Thought to date back 2,000 years and depicted on temple walls at Angkor, bokator was almost wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. One man, San Kim Sean, has devoted his life to reviving it, and slowly but surely it is gaining recognition.
Grandmaster San Kim Sean closes his soft brown eyes and pauses. He takes a sharp breath and forces a smile before recalling how he survived the hell that Cambodia was plunged into during the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. During that time, almost a quarter of the country’s population perished.
“You don’t say you do martial arts, you don’t say you went to school, you don’t say you wear glasses. You’ll get killed within one minute,” he says. “You have to keep quiet, do what they want, follow their rules and just say yes. Never say no. They will kill you. It was a very terrible time.”
The grandmaster sits on a stool in the centre of his bokator academy in Siem Reap, a basic set-up with a tin roof, whirling ceiling fans, training mats, some battered wooden benches and a stash of ageing wooden weapons propped up in a corner. He becomes animated as he talks about his lifelong passion for the traditional Cambodian martial art, whose name translates as “pounding of the lion”.
“Bokator belongs to our great-great-grandfathers, masters and kings,” says the 73-year-old, who started learning the martial art at the age of 13.
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