Bokator is possibly the oldest existing fighting system in Cambodia and one of the earliest systemized Khmer martial art. It is the predecessor of Brodal Serey (Khmer Free Boxing or traditional Khmer boxing) and includes close hand-to-hand combat, ground techniques and weapons.
History and Origin

Bokator can be traced to thousand years ago, when warriors invented it for combat on the battle field and for self-defense, as attested by the 1000 year-old carvings at Angkor Wat. However, some sources say the art may predate these carvings and be more than 2,000 years old. The ancient martial art practice became nearly extinct under the Khmer Rouge regime but is enjoying an unexpected revival. Sean Kim San, a bokator grandmaster and founder of the Cambodian Yuthkun Federation, revived the art in 2004 and opened a school to teach the style to a new generation of Cambodians.

Differences between Bokator and Muay Thai, Pradal Serey and Lethwei (Principles and Techniques)

Unlike kickboxing, which is a combat sport, Bokator was a true martial art, designed to be used on the battlefield. More than a combat technique it is a system with belts, in which forms, movements and techniques are learned in a specific order.

It is a very complete martials art using a wide array of elbow and knee strikes, shin kicks, submissions, feints, pressure points and ground fighting. Even the shoulders, hip, jaw, and fingers can be used to fight from a standing, sitting or kneeling position or even laying down. Weapons such as the bamboo staff and short sticks complete the arsenal. Bouts end in submissions or chokes.

The art contains 341 sets which, like many other Asian martial arts, are based on the study of life in nature. There are ten animal styles. The five white krama animal forms include: king monkey, lion, elephant, apsara (traditional Hindu sacred nymph), and crocodile. The green krama forms include: duck, crab, horse, bird, and dragon.

Because of its visual similarity, bokator is often wrongly described as a variant of modern kickboxing. Many forms are based on traditional animal styles as well as straight practical fighting techniques. Pradal serey is a more condensed fighting system which uses a few of the basic (white krama) punching, elbow, kicking and kneeing techniques and is free of animal styles.

Equipment and Belt System

When fighting, bokator practitioners still wear symbols of the uniforms of ancient Khmer armies. A colored krama (traditional Khmer scarf) is used instead of belts and blue and red silk cords called sangvar day are tied around the fighters head and biceps. In the past it is said that the cords were enchanted to increase strength, although now they are just ceremonial. Ropes are also wrapped around the fighters hands and wrists. Originally they fought bare-handed under the ropes, but nowadays light gloves are sometimes worn under ropes.

The krama shows the fighter's level of expertise. The first grades are white, green, blue, red, brown. After completing their initial training, fighters wear a black krama, which has 10 degrees, for at least another ten years. To attain the gold krama one must be a true master and must have contributed personally to the art of bokator. This is most certainly a time-consuming and possibly life-long endeavor: in the unarmed portion of the art alone there are between 8000 and 10000 different techniques, only 1000 of which must be learned to attain the black krama.
Bokator. Photo © Nicolas Sosnowiez
(Bokator Khmer)

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Photos by Gregory Brophy (hand wraps), Gerville Hall (TaeKwonDo girl and mixed martial artist kicking), Lucian (Karate fight).
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12th century Bokator bas-relief found in the Angkor Wat temple
(Source: South-Asian weekly)


The term bokator literally stands for "pounding a lion" or "lion fighter" from the words bok meaning to pound and tor meaning lion. The term bokator is sometimes erroneously used as an umbrella term for all Khmer martial arts while in reality it only represents one specific style.

Bokator fighters. Photo: dominiquetardy