Grand Master San Kimsean, widely recognized as the father of modern Bokator, has dedicated his life to reviving the ancient Khmer martial art. His tenacious efforts have focused on restoring Bokator as a cultural heritage, sport, form of entertainment, and a way of life that Khmer people can once again take pride in.
Through his energetic promotion of Bokator worldwide, including events, demonstrations, and competitions, he has played a crucial role in gaining UNESCO recognition for Khmer culture.
Kimsean's journey in Bokator began at the age of 13 when he instinctively started training in martial arts. Back then, he was unaware of the significance of Bokator but remained dedicated to mastering the martial art.
However, during the tumultuous period of the Pol Pot regime, he experienced the horrors of war and eventually resettled in the United States. It was during his time in the US that he realized the absence of Khmer martial arts in the global martial arts landscape, and he felt deep concern for the loss of his cultural heritage.
Motivated by a strong desire to preserve and promote Bokator, Kimsean returned to Cambodia. He embarked on extensive research into Bokator, despite facing challenges due to the secrecy and tragedy surrounding the art during the Pol Pot era.
He also sought to persuade those who possessed knowledge of Bokator to share their expertise and contribute to the compilation of a comprehensive Bokator book. His ultimate goal was to ensure that Bokator would not be lost to future generations.
“Bokator represents the essence of the Khmer nation and an integral part of our ancestral culture, originating from the Moha Norkor period. We must not allow this precious heritage to be lost. If my generation is lost and does nothing, the next generation will not know and our culture will be lost,” Kimsean said.
Over the course of 20 years, now the Grand Master is 78-years-old and has spent hard work to collect and preserve more than 3,000 Bokator martial arts techniques that embody the nation's characteristics.
He added that he is willing to spend his entire life preserving, compiling, and promoting Bokator, with the aim of securing its place in reputable events such as the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) and obtaining recognition from UNESCO.
In November 2022, UNESCO officially inscribed Cambodia’s “Kun Lbokator”, commonly known as Bokator, on the World Heritage intangible heritage list.
Cambodia hosted the 32nd SEA Games this month and won 18 medals in Bokator.
Kimsean was responsible for compiling the knowledge of Bokator and believes that action is necessary for the next generation to be aware of Cambodia's rich heritage. He said he sacrificed everything for the “Surviving Bokator”, a 2018 film.
He emphasizes the importance of preserving and spreading Bokator, stating that once it is preserved, it cannot be lost to any country, and it can contribute to the advancement of Khmer civilization.
“The compilation of Bokator is a fruitful endeavor that enriches the Khmer people with a martial arts legacy in order for Khmer to have Khmer martial arts or Bokator martial arts.”
According to Kimsean, training in Bokator from a young age allows individuals to consider themselves successors of this martial art. He added that not only does Bokator empower practitioners to defend themselves and their nation, but it also holds immense value as a precious diamond among various martial arts disciplines.
“Bokator is a precious diamond. It is a gift that we should all strive to learn, even if it is not in our immediate interest. We may not be able to become millionaires practicing martial arts, but I want to be given the name, a millionaire is Kun Bokotor martial arts.”
Kimsean encourages the Cambodian generation in promoting, preserving, developing, maintaining, and disseminating the essence of Cambodian culture. By instilling the Khmer soul in the younger generation, more individuals will be inspired to train in Bokator, fostering strength and spreading its influence to the world.
Kimsean reveals that the government is currently considering the inclusion of Bokator as a sport in the curriculum for grades 1 to 12. Recognizing the benefits of learning martial arts, this initiative aims to preserve Khmer martial arts, promote physical fitness, foster unity, enhance self-defense strategies, and instill the Khmer spirit within children.
In discussing the diverse range of martial arts, Kimsean highlights its presence in events such as the SEA Games, where martial arts practitioners, teachers, and enthusiasts of all ages come together.
Kimsean expresses his hope for the younger generation to carry on his legacy, ensuring the continued prosperity of Bokator martial arts. As he grows older, he relies on the support and involvement of the younger generation to assist in the conservation and advancement of this martial art form.
He added, “If we do not preserve our national soul, we will be lost. We must all work together to ensure that our culture and traditions are passed onto future generations. When the next generation has a strong national spirit, there will be more trainers, more strong people, and more people to preach our culture to the world.”
One of the Grand Master's aspirations is for the next generation to have a clear understanding and deep appreciation for national heritage. He believes that when individuals have a strong sense of their own identity, they are not afraid of losing it.
“Surviving Bokator” is the only film to capture this historic period of Bokator’s resurrection, including modern Bokator’s first-ever win in a world competition. For this reason, it has become a world cultural record.
He said “Surviving Bokator is a re-compilation and resurrection of the history of Bokator.”
Bokator was nearly eradicated by the Khmer Rouge 40 years ago and was feared extinct. Filmed over five years, this powerful award-winning documentary is a unique look into post-war people’s efforts to reclaim their traditional identity and find their place in a modern world.