Bokator, or more formally, Labokkatao is a Khmer martial art that includes weapons techniques. One of the oldest existing fighting systems in Cambodia, oral tradition indicates that bokator or an early form thereof was the close quarter combat system used by the armies before Angkor 1700 years ago. The term bokator translates as "pounding a lion" from the words bok meaning to pound and tor meaning lion. A common misunderstanding is that bokator refers to all Khmer martial arts while in reality it only represents one particular style.
It uses a diverse array of elbow and knee strikes, shin kicks, submissions and ground fighting.
When fighting, bokator exponents still wear the uniforms of ancient Khmer armies. A krama (scarf) is folded around their waist and blue and red silk cords called sangvar day are tied around the combatants head and biceps. In the past the cords were believed to be enchanted to increase strength, although now they are just ceremonial.
The art contains 341 sets which, like many other Asian martial arts, are based on the study of life in nature. For example there are horse, bird, naga, eagle, and crane styles each containing several techniques. Because of its visual similarity, bokator is often wrongly described as a variant of modern kickboxing. Many forms are based on traditional animal styles as well as straight practical fighting techniques. Pradal serey is a more condensed fighting system which uses a few of the basic (white krama) punching, elbow, kicking and kneeing techniques and is free of animal styles.
The krama shows the fighter’s level of expertise. The first grade is white, followed by green, blue, red, brown, and finally black, which has 10 degrees. After completing their initial training, fighters wear a black krama for at least another ten years. To attain the gold krama one must be a true master and must have done something great for bokator. This is most certainly a time-consuming and possibly lifelong endeavor: in the unarmed portion of the art alone there are between 8000 and 10000 different techniques, only 1000 of which must be learned to attain the black krama.
During the Pol Pot regime (1975–1979) those who practiced traditional arts were either systematically exterminated by the Khmer Rouge, fled as refugees or stopped teaching and hid. After the Khmer Rouge regime, the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia began and native martial arts were completely outlawed. San Kim Sean (or Sean Kim San according to the English name order) is often referred to as the father of modern bokator and is largely credited with reviving the art. During the Pol Pot era, San Kim Sean had to flee Cambodia under accusations by the Vietnamese of teaching hapkido and bokator (which he was) and starting to form an army, an accusation of which he was innocent. Once in America he started teaching hapkido at a local YMCA in Houston, Texas and later moved to Long Beach, California. After living in the United States and teaching and promoting hapkido for a while, he found that no one had ever heard of bokator. He left the United States in 1992 and returned home to Cambodia to give bokator back to his people and to do his best to make it known to the world.
In 2001 he moved back to Phnom Penh and after getting permission from the new king began teaching bokator to local youth. That same year in the hopes of bringing all of the remaining living masters together he began traveling the country seeking out bokator lok kru, or instructors, who had survived the regime. The few men he found were old, ranging from sixty to ninety years of age and weary of 30 years of oppression; many were afraid to teach the art openly. After much persuasion and with government approval, the former masters relented and Sean effectively reintroduced bokator to the Cambodian people. Contrary to popular belief, Sean is not the only surviving labokatao master. Others include Meas Sok, Meas Sarann, Ros Serey, Sorm Van Kin, Mao Khann and Savoeun Chet. The first ever national Bokator competition was held in Phnom Penh at the Olympic Stadium, from September 26–29, 2006. The competition involved 20 lok krus leading teams from 9 provinces.