Fighting from the walls of Angkor Wat

Demonstration of an elbow kill. (Photo by Antonio Graceffo)

Demonstration of an elbow kill. (Photo by Antonio Graceffo)

ANTONIO GRACEFFO -- Special to SLAM!

, Last Updated: 2:26 PM ET

During an expedition into China's Taklamakan Desert explorer Sven Hedin uncovered a piece of parchment - later discovered to be nearly two thousand years old and counted as one of the world's oldest documents.

China and much of Europe have had the luck of having a long tradition of recording their history in written form, with books and whole libraries dating back more than 1,000 years. This rich knowledge of their history has given these countries a strong sense of nationalism.

Cambodia has not been so lucky in terms of printing and preserving books, however the history of the Angkorian Empire can be found carved in bass relief on the walls of Angkor Wat. The fabulous temple complex, one of the wonders of the world, is at once a monument to that great empire and the best source of information about Cambodia's past.

In the martial tradition of their warrior ancestors, the Cambodians chose kick boxing as their national sport. To date, Cambodian kick boxers have been effectively excluded from participating in international competitions because of a row with Thailand regarding the name of the sport. Cambodians claim that the bass relief carved on the walls of Angkor Wat prove that the Khmers invented kick boxing. They resent the popular name Mauy Thai, which has been adopted by most of the rest of the world. They refuse to join the World Muay Thai Council on principle and have consequently become a hermit kingdom of fighters with no place to fight.

Regardless of the outcome of the boxing argument, the Ancient Khmer martial art of Bokator is something which belongs only to Cambodia. The proof is "written in stone" on the walls of Angkor Wat.

Unlike kick boxing, which is a sport fighting art, Bokator was a soldier's art, designed to be used on the battlefield - against Thailand - and practiced by King Jaya Varman VII.

Khmer Bokator is a very complete martial art, which uses strikes, throws, drags, trapping, locking and ground fighting. In Bokator every single part of the body can be used as a weapon. Bokator practitioners are trained to strike with knees, hands, elbows, feet, shins and head. Even the fingers, hips, jaw, and shoulders can be used to pound an opponent.

Grand Master Sam Kim Saen is the man credited with reviving this wonderful martial art, which was almost lost.

"During the Khmer Rouge time, masters of traditional arts, such as painting, dancing, music and martial arts were hunted down and killed," explained Kim Saen. "All of my training brothers and students, as well as two of my children, were killed by the Khmer Rouge."

After the Khmer Rouge Regime ended and the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia began, martial arts were completely outlawed.

To keep the art alive, Kim Saen taught martial arts in secret, but was eventually turned into the authorities by an informant. Afraid for his life, he escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand and later fled to the USA.

Although he and his family were safe in America, Kim Saen was still concerned about his country. "Khmer young people don't even know their own history. They don't know about our greatness in the past, the ancient arts which were taught by the grandfathers' grandfather, which is running in our blood."

He moved back to Phnom Penh, and in 2001 began teaching Bokator. In the hopes of bringing all of the living masters together, he began combing the countryside, looking for any Bokator teachers who had survived. The few men he found were old, ranging from 60 to 90 years of age. After nearly 30 years of oppression they were afraid to teach the art openly.

"I tried to tell them it was OK, we already had permission from the government, but they wouldn't listen," said Kim Sean. The old men wanted to stay in the province. But Kim Sean insisted, "You have a great gift which was given to you by our ancestors. Do you want to steal it from our children? When you die, the art will die with you."

In the end, they believed him.

"Some of them broke down in tears," laughed Kim Sean, who seemed like he could be persuasive when he needed to. "In April of 2004 we held the first Bokator conference in Phnom Penh. Now, there are schools in eight provinces and we are preparing for a national championships."

Bokator, like Chinese Kung Fu, has various styles, which teach the students to emulate the fighting of a particular animal.

According to Kim Saen, the fingers can be trained to be as tough and piercing as the fangs of a lion. With a small movement he can deliver a painful finger strike, piercing a pressure point on an opponent's body. He demonstrates how a double finger strike can be used to rip out a collarbone.

Bokator Khmer uses colored Krama (traditional Khmer scarves) instead of belts. The art contains ten animal styles. The five white krama animal forms include: king monkey, lion, elephant, apsara (traditional Hindu sacred nymph) and crocodile. The green krama forms include: duck, crab, horse, bird and dragon.

The first-ever National Bokator competition will be held in Phnom Penh at the Olympic Stadium, September 26, 27, 28, and 29. The competition will comprise 20 teachers, leading teams from 9 provinces.

"I feel great," laughs the Master, "This is the first time in history that we hold a National Bokator competition. We will put on a good show."

There will be competition divisions for both teachers and students. The competition will have a demonstration component, where competitors will execute a form, a pre-rehearsed and choreographed series of movements, as well a fighting component. The competition will include demonstration of Bokator weapons, the long and short stick, and short sword.

Bokator fights shall consist of three, three-minute rounds, with two minutes rest in between. Unlike in sport fighting, the Bokator fighters will not wear gloves. Instead their hands will be wrapped with krama (Khmer traditional scarf). Legal techniques will include all kinds of strikes, kicks, elbows and knees. No head-butts, eye gouges or groin strikes are allowed. Fighters may throw an opponent. Once on the ground, they are permitted to use joint locks or submissions, but no strikes.

In the developed world, mixed martial arts and professional no-holds-barred fighting competitions, which include kicking, punching, knees, elbows and ground fighting, are quickly becoming extremely popular and lucrative. Many of the rules which distanced boxing, kick boxing and sport martial arts from their combative origins have now been repealed. Bokator Khmer may prove to be a well-spring of innovative new ideas and concepts. But then, like the re-discovery of Angkor Wat, the world would not be discovering something new. They would be discovering secrets which the Khmer people have known for centuries.

Antonio Graceffo will host a new film series, called "Martial Arts Odyssey," directed by Khmer Australian director, Tim Pek. Tim is well-known for his touching film about the Khmer Rouge genocide, "The Red Sense."

Check out Antonio's website http://speakingadventure.com/


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