Ever since Khmer kickboxing became televised by CTN in 2004, Cambodians have been gathering in their homes and coffee shops every weekend to watch their favorite fighters. Last night, more than 90 percent of the country was expected to tune in to watch the World Championships. But while all eyes were on world champion Vorn Viva, another group of fighters was quietly training.
Far more complicated, far more dangerous, and given its history, far more Cambodian, the ancient skill known as Bokator is preparing to retake the stage as Cambodia’s premier martial art when organizers stage its first international event on July 16. It will feature five bouts pitting France’s young martial arts champions against Cambodia’s best.
“This has been in my dream since the first day of the revival back in 2004,” said the 66-year-old father of modern-day Bokator and founder of Bokator Federation, San Kimsean, the technique’s only grandmaster.
“This is very important for us because Bokator is our tradition. It is my life, my blood, my culture, and my great-great grandfather made that. We must bring back everything that was lost in our culture,” he said.
Bokator is considered by its followers to be the complete martial art, utilizing more than 2,000 different techniques. Dating back more than 2,000 years, it was used as a means of combat during the Angkorian era. Using a plethora of locks, traps, drags, and weapons, Bokator uses every imaginable part of the body to dispatch an enemy in close combat.
“During the French colony we had Bokator, and it was very dangerous,” said Mr Kimsean. “You would fight, and if you lost you could die, so fighters were taught to fight only a little. From when the French changed, it is where predal serey (Khmer kickboxing) came from.”
However, he said the practice was nearly completely wiped out when it was banned during the Khmer Rouge. Mr Kimsean, who had been practicing Bokator since age 13, suppressed his passion for years under the regime, until he managed to escape to Thailand in 1980, moving to the US.
“Even after I moved to Texas, I could not teach it because it was not recognized as a technique and I could not get a license,” he said.
That all changed on April 24, 2004 when Cambodia’s masters met in Phnom Penh for the first Bokator conference in Phnom Penh.
Since then, an annual Bokator tournament has been held, with 200 to 300 fighters now in the country. But the grandmaster was not done.
Flipping through an old scrapbook with handwritten inscriptions and plastered group photos, Mr Kimsean said he has spent time traveling throughout France speaking to students and groups, building an interest in the sport.
“I have taught them in a lot of different places,” he said. “You can see here that many people come to see. Bokatar is for everybody, not only Cambodia. Cambodia is the father, but Bokatar is a family for the world.”
And now for the first time, he will see his vision come true on the grounds of the elephant Krral of Angkor village in front of Phnom Baken in Angkor.
“In France, they have picked up a lot of interest in the martial art, and they will be listening, and a film maker will come here too,” said one of the fighters, Marseille-born Derek Bidaut, 23. “As a martial artist, I’ve wanted to come here and see Cambodia, and learn about their ways. I can see in it that a confident man is strong.”
Another one of the fighters, 18-year-old Benjamin Sebire of Paris, who is half French and half Cambodian, said that he and Mr Bidaut had been preparing the fight for over one year.
“I’ve never seen a martial arts that has so many different techniques involved, you are brave enough for it. For a boxer, you must be very strong,” he said.