The Current Situation of Cambodia's Ancient Fighting Arts

Cambodia is a country with a long and proud history of culture and empire dating back to the Angkor period, which precedes many of the civilizations of Southeast Asia. Along with their ancient history of culture, there is a long tradition of martial arts. For thousands of years, right on up to the present, high ranking military and police officers were expected to be experts in the martial arts and proficient in individual combat.

Cambodia has a number of martial arts, which are only now being discovered and catalogued by westerners. The arts were almost completely eliminated during the Khmer Rouge period, when many of the masters were killed. The arts were also prohibited, under pain of death, during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. After nearly two decades of decay and destruction many Khmers are working hard to rebuild this martial tradition. Seila Yuthkun, Vice President of the Khmer Martial Arts Games Committee, is one of those who is dedicated to finding the old masters, bringing them together, and forming federations to teach the arts to the young people.

This is no easy task in a country which is recovering from more than 150 years of occupation and colonization, as well as an auto-genocide, which claimed the lives of nearly a quarter of the population. A Phnom Penh sports magazine recently ran a story about an 81-year-old man who is one of the last remaining people familiar with the oldest of the Khmer martial arts, Bokator (pronounced bog-k'tao). The article went on to say that this man had studied Bokator for only two years, and that was more than sixty years ago. It also said that this man had never taught students, because the art was supposed to remain a secret. With experts being so few and so old, if two years of training could really be considered an expert, and with the old tradition of secrecy, it will be difficult to preserve this ancient heritage.

There is no lack of interest among young people, however. They all want to learn martial arts. But, in speaking to Seila and other officials of the Cambodian Martial Arts Games Committee, the problem seems to be the popularity of foreign arts, such as tae kwan do, karate, judo, and Chinese kung fu. These other arts distract young Khmers from learning their traditional arts. Other issues include the fact that judo, karate and tae kwan do offer students the opportunity to earn belts and to compete internationally. Judo has long been an Olympic sport. Now kung fu has been added to the Asian Games as well as the Beijing Olympics. Some students may see studying Khmer martial arts as a lot of hard work, with no reward at the end.

The one Khmer art which has survived in tact is Pradal Serey (Khmer boxing), which is the national sport of Cambodia. Khmer boxing is a kind of kickboxing which utilizes kicks, punches, and elbow and knee strikes. It is very similar to the Muay Thai practiced in Thailand. The Khmers claim, and are most likely right, that they invented Khmer boxing, and the art was later stolen by the Thais. Although the Khmers seem to take some consolation in the fact that they invented the sport, this is a mute point. The reality is that although the art of Khmer boxing is widely practiced in Cambodia, the real professional circuit is in Thailand. Top fighters in Cambodia will rarely earn even $1,000 US. A recent title fight carried a purse of $70.

Khmers could earn more money and gain more recognition for their country by joining the Muay Thai Council in Thailand and competing for the Thai trophies and belts. But racism on both sides makes this option an unlikely eventuality. It is generally assumed that the Khmers would never receive fair treatment in Thailand. At the same time, the Khmers stubbornly refuse to join a Thai association, to earn a Thai sanctioned belt, for the art which the Khmers claim to have invented. Luckily, an acceptable solution has been proposed by foreigner Paddy Carson, a trainer and fight promoter from South Africa, recently arrived in Cambodia. Paddy is arranging for Cambodia to join the ISKA, a world sanctioning body for professional boxing and kickboxing. This will give Khmer boxers the opportunity to fight for internationally recognized titles and larger purses. Since the organization is based in America, not Thailand, the Khmers do not see this as a concession.

In addition to the Khmer wu shu (Chinese kung fu) Federation, there is a federation for Khmer boxing, western wrestling, Bokator, and for Khmer traditional wrestling. Seila is now setting up a Muslim Kung Fu Association, which will add Cambodia to the list of ten member countries, led by Indonesia and Malaysia. The idea is to bring instructors in the art of Banja Silat from Indonesia to Cambodia, to teach this traditional Muslim martial art to the Cham ethnic Muslim minority in Phnom Penh.

In the past, martial artists in Cambodia were very traditional. If someone opened a new martial arts school, he would be paid a visit by all of the other masters who would want to fight him. My friend Chiva, who is the head instructor of the Yuthkun Kung Fu club in Phnom Penh told me, "My brother walked into a new school and challenged the master. The fight was over in five seconds. My brother used snake to beat tiger. But very fast! The next day, the school was closed."

"My brother used snake to beat tiger?" I thought I had just stepped into a low budget kung fu film. But, apparently, this was the attitude in Cambodia ten years ago. As I have recently agreed to fight for Paddy Carson and become one of Cambodia's first professional boxers, I have been having nightmares of kung fu masters walking into the gym and saying in poorly dubbed English: "Your style is no good! My monkey fist can defeat your inferior foreign boxing."

Today, thank goodness, the situation is different. Members of the Yuthkun Kung Fu Club practice Chinese kung fu, as well as Khmer kung fu. Both arts include high spinning, jumping kicks, and complex patterns of movements, which involve leaping as well as falling flat on the ground and springing back to their feet. The art is perfect for the movies, and the club provided all of the fighters for the Khmer film production "Krabei Liak Goan" (Buffalo Hiding Child). There is hope that providing fighters for kung fu films in Hong Kong and the USA may be a way of assisting young Khmers to earn some money and help their families.

Although the Khmers claim that their kung fu developed independently of Chinese kung fu, the two arts look very similar and are both based on animal styles, such as monkey, dragon, horse, and others. As testament to the openness of the young generation of Khmers, several members of the club will be leaving to study in Beijing for a period of one year. The hope is that they can return to Cambodia as instructors, to help their teammates prepare for international competitions or maybe even for the Olympics.

by Antonio Graceffo

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