|the ancient Khmer martial art |
|Bokator or Labaokatao literally means "pounding a lion" and is almost unknown outside Cambodia, apart from a few intrepid martial arts practitioners who went searching for it as they did for muay boran. If a relatively small of people nowadays practice Pradal Serey, the modern Khmer boxing watched on TV by Cambodians as the Thais do with muay thai, very few actually have ever heard of Bokator, its purest and original form. |
Bokator was the complete, full plethora of skills a warrior in the Angkor army had to master: swords, sticks and body combat. Many historians and martial arts experts agree that Bokator may have been the source of krabi krabong and muay boran, as in those ancient times the Khmer empire (12th - 13th century) was the most developed and refined culture in South East Asia. It was common for prisoners to be forced to teach their skills to have their life spared and possibly be freed afterwards. Anyway the writing system, poetry, royal paraphernalia, literature and even sacred Buddhist texts often had a common Khmer origin.
Bokator differs from Let Wei and Muay Boran because it's more complete, much closer to the art of fighting of a warrior: it incorporates on-the-ground wrestling techniques, elbow and knee strikes, shin kicks and submissions. Practitioners are trained to strike with knees, hands, elbows, feet, shins, and head. Even the shoulders, hip, jaw, and fingers can be used. Weapons are also used, primarily short sticks and double sword (like krabi krabong, which instead is taught separately in Thailand). Many strikes are designed to kill or dislocate the bones of an opponent, therefore bokator is not allowed in the ring (pradal serey is a toned down version). To master bokator is to achieve the multi skills level of an infantry soldier of the Angkor Empire eight-hundreds years ago. No other martial art, with perhaps the exception of Chinese wu shu, is that comprehensive. Apparently, it is the only South East Asian martial arts which incorporates wrestling, grappling and ground fighting leading to submission or choking.
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 it is said that the cords were 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. 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 kramashows 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 life-long 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.
How to learn Bokator? The few masters able to teach it were slaughtered during the Khmer Rouge years (1975-79). Only the very few who managed to flee the country could survive and keep the knowledge aliove. Master San Kim Sean returned to Cambodia in 1998 from USA and with a few other masters who survived the genocide opened a school in Phnom Penh, were foreigners are welcome.
Only two foreigners so far have earned the black krama degree, which means they can teach Bokator. One is Antonio Graceffo, who has been practicing obscure martial arts all over Asia and China. He has also produced and acted in the only movie ever made about Bokator (see below)
Antonio's huge knowledge about South East Asian martial arts can be browsed at