Pradal Serey (Khmer Boxing)
Pradal Serey (English: Khmer Boxing) is the Khmer name for a system of Indochinese martial arts practiced in several Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand (where it is called Muay Thai), Malaysia (where it is called Tomoi), Laos (where it is called Muay Lao) and as a similar style in Myanmar (called Lethwei). Pradal means fight and serey means free.
Translated literally, it means “Free Fighting”. Pradal Serey is founded on four techniques which consists of: blows of the fist, kicks (comprising of kicks from the shin and feet), blows of the elbow, and blows of the knee. The clinch is also used to wear down the opponent.
Pradal Serey, or Khmer Boxing, means “free fighting style” in Khmer language. It is believed to be the oldest of South East Asia’s ancient martial arts. Bas-reliefs at the Bayon, in the ancient city of Angkor, show Khmer soldiers displaying combat techniques involving knees, elbows and kicks. Even though any written record of Khmer boxing had been lost for centuries, it is believed by the Cambodians that this was the army’s standard combat style at the time of the Khmer Empire’s maximum expansion (9th century AD).
Compared to their Thai counterparts, the Cambodians tend to be more elusive and shifty in their fighting stances. The Khmer style also tends to use more elbow techniques than the other regions.
The modern Pradal Serey differs from the original art. The technique and moves of the art have changed to support the sport version seen today.
History: Styles of boxing have been practiced in Southeast Asia since ancient times and were developed through the influence of martial arts from India and China. In the Angkor era, both armed and unarmed martial arts were practiced by the Khmers.
Evidence shows that a style resembling Pradal Serey existed around the 9th century. The art is believed to be the fighting system of the Angkor army and one of the reasons why the Khmer empire was such a dominant force in South East Asia.
At this time, the kingdom of Angkor dominated and controlled most of what is now Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. This leads the Khmer to believe that Pradal Serey predates other Southeast Asian forms of kickboxing. The basis of this argument is the bas-relief left behind by early Khmers in the ancient temples of the Bayon and other Angkor temples.
Much of the writing on ancient Khmer art has either been destroyed or adopted by the invading Thai armies when the Siamese sacked and looted Angkor and took Khmer captives including members of the Khmer royal court back to Ayutthaya. There have been heated debates between nations about the true origins of South East Asian kickboxing.
Khmer boxing was on the verge of extinction, together with all forms of Khmer culture, during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). In order to rapidly create a new, ultra-Maoist society based on an Utopian, agricultural life as in the centuries before, the Khmer Rouge announced Year Zero and systematically destroyed the country’s infrastructure.
All “enemies of the revolution” were executed. These included teachers, aristocrats, educated people, monks, doctors, artists, foreign speaking Cambodians, actors, singers and Khmer boxing practitioners. Everybody else was sent for re-education to labor camps upcountry, which later became sadly known as the “killing fields”. Millions died of starvation, diseases and summary executions. A big portion of the centuries-old Khmer cultural heritage, including pradal serey and its teachers, disappeared in only four years.
Following the country’s slow recovery from the 20 years-old civil war that erupted after the Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979, Khmer boxing slowly resurfaced in small, private schools in Phnom Penh. Far from being commercial operations, such schools were created by survivors, to pass whatever was left of pradal serey to the new generations, thus keeping the country’s heritage alive. Since 2003, Khmer boxing has been officially supported by the Government as an important part of the Khmer heritage and it’s attracting a growing number of young athletes. Professional fighters now earn a living from sponsorships and cash prizes, but they’re far behind their Thai counterparts in terms of income. On average, a professional Khme boxer earns 20 USD a fight, plus some goods from the sponsors, mostly Thai-based companies already involved in muay thai events in Thailand.
Cambodian authorities have been very vocal about the history of their native martial art, especially with their Thai neighbors. Whilst pradal serey was already around approximately one thousand years ago, no such thing as muay thai, or even muay Siam, was recorded at the time. Moreover, they argue that when the Khmer empire collapsed in the 12th century AD and Angkor was abandoned to the jungle, Siamese intruders captured Khmer soldiers and assimilated their captives’ fighting style into their own army’s standard. Thus pradal serey is, according to Cambodians, the true ancestor of muay boran and so of muay thai!
From a spectator’s point of view, Khmer boxing appears very, very similar to muay thai. In truth, many techniques derived from muay boran are actually known and permitted in muay thai professional bouts, but they are very rarely implemented. Cambodian fighters instead rely much more on elbws and knees, often performing stilish and graceful moves reminding of muay boran forgotten moves.
The Near Extinction of Pradal Serey: On April 17, 1975, during the chaos of the Vietnam War, a communist group called “The Khmer Rouge” overthrew the Cambodian government and rose to power after Lon Nol’s U.S. puppet military dictatorship government was crumbling after America left the Vietnam War . The Khmer Rogue’s plan was to eliminate modern society and create an agriculture utopia.
The Khmer Rouge executed all educated people, others who had ties to the old government or anyone who was believed to be an enemy (doctors, teachers, soldiers, actors, singers, Khmer boxers, etc.) and threw the remaining Khmer population into labor camps, in which many died of starvation and diseases, to be re-educated under the new government. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians or 20% of the population died during Khmer Rouge Regime. This lasted for four years until 1979 when the Vietnamese along with ex-Khmer Rouge officers overthrew the Khmer Rouge.
Pradal Serey had been banned during the Khmer Rouge era and many boxers were executed which caused the art of Khmer Kickboxing to be almost wiped out from Khmer history. Today Pradal Serey is being revived in Cambodia after peace has finally been established.
Pradal Serey Today: Pradal Serey is making a strong comeback since its banishment back in the 70’s. Numerous gyms have opened and large masses of students, local and foreign, have come to train in Cambodia. There are weekly matches held, in which many are televised, and many of Cambodia’s best have traveled internationally to compete. There are currently about 70 boxing clubs. Cambodia is making an attempt to market their style of boxing to the same caliber of Muay Thai.
During the Cambodian Civil War, the Cambodian economony was greatly derailed in which Thailand used the opportunity to monopolize kickboxing and promoted its style, Muay Thai, to the world. The Thai have set up an international boxing committee in which almost 100 countries participate which lead to why Southeast Asian kickboxing is widely known as Thai boxing. Cambodians have argued there was no such thing as Muay Siam that existed before the name change of Siam to Thailand.
At an ASEAN meeting in 1995, Thailand wanted to rename Southeast Asian kickboxing as Muay Thai or Thai Boxing. The Cambodians proposed to rename the sport as “Sovanna Phum” boxing or “SEA Boxing”, which represented Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
Sovanna Phum means “golden land” in both the Khmer and Thai which came from the language of Pali and refers to mainland Southeast Asia. “SEA” is a popular acronym referring to Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, Thailand would not compromise.
In a battle for culture heritage, both countries are not giving up. At the 2005 Southeast Asian Games, Cambodia did not enter the Muay Thai event. Recent exposure of Khmer Kickboxing to the western world have come from traveling journalists and tourists.
Rules and Match Set Up: A match consists of 5 sets of 3 minute rounds and takes place in a 6.1 meter square boxing ring. A one or two minute break occurs between each round. At the beginning of each match boxers practice the praying rituals known as the Kun Kru. Traditional Cambodian music is played during the match. The music is played used the instruments of the skor yaul (a type of drum), the sraliai (a flute like instrument) and the stringed chhing. Boxers wear leather gloves and shorts.
- 1. A boxer is not allowed to strike his opponent while he is on the ground.
- 2. A boxer is not allowed to bite.
- 3. When an opponent can not fight anymore, the referee stops the fight.
- 4. Blows to the back of the opponent are not allowed.
- 5. A boxer may not hold on to the ropes.
- 6. Blows to the genitals are prohibted.
Victory can be obtained by knockout. A knockout occurs when a boxer is knocked down to the ground and can not continue fighting after a 10 second count by the referee. Victory is also obtained from the end of the match when judges decide by a point system which fighter was more effective. If fighters end up with the same score a draw is called.
Notable Khmer Boxers:
- Eh Phoutong- Khmer Kickboxing Champion
- Oth Phouthoung-TV5 kickboxing champion
- Meas Chanta – International Khmer Kickboxer
- Pich Arun – International Khmer Kickboxer
- Pich Sophun – International Khmer Kickboxer
- Chey Kosal – International Khmer Kickboxer
- Bun Sothea- Cambodian S1 champion
- Try Kuntor- Cambodian Kickboxer
- Bing Leung- Cambodian Kickboxer