Pradal Serey

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Pradal Serey, or Khmer Boxing, means “free fighting style” in Cambodian language. It is believed to be directly descending from Bokator, perhaps the oldest of South East Asia’s ancient battlefield martial arts. Bas-relief at the Bayon, in the ancient Khmer city of Angkor, show Khmer soldiers displaying combat techniques involving knees, double swords, elbows and kicks. Even though any written record of Bokator hasn’t survived, Cambodians believe this was the army’s way of fighting at the time of the Khmer Empire’s maximum expansion (9th century AD).

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Khmer boxing was literally on the verge of extinction, together with all forms of traditional Khmer culture (poetry, dance, literature, arts) during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). In order to create a new, ultra-Maoist society, the Khmer Rouge guerrilla defeated the Cambodian Royal Army in 197 and took the capital Phnom Penh. As soon as all foreigners fled the country, they announced a new dawn (Year Zero) and systematically destroyed the country’s infrastructure and social strata. All “enemies of the revolution” were quickly executed. These included teachers, aristocrats, educated people, monks, doctors, artists, foreign-speaking Cambodians, actors, singers and Bokator masters. Everybody else was sent for re-education to hard-labor camps upcountry, which later became known as the “killing fields”. Millions died of starvation, diseases and executions. A big portion of the ten centuries-old Khmer cultural heritage, including traditonal boxing, was obliterated in only four years.

Following the country’s slow recovery from the 20 years-old civil war that erupted after the Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979, Pradal Serey slowly resurfaced in small, private schools in Phnom Penh. Far from being commercial operations, such schools were created by survivors, to pass to the new generations whatever was left of the ancient fighting arts, in a common effort to keep what was left of Khmer heritage alive. Since 2003, Pradal Serey has been officially supported by the Government as an important part of Khmer history and since then it has been attracting a growing number of athletes. Professional fighters now earn a living from sponsorships and cash prizes, but they’re far behind their Thai counterparts, especially in terms of income. On average, a professional Khmer boxer earns about 20-50 USD per fight, plus some goods from the sponsors, mostly Thai-based companies already involved in Muay Thai events in Thailand.

At the moment, only one fighter has reached “stardom”, defeating Thais, Khmer and some foreigner as well. Smartly, he has already shifted from real fights in the ring to fake ones in movies. His name is E Pho Thoung. You can see him in action below:

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Eh Phoutong

Cambodian authorities have been very vocal and sensitive about the history of Pradal Serey, especially when Muay Thai is mentioned. Whilst Bokator was around, about one thousand years ago, no such thing as Muay Thai was ever recorded; and one can take the matter even further mentioning that even a unified Siam didn’t exist. Moreover, they argue that when the Khmer empire was at his weakest point and about to collapse in the 12th century AD, Siamese intruders captured Khmer soldiers and assimilated their captives’ fighting techniques into their own fighting standard. Thus Pradal Serey is, according to Cambodians, the true ancestor of Muay Thai. Don’t go tell this to a Thai person if you’re not prepared to a fight on the spot.

From a spectator’s point of view, Pradal Serey appears very, very similar to Muay Thai in the 60’s, when it was more spectacular than now. Khmer fighters rely much more on elbows and knees strikes to win a match. Fights are more dynamic and faster than the ones at Lumpini, without the brutality proper of Lert Wei. Pradal Serey is shown on Cambodian Channels 3 and 5 on weekends. Should you wish to watch it, find the Borei Keila Stadium in Phnom Penh .

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