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The ancient Khmer art of Bokator

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Twist and shout: Bokator practitioners get to grips with one another.

ON a blue gym mat in the front yard of the Bokator Mohanokor training school in Siem Reap, a grinning young man sinks down into a full, face-forward split. Next to him, another leaps and snaps a kick into a punching bag dangling from a chain. Both men are seemingly formed from nothing but muscle.

On the front porch, a tour guide named So Samra fills out a registration form for his first class. “I want to improve my health and support the Khmer tradition,” he says.

Behind him, school director Hok Phearom beams at the mention of tradition. Boxkator is the Khmer martial art that pre-dates Angkorian times.

The word “Mohanokor” translates as “empire” and spreading this ancient part of Cambodia’s culture is Hok’s mission.

He gave up a great deal to begin his odyssey: after earning a degree in English in Phnom Penh he had secured a good job, but Bokator was almost lost in the Khmer Rouge years. Its modern revival is powered by San Kim Sean, a practitioner who escaped to the US for 20 years, before returning home to reintroduce the art, and when he asked Hok to start a training school in Siem Reap, Hok left the security of his life behind.

“I love my culture,” he explains, as more young men trickle into the yard, change clothes and limber up. “I worried because some people, they don’t give value to themselves because they are Khmer.” For Hok, Bokator is a matter of individual and cultural self-esteem. Instead of belts, proficiency is measured in kramas.

There are thousands of attacking and defensive positions, many named after animals. There is the lion technique, the crab, the monkey, and so on. Hok and a student demonstrate. At normal speed, the moves are surprisingly graceful and, when taken through to their classroom completion, thoroughly scary. Each demo ends with Hok frozen just before the point of deadly force, hands paused before ripping out a throat.

Bokator is the precursor to modern Khmer boxing, and Hok, like many Khmer men when the subject comes up, speaks with frustration about Thai acquisition of the form after the sacking of Angkor. His distress stems from injured national pride, but also from a belief that what passes for Thai boxing these days is a stunted and abridged version of the original.

As opposed to Thai boxing, Bokator addresses the cerebral as well as the physical. “One parent wouldn’t allow his daughter to learn Bokator,” Hok says, “because he believed that if children learn the martial art they will grow up to be gangsters. But this is not true. I teach students to think before acting.”

Every class ends with meditation, a process that Hok says conflates the spiritual and the physical. Deep breaths that improve blood circulation, for instance, also act to suck in “the power of the wind.”

Hok teaches everyday, charging Khmers $12 for up to 30 hours per month, and $120 to foreigners for the same. He also teaches a free weekly class to youngsters at the Green Gecko NGO.

How might life change if his teachings spread? “Some people are so angry; at my school I teach them to calm down. When fighting, the person who gets angry loses.”

He mimes an angry person, swinging his fists wildly in the air, eyes clenched tight.

“But if he can control his mind,” he says, “then he can win. This is true not only of martial arts, but also in everyday life.”

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