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Cambodia’s Bokator resurrected


The martial art of Bokator has been rescued from near extinction thanks to the relentless efforts of grandmaster Sam Kim Sean and the promotions of American Antonio Graceffo.

SO important was the longbow to English armies of the Middle Ages that successive kings banned the playing of football and made weekly archery practice compulsory by law. The legislation was “proved” effective at Crecy in 1346, and again in 1415 when a numerically superior French force was defeated on the fields of Agincourt near Calais.

The Englishmen who fought that day had removed their ‘trousers’ due to the dysentery that afflicted them, and archaeologists suggest that they would have walked with a rather strange gait due to the overdeveloped muscles of the right shoulder and upper arm, caused by the repeated drawing of their bows. A handsome sight, indeed.

Their near contemporaries in the East would have presented a very different image, as depicted in bas relief stone carvings at the Angkor temples today. The armies of Angkor had a different weapon too – Bokator.

Bokator is a wholly Cambodian martial art, and it was very nearly lost forever. Between 1975 and 1979, the teaching of the discipline was forbidden, and grandmasters were persecuted resulting in many fleeing Cambodia while others denied their abilities and went into hiding. During the Vietnamese occupation, the ban continued.

In 1995, Cambodian martial arts expert Sam Kim Sean returned to his homeland following exile in the United States, and attempted to persuade the remaining masters to teach again. His appeals were based around the argument that, with the passing of his generation, Bokator would disappear completely, leaving the youth of Cambodia no choice but to turn to other, foreign martial arts. This patriotic pledge to save the national identity paid off, and by 2001, with the support from the Ministry of Youth, Education and Sport, Bokator was being formally taught in the Kingdom once more.

Bokator comes under fire
Since then, Bokator and Sam Kim Sean have met with controversy. Following the inaugural national championships in 2006, observers noted the disproportionate number of medals awarded to Phnom Penh-based fighters, and duly complained.

More recently, Sam Kim Sean has been questioned on the legitimacy of the techniques being taught. Critics feel that many of the techniques and movements of Bokator are a hybrid of other martial arts, citing Sam Kim Sean’s expertise in hapkido as a source of his “inspiration”.

Sam Kim Sean is articulate in his denial. “You have two legs,” he says. “You have two arms. You have a brain. We all work out our own techniques. If they are similar, they are gut techniques. They are instinct.”

The ageing Cambodian explains that the “greatest grandmasters” are nature and the animals. “That is where the techniques come from,” he said.

It is accepted that there are more than 10,000 techniques in Bokator, and as students master them they are awarded different-coloured krama (scarves) to signify their progress. A beginner wears a white krama before progressing through green, blue, red, brown, and then ten degrees of black. A gold krama is worn by a grandmaster who has dedicated his life to Bokator. Sam Kim Sean is currently the only wearer of a gold krama.

Ten thousand techniques seem rather a lot for one man to remember, but Sam Kim Sean makes a careful comparison in explanation. “Some people learn the alphabet, and that is their literacy,” he notes. “Others may learn a whole vocabulary. Bokator is the same. Some people learn a basic technique, but it is possible to be fluent in the language.”

Sam Kim Sean is the Dr Johnson of Bokator, and his “Short Course” book is almost complete. A masterpiece will follow.

Photo by: Nick Sells (www.nicksellsphotography.com)
American martial arts journalist Antonio Graceffo (centre) makes a fighting stance flanked by two Bokator students at the Cambodia Bokator Academy.

Foreign influence welcomed
Sam Kim Sean’s motives are rooted in his patriotism and sense of the importance of preserving a truly Cambodian art. He is striving for an era of education reform that will enable all of the Kingdom’s schools to teach a Bokator curriculum. He is also aware of the importance of international recognition, and devotes a large proportion of his professional time training students from abroad at his centre on Street 161, just off Charles de Gaulle Boulevard. Should these students complete their training, they can take their black krama back home, usually to France or the USA, and open their own school. In this way, Sam Kim Sean says the “world’s eyes are opened to Bokator”.

Sam Kim Sean still works very closely with his first student, Antonio Graceffo. Graceffo is a Brooklyn-born banker who left New York for Asia following the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. Since then, he has dedicated his life to learning the languages and arts of the continent.
He is widely published in the world’s martial arts press, penning five books on his Asian experiences, and has produced and starred in numerous fighting films and documentaries.

Bokator: The Great Angkorian Martial Art was directed by Australian-Cambodian film maker Tim Pek, and stars both Graceffo and Sam Kim Sean. It was filmed in 2007 but, due to Pek’s other commitments, the release date was put back. It is finally slated to open at cinemas in Cambodia and Australia in December this year.

In the lead-up to the film’s release, Graceffo has released a web-based documentary in seven half-hour parts called Martial Arts Odyssey:

Bokator Fighting. The history of the discipline and the myriad techniques are explained and illustrated, and some incredible fighting footage is displayed. All seven episodes are currently available online.

The eyes of the world are now keenly trained on the progress of Bokator, and Cambodians are helping it thrive. With the December release of the movie, and the continued dedication of master Sam Kim Sean, Angkor’s armies could become mighty once more.

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