A corral used to house elephants at the foot of Phnom Bakeng in Siem Reap’s Angkor temple complex will be transformed into a martial arts arena on Saturday as a team of French Bokator students face off against Cambodian warriors in a historic throwback to the Angkorian army fights a thousand years ago.
In what has been billed as the first ever Bokator tournament in the Kingdom to involve foreigners, a star-studded card featuring five bouts between visiting French raiders and native combatants will be
showcased, bringing to life the stone carved depictions of fighters on the walls of the nearby Bayon temple.
“Hosting the fights inside the Angkor archaeological park made sense as the venue is a magical place for a magical sport,” event co-organiser Pierre-Yves Clais told The Post.
The Sofitel Hotel in Phnom Penh had their offer to host the event declined in favour of the more ancestral setting.
As part of Cambodian cultural tradition, Bokator’s preeminent status was twice nearly destroyed. Firstly, at the end of the Angkorian era and again during the murderous Pol Pot regime.
“Thanks to the efforts of people like Grandmaster San Kim Sean, Bokator has been revived and we are happy to help with its rebirth,” added Clais.
According to the organiser, the tournament is the brainchild of Philippe and Mom Sebire, who helped recruit the overseas fighters through their martial arts business in Paris.
“Philippe has helped make people aware of Bokator in France and recruited some of his students for the fight. They approached me to help on the ground organising it,” said Clais.
“Philippe’s son [Benjamin] is one of the fighters. He was trained in Ju-Jitsu but has been training hard in Bokator.”
Grandmaster San Kim Sean, founder and President of the Cambodian Bokator Federation, has played an important role in promoting the sport internationally, including instructing the first foreign student, US martial arts author Antonio Graceffo, to achieve the rank of Black Krama in 2005.
The Cambodian fighters on Saturday have been selected by San Kim Sean from various clubs across the Kingdom.
According to Clais, who operates the Terres Rouges Lodge in Rattanakkiri and the Sala Koh Trong guesthouse in Kratie, the entire event will be filmed by the representatives of the French magazine, Karate Bushido.
“As a sport that is extremely similar to dancing - both my daughters take Bokator and Apsara dancing classes after school - I’m thinking of learning myself next year. For now I’m just happy to be behind the scenes,” said Clais.
The event is slated to start at 3pm on Saturday, with Apsara dancing and demonstrations of Apsara techniques by junior Cambodian fighters before the main bouts.
19-year-old Julien Carrara, a student from Marsilles, is first up and will face off with Cambodia’s Ki Deth, a member of the Angkor Reach Bokator Club in Phnom Penh.
Standing 1.65 metres and weighing 60 kilograms, 29-year-old Deth’s experience will be up against that of the youthful Carrara, who claims to have donned boxing gloves as early as three years old.
Meng Samath, 26, fighting out of Takeo’s Neak Krahom Bokator Club takes on 23-year-old Derek Bidaut from Marseille. Bidaut has been training in the Kingdom for nearly a year having started out with Wushu, in which he attained a black belt.
He tried his hand at Muay Thai boxing up to July, 2009, before becoming addicted to Khun Khmer and Bokator. He has two victories behind him in Khun Khmer and holds a Black Krama in Bokator.
The third fight features Cambodia’s Sim Meng Heang and French firefighter Celestin Mendes. While Meng Heang trains at Kampot’s Kuch Sa Bokator Club, Mendes has been learning Bokator for just a few months.
A former footballer living in the suburbs of Paris, Mendes got into Kun Khmer boxing last year. In his four fights he has a 2-1-1 record.
Say Tevin, meanwhile, is Siem Reap’s pin-up boy having picked up a back-to-back Gold Kramas at the last two annual national championships. The 25-year-old, a member of the Moha Nokor Bokator Club, squares off against 19-year-old Jordan Gomez from Marseilles.
Unbeaten in five Khun Khmer fights after getting into the sport three years ago, Gomez is the current Provence Alpes Cote D’Azur champion.
Bronze Krama holder Chab Loeun is the oldest among the Cambodian contingent. At 31, Loeun is an experienced exponent and the fighter of Kandal’s Vihear Sour Bokator Club will be matching his strength against a much younger opponent in the final bout.
18-year-old Benjamin Sebire from Andrésy near Paris, whose mother is an ethnic Khmer from Surin province in Thailand, is a cook by profession but has been boxing since the age of eight.
He has fought six times in Kun Khmer with a 4-2 win record and is the only foreign Bokator teacher recognised by the Federation. He teaches both Kun Khmer and Bokator at Kajyn, one of the biggest martial arts clubs in Paris.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MICHAEL SLOAN AND YEUN PONLOK