Bokator

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Bokator or Labokator literally means “pounding a lion” and is almost unknown outside Cambodia, apart from a few intrepid martial arts practitioners who traveled to Cambodia to learn it. If a relatively small amount of people now practice Pradal Serey, the modern version of Khmer boxing, even fewer actually have ever heard of Bokator, a pure South East Asian martial art almost on the verge of extinction.

Bokator has the most complete plethora of fighting styles, as it’s believed these were the standard skills of every soldier in the 10th century Khmer empire. They involved double swords, sticks and body combat. Historians and asian martial arts experts agree that Bokator may have been the source of Krabi Krabong and what nowadays is referred as Muay Boran by the Thais, as in those times the Khmer were the most developed people in South East Asia. The writing system, literature, royal paraphernalia, irrigation systems, and even Buddhist texts often had a Khmer source. As the fighting styles of the Siamese were later on very similar to the ones employed by the Khmer, it is  believed that Khmer prisoners might have been forced to teach their skills to Siamese kings and warriors in order to have their life spared and possibly be freed afterwards.

Bokator is unique, as it’s the most complete set of combat skills needed on a battlefield: it incorporates on-the-ground wrestling techniques, brutal elbow and knee strikes, shin kicks, grappling techniques aimed at dislocated the bones, and submissions techniques not to distant from the ones displayed in modern MMA. Fighters were trained to strike using knees, hands, elbows, feet, shins, and head. Even the shoulders, hip, jaw, and fingers were used to harm the opponent. Weapons included short sticks and double swords, much like Krabi Krabong. Many strikes are directed at the throat and are designed to kill, or at least to break the thyroid cartilage of an opponent. Bokator is also the only South East Asian martial arts which incorporates wrestling, grappling, ground fighting, submission and choking techniques.

Bokator practitioners wear the basic uniform of ancient warriors. A kramaa (scarf) is folded around the waist and blue and red silk cords called sangvar day are tied around the combatants head and biceps. In the past the cords were enchanted with magic rituals to increase the strength of a warrior, although now they are just ceremonial.

The martial art contains 341 sets which are based on the analysis of certain animals’ strengths and natural powers: there are horse, bird, naga (snake), eagle, and crane styles, each containing several techniques. Pradal Serey is a more condensed fighting system which uses a few of the basic (white kramaa) punch-elbow-kick-knee techniques and doesn’t have any animal-inspired styles.

The waist scarf, called kramaa in Cambodia and pa kamaa in Thailand, is still worn by rural folks in both countries. In case of Bokator practitioners, it shows the fighter’s level of expertise. The first grade is white, followed by green, blue, red, brown, and finally black, which has 10 further degrees of proficiency. After completing their initial training, fighters wear a black kramaa for at least another ten years. To attain the gold kramaa, proper of a great master, a practitioner must have done something memorable for the development of Bokator. This is most certainly a time-consuming and possibly life-long endeavor: there are between 8000 and 10000 different techniques,  but only 1000 need to be learned to try to attain the black kramaa.

How to learn Bokator? And where? The few great masters able to teach it were slaughtered during the genocidal Khmer Rouge years (1975-79), taking the secrets of this thousand-years old martial arts with them in the mass graves later known as “killing fields”. The very, very few who managed to flee the country managed to keep some of the knowledge alive. The most notable example is Master San Kim Sean, who returned to Cambodia in 1998 from USA. With the help of a few other fighters who survived the genocide, he opened the first training camp in Phnom Penh, open for free to young Cambodians.

So far only two foreigners have earned the black kramaa degree, which allows them to teach Bokator. One is Antonio Graceffo, an American Italian who has been practicing obscure martial arts all over Asia and China for years. He has also produced and acted in the only movie ever made about Bokator.

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Both Master San Kim Sean and Antonio Graceffo appeared in the episode of Human Weapon dedicated to Bokator.

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