Traditional forms of martial arts are essential historical elements of many Asian countries. Cambodia’s endemic version is called Bokator in Khmer, interpreted as a method to fight lions. Extensive written history of Bokator does not exist, but it does have ancient origins. The oldest known depiction or records of Bokator can be traced to approximately 1,000 years ago to the 12th century, as documented by the carvings found in Angkor Wat temples. The great Angkorian king, Jayavarman VII, who united the country and introduced Buddhism in Cambodia, is credited with practicing Bokator. While the bas relief carvings demonstrate how Bokator was a battlefield form of combat designed to vanquish enemies, they also show the beauty and the power of Cambodia.
Tragically, the practice of Bokator suffered during the takeover by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. During their four years in power, the regime systematically eliminated nearly 90% of all artists and art forms, including martial arts. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, ousting the Khmer Rouge. Until 1987, the country was a Vietnamese colony where martial arts were outlawed. Cambodia regained its independence in 1989 but continued fighting, and widespread poverty prevented any form of martial arts from flourishing. The successful return of Bokator happened in 2006 when the first national championship tournament occurred in Cambodia.
In 2004, the Cambodian government promoted a meeting of the nine surviving Bokator Grand Masters. In this year, the masters and their students held a public exhibition, and the first Bokator schools also reopened. By 2007, the first class of Bokator black belts graduated. In this decade, Bokator is thriving and transformed from a fierce battlefield art to a sports version. The national competitions take place every year in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Combatants defeat opponents by using ancient techniques of punching, kicking, elbowing, kneeing, wrestling and weapons while dressed only in shorts and wearing mouth and groin guards, with hands wrapped in traditional Krama scarves.
In 2012, Cambodian Bokator bid for UNESCO recognition as a world heritage martial art form.
Photography : Jean-François Périgois