After each round the loser is asked if he wishes to continue with the match.
Wrestlers participate in pre-match ritual dancing before the match. The match is accompanied by the music of two drums (called Skor Ngey and Chhmol, "female drum" and "male drum").
Traditional matches are held during the Khmer New Year and other Cambodian holdiays.
Khmer wrestling at bayon temple.
Khmer Traditional Wrestling