The International Writers Magazine: Asia Travel
The Ancient form of Cambodian Martial Arts
can fight standing up explained San Kim Sean, Grand Master
of Khmer Bokator. At more than sixty years old, he looked as if
he was in his forties, but moved like a man much younger. He throws
a kick at me, similar to the round house, used in Khmer Boxing.
The kick missed,
and his kicking leg landed to the side of my body. With the ease of
forty years of martial arts practice, he shifted all of his weight forward,
onto his kicking leg. Not more than a few inches to my side, he hooked
his rear foot around, and kicked me square on the jaw. The dragon
whips his tail. He said, sounding like a Bruce Lee movie.
Next, he droped to his knees, and executed an elbow strike in an upward
motion, to my solar plexus. We can fight on our knees he
said. He droped to the ground and trapped the kick I had thrown at his
face. We can fight from sitting.Next,
he prostrated his body, and dragged my ankle, causing me to topple to
the ground. We can even fight laying down. He laughed.
Khmer Bokator is a very complete martial art, which uses strikes, drags,
trapping, and locking for both offense and defense. In Khmer Bokator,
the entire body is used as a weapon. Many martial arts use a head, but
some of the techniques which San Kim Sean showed me used the jaw and
even the shoulder muscle as weapons. The lion has fangs
he explained. we also use fangs in our fighting. San Kim
Sean made a fist, then extended his pointer finger, bending it at the
second joint. With pinpoint accuracy, he used this fang
to stab me in the pressure point behind the clavicle. Needless to say,
it was painful.
If we train long enough, we can make the finger go through the
flesh. He said with a likable, but sadistic grin. And then
we can rip out that bone. He showed me how the finger would extended,
wrap around the collarbone, and then how the whole body would be used
to jerk it out. Do you believe that your art is better than Khmer
Boxing? I asked. Of course answered
San Kim Sean, without hesitation. Do you mean that one of your
students could get in the ring with the champion, Eh Phou Thoung right
now and win? I asked, skeptically. My students would never
be allowed to fight in the ring he explained, we are trained
San Kim Sean asked one of his young students to attack him in a boxing
stance, when the student threw a punch, San Kim Sean countered with
an elbow strike to the students throat. KILL! shouted
San Kim Sean. The student threw a second punch, this time, San Kim Sean
stabbed the student in the throat with his fingers. KILL!
he yelled again. The student kicked, and San Kim Sean hit the students
thigh with his knee, knocking the student to the ground. The student
leapt to his feet, and clinched with the teacher, hitting him with knee
strikes, San Kim Sean crisscrossed his forearms over the students throat,
and, like a pair of scissors, he crushed the students windpipe
with his wrist bones. KILL! he yelled again. Next, he rotated
the wrist bones away from the students throat, but careful to
keep the students neck locked in his vice-like forearms. This
one not kill. He explained. Pulling the student in close, he smashed
his shoulder up into the students jaw. It was obvious that if
he had done it full force, the student would have been knocked unconscious.
Finally, he drove the heel of his foot into the inside of the students
thigh, driving him to the canvas again. You see? he asked
me you would never be allowed to do any of that in a boxing ring.
But it is very effective.
The student returned to his practice. He would leap in the air, and
kick the heavy bag with both feet. Each time he landed, he would be
lying on the ground, in a controlled stance, ready to fight. That
boy has only been with me one year said San Kim Sean, with pride
but he already knows three hundred techniques. And now, he can
help me teach the other students". San Kim Sean explained to me
why it was so important to him to pass on the art. Bokator is the ancient
Khmer martial art, the predecessor of Brodal Serey (Khmer Free Boxing).
Today, the name Brodal Serey has been lost to the world, replaced by
the word Muay Thai. The Thais stole our art say many Khmers,
who believe that the bas-reliefs carved on the walls of Angkor Wat temple
prove that the origin of Khmer Boxing predates Muay Thai.
While the name may have been stolen, the art of Khmer Boxing is very
much alive, and thriving as a professional sport, enjoyed all around
This, unfortunately is not the case for the much older art of Bokator
Khmer, which is nearly unknown, even inside Cambodia. Outside
of Cambodia, the only thing people know is Angkor Wat. said San
Kim Sean they dont know about our martial art. Bokator
Khmer uses colored Krama (traditional Khmer scarves) instead of belts.
The art contains ten animal styles. The white krama animal forms include:
king monkey, lion, elephant, apsara (traditional Hindu sacred nymph)
and crocodile. The green krama forms include: duck, crab, horse, bird,
San Kim Sean began training in Bokator Khmer when he was just thirteen
years old. According to him, even at that time the art was not very
common, only a few old men knew the art. His uncle, a friend
of his father, taught him to fight with his hands. Another uncle
taught him to use the long staff. And yet another, taught him to use
the dao, two traditional Khmer long swords.
San Kim Sean was always interested in martial arts, so he practiced
Khmer boxing for three years. Later, he earned belts in Judo, Karate,
and became only one of three Khmers to earn a blackbelt in Hop Kido,
I was third dan. He told me. Unfortunately for him, 1975,
the year he became an instructor of Hop Kido, was also the year that
Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot.
The city was ordered to evacuate, and the entire country was collectivised,
forced to do backbreaking physical labor, with only a few hours of sleep
per day, all with very little food. I dont have to tell
you the Pol Pot time was bad said San Kim Sean everyone
knows. He shook his head sadly, my group began with 10,000-13,000
people, two years later, only five hundred were still alive. They were
either murdered or died of hunger. Two of San Kim Seans
children died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Although everyone suffered, anyone, including Khmer Rouge soldiers and
cadre, were potential victims of execution. Certain groups were singled
out for extreme persecution and extermination. Among them were the Cham,
Cambodian Muslims, Chinese, Vietnamese, educated people, people with
classes, anyone with knowledge of English or French, the literate, the
artisans and skilled workers. Pol Pot had declared a Year Zero, as a
symbol of his desire to break with the past. To this end, he hunted
down and killed masters of traditional Khmer arts including singing,
dancing, and martial arts. All of my students and training brothers
died he told me I was the only Hopkido instructor who suvived.
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime fell to an invasion by the Vietcong,
San Kim Sean came back to Phnom Penh, and began teaching Hop Kido. The
Vietnamese regime, which arguabl, was only slightly better than the
Khmer Rouge, prohibited the Cambodians from practicing martial arts.
I was teaching in secret. But some Khmer person who was jealous
of me, turned me into the Vietnamese authorities, the Vietnamese
said that San Kim Sean was trying to build an army or had some other
subversive goal in mind. He would have been jailed, but he and his wife
escaped to a refuge camp in Thailand. They spent one year in Nokor Siclium
camp, where his wife gave birth to a daughter, named Bopa, but eventually,
in 1980, their paperwork came through, and the family was allowed to
relocate to the USA. Settling first in Houston, Texas, San Kim Sean
found a good job at the airport. He taught Hop Kido to the Khmer children
at the YMCA. Life was good for San Kim Sean and his family, but he missed
On a vacation to the Khmer community in Long Beach, California, he was
amazed at the Khmerness of the place. The shops had Khmer writing
on them, I saw women wearing sarongs, they had Khmer restaurants
laughed San Kim Sean, I said, hey, this is my country. So
he quit his job, and moved to Long Beach. Eventually, he found work
dubbing Khmer voice-overs on Chinese action movies. More importantly,
he continued teaching Hop Kido.
This is all very interesting. I said, and I meant it. Here
was a man who had overcome great odds, for both the love of martial
art and the love of his people. But, your story is all the way
up to 1990 and you dont seem to be teaching Bokator to anyone,
that will come later San Kim Sean laughed, I have
to tell you the whole story first. To be a good martial arts student,
you have to have patience. I took my Hop Kido students all over
for competitions, and I never once heard the words Bokator Khmer. In
fact, no one knew anything about any Khmer martial arts at all,
(by this time, San Kim Sean was a tenth degree black belt in Hop Kido)
I began to wonder he told me why am I out doing all
of this advertising for a Korean art?
He explained to me that Bokator Khmer is an ancient art, predating even
the 1000 year-old carvings at Angkor Wat. King Jayavaraman VII, the
creator of Angkor Wat is depicted in stance, with the dao. Do
you know why he was such a good king and why he kept Cambodia safe?"
he questioned "it was because he was a martial artist, he knew
At that time, there were no rockets, no guns, only fighting swords,
hands and feet. The Khmers could win because our soldiers were trained
in Bokator San Kim Sean explained why the martial art, which was
once so proud and strong, had already faded into near extinction before
the Pol Pot regime. The masters never taught all of their art
to a student. They always held back about ten percent, in case a student
ever attacked them. If each progressive generation learned ten
percent less than the previous generation, it is no wonder that the
Khmer martial arts were on a downward slide.
Khmer young people dont even know their own history. They
dont know about our greatness in the past, the ancient arts which
were taught by the grandfathers grandfather, which is running
in our blood. San Kim Sean told me that he began having nightmares
about Cambodia. It was God telling me I needed to come home and
help the Khmer people.
During the early 1990s he returned to the stricken land to help
rebuild the Khmer Hop Kido Association. We still arent talking
about Bokator, I reminded him. And you still have to wait.
He told me. Finally, in 1995, he moved back to Phnom Penh, became the
leader of the Hop Kido Association, and began teaching Hop Kido. But,
He waved his hand dismissively, and continued with the story. Finally,
in 2001, I left the Hop Kido school, an began teaching Bokator,
San Kim Sean is still a respected officer of the Hop Kido association,
but, his true love is Bokator and now he dedicates all of his time to
this pursuit. He began combing the countryside, looking for Bokator
Masters who had survived the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Regime,
They were old - many of them between sixty and ninety years of
age. but the number of masters remaining was very small. After
being repressed under both the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese regime,
the men were afraid to start teaching. I tried to tell them it
was OK, we already had permission from the government, but they wouldnt
listen, said San Kim Sean, the old men wanted to stay in the province,
but San Kim Sean insisted you have a great gift which was given
to you by our ancestors, do you want to steal it from our children?
When you die, the art will die with. he explained Did it
work? I asked. Some of them broke down in tears laughed
San Kim Sean.
In April of 2004 we held the first Bokator conference in Phnom
Penh, now, there are schools in eight provinces, we are preparing for
a national championships. In the west most martial artists cant
be bothered to practice, yet here was a man who had risked his life
to preserve the arts. And more recently, had given up a well paying
job in America in order to come back to Cambodia and help recover a
I really respect what you have done here I told San Kim
Sean. But the interview was finished, and now he wanted to kick me in
the head some more.
The Bokator association needs financial support, as well as equipment.
San Kim Sean has prepared what is probably the first ever Bokator textbook,
written by a Khmer, in Cambodia. We want to produce ten thousand
books, and give them to school children he told me sadly but
we have no money. To help, contact San Kim Sean at: firstname.lastname@example.org
© Antonio Graceffo
You can find all of Antonios books at amazon.com
You can find a review of Antonio's latest book which is
Desert Death on Three Wheels here
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