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 student’s 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 student’s 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 student’s throat, and, like a pair of scissors, he crushes the student’s windpipe with his wrist bones. “KILL!” he yells again. Next, the master rotates his wrist bones away from the student’s 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 student’s 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 student’s 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 very effective.”

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 students.”

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 don’t 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, and dragon.

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 long swords.

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 don’t 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 Sean’s children died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

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 who suvived.”

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 don’t 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 art?”

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 don’t even know their own history. They don’t 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 1990’s, he returned to the stricken land to help rebuild the Khmer Hopkido Association. “We still aren’t 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. “But, Bokator…” I protest. 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 wouldn’t 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 or contact him directly at

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