Kun Lbokator, known formally as Lbokator (គុនល្បុក្កតោ), is a Khmer martial art form that involves close hand-to-hand combat, ground techniques, and weapons. Lbokator is one of the earliest Khmer martial art dating back to early Angkorian period. Moreover, this martial art is said to be the close-quarter combat system used by the armies during the Angkor era. Practitioners are trained to strike with knees, elbows, hands feet, and even the head. Short sticks are commonly used as a weapon.
Kun Lbokator is a martial art dating back to the first century. It aims to develop the mental and physical strength and discipline of its practitioners through self-defence techniques and a philosophy of non-violence. The training of Kun Lbokator is not only about physical techniques and skills, but also about mental disciplines on how to respect nature and behave with decorum in society. It is characterized and distinguished not only a martial arts form, but also embodies certain cultural aspects. For instance, the rituals and social practices observed in Kun Lbokator requires that the practitioner possesses knowledge about nature and the universe.
Practitioners are required to train and master striking and defense techniques relying on their bare arms and legs, and only once a student can demonstrate proficiency are weapons training introduced. Another essential aspect of Kun Lbokator is that it is to be practiced with an ensemble of elements including dance, music, natural medicine, sacred objects and/or amulets, tattoos, and weapons. Masters play a crucial role in the performing aspect of Kun Lbokator because they serve as mediators between the apprentices and the guardian spirits, and thus are responsible for introducing new apprentices to them and the surrounding nature, asking for the apprentices’ protection and safety in training. In return, practitioners are required to show respect to others and take a pledge to become good citizens.
Practitioners of Kun Lbokator consist of masters, assistant teachers and apprentices who can join local Kun Lbokator training schools or clubs and groups in their vicinity. They are responsible for maintaining the practice and honoring the philosophy behind Kun Lbokator.
1. The Masters are responsible for training apprentices by transmitting its values and tenets to them. Some of them run and manage their own Kun Lbokator training schools to share their knowledge and skills of Kun Lbokator with younger generations. While serving as masters, they work in different occupations as rice farmers, local business owners, retired civil servants, musicians, actors, film directors, former professional boxers or military veterans. The masters, who have fully apprehended the history, knowledge, techniques and skills of Kun Lbokator through many years of practice (at least 5 years), transmit their knowledge and skills of Kun Lbokator to new generations through training with encouragement and support from host communities.
2. Assistant Teachers are talented apprentices, selected among themselves, who can assist their masters in training new apprentices.
3. Apprentices are local school students or villagers within the vicinities of Kun Lbokator training schools who want to study and learn Kun Lbokator. Despite the fact that some customary roles from which women play less active in certain ritual practices and festive events, Kun Lbokator provides an equal opportunity for female practitioners to be trained.
4. Other advocates are individuals who possess some Kun Lbokator skills, but are not formal representatives, yet they actively advocate for widespread recognition of this traditional martial arts form.
The term Kun Lbokator translates as “pounding a lion” from the words bok meaning to pound and tor meaning lion. A general misunderstanding is that Lbokator refers to all Khmer martial arts while in reality it only represents one particular style. It used a various array of elbow and knee strike, shin kicks, submissions and ground fighting. During the fighting, Lbokator exponents still wear the uniforms of ancient Khmer armies. A scarf (Krama) is folded around their waist and blue and red silk cords called Sangvar day are tied around the combatants’ head and biceps. In the past, the cords were believed to be enchanted to increase strength, although now they are just ceremonial.
All the great buildings of Angkor are inscribed in Sanskrit and are devoted to Hindu gods, notably Vishnu and Shiva. Nowadays, Kun Lbokator practitioners begin each training session by praying with respect to Brahma. Religious life was dominated by Brahmins who in India also practices sword fighting and empty-hand technique.
Kun Lbokator contains elements of customs, knowledge and history inherited and transmitted for generations since the Angkor period. There are many evidences that depict various techniques of Kun Lbokator in bas-relief at the base of the entrance pillars to the Bayon temple. One relief shows two men appearing to grapple, another shows two fighters using their elbows. Both are standard techniques in modern kun Khmer, or pradal serei. A third depicts a man facing off against a rising cobra and a fourth shows a man fighting a large animal. Cambodia’s long martial heritage may have been a factor in enabling a succession of Angkor kings to dominate Southeast Asia for more than 600 years beginning in 800 AD.
During the dark time of the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979) those who practiced traditional arts were either systematically exterminated by the Khmer Rouge, fled as refugees or stopped teaching and hid. After the Khmer Rouge regime, the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia started and native martial arts were completely outlawed.
Presently, there are about 7000 individual practisioners of Kun Lbokator, and there are twelve dedicated grand masters, who are committed to safeguarding and transmitting the element such as Masters Ith Pen, Sen Sam Art, San Kim Sean, Ros Serei, Am Yom, Suong Neng, Ponh Keun, Voeng Sophal, Ke Sam On, Kim Chiev, Chet Ay and Kao Kob. There are Kun Lbokator community schools in thirteen provinces in Cambodia, and the grand masters teach in several schools. The communities in which these schools are located support the viability of the element. These thirteen provinces are Kampot, Ta Keo, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Pailin, Posat, Koh Kong, Banteay Meanchey, Svay Rieng, Prei Veng, Tboung Khmum, and Kandal. On top of that, this Kun Lbokator is also practiced outside of the nation such as in the United States of America, Europe and Australia as these countries and regions are home to a significant number of the Cambodian diasporas, who vigorously support the transmission and preservation of this traditional martial art. There are similar styles and practices to Kun Lbokator that can be observed in the neighboring countries of Cambodia (that used to part of the Khmer empire during the Angkorian period which lasted from the 9th to 15th centuries CE), namely Muay Thai in Thailand and Muay Laos in Laos, which were developed respectively in conformity with their own environment and their interaction with nature and their history.
In a concerted effort to further promote and safeguard Kun Lbokator, the Cambodia Kun Lbokator Federation was formed, under the auspices of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, with the support of Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, to enable masters and apprentices from across the country to continue practicing Kun Lbokator. For instance, the first ever national Lbokator competition was held in Phnom Penh at the Olympic Stadium, from September 26–29, 2006. The competition involved masters leading teams from 9 provinces. In 2017, Lbokator was highlighted in the successful Cambodian martial arts film Jailbreak.
The style and knowledge of Kun Lbokator are slightly different in each region in the country, which include physical techniques, tools, terminology used for each practice, and favored skills. Kun Lbokator represents one form of human creativity in martial arts. It is also skillfully adopted in other performing arts such as in Chhay Yam musical dance and Lkhon Bassac, a kind of Khmer-style theatrical performance. The meanings and symbolism found in the practice of Kun Lbokator are also suited for the subject matter for and creative treatment by performing and creative arts, including theatre, literature, poetry and ballads, story-telling, the gamut of imagery such as painting, photography and murals. Its inscription while acknowledging what the martial arts have in common would highlight its specificities and the variety of practices and creativity involved beyond regions, lineages, and even borders.
Presently, Kun Lbokator is still actively performed as part of ritual offerings to local protective deities, Neak Ta as well as in other festive events. Kun Lbokator is an intangible tradition widely practiced among Cambodians, regardless of their age, gender and educational backgrounds or statuses.
As 29 November 2022, Kun Lbokator, traditional martial arts in Cambodia, was inscribed as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in The seventeenth session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was hosted by the Kingdom of Morocco in Rabat (Sofitel Rabat Jardin des Roses) from 28 November to 3 December 2022. This latest list marked as the Cambodian six elements inscribed as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO following: (2008) Sbek Thom, Khmer shadow theatre; (2008) Royal ballet of Cambodia; (2015) Tugging rituals and games; (2016) Chapei Dang Veng; and (2018) Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet.