After years in the shadows, proponents of yutakhun khom are refusing to let their ancient martial art be forgotten
In a ring at a Phnom Penh cultural centre this week, Chan Rothana – a rising star in Asia’s mixed martial arts ONE Championship series – provided a kinetic glimpse into ancient history.
Covered in a sheen of sweat, he performed a series of vicious kicks and elbow and knee strikes before wrapping his legs around a sparring partner’s neck in a potentially deadly choke hold.
According to the young warrior’s father and instructor, Chan Boeunthoeun, the fighting style, known as yutakhun khom, dates back thousands of years and was perfected by Angkorian warriors.
One of only two living masters of the style, Boeunthoeun has spent the past three years recording all his knowledge of the little-known martial art in an attempt to preserve what he believes is an important part of Cambodian heritage that has been passed down orally for generations.
“In the future, as people rediscover yutakhun khom, it will return to its former strength and will, like muay Thai, become world famous,” he said.
The Khmer Rouge killed all the yutakhun khom masters they could find, said Benoit Rigallaud, co-founder and adviser at Phnom Penh’s Selapak cultural centre and Chan Rothana’s manager.
Boeunthoeun’s father and grandfather were both murdered, but Boeunthoeun survived by hiding in empty pagodas and moving only at night, practising his art by candlelight, praying and using “magic” to protect himself.
“This is why Rothana’s father became a master so young. You can only become a master when your father dies,” Rigallaud said.
“Yuthakun khom warriors belong to what would be described as a ‘knight’ class in Europe. The role of yutakhun khom is to protect Cambodia and so its secrets must be kept within this knight class.
“I think Bouenthoeun began writing his knowledge and gathering research for his book when bokator started getting all the UNESCO interest. He’s worried the full story will not get out and part of Cambodia, which has already suffered so much, will be lost forever.”
Bokator is another style of martial art that has risen to prominence since its only grandmaster, San Kim Sean, returned from the US in 1995.
The National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC), in conjunction with the World Martial Arts Union, applied for the style to receive heritage listing with UNESCO in 2012.
Rigallaud said UNESCO giving bokator Intangible Heritage Asset status was a concern to the yutakhun khom community, and should be to all Cambodians, because “they failed to conduct a full investigation”.
“This is crazy, because we are talking about history and culture here, and if heritage is lost then it is gone forever.”
He said he had contacted Anne LeMaistre, UNESCO’s head of office and representative in Cambodia, several times to raise these concerns and request UNESCO experts look at the validity of yutakhun khom’s claims but never received a reply.
A UNESCO employee said Lemaistre and culture programs specialist Philippe Delanghe were both in the field this week and there was no one else able to respond to questions.
Boeunthoeun claims yutakhun khom dates back 2,000 years to the Funan kingdom of Southeast Asia, but it was King Jayavarman VII at the height of the Khmer Angkorian empire nearly 1,000 years ago who could be credited with cementing the yuthakun khom philosophy that survives to this day.
After numerous victories in battle, Jayarvarman collected his 36 best warrior-masters and codified the Khmer combat practices to create the first kampi, or manual.
Another kampi, Boeunthoeun said, was written by King Ang Duong - the Oudong monarch of the mid-19th century who – to avoid Cambodia being devoured by the Thai and Vietnamese – accepted protection from the French.
Boeunthoeun said Ang Doung was concerned the French would be scared of the power the book could give the Khmer people and destroy it and so hid it in a pagoda so it could survive for future generations.
The origins of Khmer martial arts, while perhaps the stuff of legend, are widely accepted among Cambodia’s broader martial arts community.
A watered down version of yutakhun khom, called kun khmer and now the most widely practised form of Cambodian sport fighting, was developed by the French. They considered yutakhun khom too brutal.
“In the old days, there were no rules – it was a fight to the death. They would prepare the coffins beforehand,” Bountheoun said.
Bountheoun calls his book the Kampi Yutakrom Khorm (the spelling is said to represent an older transliteration for the name of the martial art, where yutakrom means “how to fight” and Khorm the Khmer people).
Like the martial art itself, it is divided into three main sections. Fighting techniques and strategy are two of the three central tenets of yuthakun khom, along with spiritual protection, what Bountheoun describes as “magic”.
He explained the traditional sacred ceremony before a fight. What he described as “invisible tattoos” are traced on the fighter’s forehead, palms of their hands and soles of their feet. This “magic” will protect them in battle.
The magic is very strong, he said, and recounted a story from antiquity of a fighter from Vietnam who, when he encountered it in Cambodia, was so affected he saw two opponents in front of him instead of one.
Back in the gym, Rothana demonstrated the unarmed techniques, as well as those using swords, lances, staves and weapons called l’bo’katao in yutakhun kom – bamboo forearm guards used to strike, much like modern police nightsticks.
When asked about bokator, Boeunthoun shook his head. “Bokator is just the name of a weapon used in yuthakun khom. What they refer to as ‘bokator’ uses just a fraction of the techniques used in yuthakun khom.” \
At the 2015 National Bokator Championship at Olympic stadium yesterday, bokator grandmaster Kim Sean appeared surprised by the suggestion that he practised a lesser martial art.
“There are up to 10,000 techniques in bokator; it would be difficult to learn them all in a lifetime,” he said. “The [formal] name of the martial art, labokator, means ‘to fight a lion’.”
He pointed over to a practitioner demonstrating the bamboo weapons worn over the forearm. “Those, which can also be used to strike, are called khel dai, which means ‘arm shield’ in English – khel, shield and dai, hand. They are also known as bokator khel dai.
“I brought the coloured krama into bokator because the krama is so important to Khmer culture and the colours make easy for the students to see each other’s grade level.”
“Although there were no coloured kramas in the old days, in modern bokator it is the best way to show your skill level, and the young people like that.”
He added that bokator was “one among others of Cambodia created by our ancestors”.
Vath Chamrouen, the secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia and president of the Cambodia Labokator Federation, said a team from UNESCO’s World Martial Arts Union was coming to Cambodia on Monday to examine documents regarding the application for UNESCO Intangible Heritage Asset status and discuss the next steps.
Asked about yutakhun khom, Chamrouen said: “Yuthakun khom is one of Cambodia’s martial arts.
It is seen as a bit violent, in public opinion, on Facebook and what have you, although there are some very good techniques.
Yuthakun khom is not very well heard of; bokator is more popular for the older and the younger people.
“Bokator is in the mind of the people as the Khmer martial art, which helps get ‘universal value’ from UNESCO. We just chose the popular one to develop.
“Bokator and yutakhun khom are not mentioned at Angkor Wat, there are only the pictures on the walls, so we know the techniques.
[However] bokator is mentioned [by] Chuon Nath, who invented the Khmer [dictionary in 1938]. But if new evidence came to light, we would look into it.”
However, Rigallaud counters: “Bokator is mentioned only as techniques using bamboo sticks, as explained by Samdech Sangha Raja Jhotañano Chuon Nath who created the first Khmer Dictionary.”
When asked how yutakhun khom could return to its former prominence when it could only be passed down from father to son, Boeunthoun said it was allowed under extreme circumstances for a master to anoint masters other than his eldest son when they reached the necessary level.
“This is something for Rothana to decide, when he becomes master.”