Master San Kim Sean is very exact with certain dates – like September 29, 1980, when he left Thailand’s Khao-I-Dang refugee camp for America, or April 24, 2004, when the first L’Bokator congress since the rise of the Khmer Rouge was convened in Cambodia.
He is less precise, however, about the schedule at his new Kun Bokator Restaurant Club in Siem Reap, which is the first commercial venue in Cambodia to regularly feature L’Bokator performances and fights.
The newly opened venue will host performances of the ancient martial art, which dates back more than a millennium, as well as a weekly L’Bokator fight on Saturday nights.
Kim Sean can be forgiven for not wanting to commit to a specific schedule as his team irons out the details – to say that he has been patient in his quest to revive L’Bokator would be an understatement.
The now-72-year-old was taught to fight at 13 by his “uncle”, an older friend of the family. As with other traditional arts, the rise of the Khmer Rouge meant a sudden death knell for the sport. Not only was the sport rooted in the past, which was to be forgotten, it was also a potentially violent form of resistance.
Following the Vietnamese-led invasion in 1979, Kim Sean escaped to Khao-I-Dang refugee camp across the border with Thailand, and from there he went to a refugee camp in Houston, in the United States, before settling in Long Beach, California, in 1984.
But after more than a decade teaching martial arts in the US, Kim Sean gave in to his calling. “My mission from the gods is to help Bokator survive,” he said at the opening party of the restaurant. “You just have to say yes.”
Kim Sean has largely succeeded. After spending the mid-1990s collecting knowledge about the sport from every corner of the country, he has established the ingredients for longevity.
He founded the Bokator Academy, a training school for fighters where his son – San Angkor Reachvan – is an instructor; he has has drawn up the rules for a modern incarnation of the sport; and the government now recognises the Bokator Federation, which supports fighters in the country. The restaurant, meanwhile, is the latest incarnation of his dream.
With a square stage in the middle of the room, the restaurant has the feel of a sleek boxing gym. On the outside of the room are rows of tables, and an upper deck presents perhaps the best view of the performance.
The fighters will have been trained primarily at the Bokator Academy and will be constantly changing depending on the night. The winners of the Saturday bouts, meanwhile, will move on to face other winners until a champion is decided.
Along with the entertainment are ample food options, including Plea Sach Ko, a Cambodian beef ceviche, Tom Yum Soup and steamed fish with soy sauce. The plates range from $2 for small dishes, $3-$5 for medium and $5-$12 for large.
While Kimsean expects the performances to mostly attract tourists, he is also hoping that having a space to show off the sport will help to garner local interest.
“The reason we opened the Bokator restaurant is because we want people to read and speak Bokator from their heart, their mouth and their brain,” he says.
Kun Bokator Restaurant Club is on Abacus Lane in Siem Reap and is open every day from 6pm-midnight. Performances and fights will be held from 8pm until 10pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with the possibility of other dates throughout the week in the future. Tickets are $25 for foreigners, food included, and free for Cambodians.
Additional reporting by Rynith Taing