Sun, Oct 14, 2007 - Page 9 News List

`Bokator' makes sudden comeback in Cambodia

nThe ancient martial art practice that was pushed to near extinction under the Khmer Rouge regime is enjoying an unexpected revival

By Seth Meixner  /  AFP , PHNOM PENH

The rolling thunder of an oncoming monsoon storm provided the appropriate soundtrack to Ratanak Akthun's entrance into the ring.

The self-assured young fighter eyed his opponent, Puth Khemarak, who seemed less solid and a little dazed by the applause that greeted his own entrance into the gymnasium in Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium.

Their clash was to be the first full-contact fight of last month's National Bokator Championships and the crowd, made up of students from opposing fighting schools, clapped and shouted itself into a frenzy.

Cambodia's ancient martial art of bokator is enjoying a sudden revival after centuries of neglect and its near extinction under the communist Khmer Rouge regime, which outlawed the practice and murdered its masters.

But practitioners are struggling for legitimacy and purists say a younger generation's fascination with foreign martial arts is threatening this symbol of the country's past military might.

More an art form than a sport, bokator -- which literally means "lion fighter" in Cambodian -- has been somewhat derisively described as a dance with a little bit of fighting thrown in for effect.

This is not entirely untrue. Those who have mastered the thousands of punches, sweeping high kicks, take-downs and feints have a fluid animal grace that lulls the spectator into forgetting that this is a seriously dangerous fighting form.

But then erupts a violence that is found in few fighting rings. Like Saturday night brawlers, nearly bare-knuckled bokator fighters pummel, stomp and throttle each other into submission.

Ratanak Akthun's earlier cockiness could not save him from a crushing kick that broke ribs and sent him to a humiliating, semi-conscious departure from the ring.

The next two full-contact matches ended just as abruptly in knock-outs.

The championships last month were only the second ever to be held and were the result of one man's singular crusade not just to return bokator to Cambodia, but also to introduce it to the rest of the world.

Sean Kim San, a bokator grandmaster and founder of the Cambodian Yuthkun Federation, returned from the US in the 1990s and in 2004 opened a school to teach the craft to a new generation of Cambodians otherwise fed a diet of Thai kickboxing and Western professional wrestling.

"We had been sleeping for 1,000 years, but 2004 was the new birth for bokator," the 62-year-old master said.

Speaking recently in the converted space above a parking garage that he shares with several other martial arts schools, Sean Kim San took out a few vinyl folders that he said are the sport's bible.

Inside he is creating, in painstaking detail, an index of the hundreds, if not thousands of moves that must be mastered at each level of bokator.

"Before there was nothing," he said, explaining that before he took up his quest to revive bokator, knowledge of the fighting form lay scattered across the country among its few surviving yet reluctant masters.

Scenes of bokator are carved into the walls of the Angkor temples, inextricably linked to a rich cultural heritage that goes back many hundreds of years.

But the Khmer Rouge who seized control of the country in 1975 and unleashed one of the 20th century's most devastating upheavals, inexplicably sought to destroy bokator along with every other vestige of modern Cambodia.

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