Readers have written in from all over the world asking what is the difference between these two, ancient southeast Asian arts.
What is Bokator:
Bokator is the ancient Cambodian martial art, which was nearly whipped out duringt the Khmer Rouge genocide. Through the sacrifices of Grand Master San Kim Saen, the art was reborn. After surviving the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, he returned to Cambodia in the late 1990s. Scouring the country, he found less than ten Bokator masters who had survived. He later opened his school in Phnom Penh, where he teaches Bokator to about three hundred students. Several have been promoted to black karma (belt). Derek Morris and I are the only foreigners to have earned a black karma. Mine is in fighting only, Derek’s belt and certificate make him an instructor. The Grand Master hopes that a foreigner will open a Bokator school outside of Cambodia, so that the art will spread and survive. Unfortunately, I don’t accept students. After training in Muay Thai Sangha, with Kru Pedor Villalobos, Derek went to China to learn San Da (Chinese Kickboxing).
What is Muay Thai Boran:
Boran means ancient. It is actually a Khmer word which was absorbed into the Thai language. Long ago, Thailand raided Cambodia, capturing masters of various arts, from religion, to dance, to martial arts. Khmer words and culture were adopted into Thai culture. Today, in Thai language, all words associated with religion, royalty, martial arts, science, and government come from Khmer. The Khmer claim that they invented kickboxing. The original Khmer kickboxing art is called Bradal Serey (Pradal Serey) and Khmers claim that it was stolen by Thailand and later dubbed Muay Thai.
The masters I interviewed in Lao agreed with this theory. Some masters in Thailand agreed. Others essentially said that all of the countries of southeast Asia had a system of martial arts and they probably borrowed and stole form each other, developing along very similar lines. Today, Muay Lao, Muay Thai, Bradal Serey, and Burmese boxing (Lethwei or Lethawae) are quite similar. The cultures of these countries are also quite similar, with the people following Theravada Buddhism, which originated in India and then Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Ancient Khmer is the written language of the ancient scriptures of all of these countries.
Neighboring Vietnam is always the odd-man-out. The culture is Chinese. The written language was Chinese, until the French forced them to use the Latin alphabet. And the predominant ancient martial art, Tieu Lam, is a form of Chinese Kung Fu. There are rumors that Vietnam once had a kickboxing art similar to Cambodia. Today, this art seems to have disappeared, but even in Tieu Lam, we see some elements taken from kick boxing, such as shin kicks and elbow strikes.
The point here is that the fighting arts of all of the Indochina countries are quite similar, and clearly come from the same origin. In Thailand, however, martial art developed into a massive professional sport. Kickboxing is also the national sport of Cambodia, but there are less than 400 registered boxers. In Thailand there are close to 100,000.
Muay Thai Boran is a word which is often given to the original, military fighting art, which was later watered down into a sport art, used in a kickboxing ring.
What is the difference between Bokator and Muay Thai Boran?
Muay Thai Boran ad Bokator clearly share a lot of similarities, but one primary difference is that Bokator is a system. Muay Thai Boran is not. You study Muay Thai, and if your teacher knows Boran, he teaches you some movements in isolation. For example, he advocates kicking with the bottom or side of your foot, instead of just shin kicks. Or, he teaches you spinning back kicks or heal kicks, instead of just roundhouse.
Muay Thai Boran and Krabi Krabong get lumped together. Karbi Krabong is the weapons training:just staff and doubles swords. If you see Thai practitioners using double sticks, the sticks represent swords. There is, to my knowledge, no Thai double stick art like Arnis in the Philippines.
Bokator, on the other hand, is a complete system, like a traditional martial arts. There are belts, and you learn movements, forms, and techniques in order. The weapons include the double stick, double swords, long staff and scarf.
While Muay Thai Boran includes a bit more grappling than sport Muay Thai, it is still stand up grappling from the head. And you are wearing gloves.
Bokator includes Khmer traditional wrestling (jap bap boran khmer), kick boxing (bradal serey or pradal serey), and weapons. In true Bokator fights, you don’t wear gloves and you can fight on the ground, with bouts ending in submissions or chokes.
The ground fighting is not nearly as effective as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or western wrestling, but it is arguably the only ground fighting art in southeast Asia. I have trained in nearly every country in southeast Asia (except Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunai) and there doesn’t seem to be any ground fighting at all.
At this point, a reader asked me how ground fighting changes the landscape of fighting, both in Muay Thai Boran vs. Bokator and in MMA.
This is my take on the dominance of ground fighting. A good street fighter, a tough biker dude like Tank Abbot or Sony Barger, could probably hold his own against most strikers. If you see the youtube clips of the bare knuckles pro fighter named Kimbo (I think that is his name). He is a huge, strong, African American guy who makes his living knocking guys out in parking lots. He probably never had any training. And if he went in UFC and got matched with a striker, he could hold his own and might win on a KO because in professional street fighting the goal is to keep the fight short and get a KO.
I’ve done only one of these fights. Coming into it, the mistake I made was in trying to box and move, and win in a later round. I got hit once in the eye, it opened me up, and I realized there is no later. You have to win NOW. I did win. And the fight probably only lasted about twenty-five seconds, but it was too long.
So, the answer is a tough street fighter, big and strong, used to going for the knock out would be hard to beat in a ring. The best strategy would be to drag the fight on as long as possible to make him tired. But he would be landing bombs on you the whole time, and that wouldn’t be a very pleasant experience.
With grappling, the rules change. An untrained grappler stands zero chance against a trained grappler. It’s that simple. I pound a bag every day in the gym, but I know if I come against the right street fighter, he could knock me out. But a guy who trains grappling every day would instantly take down an untrained grappler or a street fighter and that would be the end of the fight.
The smartest strikers, like Mirco, have learned to escape. He was smart enough to just ignore the grappling and hope to win on a kick KO. And he was smart enough not to try and win on submissions. He learned to avoid the take down and to escape back to his feet. But he had to learn that. You have to train specifically to avoid the grappler. If you look at early UFCs the grappler nearly always won because they always got the take down and then once on the ground, there was no escape for the striker.
So, comparing Muay Thai Boran with Bokator, because Bokator has the ground fighting, it is the better fighting art. The issue in Thailand vs. Cambodia right this minute, however, would be that the Bokator school has only been reopened for about five years. So, the guys don’t have a lot of fighting experience. When I prepared for my black belt I went out to the village and learned Khmer wrestling with the farmers. I was the first one to do this. The team isn’t ready yet to fight all comers.
In Thailand there is a lot of interest in MMA now. When I am training there, they all tell me how they would just wait for the shoot and then take the grappler out with a knee to the face. This is ludicrous because their entire game plan rests on a single technique. Yes, if you shoot and run head first into a knee thrown by a pro Muay Thai fighter you will get knocked out. But what if the Muay Thai guy misses? Or what if the grappler deflects the knee with his hand? Or what if he just absorbs the knee? Or, what if he shoots and executes the throw from the waist or the hip?
We have played around with this scenario in the gym quite a bit in Bangkok. And anyone who has seen my youtube knows I am no grappler. My shoot looks like an old man bending over to pickup his change. Even with that, I am able to take them down. And of course, once I get on top, I am so much bigger, that is the end of the fight.
The throw I usually use to take down a Muay Thai fighter is actually a technique from Muay Thai Boran. You shoot in with your forearm in front of your face. Instead of hitting the hips or thighs, you hit the opponent’s shin with the forearm and then scoop his heal with the other hand.
To sum up: Bokator is a complete art which, if learned would be a better fighting art than Muay Thai Boran. But at the moment, there are no battle-hardened Bokator guys to fight. And in grappling vs. striking. I believe an untrained striker may stand a chance against a trained striker. But an untrained grappler stands no chance against a real grappler. Grappling would be one of the biggest determinant in who would win between a Bokator guy and a Muay Thai Boran guy. Since Bokator has ground-fighting and Muay Thai Boran doesn’t, Bokator would win.
Antonio Graceffo holds a black karma in Bokator. He lives in Thailand and has practiced Muay Thai for a number of years. He trained in Cambodia for several years in boxing, Bradal Serey, and Bokator. In Philippines he has studied Kuntaw and Yaw Yan. IN Lao he studied Muay Lao. He has also trained at the Shaolin Temple, in China, and in schools and gyms in Vietnam and Korea. He is a frequent contributor for both Black Belt and Kung Fu magazines. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, available on amazon.com tells about his experiences at the Shaolin Temple.
He is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people. To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries: http://youtube.com/results?search_query=antonio+graceffo&search=Search
Antonio is the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com