In Pictures: The Khmer warrior-artists

Traditional Cambodian martial arts are fighting back, with kickboxers raising their sport's profile internationally.


Phnom Penh, Cambodia - In the past few years, Cambodia has been trying to make a comeback in the martial arts world. Its ancestral stories, engraved in the stones of the famous Angkor temples, speak of brave warriors that once dominated the region. Fighting has long been a constant part of Southeast Asian cultural tradition. In the Angkor era, the Khmers practiced both armed martial arts such as Bokator, and unarmed varieties such as Pradal Serey and Kun Khmer.

Banned during the Pol Pot regime, many Khmer fighters were exterminated in the Cambodian genocide, in which approximately two million people perished. Some fighters who were able to flee the country, such as San Kim San, have since brought Bokator back to Cambodia - and are now trying their best to raise the sport's profile throughout the world.  

Today, nearly 100 gyms train the new generation of Khmer martial artists across the country. National television channels show almost daily fights in the arenas of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. 

Despite the growing popularity of Kun Khmer, most Cambodian boxers compete simply to earn money to help their families.

As they earn a very small amount from the fights, most fighters still need other jobs to make a decent living; only those fighters who are sponsored or who have the opportunity to participate in international tournaments can make a living from the martial art.

With purses for most fights ranging from $15 to $100, most martial artists work in jobs that allow them to have free hours for the hard training needed. Many are also rewarded by spectators who may give them part of their gambling earnings after their fierce battles in the arena.