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From battlefield to sport arena: the rebirth of bokator

By: Cat Barton Posted: January-01-2006 in
Cat Barton

Experts of the ancient martial art of bokator competed in the first modern championship last month.

Grand Master San Kim Sean conjures up images of King Jayavarman 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.

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