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From battlefield to sport arena: the rebirth of bokator

From battlefield to sport arena: the rebirth of bokator


Experts of the ancient martial art of bokator compete in the first modern championship last month.

G rand Master San Kim Sean conjures up images of King Jayavar man VII, the Buddhist ruler who united a war-torn Cambodia in the 12th century.

Sean says Jayavarman was an expert of the ancient Khmer martial art of bokator, and like Jayavarman, he is using bokator to make Cambodia great.

"Everything Jayavarman VII achieved came from bokator," Sean said. "I cannot build temples as he did, but I follow in his footsteps. I want to make Cambodia great in the 21st century as he did in the 12th."

Beginning on September 26, 2006, Sean came a little closer to achieving his aim. The first Khmer Bokator Championship was held over four frenetic days in Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium.

Attracting 307 participants, sizable audiences, and unprecedented levels of media attention, it has gone some way in furthering Sean's dream of having Cambodia's indigenous martial art recognized across the globe.

"Bokator has awoken," Sean said. "Cambodia's younger generation know the name bokator but they don't know what it is or what it looks like. They don't understand its importance to our culture. But that will change."

Depicted in the carvings of Angkor Wat's bas reliefs, bokator is a martial art that Sean believes encapsulates the beauty, strength and wisdom of Cambodia.

More than merely a deadly fighting technique, bokator weaves together Cambodia's ancient religious traditions of Buddhism and Brahmanism. According to Sean, this syncretic spirituality is a practical guide to fighting: left hand Buddha; right hand Brahma.

"We use the right hand to fight," said Sean. "The left hand is different, it protects, it doesn't fight, it is the god that doesn't want to have problems with people. The right hand fights, the left protects."

Bokator evolved in Cambodia's jungles, Sean said.

"Bokator is a technique to fight lions," he said. "We used our martial arts to fight with jungle beasts, not just Cambodia's human enemies."

The art has ten individual styles, each an interpretation of the fighting movements of an animal or spirit: king monkey, lion, elephant, apsara, crocodile, duck, crab, horse, bird and dragon.

Following a detailed explanation of the exact bokator techniques needed to kill a tiger, Sean said he soon realised that to preserve this art in contemporary Cambodia he would have to transform it from a deadly battlefield technique into a sport.

"When bokator was used 1,000 years ago it was a case of you win, you live; you lose, you die," said Sean. "Now I have created rules to turn it from a warrior art to a sport."

The recent championship is Cambodia's first rule-based bokator competition. But, much to Sean's displeasure, the ancient art has long been practiced in a modern, regulated form, in neighbouring Thailand, where it is known as Muay Thai.

"When the Khmer Empire was at its highest, Thailand did not yet exist," said Sean. "They copied our martial art and just changed the name of it."

Muay Thai has recently made its mark on the world's consciousness, largely due to the popularity of its most famous practitioner, Tony Jaa.

Jaa is star of Ong Bak, a Thai film that first drew international attention to the martial art and propelled Jaa into stratospheric levels of fame across Asia. His latest film has been released in the US under the name of The Protector.

But Jaa is Khmer, and the martial art he practices is bokator, not Muay Thai, claimed Sean.

"He is Khmer, he is from Khmer Surin," he said. "He used to call his martial art bokator, now he has to call it Muay Thai - but he knows who he is: he is Khmer."

Sean's own study of the art began when he was 13 and continued until 1975 when Pol Pot seized power. Though his knowledge of a traditional Khmer art made him a prime target for the Khmer Rouge, Sean survived the genocidal regime. He was helped greatly, he says, by the mental discipline bokator had given him.

"It teaches you how to live with the people around you," he said. "For the Khmer Rouge I knew to use my left hand to protect and not to aggravate them with my right hand."

In 1979 Sean fled Cambodia, first to a Thai refugee camp, then on to the United States where he settled in Houston, Texas.

As a certified grand master of hapkido, a Korean martial art, he taught his skills to young Americans and earned himself a comfortable living, first in Houston and later in Long Beach, California. Yet despite his success he was plagued by doubts.

"I kept thinking: Who am I really? Where am I from?" he said. "I realised that the Cambodian people must bring their martial art to the world. So I left the US and came back to Cambodia to set up a martial arts establishment."

As a result of bokator's suppression under the Khmer Rouge, finding other grand masters willing to help him teach this ancient art to a new generation of Cambodians was difficult.

"I came back first in 1995 to try to find the masters of bokator in the provinces," he said. "It was very hard, they all stayed quiet, stayed hidden, they were scared."

But 11 years later his quest has paid off. Bokator schools now exist in nine provinces and the number of young students is always growing.

Bokator fighters wrap krama round their waists, heads and fists - different color kramas signify the skill level of the fighter, with white being the lowest and black the most advanced.

Keeping the ancient traditions of Cambodia alive will make Cambodia as great as it was under Jayavarman VII, Sean said.

"Bokator passes down through generations, from the temples of Angkor Wat, through Cambodia's boys and girls, through men and women," he said. "This is our martial art, and preserving it will make our country and our people strong again."