In Cambodia three martial arts are practiced. The most popular is Pradal Serey, which is kickboxing, with nearly the same rules and style as Thai Boxing (Muay Thai). Pradal Serey is the national sport, and the television networks broadcast professional fights weekly.
Bokator (the Thai variation is called Muay Thai Boran, see below under ‘The Difference’) is an all encompassing ancient fighting art, includes punches, kicks, knees, elbows, grappling, ground fighting, and weapons. The practitioners fight without gloves. Their hands are wrapped with ropes or traditional krama scarves.
Japbab Boran Khmer (Khmer wrestling) is the least practiced of the Khmer martial arts. There are a handful of wrestling clubs country wide. They meet annually for the national wrestling competition, which is a big spectator event. In Khmer wrestling, the goal is to force the opponent’s back onto the ground.
Immortalised on the walls of the Angkor temples, this ancient art form is elbow over fist one of the most distinctive and entertaining martial arts in this neck of the woods. Kun Khmer or Pradal Serey (‘free fighting’) is thought to be the forerunner to many of the now better known martial art forms in the region, which may explain why the Khmer Empire was such a force to be reckoned with in its day. Now Cambodia’s national sport, the discipline consists of stand up striking and clinch fighting with a match won by knockout or points. Fighters strike opponents using the hands, feet, knees and elbows, with this arm joint leading to more victories than any other striking technique.
If you want to sit ringside, matches are held regularly at weekends in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, although schedules tend to vary. Fights are held at TV studios or arenas and usually telecast, with the rolling cameras and lights adding to the spirited atmosphere, in addition to boisterous crowds and live music.
Guide to visiting
• Events are either live fights or shows, with the former more suitable for hardened boxing fans and the latter more for families or groups less keen on seeing full contact martial arts matches which can verge or brutal.
• Common venues for matches are CTN, Bayon, TV3, TV5 and SEA TV – ask a city tuktuk driver for details as they tend to be the best informed.
If you’re keen to get in the ring yourself, small gym Angkor Fight Club to the west of Siem Reap (Bakheng Rd, Taphul village) offers classes in Muay Thai, MMA and Crossfit at a fraction of the cost of classes in the West.
Classes held Monday to Friday 15:00-21:00 and Saturday 15:00-16:30.
Khmer boxing was on the verge of extinction, together with all forms of Khmer culture, during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). Pradal Serey had been banned and many boxers were executed which caused the art of Khmer Kickboxing to be almost wiped out from Khmer history.
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, Khmer boxing slowly resurfaced in small, private schools in Phnom Penh. Far from being commercial operations, such schools were created by survivors, to pass whatever was left of pradal serey to the new generations, thus keeping the country’s heritage alive.
Muay Thai Boran ad Bokator clearly share a lot of similarities, but one primary difference is that Bokator is a system. Muay Thai Boran is not. You study Muay Thai, and if your teacher knows Boran, he teaches you some movements in isolation. For example, he advocates kicking with the bottom or side of your foot, instead of just shin kicks. Or, he teaches you spinning back kicks or heal kicks, instead of just roundhouse.
Bokator, on the other hand, is a complete system, like a traditional martial arts. There are belts, and you learn movements, forms, and techniques in order. The weapons include the double stick, double swords, long staff and scarf.
Kickboxing in Koh Kong
Khmer kickboxing is especially popular in Koh Kong, and many of the country’s top boxers, including the national champion, Eh Phouthong, hail from here. At matches on Saturday nights, the hugely enthusiastic crowds include quite a few women. Local boxers are joined by Thai punters from across the border.
Khmer Kickboxing Classes
In Cambodia, boxers turn pro at about the age of 14. In the provinces they can start fighting as early as seven or eight years old. But of course, in Cambodia, age is arbitrary as birth and death records are not substantiated.
Khmer boxers do a lot more fights than their Western colleagues. Muhammad Ali had 61 fights over a period of nearly twenty years. Lenix Lewis had 44 fights over a period of 14 years. Mike Tyson 58 fights over a period of more than 20 years. In Cambodia, boxers in their early twenties could well have over a hundred fights. Some fighters will fight two and sometimes three times a month.
Apart from regional tournaments, Khmer boxers don’t meet many international competitors. Only some no-name Africans and French fighters turn up in Cambodia to fight. The Khmers often beat these nobodies, and this confirms, in their minds, that Cambodians are the best fighters in the world. They are missing the point that the best Cambodians are being matched with some random foreigner, not a nationally ranked fighter from a foreign country. You will never see a K-1 champion fighting in Cambodia.
Cambodia claims that bas reliefs, carved on the walls of Angkor Wat, prove that Cambodia invented kickboxing. They resent the more common name, Muay Thai, saying that the Thais stole their art.
Because they object to the name, Cambodia refuses to join the World Muay Thai Council. They may have a legitimate case, that kickboxing originated in Cambodia. On the other hand, Cambodia has done little – if anything – to promote their boxing style outside the country.
A match consists of 5 sets of 3 minute rounds and takes place in a 6.1 meter square boxing ring. A one or two minute break occurs between each round.
At the beginning of each match boxers practice the praying rituals known as the Kun Kru. Traditional Cambodian music is played during the match.
The music is played used the instruments of the skor yaul (a type of drum), the sraliai (a flute like instrument) and the stringed chhing. Boxers wear leather gloves and shorts.
A boxer is not allowed to strike his opponent while he is on the ground.
A boxer is not allowed to bite.
When an opponent can not fight anymore, the referee stops the fight.
Blows to the back of the opponent are not allowed.
A boxer may not hold on to the ropes.
Blows to the genitals are prohibted.
Victory can be obtained by knockout. A knockout occurs when a boxer is knocked down to the ground and can not continue fighting after a 10 second count by the referee.
Victory is also obtained from the end of the match when judges decide by a point system which fighter was more effective. If fighters end up with the same score a draw is called.