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Kun Khmer

Kun Khmer (IPA: gʊn kəˈmer | Khmer: គុនខ្មែរ), also recognized as Pradal Serey, embodies a time-honored combat sport deeply rooted in Cambodian tradition. This dynamic discipline seamlessly combines stand-up striking and clinch fighting, with the primary objective of achieving a knockout, technical knockout, or winning by points.

Originally named Kbach Kun Boran Khmer or Kback Kun Prodal Khmer, translating to “ancient Cambodian Martial Arts,” the term “Kbach kun” or just “Kun” means martial art, and the term “Kun” is retained in the official name Kun Khmer today. This Cambodian martial art underwent various appellations through different regimes, from colonization to genocide, until adopting its present name. Before “Kun Khmer”, it was called Pradal Serey, where “Pradal” means “boxing” and “Serey” means “free,” collectively signifying “free boxing” due to its diverse skill set encompassing kicks, punches, elbows, knees, and more.

In its early days, Pradal Serey competitions unfolded in makeshift arenas, often surrounded by an audience serving as an improvised ring. Boxers would wrap their hands in white yarn thread, and in extreme cases, some fighters embedded glass or sharp objects within the thread for an advantage. The colonial period brought a transformative phase, with the French modernizing the sport from the 1863-1953 era, introducing a boxing ring, western gloves, timed rounds, and a rule set to replace the relatively rule-free hardcore bouts of the past as it was seen as cruel and dangerous. The formalization continued with the establishment of Cambodia’s Boxing Federation (CBF) in 1961, requiring licensing for all referees, fighters, and judges, especially those involved in televised events.

However, the martial art faced a decline in traditional practices and even its name due to prolonged war and foreign influence. About a decade ago, Ma Serey, a late prominent commentator of CTN TV, coined the term “Kun Khmer” for its simplicity and ease of recall, particularly for foreign audiences, and also believed the term was just good enough to represent the sport. This name has gained official recognition and is currently in use.

Kun Khmer’s uniqueness lies in its robust kicking techniques, emphasizing hip rotation over leg snapping. The art comprises four primary strike types: punches, kicks, elbows, and knee strikes. The strategic use of the clinch aims to wear down opponents, employing close-range strikes with elbows and knees. Notably, Cambodian fighters often showcase exceptional skill in elbow strikes, setting them apart from their regional counterparts and leading to more victories through this particular technique.

My sketch of a Kun Khmer fighter


Kun Khmer’s roots trace back to the Khmer Empire, established in 802 A.D. Martial arts were integral to the military of the Khmer Empire, with Kun Khmer evolving from hand-to-hand combat used by the empire’s military. Historical evidence suggests a style resembling Kun Khmer existed in the 9th century, contributing to the Khmer Empire’s dominance in Southeast Asia.

During the Angkor era, both armed and unarmed martial arts were practiced by the Khmer. The military prowess of the Khmer Empire, utilizing early forms of Kun Khmer along with weapons and war elephants, played a role in their success against the enemies.

Despite its historical significance, Kun Khmer faced a decline during the era of French colonization, the upheaval of the Vietnam War, and the subsequent Khmer Rouge regime. Traditional martial arts were prohibited, leading to the execution or forced labor of many practitioners. However, with the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodia entered a period of relative peace, sparking the revival of traditional arts, notably Kun Khmer.

Devastating Effects of the Khmer Rouge on Kun Khmer

The Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979, profoundly impacted the Khmer Martial Art. During this period, the regime sought to dismantle modern society in favor of an agricultural one, purportedly to ensure equality and reduce selfishness among the people. Individuals with education and skills, including those wearing glasses as a symbol of education, were targeted and systematically murdered. This included Pradal Serey practitioners, teachers, and well-known boxers.Despite the majority of boxers originating from uneducated and impoverished backgrounds, the Khmer Rouge perceived their skill set as a threat to their vision of a new society. As a consequence, Pradal Serey teachers and prominent boxers were systematically targeted and killed. Many Cambodian, including martial artists, sought refuge in other countries, with Thailand being a common destination.

Survivors, often low-level teachers or fighters, encountered challenges in resuming their practice even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Martial arts remained banned in Cambodia until 1987. Lingering support for the Khmer Rouge hindered attempts to revive teaching, compelling Pradal Serey teachers to operate in secrecy.In summary, the Khmer Rouge regime had a devastating impact on Khmer Martial Art, resulting in the targeted killings of skilled practitioners and forcing survivors to practice clandestinely.

Resurrection of Kun Khmer

In recent years, Kun Khmer has experienced a robust resurgence, with Cambodia actively promoting it as a significant martial art. The opening of numerous gyms has attracted both local enthusiasts and international practitioners. Weekly matches, frequently televised and streamed, command substantial audiences, contributing to the sport’s resurgence. Cambodia now boasts approximately 100 boxing clubs nationwide (this number might have changed).

Life as a Boxer

The world of Kun Khmer requires participants to embody agility, toughness, and flexibility, undergoing intensive physical conditioning, especially among the typically young adult competitors. Many boxers hail from humble backgrounds, engaging in the sport to financially support their families.

AI Generated image for illustration only

Traditionally, boxers were acknowledged and rewarded by the crowd with offerings such as food, alcohol, and cash. This tradition persists, though now it coexists with official fees introduced to align with Western practices. In a contemporary twist, fighters are increasingly recognized and incentivized not only by traditional means but also through cash prizes, and in some cases, by prominent companies offering substantial rewards like houses and cars. These modern incentives serve to motivate the athletes and provide commercial exposure for the sponsoring companies.

Rules and Match Setup

A standard Kun Khmer match unfolds over three or five rounds, each lasting three minutes, held within a conventional 6.1-meter square boxing ring. However, an innovative addition by Town TV HD has introduced an eight-cornered ring, elevating the dynamism of the bouts.Traditionally, Khmer boxing encompassed 12 rounds, fighters bare-handed with fingers wrapped in raw thread, intensifying the impact of each punch. This historical practice often fueled a desire for revenge, leading to intense matches resulting in severe injuries or even fatalities. In response, during French colonization, the fighting format was redefined—gloves became mandatory, the number of rounds reduced to five or even three.Before every match, fighters partake in sacred praying rituals, known as “Thvay Bangkum Krou” or simply “Kun Krou,” holding profound cultural significance and contributing to the spiritual preparation of the athletes.

To maintain fairness and uphold the sport’s integrity, specific rules govern Kun Khmer matches. Prohibitions include striking opponents on the ground, biting, hitting the back, holding onto ropes, or delivering blows to the genitals—ensuring safety and sportsmanship standards.

Victory in Kun Khmer is attained through a technical knockout, where a fighter incapacitates their opponent, or by judges’ decision based on a point system after the final round. Technical knockouts may occur if a fighter is in serious danger, prioritizing safety. Alternatively, a technical knockout is declared if a fighter, visibly battered and unable to continue, does not recover after a count to 8 and 10. This multifaceted approach adds excitement and strategy, creating a dynamic experience for both athletes and spectators.