There is a debate about the origins of martial arts. Certainly, the Shaolin monasteries in China in the 6th Century, practised what became known as Kung Fu and the art spread outside its borders. The Chinese have certainly influenced Cambodia over the centuries and the Country has its own martial art traditions, whatever their origins.
Kbach Kun Khmer Boran is an art that is certainly more than 1,000 years old. It is depicted on the walls of many buildings in the Angkor complex. There are several different forms, all of which have a role in Cambodian culture.
• Bokator, or Labokatao is one of the earliest forms of Cambodia martial art. It is close combat that was thought to be used in battle during the times of the Khmer Empire. Bokator involves using feet, knees, hands, elbows and the head against an opponent. Most combatants also have short sticks.
• Baok Chambab is the closest thing the Khmer had to wrestling. The aim is to pin the opponent to the ground. Today, the contest lasts for three rounds and holidaymakers enjoying a Cambodia tour package can enjoy a programme of ‘’wrestling’’ where the combatants begin with a ritual dance before starting. The winner is the one who wins two of the three rounds, though at the end of each round, both are asked if they wish to continue. While the Baok Chambab contest is played out, you will hear continuous drumming from the Skor Nhy and Chhmoi, female and male drums. The National Olympic Stadium regularly hosts events at such times at Khmer New Year.
• Kbach Kun Dambong Vèng was effectively a form of fighting and defence. Each ‘’battler’’ has a long staff to use against an opponent. Today, Kbach Kun Dambong Vèng is very popular with youth who compete in sports clubs around the country.
• Pradal Serey is something that tourists travelling through South East Asia on an Indochina travel package, may see elsewhere on their holiday as well. It is kick boxing as practised by the Khmer centuries ago. The fight in a boxing ring takes place over five rounds with a break of up to two minutes between rounds. Praying rituals take place before every bout; Kun Krou. Once the fight starts, so does the traditional music using the Skor Yaul, a drum, the Sralai, similar to a flute, and the Chhing, a stringed instrument. Each competitor wears boxing gloves and shorts and the winner is the one who knocks an opponent down for a count of ten seconds or the one who gets the most points over the five rounds. Many fights actually end in draws and everyone is happy.
If you go on a Cambodia holiday, you should ask about the country’s martial; arts because they are something different from what you may have seen at home. They are part of the national culture and likely to remain so, especially if they can attract the audiences currently attending performances.