The Great Angkorian Martial Arts
We can fight standing up, explains San Kim Sean,
grand master of Khmer Bokator. At more than sixty-years-old,
he looks as if he is in his forties and moves like
a man much younger. He throws a kick at me, similar to the
round-house used in Khmer boxing. The kick misses and
his kicking leg lands to the side of my body. With the
ease of forty years of martial arts practice, he shifts
all of his weight forward onto his kicking leg. Not more
than a few inches to my side, he hooks his rear foot around
and kicks me square on the jaw.
The dragon whips his
tail, he says, sounding like a Bruce Lee movie.
Next, he drops to his knees and executes an elbow strike
in an upward motion to my solar plexus. We can fight
on our knees, he says. He drops to the ground and
traps the kick I had thrown at his face. We can
fight sitting. Next, he prostrates his body
and drags my ankle, causing me to topple to the ground.
We can even fight laying down, he laughs.
Khmer Bokator is a very complete martial art which uses
strikes, drags, trapping, and locking for both offense and
defense. In Bokator, the entire body is used as a
weapon. Many martial arts use head butts, but some of the
techniques which San Kim Sean show me use the jaw and
even the shoulder muscle as weapons.
The lion has fangs, he explains. We
also use fangs in our fighting. San Kim Sean makes
a fist, then extends his index finger, bending it at
the second joint. With pinpoint accuracy, he uses this fang
to stab me in the pressure point behind the clavicle. Needless
to say, it is quite painful. If we train long enough,
we can make the finger go through the flesh, he says
with a likable but sadistic grin. And then we can
rip out that bone. He shows me how the finger would
extend, wrap around the collarbone, and then how the whole
body would be used to jerk it out.
Do you believe that your art is better than Khmer
Boxing? I ask. Of course, answers San Kim Sean without hesitation.
Do you mean that one of your students could get in
the ring with the champion Eh Phou Thoung right now and
win? I ask skeptically. My students would never be allowed to fight in the
ring, he explains. We are trained to kill.
San Kim Sean asks one of his young students to attack
him in a boxing stance. When the student throws a punch,
San Kim Sean counters with an elbow strike to the students
throat. KILL! shouts the master. The student
throws a second punch. This time, San Kim Sean stabs the
student in the throat with his fingers. KILL!
he yells again. The student kicks. San Kim Sean hits
the students thigh with his knee, knocking him
to the ground.
The student leaps to his feet and clinches with the teacher,
hitting him with knee strikes. San Kim Sean crisscrosses
his forearms over the students throat, and, like a pair
of scissors, he crushes the students windpipe with
his wrist bones. KILL! he yells again. Next,
the master rotates his wrist bones away from the students
throat, but careful to keep his neck locked
in the vice-like forearms. This one not kill,
he explains. Pulling the student in close, he smashes his
shoulder up into the students jaw. It is obvious
that if he had done it full force, the student would have
been knocked unconscious. Finally, he drives the heel of
his foot into the inside of the students thigh, driving
him to the canvas again.
You see? he asks me. You would never
be allowed to do any of that in a boxing ring. But it is
The student returns to his practice. He leaps in the
air and kicks the heavy bag with both feet. Each time
he lands on the ground in a controlled stance, ready to
fight. That boy has only been with me one year, says
San Kim Sean with pride. But he already knows three
hundred techniques. And now, he can help me teach the other
San Kim Sean explains to me why it is so important to
him to pass on the art.
Bokator is an ancient Khmer martial art, the predecessor
of Pradal Serey (Khmer free boxing). Today, the name Pradal
Serey has been lost to the world, having been replaced by
the term Muay Thai. The Thais stole our art,
say many Khmers who believe that the bas-reliefs carved
on the walls of Angkor Wat temple prove that the origin
of Khmer boxing predates Muay Thai.
While the name may have been stolen, the art of Khmer boxing
is very much alive and thriving as a professional sport
enjoyed all around the world. This, unfortunately, is not
the case for the much older art of Bokator, a martial art
nearly unknown, even in Cambodia. Outside of Cambodia,
the only thing people know is Angkor Wat, says San
Kim Sean They dont know about our martial arts.
Bokator uses colored krama (traditional Khmer scarves)
instead of belts to rank students. The art contains ten animal styles. The
five white krama animal forms include: king monkey, lion,
elephant, apsara (traditional Hindu sacred nymph), and crocodile.
The green krama forms include: duck, crab, horse, bird,
San Kim Sean began training in Bokator when he was
just thirteen-years-old. According to him, even at that
time the art was not very common. Only a few old men
knew the art. It was still practiced in some of the
provinces but was unknown in the capital. A friend
of his father's taught him hand-to-hand combat. Another
of his father's friends taught him to use the long staff.
And yet another taught him to use the two traditional Khmer
San Kim Sean was always interested in martial arts, so
he practiced Khmer boxing for three years. Later, he earned
belts in Judo, Karate, and became only one of three Khmers
to earn a blackbelt in Hopkido. I was third dan,
he tells me.
Unfortunately for him, the year he became an instructor
of Hopkido, 1975, was also the year that Phnom Penh fell to the
Khmer Rouge. The city was ordered to evacuate,
and the entire country was collectivized and
forced to do backbreaking physical labor, with only a few
hours of sleep per day and very little food.
I dont have to tell you the Pol Pot time was
bad, says San Kim Sean, refering to the Khmer Rouge period
by the name of its leader Pol Pot. Everyone knows.
He shakes his head sadly. My group began with 10,000-13,000
people. Two years later, only five hundred were still alive.
They were either murdered or died of hunger. Two of
San Kim Seans children died at the hands of the Khmer
Although everyone suffered, and anyone, including Khmer
Rouge soldiers and cadre, were potential victims of execution,
certain groups were singled out for extreme persecution
and extermination. Pol Pot had declared it to be Year Zero
as a symbol of his desire to break with the past. To this end,
the Khmer Rouge hunted down and killed masters of traditional
Khmer arts, including musicians, dancers, and martial artists.
All of my students and training bothers died,
San Kim Sean tells me, and I was the only Hopkido instructor
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime fell to an invasion by
Vietnam. San Kim Sean went back to Phnom Penh and
began teaching Hopkido. The Vietnamese regime, which arguably
was only slightly better than the Khmer Rouge, prohibited
Cambodians from practicing martial arts. I was
teaching in secret. But some Khmer person who was jealous
of me, turned me into the Vietnamese authorities.
The Vietnamese accused San Kim Sean of trying to build
an army or having some other subversive goal in mind. He would
have been jailed, but he and his wife escaped to a refugee
camp in Thailand. They spent one year in Nokor Siclium camp,
where his wife gave birth to a daughter named Bopha.
Eventually, in 1980,
their paperwork came through, and the family was allowed
to relocate to the USA. They first settled in Houston, Texas,
where San Kim Sean found a good job at the airport. He also
taught Hopkido to Khmer children at the YMCA. Life
was good for San Kim Sean and his family, but he missed
his culture. On a vacation to the Khmer community in Long
Beach, California, he was amazed at the Khmer-ness of the
place. The shops had Khmer writing on them. I saw women
wearing sarongs. They had Khmer restaurants, laughs
San Kim Sean. I said, hey, this is my country.
So he quit his job and moved his family to Long Beach.
He found work dubbing Khmer voice-overs on Chinese action
movies. And, he continued teaching Hopkido.
This is all very interesting, I say sincerely.
Here was a man who had overcome great odds, for
both the love of martial arts and the love of his people.
But, your story is all the way up to 1990 and you
dont seem to be teaching Bokator to anyone.
That will come later, San Kim Sean says with a laugh.
I have to tell you the whole story first.
To be a good martial arts student, you have to have patience.
I took my Hopkido students all over for competitions.
And, I never once heard the words Bokator Khmer. In fact,
no one knew anything about any Khmer martial arts at all.
By this time, San Kim Sean was a tenth-degree black belt
in Hopkido. I began to wonder, he tells me,
why am I out doing all of this advertising for a Korean
He explains to me that Bokator is an ancient Khmer art,
predating even the 1000-year-old carvings at Angkor Wat.
King Jayavaraman VII, the creator of Angkor Wat, is depicted
in a stance with the Khmer short sword. Do
you know why he was such a good king and why he kept Cambodia
safe?" San Kim Sean asks already prepared with the answer.
It was because he was a martial artist. He knew Bokator
Khmer. At that time, there were no rockets, no guns,
only fighting swords and hands and feet. And the Khmers would
win because our soldiers were trained in Bokator.
San Kim Sean explains why the martial art, which was once
so proud and strong, had already faded into near extinction
even before the Pol Pot regime. The masters never taught
all of their art to a student. They always held back about
ten percent, in case a student ever attacked them.
If each progressive generation learned ten percent less
than the previous generation, it is no wonder that the Khmer
martial arts were on a downward slide.
Khmer young people dont even know their own
history. They dont know about our greatness in the
past, the ancient arts which were taught by the grandfathers
grandfather, which is running in our blood.
San Kim Sean tells me that he began having nightmares about
Cambodia. It was God telling me I needed to come home
and help the Khmer people.
During the early 1990s, he returned to the stricken
land to help rebuild the Khmer Hopkido Association.
We still arent talking about Bokator,
I remind him. And you still have to wait, he tells me in
his friendly tone.
In 1995, San Kim Sean moved back to Phnom Penh, became the
leader of the Hopkido Association, and began teaching Hopkido.
He waves his hand dismissively and continues with the
story. Finally, in 2001, I left the Hopkido school
and began teaching Bokator. San Kim Sean is still a
respected officer of the Hopkido Association, but his
true love is Bokator. And now he dedicates all of his time
to this pursuit.
He began combing the countryside looking for Bokator masters
who had survived the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese regimes.
They were old. Many of them between sixty and ninety
years of age.
The number of masters remaining was very small. And of
that number, none were teaching. After being repressed under
both the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese, the men
were afraid to start teaching again.
I tried to tell them it was okay. We already had permission
from the government, but they wouldnt listen,
says San Kim Sean. The old men wanted to stay in the province.
But San Kim Sean insisted. You have a great gift which
was given to you by our ancestors. Do you want to steal
it from our children? When you die, the art will die with you.
Did it work? I ask.
Some of them broke down in tears, laughs San
Kim Sean, who seems like he could be persuasive when he
needs to be. In April of 2004 we held the first Bokator
conference in Phnom Penh. Now, there are schools in eight
provinces. And, we are preparing for a national championships.
Most martial artists in the west cannot be bothered
to practice. Here was a man who had risked his life to preserve
martial arts, and more recently, had given up a well-paying
job in America in order to come back to Cambodia and help
recover a lost art.
I really respect what you have done here, I
tell San Kim Sean. But the interview is finished, and now
he wants to kick me in the head some more.
by Antonio Graceffo
For more about the author and his travels go to his website
www.speakingadventure.com or contact him directly at