Possibly the oldest existing fighting system in Cambodia, oral tradition indicates that Bokator or an early form thereof was the close quarter combat system used by the armies of Angkor 1000 years ago. The term Bokator translates as “pounding a lion” from the words bok meaning to pound and tor meaning lion. A common misunderstanding is that bokator refers to all Khmer martial arts while in reality it only represents one particular style.
The martial art form was nearly completely wiped out during the Khmer Rouge genocide years of the mid to late seventies. After surviving the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, the Grand Master, San Kim Saen, returned to Cambodia in the late 1990s with a goal to bring back the art of Bokator to his country. Scouring the country, he found less than ten Bokator masters who had survived the war years. He later opened his school in Phnom Penh, where he still teaches Bokator to about three hundred students. Several of whom have since been promoted to black karma (belt).
Unlike kickboxing, which is a combat sport, Bokator was designed to be used on the battlefield. It uses a diverse array of elbow and knee strikes, shin kicks, submissions and ground fighting. Practitioners are trained to strike with knees, hands, elbows, feet, shins, and head. Even the shoulders, hip, jaw, and fingers can be used to fight an opponent to submission or death. Weapons are also used, primarily the bamboo staff and short sticks.
When fighting, bokator exponents still wear the uniforms of ancient Khmer armies. A krama (scarf) is folded around their waist and blue and red silk cords called sangvar day are tied around the combatant’s head and biceps. In the past it is said that the cords were enchanted to increase strength, although now they are just ceremonial and most fighters tend to place the krama around their head (more to absorb the sweat).
Bokator includes Khmer traditional wrestling, kick boxing and weapons. In true Bokator fights, the fighters do not wear gloves and can choose to fight on the ground, with bouts ending in submissions or chokes.
The ground fighting is not nearly as effective as the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or western wrestling, but it is arguably the only ground fighting art in Southeast Asia.
The first ever national Bokator competition was held in Phnom Penh at the Olympic Stadium, from September 26–29, 2006, with a more recent International event, with black belt Bokator fighters from France, held near Phnom Bakheng among the temples of Angkor.
Despite the slow, growing awareness of Bokator as a modern day sport, it remains under the shadow of Thai kickboxing, although many are of the opinion that Thai kickboxing was merely adapted from Cambodian cultural arts during the period of occupation, although all countries in South East Asia had a system of martial arts and all probably borrowed or stole from each other.
It was the intention of this particular shoot to help promote awareness of the sport through visual media. Most of the images here were taken among the temples of Preah Khan and along the gallery walls of the Bayon, which depict scenes of martial combat that hark back to the true origins of Bokator.
View full screen images of the Bokator photoshoot in our assignment gallery portfolio
Feature on the forgotten martial art form of Bokator, meaning to fight with the lions, from Siem Reap, Cambodia