With the opening of a new school for Khmer arts in Phnom Penh, journalist Clothilde Le Coz investigates the ancient martial art of yutakhun khöm, commonly known as bokator, and finds a family fighting to keep tradition alive. Photography by Dylan Maddux.

Don’t tell Chan Rothana he’s a bokator boxer. “People call it bokator, but that’s not the right name. It’s an art, not just a sport,” he smiles.

The 27-year-old has fought more than 80 times in the ring, has never been knocked down, and knows 500 moves since his father began teaching him yutakhun khöm — often known by the simpler term bokator — 10 years ago.

“Yutakhun khöm is unique and nobody really deeply knows what it is about,” he continues. “I got it from my father, who got it from his father, and it has been going that way for generations.”

In Khmer, yutakhun khöm means ‘martial art of the moon’ while bokator, meaning ‘the lion move’, is just one of the fighting style’s 9,953 techniques, most of which refer to animal hunting moves.

Known since the creation of the Angkor Kingdom, the art was meant to protect and defend borders. Fighters knew how to kill with their bare hands. Every strike and move learned could take a life away. It still can.

“This is why the Angkor Kingdom was the most powerful of the region in the ancient times after China and India,” says Rothana’s father, Lok Kru Chan Bunthoeun, who is one of only two yutakhun khöm masters left in the country. “Khmer could fight Thai, Vietnamese, Koreans and Lao that way and protect the Kingdom.”

Historically, yutakhun khöm was a military strategy and foreigners could not learn its techniques. Some fights were put on as shows for the king and ended with the death of one of the fighters. To remember them, each fight now begins with a melody to celebrate the deceased.

A fighter can chose the ‘kropeu ha’ (attacking crocodile), the ‘kla kap’ (bending tiger) or any other animal to act as a ‘totem’. The beast becomes a symbol and a lifetime ‘mentor’, inspiring the fighter to act like the animal.

“Fighters used to train like their totems,” explains Chan Bunthoeun. In ancient times, they would reach to the sky by climbing trees like monkeys, or sharpen their claws on bark like tigers. “To win, the only secret was to be able to become the animal; live, hunt and eat like it,” he adds.

Generally, fighters chose to act like the tiger or the lion in order to become invincible. “My animal is the magic eagle [called a Keno] and I should train with only three fingers on each hand to learn every move and strengthen my body,” says Rothana, who is known as the “flying feet and fists.”

Mixing technique, mind and spirit, his name is a legend among fighters. It is said that his grandfather, a fighter too, trained with bags of sand while stones were thrown at his jaws to strengthen them and allow him to endure every strike.

Being the son of a master requires discipline, belief and strength. But such strength is nothing without spirit. Chan Rothana has had several tattoos drawn on his skin with incense by both a monk and his father. “They are protecting me even if you do not see them,” he says. “And it seems to be working.”

Scoring invisible tattoos on the skin before each fight is a ritual that hasn’t changed since Angkorian times. “We draw invisible and magic tattoos on the sole of the foot with the name of the enemy, pray for the fighter and wish the opponent to lose,” says Chan Bunthoeun, who has performed the tradition on his son’s feet since his first fight.

“This is what will change everything during the fight. If you really believe in it, it will work. Otherwise, it won’t,” he explains.

For Chan Bunthoeun, a lack of such belief can be the only reason for his son to lose. “He knows much more techniques and strikes than any of his opponents. If he loses, it means he did not believe enough in the power of his tattoos.”

Tired of seeing people watching yutakhun khöm like a television soap opera, Rothana has taken on a new challenge by opening a club to teach the techniques, but also the spirit of the art, to students.

After crossing paths with Apsara teacher Sen Pich, they gave birth to the Selapak living arts school in Phnom Penh, which opened in mid-June. Even if foreigners were not originally supposed to learn fighting moves, opening the doors to others may be the only way to protect the art.

“People have a tendency to forget”, Chan Bunthoeun says, sharing his pride of seeing his son launch the school.

“When he was a kid, [my wife and I] did not want anything — not even an ant — to touch him… we are proud. It is important for our country,” he concludes.

The Selapak School is located at 117 Street 110. Rothana and Sen provide Yutakhun Khöm and Apsara classes all week. For more information, call 089 793 239 or email selapak.cambodia@yahoo.com