Bokator, known formally as Labokator, is a Khmer material art form that involves close hand-to-hand combat, ground techniques, and weapons. Bokator is one of the earliest Khmer material art and second in age only to the Mon-Khmer style of Yuthakun Khom. 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.
The term Bokator translates as “pounding a lion” from the words bok meaning to pound and tor meaning lion. A general misunderstanding is that Bokator 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, Bokator 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, Bokator 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.
There are many evidences that depict various techniques of bokator 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. San Kim Sean is often referred to as the father of modern bokator and is largely credited with reviving the art. In the Khmer Rouge era, he had to flee Cambodia under accusations by the Vietnamese of teaching hapkido and bokator (which he was) and beginning to form an army, an accusation of which he was innocent. When in America he started teaching hapkido at a local YMCA in Houston, Texas and later moved to Long Beach, California. After living in the United States and teaching and promoting hapkido for a while, he found that no one had ever heard of bokator. He left the United States in 1992 and returned home to Cambodia to give bokator back to his people and to do his best to make it know to the world.
In 2004, he moved back to Phnom Penh and after getting permission from the new king began teaching bokator to local youth. That same year in the hopes of bringing all of the remaining living master together he began travelling the country seeking out bokator lok Kru, or instructors, who had survived the regime. The few men he found were old, ranging from sixty to ninety years of age and weary of 30 years of oppression; many were afraid to teach the art openly. After much persuasion and with government approval, the former masters relented and Sean effectively reintroduced bokator to the Cambodian people. Contrary to popular belief, San Kim Sean is not the only surviving labokatao master. Others include Meas Sok, Meas Sarann, Ros Serey, Sorm Van Kin, Mao Khann and Savoeun Chet. The first ever national Bokator competition was held in Phnom Penh at the Olympic Stadium, from September 26–29, 2006. The competition involved 20 lok krus leading teams from 9 provinces. In 2017, Bokator was highlighted in the successful Cambodian martial arts film Jailbreak.
- Richard, K. (2017 July 24). Film Review: ‘Jailbreak’ Cambodian cinema shows it can kick serious butt with this stylishly executed, export-quality martial arts spectacular. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2017/film/reviews/jailbreak-review-1202503606/
- Ray, Nick; Daniel Robinson; Greg Bloom (2010). Cambodia. Lonely Planet. p. 99. ISBN 978-1-74179-457-1.