Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - An ancient and mystical Khmer martial art claws its way back

An ancient and mystical Khmer martial art claws its way back

Seak Sethkathiya (right) spars with a partner at practice as master Narak Neakak looks on.
Seak Sethkathiya (right) spars with a partner at practice as master Narak Neakak looks on.

An ancient and mystical Khmer martial art claws its way back

Under a billowing mulberry tree on the grounds of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, around 30 martial artists undergo their daily training under the instruction of a master.

They each stand on one leg while punching and elbowing the air for exactly 42 seconds, and then repeat the exercise with the other leg as support. Meanwhile, the master walks around kicking each student’s weight-bearing leg. If their stances are not firm enough, they will fall. For Narak Neakak, a master of the ancient Khmer martial art Yuthakun Khorm, the session is not simply an exercise – it’s an essential part of survival.

Yuthakun Khorm is not something you take for granted,” Neakak says. “It could be a matter of life and death.”

While the origins of the martial art are disputed, one thing is clear: the seldom-discussed form is meant for real fighting.

According to You Sinet, the founder and chairman of the Yuthakun Khorm Federation, the martial art is one of the three components that made up Moha Yuthakun Khorm, or the Art of War. The other two involved magic spells and military strategy.

“In the past, our ancestors created one of the biggest empires in Asia,” Sinet says. “They must have had a great art of war in order to expand and defend the country. Our research found that Yuthakun Khorm was created and applied by King Jayavarman VII.”

While Kun Khmer, a form of kickboxing whose competitions are broadcast almost every day on local TV channels, and l’Bokator, another ancient form of self-defence, have growing visibility, Yuthakun Khorm is less well known despite its long history in Cambodia.

Nonetheless, in recent years the sport has received a bit of a boost, with classes being introduced two years ago into the curriculum at universities, according to the federation, which is responsible for coaching and preserving it. It is also being taught to certain units in the military. Currently, approximately 2,000 people are learning the martial art nationwide.

Despite the rough training – including 360-degree jumps and sparring involving punching, kneeing, elbowing and kicking – most of Neakak’s students are accustomed to the pain.

“On the first few days of my training, I ached all over my body, and was sick as well, because I used to be very fragile,” says Seng Dara, a 27-year-old Phnom Penh native. “But after two years, this is nothing to me, and I feel stronger and healthier.”

Seak Sethkathiya, a 26-year-old student from Kratie, says Yuthakun Khorm helps her feel safe living in the city.

Chan Bunthoeun, one of the few grandmasters left alive.
Chan Bunthoeun, one of the few grandmasters left alive. Hong Menea

“I left my hometown for Phnom Penh to study and work,” she says. “My family is very worried about me, so I have to learn to defend myself.”

One of the surviving masters, Chan Bunthoeun, 62, who first learned the fighting style from his father, explained that the form was meant for the battlefield because it incorporates all forms of fighting techniques, including combat with both bare hands and weapons, such as swords and spears, as well as grappling. It also involves dark magic used to defeat opponents.

“In addition to the strength of an elephant and the speed of a leopard, a Yuthakun Khorm warrior uses magic spells to help them knock down their opponents,” he says.

“For example, Moha Kamlang is a spell that makes you powerful during the fight,” he added, referring to a spell that is said to give fighters a sense of strength.

A former commando in the 1960s and 1970s, Bunthoeun says the knowledge of Yuthakun Khorm saved his life throughout countless combat missions. He also claims to know the spells that make him invisible and prevent him from being hit by enemies.

His son, Chan Rathana, a Kun Khmer fighter and Cambodian star on the Singapore-based mixed martial arts circuit ONE Championship, says Yuthakun Khorm is behind his ferocity in the octagon cage.

“Many Cambodian Kun Khmer practitioners got into MMA but could not find success because Kun Khmer is mainly based on striking while standing,” he says. “On the other hand, Yuthakun Khorm, with its ground and grappling techniques, allows me to compete so well in ONE FC.”

While its practitioners point to the martial art’s Angkorian roots, Yuthakun Khorm loyalists have often disagreed with their l’Bokator-touting counterparts over which style is the oldest.

San Kimsean, a grandmaster in l’Bokator and the founder of the Cambodia Bokator Federation and the Cambodia Bokator Academy, says Yuthakun Khorm is not even a real ancient martial art, but instead is an umbrella term for all martial arts. As Khorm is derived from the word Khemara, or Khmer, and Yuthakun is a combination of the words “war” and “martial art”, he contends the term just refers to the collection of fighting styles in general.

“It is possible that the original masters who created what people call Yuthakun Khorm today knew many Cambodian martial arts, and combined them to create a style of their own,” he says.

The bas-reliefs of ancient temples in Cambodian, such as Bayon temple and Banteay Chhmar feature Khmer people using martial arts in war but there is no evidence as to whether it is l’Bokator or Yuthakun Khorm.

Meanwhile, Sinet, the federation chairman, claims that l’Bokator is just a fighting technique incorporating a staff, and points to the dictionary of Choun Nath, a former Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia and a pioneer of the modern Khmer language.

“In his dictionary, Samdech Choun Nath describes l’Bokator as only the short staff that protects the arms or the fighting technique with that,” he says. “Yuthakun Khorm focuses on many more techniques and thus should have been the first to be created.”

San Kimsean, though, dismisses the argument, saying that l’Bokator is a much broader and distinctive style than that described by Nath. Furthermore, as a monk, he challenged his expertise on martial arts.

“I first came to the world of martial arts when I was 13, and I am still in it, although I am 72 years old now,” Kimsean says. “I could not stand seeing our young generations learning a relatively new martial art and call it an inheritance left by our admirable ancestors.”


  • Crumbling prices, rent ruffle condo segment

    The prolonged decline in international arrivals to Cambodia intensified by renewed Covid-19 fears has driven down condominium sales prices and rental rates in Phnom Penh, a research report said. CBRE Cambodia, the local affiliate of US commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE Group

  • Over $3M in traffic fines collected in two months

    Traffic police officers collected over $3 million in fines throughout the Kingdom during the past two months when officers strictly enforced the law in accordance with a May sub-decree, officials said. As incentives, law enforcement officers received between 200,000 and two million riel ($50 to $500) each. The figures

  • More than 10,000 workers suspended

    More than 10,000 workers at 18 factories in Svay Rieng province have been suspended because of Covid-19, said provincial deputy governor Ros Pharith. Home to 11 special economic zones, Pharith said Svay Rieng has not been spared as the pandemic takes a toll on the global economy. “There

  • Nod given for school exams

    The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport announced that State-run higher educational institutions can hold examinations to end the academic year, while private schools can organise grade 9 and grade 12 examinations at their premises for two days. However, private institutions have to take measures to prevent

  • Oz lauds Kingdom’s passage of money laundering laws

    In a press release published by the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh on Monday, the country applauded Cambodia’s stance on transnational crimes as well as its promulgation of an anti-money laundering law and a law on combating proliferation financing. The praise came after King

  • Lotus face masks designed to cover globe

    A French designer in Cambodia has produced ecological face masks from lotus fibre to supply local and international markets with an eye on preserving ancestral techniques and supporting Cambodian women in rural communities. During a trip to Asia, Awen Delaval, an eco-friendly fashion designer, was

  • Accused not treated equally, says CCHR

    The Cambodia Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) has urged the Court of Appeal to do more to ensure that an accused’s right to a fair trial is fully respected. In a bulletin released on Monday, the CCHR said it had monitored 273 cases at the

  • Fish, frogs to boost local food supply

    The government has disbursed more than $4.5 million to boost aquaculture production and domestic market supply amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Veng Sakhon told The Post on Monday that in boosting agricultural production, the ministry has received financing from development partners

  • Planning ministry hands out cash to 420,000 poor families in Kingdom

    The Ministry of Planning has identified 20,000 more poor families in the country, bringing the total to over 580,000, while over 420,000 of them have received the government’s cash assistance. In the meantime, many social security cards from families not deemed to be poor have been revoked.

  • Nature in focus at inaugural film and photo festival

    The first Cambodian Wildlife Photo and Film Festival – an event celebrating the conservation of nature through the eyes of wildlife photographers, nature enthusiasts and conservation experts – is scheduled for July 18-26 at Fauna in Focus’ Nature Discovery Centre in Siem Reap. The festival will be