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The medieval martial art that survived a modern genocide

BarcelonaEverything is represented on the walls of the Angkor Wat temples: life, death and passion. The fantastic Khmer temples that for centuries were hidden in the heart of the Cambodian jungle are full of reliefs that explain what life was like in that empire. On the stone walls, deities share spaces with humans, with representations of how love was made and how it was fought. Cambodia is full of archaeological ruins that demonstrate the practice of martial arts over 2,000 years ago, and the most special is the bokatora practice that would mean, in the Khmer language, hit a lion. Legend has it that one of the monarchs who created Angkor Wat hunted down the country’s largest lion with a single knee strike. Yes, knees are key in this sport.

The bokator it is very dangerous It’s a martial art in which you can hit your opponents with elbows and knees, often after making a spectacular jump to gain speed. It is the evolution of the combat exercises of the medieval Khmer armies, in which a special technique was developed to be able to fight in small spaces such as the chambers of the palaces of the temples. And in these spaces you had to use your elbows and knees. The bokator is very similar to tomorrow muay thai, where there are also big flying kicks and rituals before going into combat, with prayers and dances. A sport with different modalities where weapons are used, such as bamboo sticks or swords, with thousands of blows and techniques. You can spend your whole life practicing it and not learn them all. Nowadays, of course, safety rules have been established, such as limiting fights to five minutes and banning blows to the neck, back and genitals. Also, a referee stops the bout when one of the two fighters is touched. It must be done, since in the past it was a cruel sport in which you fought with a rope tied to your fist in order to hurt your opponent more. And 100 years ago there were still exhibitions with real swords after which more than one did not return home.

The bokator is in good health today, although it came close to disappearing during the regime of Pol Pot (1975–1979), when this Khmer Rouge leader established a communist regime that advocated the need to create a new agricultural society destroying cities and bourgeois culture and started the path of genocide where they emptied the capital and killed people for reasons like wearing glasses or speaking French. More than a million people were killed. Also to practice the bokator, considered too monarchical a practice. Almost all the coaches of bokator they were executed, but one of them, San Kim Sean, was able to escape to the United States, where he kept this sport alive by teaching it in gyms in California to young people who, as if it were a movie, were fascinated for the Asian struggles, with those dances and rituals.

In 1992 San Kim Sean returned to Cambodia, where in 2001 he would receive permission from the king to create a network of schools of bokator. San Kim Sean traveled all over the country to find old masters of bokator that they had survived the genocide denying for decades that they had practiced it. And with them he was able to create a network of regional schools with which in 2006 he was able to organize the first national championships in Phnom Penh. Currently, the bokator it has become popular in the United States and France thanks to the migrant communities and young Westerners who have discovered it, fascinated by a sport where the fights last five minutes, always with live music, which creates a very particular atmosphere. A game of extremes: music and fighting, joy and pain, life and death. As in the walls of Angkor Wat.

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