Bas-relief from the entrance pillars of the Bayon
|Also known as||Lbokatao, Bokatao, Labokator|
|Country of origin||Cambodia|
Bokator, or more formally, Labokkatao (ល្បុក្កតោ) is a Khmer martial art that includes weapons techniques. One of the oldest existing fighting systems in Cambodia, oral tradition indicates that bokator or an early form thereof was the close quarter combat system used by the armies before Angkor 1700 years ago. The term bokator translates as "pounding a lion" from the words bok meaning to pound and tor meaning lion. A common misunderstanding is that bokator refers to all Khmer martial arts while in reality it only represents one particular style.
It uses a diverse array of elbow and knee strikes, shin kicks, submissions and ground fighting.
When fighting, bokator exponents still wear the uniforms of ancient Khmer armies. A krama (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 the cords were believed to be enchanted to increase strength, although now they are just ceremonial.
The art contains 341 sets which, like many other Asian martial arts, are based on the study of life in nature. For example, there are horse, bird, naga, eagle, and crane styles each containing several techniques. Because of its visual similarity, bokator is often wrongly described as a variant of modern kickboxing. Many forms are based on traditional animal styles as well as straight practical fighting techniques. Pradal serey is a more condensed fighting system which uses a few of the basic (white krama) punching, elbow, kicking and kneeing techniques and is free of animal styles.
The krama shows the fighter’s level of expertise. The first grade is white, followed by green, blue, red, brown, and finally black, which has 10 degrees. After completing their initial training, fighters wear a black krama for at least another ten years. To attain the gold krama one must be a true master and must have done something great for bokator. This is most certainly a time-consuming and possibly lifelong endeavor: in the unarmed portion of the art alone there are between 8000 and 10000 different techniques, only 1000 of which must be learned to attain the black krama.
Bokator is said to be the earliest systemised Khmer martial art, second in age only to the Mon-Khmer style of yuthakun khom. Although there are no records to prove this, the term bokator is itself a possible indicator of its age. Pronounced "bok-ah-tau", the word comes from labokatao meaning "to pound a lion". This refers to a story alleged to have happened 2000 years ago. According to the legend a lion was attacking a village when a warrior, armed with only a knife, defeated the animal bare-handed, killing it with a single knee strike. Lions have never roamed Southeast Asia, although Asiatic lions are found in western India. Indian culture and philosophy were the major influences in Angkor culture. All the great buildings of Angkor are inscribed in Sanskrit and are devoted to Hindu gods, notably Vishnu and Shiva. Even today, bokator practitioners begin each training session by paying respect to Brahma. Religious life was dominated by Brahmins who in India also practiced sword fighting and empty-hand techniques. The concept of the lion and bokator's animal-based techniques most likely emerged during the reign of the Angkor kings and the concurrent influence of Indian martial arts.
Bas-reliefs at the base of the entrance pillars to the Bayon, Jayavarman VII's state temple, depict various techniques of bokator. One relief shows two men appearing to grapple, another shows two fighters using their elbows. Both are standard techniques in modern kun Khmer, or pradal serey. A third depicts a man facing off against a rising cobra and a fourth shows a man fighting a large animal. Cambodia's long martial heritage may have been a factor in enabling a succession of Angkor kings to dominate Southeast Asia for more than 600 years beginning in 800 AD.
At the time of 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 native martial arts were completely outlawed. San Kim Sean (or Sean Kim San according to the English name order) is often referred to as the father of modern bokator and is largely credited with reviving the art. During the Pol Pot era, San Kim Sean had to flee Cambodia under accusations by the Vietnamese of teaching hapkido and bokator (which he was) and starting to form an army, an accusation of which he was innocent. 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 States 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 it known to the world.
In 2001 he 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 lok kru, 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. Contrary to popular belief, Sean is not the only surviving labokatao master. Others include Meas Sok, Meas Sarann, Ros Serey, Sorm Van Kin, Mao Khann and Savoeun Chet. The first ever national Bokator competition was held in Phnom Penh at the Olympic Stadium, from September 26–29, 2006. The competition involved 20 lok krus leading teams from 9 provinces.