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Bokator and Khmer Traditional Wrestling

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Bokator is an indigenous martial art that was developed by the Khmer people and used by the ancient armies of Angkor. It is thought to be the predecessor of all Southeast Asian kickboxing styles. Also known as labok katao, it is an extremely complex system that has a total of 341 different styles.  Bokator contains a number of locks, strikes, holds, and submissions.

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Mythological and Real

It is said to be based on nature and to heavily echo the movements of animals, both real and mythological. These include the:

  • dragon
  • crane
  • eagle

Bokator returns

Jayavarman VII, who ruled the Khmer Empire at the end of the 12th century, was said to be an avid practitioner of bokator. It is widely believed that the art was a key factor in the success of the Angkorian kings who dominated Southeast Asia for six centuries from 800 CE.

Master San Kim Sean is credited with reviving bokator after many practitioners had been killed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. He returned to Phnom Penh in 2001 and gathered together some very reluctant and very old instructors.

In 2006, the first national bokator competition was held in Phnom Penh and featured leading teams from nine different provinces.

Khmer Traditional Wrestling

A martial art from Cambodia, Khmer traditional wrestling is believed by experts to have been practiced by both males and females—ancient Angkor temples have murals depicting both sexes fighting in this style.

Dancing, music, food and fighting

Ritual dancing often precedes a bout and dramatic music accompanies the fight, which usually lasts three rounds and is decided when one wrestler holds down his opponent’s back on the floor. Traditionally, fights take place during the New Year and other Cambodian national holidays. This competitive sport is also a system of health promotion.

During festivals, young wrestlers may invite a competitor to start a match by shouting:

“Come and pay for the food, come and pay for the food.”

When another man replies:

“Here is the food payer, here is the food payer,”

he is taking up the challenge and the match begins.

In the past, fights often took place in rice paddieson moonlit nights as a folk sport among villagers. Most participants were farmers, although trained competitors were also free to fight.

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Category | Asian Martial Arts

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