Cambodian and Thai Martial Arts Explained

In Martial Arts on January 31, 2009 at 4:39 pm

alight3  By Antonio Graceffo

Since the launch of my web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” more than 18 months ago, I have received a lot of email asking about Khmer and Thai martial arts, what they are, and which is better. This is just a brief overview to help people understand the martial arts of Cambodia and Thailand. You can also google my name, plus the words “Khmer martial arts” or Muay Thai and find more in-depth stories I have done on those arts. Also, you can see “Martial Arts Odyssey” on youtube, for free. Or you can get some of my books on Martial Arts Odyssey Cambodia has exactly three martial arts. 1. Bradal Serey (Pradal Serey), which is kick boxing, with nearly exactly the same rules and style as Muay Thai. Bradal Serey is the national sport, and the national television networks features professional fights weekly. 2. Bokator (Boxkator) which 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. 3. Japbab Boran Khmer (Khmer wrestling) 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. There are numerous Khmer words which mean fighting or martial art Khorm Yuth, Labok Katao, Kbach Kun Khmer, Wy Khun, Yuthakun, Yuth….but it is all either Bokator or Bradal Serey. One more name I found on the web was Kbach Kun Dambong Veng, which just means short Khmer fighting stick. It is not a separate art but just a small piece of Bokator. Over the last five years, I have met, interviewed, photographed and trained with nearly every single Khmer Bokator master except for two or three who I plan to go see when I return to Cambodia. Grand Master San Kim Saen opened his school in Phnom Penh, which is the largest Bokator club in Cambodia. He has had literally thousands of students in the last few years alone. Most of the other masters I visited had at most twenty students, many of whom weren’t active. Grand Master spent years codifying the system, writing it down, photographing it, and collecting styles and movements from everywhere. The other masters all had their specialty, such as sword or stick or kick boxing, but San Kim Saen was the only one with the complete style. By traveling to various small Bokator clubs around the country you can learn various techniques, but you can learn literally all of them at the club in Phnom Penh. No one knows the exact age of Bokator. The first known reference to Bokator is in the carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat Temple, made between 900 and 1,000 years ago. Anything else about the origin and history of the art is legend, theory and conjecture. The first articles written about the art are only a few years old. Bradal Serey probably had very distinct styles at one time, but since the Khmer Rouge killed most of the masters and practitioners, the few who survived have had to build up the art from nothing. As a result, Bradal Serey is pretty much homogenous throughout the country. Also, as it is a competitive, professional fighting sport, it is subjected to rules, which fairly standardize the art. There are differences from teacher to teacher, but these are more because of personalities, methods…not truly codified style differences. In Thailand there are two martial arts, Muay Thai and Krabi Krabong. If you would consider Muay Thai Boran a separate art, then Thailand has three arts. There are countless styles of Muay Thai depending on which part of the country you come from and which master you follow, but it is all Muay Thai. When they fight professionally the rules are the same. Some styles, such as Muay Chaya are very old, and there are written documents dating back several hundred years. Others, such as Muay Thai Sangha, a religious form of Muay Thai, are fairly new, with the founder still living. Krabi Krabong is fighting with stick and sword. Krabi Krabong is often incorporated into Muay Thai Boran to the point that it is almost never taught separately. Muay Thai Boran, Boran just means ancient, Muay Thai Boran has more techniques than modern Muay Thai because it has many moves which would be illegal in professional fighting. Muay Thai Boran doesn’t use gloves, so there is a bit more stand up grappling and throwing. Muay Thai Boran also doesn’t actually fight. So, there are more flying knees and flying elbows and techniques which are dramatic to watch. If you see a Tony Jaa film you will see Muay Thai Boran. As a side note, there has been much debate as to whether Tony Jaa is Khmer or Thai and if his art is Bokator or Boran. There are even rumors he trained in Cambodia. To find the answer, I traveled to Khmer Surin province, Thailand, where I sought out and trained with Jaa’s first teacher, Sok Chai. Accompanied by Khmer monk friends, I also visited his house and interviewed his parents. We went to the elephant village where Jaa was born and explored the temple where his father had been a monk. The answer is, Jaa is from Khmer Surin, so he and his parents speak Khmer. In fact, our interview was conducted in Khmer. His ethnicity however, will probably be a shock to all but die-hard fans. He is a member of the Kuy tribe, who are the royal elephant keepers, who have served His Majesty, the King of Thailand for generations. Jaa’s father confirmed that Jaa’s first visit to Cambodia was tied to the release of the film “Ang Bak,” So, there is no way he could have studied Bokator in Cambodia before becoming fanmous. I also interviewed nearly every master in Cambodia, all of whom confirmed that Jaa was never their student. Finally, his first teacher, Ajan Sok Chai, who is also from Surin, is ethnic Thai, not Khmer. He taught Tony Jaa Muay Thai Boran and movie fighting. Saddly. it is nearly 100% certain that Jaa has never studied, and possibly, never heard of Bokator. Khmers believe that Muay Thai Boran was stolen from Bokator and this would explain similarities between the arts. No one knows for sure, but what is certain is that knowledge and borrowing of culture and martial arts flowed in both directions across the Thai-Cambodian border. It is unlikely that there was ever a time that one or the other of these two countries didn’t have some type of fighting system. With the possible exception of a very large sword academy outside of Bangkok, Muay Thai Boran and Krabi Krabong are taught as extras at Muay Thai camps and schools. Because there are no professional fights in these two arts, fighters can’t afford to spend a lot of time learning them. Most only pick up a few moves and spend their energy and time concentrating on the money art, Muay Thai. Many traditionalist Muay Thai trainers teach their students legal Muay Thai Boran moves because they believe that the old ways are the most lethal in the ring. Famous people who fall into this category include Prah Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, Thailand’s last warrior monk, who I trained with at Wat Acha Thong. The fighetrs learn the Boran style, but then get in a real professional ring and fight for money. Another exception was Kru Pedro, who founded Muay Thai Sangha. He no longer allows his students to fight for money, however. And, most famous of all was Nong Tum, the “Beautiful Boxer.” Whichever art came first, or who stole from whom, is a mute point. Modern Bokator is a codified martial art with a prescribed system of movements, tests, and belts, taught in a systematic fashion, leading to Black Krama. Muay Thai Boran/Krabi Krabong are generally taught sporadically, a few moves here and there. Bradal Serey, Muay Thai, Bokator, and Muay Thai Boran all include stand up grappling. In Thailand, the words “jap ko” are often used. This literally means, “grab the neck.” Only Bokator has ground fighting. Bokator encompasses all of the movements of Bradal Serey plus all of the movements of Khmer wrestling. In my Odyssey through southeast Asian martial arts, Cambodia seemed to be the only country which still practices traditional wrestling. If Thailand ever had traditional wrestling, it has died out. I couldn’t find traditional wrestling or martial art in Lao, although Muay Lao (kickboxing) is still being trained and fought at the national stadium. There is or was an ancient Lao form of martial art, called Ling Lam, but I was unable to find it while I was there. In Vietnam, the traditional art, Vo Vinam had some elements which were similar to Khmer arts, but seemed more closely to resemble a mix of Chinese and North East Asian Arts. There were rumors that traditional wrestling still existed, but I was unable to find it. So, I will be returning to both Vietnam and Lao. Vietnam did not have a traditional kickboxing art of any kind. In fact there is no professional fighting in Vietnam at all. Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the host “Martial Arts Odyssey,” a web TV show which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries. See it on youtube. Martial Arts Odyssey His books are available on Contact him: Join him on His website is Khmer, Cambodian, box,boxing, fighting, muay, thai, lao, laos, kick, boxing, kickboxing, martial, arts, odyssey, Brooklyn, monk, brooklynmonk, Antonio, Graceffo

  1. “One more name I found on the web was Kbachkun Dambong Veng, which just means short Khmer fighting stick. It is not a separate art but just a small piece of Bokator.”

    Yea, it is a different art. Its similar to Indian stick fighting. Its different than Bokator stick fighting and no it doesnt mean ” short khmer fighting stick”, it means “martial arts technique of the LONG STAFF”.

    • i accidently said short stick instead of long, but that is exactly what those words mean. if it is a separate art then we need to ask where it is actually being practiced. let me know, and i will go investigate it.

  2. Burma has traditonal wrestling. You forgot Ledrit and Muay Boran is differnt to Muay Thai.

    • actually i work in shan state of burma so i have only seen shan martial arts lai tai. i also know about lethwei burmese boxing. i dont doubt you that burma has wrestling. sadly, i havent seen it yet. i didnt forget that boran is different than muay thai, in fact about half of this article explained the differences between the two

  3. There are no ethnic Thai in Surin. There either Issan or Lao.

    • you are right that most of issan is lao or thai, but thais make up 40% of the total population. khmers make up a significant percentage of the population of surin and there is a khmer surin dialect.

  4. Is Buakaw Por Pramuk Khmer or Thai?

  5. You never heard of Buakaw Por Pramuk? Buakaw Por Pramuk is a famous Muay Thai fighter. He was a K1 world max champion. There are some rumors that say his ethnicity is khmer.

    • I just checked the wikipedia link you sent me, it says right at the top that he is from khmer surin. so he is probably khmer ethnicity but with thai passport. most people in khmer surin can speak khmer but cant read it or write it

  6. Are you asking me some locations of where it is practice?

    • yes, where is it practiced and who is the master? i personally have met and or trained with all of the masters in cambodia except two or three who i know of and will see when i go bacl

  7. Long Beach, California, united states

    dont know where this guy is based. but he is good.

    Takéo Province

  8. How can you say you met almost all martial arts master in Cambodia? Have you met every single person in Cambodia? Even hermits who live away from society and the community….Im assuming you met Yuth Phouthorng.

  9. I cant believed Tony Jaa’s true ethnicity untill I see a video of him saying his true ethnicity.

  10. Toni,

    How are you? First and foremost, on behalf of the Khmer people, I like to thanks you for displaying the Khmer martial to the world. Your hard works are very much appreciated.

    I like to share with you some information about L’Bokatao (you spelled Bokator). You can find more information on my web site First, please keep it in mind of the Khmer and Latin. Khmer language spell (let me try my best to keep as close as possible to it the original sound) in Latin as “L_Bok_Kak_Tao” this word has its meaning per the Khmer dictionary dated 1967 as twin short staffs used to defense against long staff (the Dambang Veng) and the second meaning is the name of Khmer martial art aka Kun L’Bokatao. Second, Kun L’Bokatao is also known as “Kbach Kun Boran Khmer.” As far as I know and study, Kbach Kun Boran Khmer has 12 original Mae (fighting forms), it has 12 Twear (doors system), and it has 12 original Mae Dambang Veng, Dambang Klay (short twin sticks), Dha (twin swords), Jrabap (wrestling) and etc…

    One Mae can be breaking down to many techniques. For example Mae Sam_Tom, Boran Mae 1, can break down to 10 killing techniques. And each of those killing techniques can even break down further. So, each Mae can be multiplied by many sub-techniques, but the main is not to get confuse with the concept because each Mae has it own conceptual and philosophy.

    The idea of “smashing the lion” as the Khmer language pronounced “Bok_Tor” as you spell in Latin as Bokator, is some what a myth. For one, lion does not live in the tropical climate like Cambodia and two, when L’Bokatao was invented, Khmer speak and used the Sanskrit and Pali, the Nokor Phnom ( as the Chinese pronounces it as “Funan”), please see written on the wall of Angkor. So, the time-line makes sense of how it spelled and pronounced of L_Bok_Kak_Tao as appose to Bok_Tor.

    I am all about protecting, preserving and promoting ORIGIN of the Khmer heritage, but also wanted the truth of its development and history. By the way there is a new Khmer book title “’L’ Baxkator Khmer Boxing Heritage” by Lok Kru Meas Sok printed 2007 but only 1500 copies and only available in Khmer language. Good luck to your journey and exploration deep into the historical prove of the Khmer Empire-South East Asia. I hope to meet you in person someday.

    • this is all great what you said except for one point, the khmer never spoke pali, they only used that written langauge never the spoken language. i agree there are no lions in cambodia so the story can’t be true about the lion. the master uses the word doors, twea, but i never heard the word mae. i know meas sok, is his full name meas sokry? if it is, i know him and interviewed him for my bokator book. there are also two other books, sponsored by one of the khmer princesses, written right after the vietnamese time in cambodia, early 1990’s which contained an old khmer poem about how they learned sword from lao and kicks from thailand and kung fu from china….but the book was not well documented, so i have no idea where this poem is meant to have come from or how anyone knew it todat. sadly the only good dictionary and lnaguge books for khmer and english were done in 1967, paid for by US CIA. but i wonder if in france there is more information. what country do you live in.

  11. I apologize, you are right. However, I was thinking, the Sanskrit and Pali were heavily influenced, especially in the royal and religious such as Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s influenced not on an everyday speaking but more of the ritual practiced. In addition, it influence help developed the Khmer alphabet consonants voiced (deep voice of Sanskrit) and unvoiced (light voice of Pali). The spelling of L’Bokatao has combination of voiced and unvoiced alphabet. For example L’Bok has voice alphabet of “Lo” and added the subscript consonants of unvoiced “B” then add the vowel diacritics, which also transform the sound according to voiced or unvoiced alphabet, of “O” and add the unvoiced “Ka” and subscript of “K”. So, to be exact of the Latin spell should be LBok_Kak_Tao.

    Twea and Mae are the heart and soul of Kbach Kun Boran Khmer L’Bokatao. Twea translates as doors (emphasis of foot works) and Mae or Mdiey (emphasis of leading techniques) translates as mother, leader or chief. The word “Mae” have link and traced back to the Khmer Baku of “Mae Ba Ta Preah Chai.” Before Khmer formed the first kingdom of Nokor Phnom, the Mon-Khmer lives as tribes, pretty much scattered all over the South East Asia. When Khmer established it first kingdom, they break a way from the Mon and became just Khmer or Kingdom of Kambuja or the Nokor Phom (Funan is a more well known among historians). In the ancient Khmer culture, females leaders, but protected by the males, hence “Mae”, “Ba.” The Construction of Angkor Wat and many other historical monuments symbolize the Khmer Baku religion of Mae Ba Ta Preah Chai. The monuments are the Mae and water surround it are the Ba. In the culture aspect, for example, Mae Pum – lead chief of village, Mae Krum – lead chief of group, Mae Tiep – lead chief of warrior etc. In the martial aspect, Mae is lead techniques. I usually explain my students Mae as a symbols or formulas mathematic equation. Mae covers the human body from head down to toes. For example Mae SamTom (Boran Mae 1) is a defensive of hands, where Mae Wai Mouyjom is a defensive of hitting in different angles and targets sequentially. Can the Mae be used in the actual fight? You can ask the same on the mathematic equation, is the equation is the solution? Absolutely not, they are there as guideline to solve certain problem or defensive solution. One must study the Mae and understand it by breaking the Mae down to simple form or Sneet – techniques. One Mae can be breaking down to many techniques.

    L’Bokatao is a Kbach Kun Boran Khmer and for someone who is a master and not knowing the Mae is much like saying a mathematician does not know what the mathematic equation. BTW, the L’Bokatao book was written by Kru Meas Sok not Meas Sokry. Kru Meas Sok has school in Kompot province. According to him, there is a hand written book which were stolen by the Thai, but brought back and kept protect by the monk. It’s funny when you said, “Khmer poem…learn sword from Lao…kick from Thailand and Kun Fu from China…” I am not where is that come from, but Khmer was an empire and the L’Bokatao was invented about 257 A.D. according to Kru Meas Sok documented from the book protected by the monk, long before there was Lao or Thailand (Siam). In addition, the Chinese envoys came to first contact with the Khmer not until later during the Funan, in fact one of the Chinese historians even suggested that the ancient Chinese origin of some Mon-Khmer words see link

    P.S. You are right good copies of dictionary are for those print or re-print of the 1967. The one I am using is from Ta Chouen Nat and was printed by the France. I live in the United States, current teach Kback Kun Boran Khmer at the Ohio States University.

  12. WTW, is the movie “Bokator” completed?

  13. Dear Brooklyn monk,

    firstly let me say… i admire the work you do!

    From reading your article about your research into the Khmer ancient fighting art i would like to express a view about it as i am a big fan of this art as well.
    Firstly we should look at the history of the country and the people or the native people of this golden land of southeast asia or Sovannaphum in Khmer. As you well aware that Khmer had a great empire starting from the 7th century. Now lets analyse the time when the Indian scholars and traders first settled in this area of Cambodia now and in ancient time. Note before the arrival of the Indians to this golden land there were a lot of tribal groups which share similar customs and tribal dialect and of the same blood line. To mention a few tribes that existed in modern or ancient Cambodia would be the Kuy, Samre, Stieng, Montardard and the Mons etc.. And of course to become an Empire was to unite all the small states into one and come up with a new name and to use one official language,in this case was Khmer was formed. This idea was definitely past on by the Indians scholars or king-amongst them there was a king who got married to one of local chief tribe-note tribal custom a female is the chief. So the history of Cambodia started there. So let’s consider the time it would have taken the Indians scholars to teach the locals to create a new culture, and in my view i think a good a few hundred years to establish the modern Khmer culture- as it stared from 7th century and was at its peak in the 12th century. Note considering Indian arrival to the area was in the early christian era.

    So in regards to the ancient Khmer fighting art it would have created before the Khmer Empire itself because they must have use this art to defend their territory from the enemy… like the Tai/Thai and the Vietnamese.

    Now the question of who created this art? Khmer or Thai?
    lets look at the people of Thailand, majority of them are the Tai decedent from southern China and the other are the Khmer decedent which of some do still speak Khmer,eg, Khmer from Surin, Sisaket, Buriram and Nakhornrachasima.

    And in the case of Tony Jaa he is Khmer from Surin even though he is Kuy tribe and Kuy tribe was integrated into Khmer Empire. There are some Kuy words in Khmer language, Ar-Jor means a dog in Kuy, Khmer now use Ar-Chkae to call a dog. However Khmer calender is still using the word JOR for the year of the dog…

    well for now i hope i have put in some sense into the Khmer history and arts…
    I will analyze more points in regards to this topics…. as it is getting late at night for me… cheers

  14. This article mentions Meas Sok. He is a different Bokator teacher that thinks Grandmaster Sean’s techniques are unauthentic.

    • yeah i was in phnom penh when this was written and i know the journalist Kay Kimsong and i also know meas sokry. there is so much stupid argument and fighting inside of the martial arts community. but the bottom line is, any of these masters could have been the ones to bring the re-birth of bokator, but it was san kim saen who did it. and he saved the art. the rest of them would let it die out. also, if his techniques are authentic or not doesnt even matter. THERE IS NO WRITTEN history, there is nothing, nothing at all to prove it should be this way or that way. san kim saen is making the name and spirit of bokator live. the others are only arguing silly points.

  15. Bokator and La’Bokator are used interchangeably. There is no need for argument as to which word is the most appropriate. the Khmer movie “Sovan macha”(i believe this is the title) from the pre-Pol Pot era made reference to this art and used both term.

    It is not outlandish to say the term “Bokator” means to fight a lion. You can argue that there are no lions in Cambodia so it does not make sense to say “Bokator”, but let me ask, are there nagas in Cambodia? Yet one of the most sacred creator in Khmer religion is a naga and they decorate all entrances to Angkor. Likewise the same goes for the mythical creature Garuda.

    How can anyone say there is no lion in Cambodia when the Lions guards the doors to Banteay Srei, Kok Ker temple and other ancient ruins? Even if there aren’t lions in the physical sense, by the stone statues it is obvious Khmer are aware of an existence of lions. It could be just an adoption of another Hindu symbol, or there could really be lions in Cambodia more than a thousand years ago.

    If I ask many young Cambodians, and even Cambodians who write in this blog today if they believe rhinoceros existed in Cambodia who would say that it does or even that they or their parents ever saw one? Yet rhinoceros do exist, and there accounts them sent as gift to Chinese emperor is documented proof. Actually, rhinoceros didn’t even completely disappear in Cambodia and Kampuchea Krom until the end of the French occupation. Poaching.

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