While football is gaining popularity in Cambodia, Khmer boxing is the country’s traditional national sport. Due to the cultural cleansing perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, a lot of information about the tradition of Khmer boxing has been lost. A few boxing masters, however, have been working hard to bring back the indigenous art form. With the addition of widely televised tournaments, Khmer boxing is experiencing an unprecedented resurgence in popularity.
The term Khmer boxing is generally a broad term that encompasses two specific forms of fighting: bokator and pradel serey. Bokator, literally meaning “fight lions”, has its origins dating back to as early as the ninth century, during the period of the Angkor Empire. In fact, wall etchings depicting fight scenes can still be seen today in the Angkor Wat Temple in Siem Reap, and historians believe that bokator played a critical role in the empire’s dominance as a military behemoth. Bokator officially consists of 341 styles of movements that draw inspiration from the movements of animals (such as the tiger, crane, and eagle) and are expressed through locks, holds and strikes.
Pradel serey, literally “free fighting”, shares its roots with the Thai combat sport of Muay Thai. It had evolved from ancient Khmer fighting techniques to its modern form that is more favourable to competitions. The contemporary techniques of pradel serey make use of punches, kicks, and elbow and knee strikes. Most Khmer boxers compete to earn money to feed their families and do not come from privileged backgrounds. Many of them work as tuk-tuk drivers during their free time.
With the revival of Khmer boxing, there are now a number of bokator and pradel serey schools and clubs across Cambodia. Some schools are open to foreigners and taking Khmer boxing lessons is definitely one of the things to do for travellers wanting to experience a unique aspect of the Cambodian culture.
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