Recovering ancient martial spirit

Recovering ancient martial spirit

Young practitioner of pre-Angkorian khorm yuth hopes more young people will embrace the ancient martial art that gave rise to better-known styles such as bokator.

Photo by:
Tom Hunter

Tomarak Club Khorm Martial Arts practice the ancient Khmer martial art of khorm yuth (Left). Norak Soeng (Right) 

It's not kung fu fighting, but the pace of Norak Soeng's early low-budget action films is akin to early Jackie Chan flicks with a Cambodian twist. They are part of Norak Soeng's efforts to promote the almost forgotten Khmer martial art of khorm yuth.

At the age of 21, Norak Soeng has already created two award-winning short films and each week instructs a small group of young Cambodians in this ancient Khmer martial art, a discipline that predates all other Cambodian fighting styles.

Khorm yuth evolved during the Mon-Khmer period predating the Angkorian civilisation of 802AD.

The period remains relatively undocumented, and the fighting style came close to extinction during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Apparently, the style developed from local hunting techniques, and like Chinese kung fu, is based on the movements and behaviour of animals.

The art has many forms ranging from "Brahma toys with tiger", to "Hanuman toys with the garuda" and uses a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu mythology to evoke stories of mystery and intrigue splashed with bouts of severe violence.

Throughout the centuries, khorm yuth evolved into labok kaatou - more popularly known as bokator - which played a significant part in the expansion of the Angkorian empire.

Bokator was used by Khmer soldiers, generals and kings and proved invaluable in fighting wars against both the Chinese and Thai populations in the expansion of the empire.

  Most cambodians interested in martial arts have not heard of [khorm yuth].

"The bokator style was created after the Chinese overran Angkor," bokator Grandmaster Sean Kim San said, adding that the fighting style was perfected during the rule of Jayavarman VII, who eventually drove out the Thais and the Chinese to create the great Angkorian empire.
Grandmaster Sean Kim San describes the styles of bokator and khorm yuth as a delicate mix of two religions.

"We use Buddhism in the left hand and Hinduism in the right," the grandmaster said, adding that the left hand is used in peaceful defence while the right is used to attack.

Grandmaster Sean Kim San says the key difference between bokator and khorm yuth is grounded in the classification developed by the Cambodian Bokator Federation.

"If you don't follow the rules and disciplines of bokator, then you have to call it something else," the grandmaster said, adding that khorm yuth is an overarching term for Khmer martial arts, while bokator is considered to be more disciplined.

Promoting khorm yuth

In 2006, Norak Soeng established Tomarak Club Khorm Martial Arts in an effort to promote the ancient fighting style of khorm yuth through film.

"I established the club to produce films that depict ancient Khmer culture and khorm yuth martial arts," Norak Soeng said. "Khorm yuth is the first traditional Khmer fighting style that existed prior to labok kaatou, but most Cambodians interested in martial arts have not heard of the style."

Norak Soeng's debut film, which he says won first prize at the Apsara Television film contest in 2008, was made on a modest budget of US$400.

The 30-minute film titled Norak Soeng Sena Khorm Yuth, or Strong Bodyguard, is inspired by Hong Kong's kung fu genre, but with a dose of  Khmer comedy.

"I hope the stunts in the film will inspire youth to become more interested in the rich culture [of khorm yuth]," Norak Soeng said.

Norak Soeng, who has been training since the age of 13,   has competed in numerous national bokator competitions in Phnom Penh.

"In 2006 I entered the national bokator competition and won two gold medals and one silver," Norak Soeng said, adding that since he formed Tomarak Club Khorm Martial Arts, its members have been successful in national bokator competitions, claiming a total of 7 medals in the 2007 event.

Since 2007, however, the group has not been eligible to compete in the event because it does not follow the strict discipline of bokator - no drinking and no gambling while training under the guidance of a certified bokator master.

The group seems unphased by their declassification from the federation and continues to produce entertaining and culturally significant action movies, albeit on a very tight budget.

Norak Soeng's next film, Keatkor Kbachkun Hanuman Neakreach, or  The Monkey and Naga Fighter, is due for release later this year.