Pradal Serey

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Pradal serey (???????????) is the Cambodian name for an Indochinese martial art practiced in several Southeast Asian countries. It is very similar to Muay Thai in Thailand, Tomoi in Malaysia, Muay Lao in Laos, and Lethwei in Myanmar. It is one of the national sports of Cambodia and is also known as Kbach Boran Kun Khmer or simply Kun Khmer. Pradal and serey are the Khmer words for “fight/boxing” and “free”, respectively. Translated literally, the phrase means “free fighting”.

Originally used for warfare, the moves of pradal serey have been slightly altered for the modern ring sport. While most well-known for its kicking technique, which generates power from hip rotation rather than snapping the leg, pradal serey consists of four types of strikes: punches, kicks, elbow strikes, kneeing attacks. The clinch is also used to wear down the opponent. Compared to other forms of Southeast Asian kickboxing, pradal serey tends to emphasize more elusive and shifty fighting stances. Compared to Karate, punches are allowed to the face. In fact, attacks are allowed everywhere except the back and groin. It doesn’t incorporate qi or ki like in kung fu or aikido. Although, it does have high aerial attacks like traditional martial arts such as Chuhgong Hauh(flying knee). Also like traditional martial arts, pradal serey has connections to Eastern religions such as Buddhism. The Cambodian style also tends to utilize more elbow techniques than that of other regions. More victories come by way of an elbow technique than any other strikes.

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 Southeast Asia. The kingdom of Angkor used an early form of Pradal Serey along with various weapons and war elephants to wage war against their enemies the Cham and Siamese.[1]

Renactments of Khmer/Thai/Lao elephant battles are recreated at the Surin Elephant Round-up.

At this time, the kingdom of Angkor dominated and controlled most of what is now Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.[2] In addition and as a result of that, Khmer culture has influenced much of Thailand’s and Laos’ culture. [3] 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. [4]

Ultimately Pradal Serey became a sport, during the days of the Colonial Cambodia. When the French came they added western boxing gloves, timed rounds, and a boxing ring to civilize the art. Originally matches were fought in dirt pits with limited rules while hands were wrapped in rope. Some matches had boxers wrap seashells around their knuckles to increase the damage that could be inflicted. In the 1960’s, Cambodian boxing promters held inter-martial art exhibitons.

During the chaos of the Vietnam War, Cambodia was undergoing its own civil war. On April 17, 1975, the communist rebels, the Khmer Rouge, overthrew the government of the Khmer Republic led by Lon Nol after America left the Vietnam War. The Khmer Rouge’s plan was to eliminate modern society and create an agriculture utopia.[5]. 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, boxers, etc.) and forced 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 21% of the population died during the Khmer Rouge regime according to the studies of the Cambodia Genocide Program of Yale University.[6]. This lasted for four years until 1979 when the Vietnamese along with ex-Khmer Rouge officers including current PM,Hun Sen, overthrew the Khmer Rouge.

Pradal Serey had been banned during the Khmer Rouge era and many boxers were executed or worked to death, which nearly caused the loss of the art of Khmer Boxing. During the relative peace since the departure of the Vietnamese and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Pradal Serey has been revived.

Pradal serey is making a strong comeback since its banishment back in the 70s. Cambodia is making an attempt to market their style of boxing to the same caliber of Muay Thai even though its status as a fourth world country renders a lack of financial funding. Numerous gyms have opened and large masses of students, local and foreign, have come to train in Cambodia. There are weekly matches held, the majority televised live, and many of Cambodia’s best have traveled internationally to compete. There are currently approximately 70 boxing clubs nationwide.

Pradal serey is administered in Cambodia by the Cambodian Amateur Boxing Federation (CABF). All referees, judges and fighters must be licensed by the CABF. Television stations which hold Khmer boxing tournaments do so under the supervision of the CABF. The individual stations are responsible for organising boxers, trainers, medical staff and musicians. The CABF supplies the match referees, judges and time-keepers. Abroad, Cambodian boxing is promoted by 4 organizations. These organizations include the European Khmer Boxing Federation based in Germany, the Fédération Française de Boxe Khmère based in France, the Anh Binh Minh Khmer Martial Arts Association in Vietnam and Kun Khmer Australia based in Australia. Spain, Italy and Belgium are in the process of forming their own Khmer boxing organizations.[7] Also, the International Sport Kickboxing Association based in the United Kingdom have held matches involving Cambodian boxers. Pradal serey boxers have fought abroad in countries such as Korea. [8]

Tournaments are screened live on national television. TV5 holds live tournaments on Friday and Sunday, CTN holds live tournaments on Saturday and Sunday.[9] Bayon Television holds live kickboxing tournaments on Saturday and Sunday.[10]

Recent exposure to pradal serey in the western world have come from traveling journalists and tourists. In addition, Khmer boxing was featured on The History Channel’s Human Weapon and mentioned on the Cambodian episode of Globetrekker.

Cambodian Television Network (CTN) recently screened a Kun Khmer reality television series called Kun Khmer Champion. Kun Khmer Champion was produced by Ma Serey and co-hosted by Ma Serey and Eh Phoutong.[11] It was won by 19-year old Khlang Mourng Club boxer Cheam Adam from Kampong Cham.