Almost every country has its own ancient martial art form. While Muay Thai from Thailand and Taekwondo from Korea have been making steady progress in terms of achieving global recognition over the years, Cambodia’s Bokator is one of those martial arts that is still struggling to find its way back from almost complete annihilation.
Dating back almost 2,000 years, Bokator translates as “Pounding the Lion.” You can’t deny that’s one of the most hardcore titles for any martial art out there. It was designed and developed by the ancient Angkorian armies to protect and maintain dominance over the Khmer empire from around the 9th to 15th century.
The walls of the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia have the legendary Bokator fighters in their fighting stances. This hints at how steeped in tradition this martial art is. Bokator consists of a wide range of submission and ground fighting techniques, shin kicks, along with elbow and knee strikes. Like many martial arts from Southeast Asia, Bokator has more than 10,000 moves that are largely based on animal hunting styles.
This ancient form makes use of the feet, hands, knees, elbows, hips, jaws, shins, head, and fingers as deadly weapons to be used to annihilate the opposition. Bokator also employs basic weapons such as bamboo sticks, spears, and the “krama,” or traditional Cambodian scarf.
The skill level of a Bokator fighter can be ascertained by the color of the krama worn around the waist during a fight. Beginners wear white and as they gain proficiency, they progress to wearing green followed by blue, red, brown, and then ultimately black.
There is an honorary gold belt that goes to the rarest of rare individuals who have dedicated their lives to the practice of Bokator and contributed substantially toward promoting its growth. If there’s anyone who deserves this, it’s Grandmaster San Kim Sean.
“A total of 100 moves must be learned for the white krama, with 1,000 out of the more than 10,000 moves required for the black krama. The gold krama is the highest level and is only attained by the great masters of the art, such as Kim Sean” according to Culture Trip.
As a boy, Kim Sean was passionate about becoming an international action star and started training in Bokator when he was 13 years old. It was while he was pursuing his passion that the Khmer Rouge set up their communist regime and inflicted terror on the Cambodians from 1975 to 1979.
The regime targeted individuals who posed a threat. This included intellectuals, scholars, and people who were well versed in martial arts. Kim Sean realized that the only way to survive was to keep his head down, stay quiet, and obey orders. He never practiced Bokator during this time period, and eventually, after the regime had fallen, managed to escape to the United States through a Thai refugee camp.
Return of the Master
After making a living as a martial arts trainer in the U.S. for many years, Kim Sean finally returned to Cambodia with the burning desire to revive Bokator. It was not an easy task. He roamed the countryside trying to find experienced masters who would help support his dream. Over the years, he managed to find more than 200 teachers and convinced them to share their knowledge with the next generation.
At 73, Grandmaster San Kim Sean continues to be the world’s most popular advocate of Bokator apart from being the most sought-after trainer. In 2004, the grandmaster founded the Cambodia Bokator Foundation and successfully applied for Bokator to be included in the World Organizer of Martial Arts.
Over the years, the Cambodian team has traveled far and wide across the globe winning top-ranking positions in several international martial event tournaments, gradually providing visibility to the sport on the global stage. If it weren’t for the tireless efforts of San Kim Sean, Bokator would have slipped into darkness and been lost to future generations.