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    Bokator: The New Old Khmer Martial Art

    From battlefield to sport arena: the rebirth of bokator

    By Cat Barton

    Grand Master San Kim Sean conjures up images of King Jayavar man VII, the Buddhist ruler who united a war-torn Cambodia in the 12th century.

    Sean says Jayavarman was an expert of the ancient Khmer martial art of bokator, and like Jayavarman, he is using bokator to make Cambodia great.

    "Everything Jayavarman VII achieved came from bokator," Sean said. "I cannot build temples as he did, but I follow in his footsteps. I want to make Cambodia great in the 21st century as he did in the 12th."

    Beginning on September 26, 2006, Sean came a little closer to achieving his aim. The first Khmer Bokator Championship was held over four frenetic days in Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium.

    Attracting 307 participants, sizable audiences, and unprecedented levels of media attention, it has gone some way in furthering Sean's dream of having Cambodia's indigenous martial art recognized across the globe.

    "Bokator has awoken," Sean said. "Cambodia's younger generation know the name bokator but they don't know what it is or what it looks like. They don't understand its importance to our culture. But that will change."

    Depicted in the carvings of Angkor Wat's bas reliefs, bokator is a martial art that Sean believes encapsulates the beauty, strength and wisdom of Cambodia.

    More than merely a deadly fighting technique, bokator weaves together Cambodia's ancient religious traditions of Buddhism and Brahmanism. According to Sean, this syncretic spirituality is a practical guide to fighting: left hand Buddha; right hand Brahma.

    "We use the right hand to fight," said Sean. "The left hand is different, it protects, it doesn't fight, it is the god that doesn't want to have problems with people. The right hand fights, the left protects."

    Bokator evolved in Cambodia's jungles, Sean said.

    "Bokator is a technique to fight lions," he said. "We used our martial arts to fight with jungle beasts, not just Cambodia's human enemies."

    The art has ten individual styles, each an interpretation of the fighting movements of an animal or spirit: king monkey, lion, elephant, apsara, crocodile, duck, crab, horse, bird and dragon.

    Following a detailed explanation of the exact bokator techniques needed to kill a tiger, Sean said he soon realised that to preserve this art in contemporary Cambodia he would have to transform it from a deadly battlefield technique into a sport.

    "When bokator was used 1,000 years ago it was a case of you win, you live; you lose, you die," said Sean. "Now I have created rules to turn it from a warrior art to a sport."

    The recent championship is Cambodia's first rule-based bokator competition. But, much to Sean's displeasure, the ancient art has long been practiced in a modern, regulated form, in neighbouring Thailand, where it is known as Muay Thai.

    "When the Khmer Empire was at its highest, Thailand did not yet exist," said Sean. "They copied our martial art and just changed the name of it."

    Muay Thai has recently made its mark on the world's consciousness, largely due to the popularity of its most famous practitioner, Tony Jaa.

    Jaa is star of Ong Bak, a Thai film that first drew international attention to the martial art and propelled Jaa into stratospheric levels of fame across Asia. His latest film has been released in the US under the name of The Protector.

    But Jaa is Khmer, and the martial art he practices is bokator, not Muay Thai, claimed Sean.

    "He is Khmer, he is from Khmer Surin," he said. "He used to call his martial art bokator, now he has to call it Muay Thai - but he knows who he is: he is Khmer."

    Sean's own study of the art began when he was 13 and continued until 1975 when Pol Pot seized power. Though his knowledge of a traditional Khmer art made him a prime target for the Khmer Rouge, Sean survived the genocidal regime. He was helped greatly, he says, by the mental discipline bokator had given him.

    "It teaches you how to live with the people around you," he said. "For the Khmer Rouge I knew to use my left hand to protect and not to aggravate them with my right hand."

    In 1979 Sean fled Cambodia, first to a Thai refugee camp, then on to the United States where he settled in Houston, Texas.

    As a certified grand master of hapkido, a Korean martial art, he taught his skills to young Americans and earned himself a comfortable living, first in Houston and later in Long Beach, California. Yet despite his success he was plagued by doubts.

    "I kept thinking: Who am I really? Where am I from?" he said. "I realised that the Cambodian people must bring their martial art to the world. So I left the US and came back to Cambodia to set up a martial arts establishment."

    As a result of bokator's suppression under the Khmer Rouge, finding other grand masters willing to help him teach this ancient art to a new generation of Cambodians was difficult.

    "I came back first in 1995 to try to find the masters of bokator in the provinces," he said. "It was very hard, they all stayed quiet, stayed hidden, they were scared."

    But 11 years later his quest has paid off. Bokator schools now exist in nine provinces and the number of young students is always growing.

    Bokator fighters wrap krama round their waists, heads and fists - different color kramas signify the skill level of the fighter, with white being the lowest and black the most advanced.

    Keeping the ancient traditions of Cambodia alive will make Cambodia as great as it was under Jayavarman VII, Sean said.

    "Bokator passes down through generations, from the temples of Angkor Wat, through Cambodia's boys and girls, through men and women," he said. "This is our martial art, and preserving it will make our country and our people strong again."

    *******************

    i'm curious to see what exactly it is like... although according to the leader of the bokator resurrectioni states that tony jaa's style is that of bokator (hard to justify considering many of his movies are a mix of muay thai and tae kwon do). the whole krama wrapping (a krama is a multipurpose towel for those who don't know) around the fists with different colors, indictitive of the rank, is kinda weird... i just might have to make a trip to phnom penh to see what this is all about it...

    i did find the part about fighting lions amusing... it's almost as funny as those who think muay thai was for kicking elephants...

    and is it just me or does anyone find it funny that the khmers insist that everything thailand has is stolen from the khmers? i'm part khmer part thai myself... so it's hard to pick a side... i just say **** it, everything we have is from china :)
    Last edited by Trubble; 10/15/2006 1:18pm at .

  2. #2
    T3h R34l Gangnam Style! staff
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    I didn't thing lions were indigenous to that part of the world anyway. I thought they only had tigers?

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    Lions don't exist in the wild outside of Africa.

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    Lions-as-metaphors were pretty common throughout the east, though, as they were sometimes traded and imported as curios and the image stuck.

    Of course, while the idea of a Lion endured, they didn't quite 'copy from life' thereafter:


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    meng_mao's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Samuel Browning
    Lions don't exist in the wild outside of Africa.
    I challenge you sir, on the basis of internet facts:
    http://www.telacommunications.com/ww...side/lions.htm

    In the past, there migth have been lions in that area of SE Asia.
    52 blocks documentary: arrived

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    Quote Originally Posted by Trubble
    and is it just me or does anyone find it funny that the khmers insist that everything thailand has is stolen from the khmers? i'm part khmer part thai myself... so it's hard to pick a side... i just say **** it, everything we have is from china :)
    You got preached those old cambodian stories too?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Truculent Sheep
    Lions-as-metaphors were pretty common throughout the east, though, as they were sometimes traded and imported as curios and the image stuck.

    Of course, while the idea of a Lion endured, they didn't quite 'copy from life' thereafter:

    That's a northern lion, not a southern lion, which is more elaborate and less real-looking, even though they migth have had more exposure to the real thing.

    southern lion:
    Last edited by meng_mao; 10/15/2006 4:06pm at .
    52 blocks documentary: arrived

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    I thought Khmer style was about running your country into the ground by making all of your population leave their homes for slave labor in the rice fields, and then you purge anybody who looks at you funny or maybe isn't looking at you funny because they're trying to trick you.
    Tough is not how you act, tough is how you train.

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    i keep tryin to spar, but nothin happens! supporting member

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  10. #10

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    Quote Originally Posted by meng_mao
    That's a northern lion, not a southern lion, which is more elaborate and less real-looking, even though they migth have had more exposure to the real thing.
    I know - it was just a random example of how the concept of the lion endured even if the memory of what one looked like didn't.

    For example, Western Europe had similar problems with the Elephant, even where they had been used as weapons of war by Rome some centuries before.

    http://bestiary.ca/beastimage/img139.jpg

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