If there is one thing Cambodians boast of, it is their ancient form of martial arts, the Bokator. Also referred to as Labokkatao, Bokator in Phnom Penh is as popular as Pro Football in America, Soccer in Brazil, or Sumo wrestling in Japan.
Now that K-1 and mixed martial arts are quite famous around the world, foreign tourists can better appreciate watching or simply passing by a brutal Bokator competition in street corners. Bokator literally means “pounding a lion”, and that’s exactly how the players are trained. They are trained in ground techniques, weapons, and hand-to-hand combat using all available bodily points such as the knuckles, elbows, knees, feet and head, as well as the shoulders, hip, palms, fingers and jaw, believe it or not.
To the Khmers, Bokator is not just a fighting system whose goal is to hurt one’s opponent. It is an ancient art form that requires intense discipline and focus. Oral tradition and ancient bas reliefs on the Angkor Wat temple suggest that this is the oldest existing form of fighting in Cambodia and probably the entire Southeast Asia. Townsfolk believe that their ancestors trained in the art more than 1,000 years ago, not as a sport, but a true fighting style whose aim was to kill the enemy.
Ancient Khmer soldiers learned to use Bokator techniques in the battlefield. They knew how to kill enemies and animals (perhaps lions in particular) using otherwise simple punches, elbows, knee strikes and shin kicks, as well as head locks and chokes. They were very skilled in the use of crude weapons such as bamboo staffs, short sticks, double sticks, double swords and scarves.
Traditional Khmer soldiers put on ceremonial pieces of cloth when fighting: a scarf called krama is folded and wrapped around the waist; also, blue and red silk cords are tied around the biceps and head. Called “sangvar day” in Khmer, the silver cords were believed to increase their strength. Modern Bokator fighters still put on these cloths but simply for ceremonial purposes.
Similar to other Asian martial arts such as Kung Fu, Karate and Kickboxing, Bokator follows sets of movements that mimic how nature or animals fight and move. There are 341 sets in all, which include the styles following a horse, bird, eagle, and crane, among others, and each style contains its own set of techniques. Bokator movements and techniques are very similar to kickboxing. Apparently, Cambodia has its own version of kickboxing. They call it Bradal or Pradal Serey.
Pradal Serey or Khmer kickboxing is Cambodia’s national sport. They believe that ancient Khmers invented kickboxing, not the Thai people. They believe that kickboxing should be more popularly called around the world Bradal Serey, not Muay Thai. For this reason, Bradal Serey boxers refuse to compete in the World Muay Thai competitions, and as a result their skills in kick boxing have never been showcased in an international arena. Bradal Serey has fewer moves than Bokator. Bokator is by far more dangerous primarily for the use of weapons.
Original Cambodian martial art forms, including a third one – the Japbab Boran Khmer or Khmer wrestling – may not get international recognition in the near future. Yet, Bokator in Phnom Penh is widely popular, perhaps as popular if not more popular than American pro football, soccer, the NBA, WWE or UFC.