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Amidst the country that maintain the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, there exists a martial art style that has fallen through the cracks over the course of time. Unbeknown to many, Bokator is an archaic martial art style that originated in Cambodia and holds as deep of a history as more prominently known fighting styles such as Muay Thai or TaeKwonDo.

Origins of Bokator, the Khmer Martial Arts

Angkor Wat Temple before sunset, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Dating back to over a thousand years ago, Bokator is one of the earliest Khmer martial arts out there. While there are no exact records that serve as evidence to its early beginnings, the name provides some hints to when and how it all began.

The word Bokator means ‘to pound a lion,’ a term that was believed to have originated from a legend that spoke of a Khmer warrior single-handedly, without any weapons, bringing a wild, vicious lion down with a knee strike. Because lions have never been recorded to roam in Southeast Asia, the closest link to the concept of a lion may have been referring to the Asiatic lions found in western India. And as depicted on the walls of the ancient temples and artifacts, Indian culture heavily influenced the Angkor culture.

The Body & Life in Nature

Bokator Khmer Martial Arts

While there are some martial arts that utilize certain parts of the body to attack – from fists to kicks – Bokator is complete, meaning it makes use of the entire body. While the fighter may make use of all body parts to fight, for the most part, Bokator focuses primarily on the use of elbow, knee, and shin strikes when attacking an opponent. These body parts go through endless hours of ‘hardening training’ to serve as deadly weapons in a fight.

What this means is that many of the fighters use their elbows or fists to smash clay pots and/or coconuts repeatedly. This helps keep their limbs rock hard to destroy their opponent’s heads.

Like some other martial art styles out there from Asian, Bokator contains a diverse group of sets that one can practice. Centered around the study of life existing in nature, Bokator has ten styles based off animal names. For example, green krama forms in Bokator include the duck, crab, horse, bird, and dragon styles. The additional five white krama forms are monkey, elephant, lion, asparagus, and crocodile.

Patience for Greatness

Bokator Khmer Martial Arts

Unlike martial art styles such as Taekwondo, Bokator practitioners wear a scarf known as a krama folded around their waist to demonstrate their level of expertise. Containing six different colors (white, green, blue, red, brown, and black), students in Bokator work their way up in training for several years until finally obtaining black drama.

Yet, even after reaching this state of expertise, they must grind through 10 degrees within the black level, and wear the scarf for another 10 years until finally being able to be considered for the gold krama. However, to attain this, the practitioner must be noted to have made a great contribution to the sport of Bokator, on top of being a top master.

Modern Day & Beyond of Bokator

Upon the emergence of the Khmer Rouge regime, the practice and association to Bokator had been completely chased away. Additionally, the following Vietnamese occupation resulted in martial arts being outlawed. For these two reasons, Bokator failed to make any traction in the martial arts world and is unknown compared to similar counterparts such as Muay Thai.

However, it wasn’t until 2001, several decades later, martial artist Sean Kim San began to revival of Bokator to his home country, as he returned to Cambodia from the US to spread awareness to long forgotten ancient martial art. Initially gaining permission from the current government, Sean Kim San sought out the surviving instructors and attempted to open the Cambodian youth to a part of their culture that had been suppressed for so many years.

While it continues to remain rather unknown around the world, Bokator makes its way slowly up the ladder of ancient martial arts unique to one country’s cultural heritage.

HuyHuang Heng YouTube
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