He strives to keep Cambodian heritage alive in Santa Cruz
I sit mesmerized as I watch a young girl tear a hairy leg from a plump tarantula and pop it in her mouth. She happily chews on the crunchy thing, enjoying her afternoon snack. A giggle escapes her lips when she notices my open-mouthed expression, and she extends the bag of deep-fried arachnids toward me. My stomach churns. Should I? Didn’t I travel to the Kingdom of Cambodia precisely to collect exotic experiences such as this one? Despite my internal pep talk, I cannot bring myself to eat a dead spider, let alone pick one up. I politely decline. She shrugs her shoulders and glances away, incredulous that I would turn down such an obvious treat. Suddenly I feel just like Dorothy—absolutely not in “Kansas” anymore.
Little did I know that I needn’t have traveled halfway around the world to experience Cambodian history and culture; it exists right here in Santa Cruz, in fact, in the form of Sithan Pat. While Pat didn’t offer me a fried tarantula, he did share with me the incredible story that is his life. Listening to the vivacious Cambodian martial arts instructor talk about his past is like watching an epic movie grandly unfold. Part adventure, part drama, Pat’s history is one of both immense suffering and inexorable hope, and he is intent on using his experiences to help protect the cultural heritage of Cambodian martial arts for future generations.
Although Pat teaches a variety of Cambodian martial arts out of his backyard dojo—a school or room for practicing judo—he calls himself a student of an ancient martial art called Bokotor, and it’s predecessor, Yuthakun Khmer Khom.
“It is the original martial art,” Pat explains. “The Khmer empire dates from the eighth through the 15th century, and Khmer martial arts is the origin of all Southeast Asian martial arts.”
But despite its intrepid history, Pat is concerned that the traditional Yuthakun Khmer Khom is dying out. “If you don’t save it, it will never return,” he says. The problem isn’t a disinterest in the sport, but that so few people nowadays know how to practice it. During the Pol Pot regime of the 1970s, many of the Yuthakun masters were killed along with millions of other Cambodian people. “Cambodia is incredibly rich in culture, and the Khmer Rouge tried to erase it,” Pat says. “Four million people died in three years. If you were a peasant you stayed alive, but when you are a doctor, nurse, a multi-language speaker with too much knowledge, you are done. They killed all the intelligent people.”
On a quest to learn more about Bokotor and Yuthakun, Pat recently traveled to Cambodia with two of his students. Every year he goes to Cambodia to try to find a Bokotor master. “Last year I found one named San Kimsean,” he tells me, “but I didn’t know the truth about him. So this year I went to the same master and I was very surprised that he had changed his philosophy.”
It is taboo in Cambodia for a martial arts master to ask for payment, so when San Kimsean told Pat that his students would have to pay $3,000 each to earn a black krama (the Cambodian equivalent of a black belt) he was shocked. “Last year it wasn’t like that. He wasn’t charging. He said ‘give what you can give,’” he adds. But it seems Master San Kimsean had become greedy. Additionally, Pat discovered that the man he thought was a Bokotor master did not even teach pure Khmer techniques, but a mixture of Hapkido (a Korean martial art) and Khmer. After discovering the truth, Pat decided that it was time to rekindle his search for a true master. He and his two students traveled throughout Cambodia, and finally found a real Yuthakun Khmer Kom master in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
His brother-in-law, who is the director of a television sports channel in Phnom Penh, told him that he knew a real master, Som Chan Bunthoeun, who is very poor. Nearly 70 years old, the man lives in a small building that serves both as a living space and a martial arts school. His roof is full of holes and leaks terribly in the tropical rain. But although he is bereft of possessions, it seems that Master Chan Bunthoeun, is rich in history and traditions.
“Master San Bunthoeun is really for me a treasure of Cambodian martial arts,” Pat says sentimentally. “Not only because he knows the fighting techniques, the real Khmer techniques, but also because he knows the real history, the ritual and everything that originated from the Khmer martial arts. He also knows about the history of the Khmer past and culture.”
The story gets even more interesting as Pat confides that false Bokotor Master San Kimsean stole some of the techniques from real Master San Bunthoeun and then claimed to be a true master. Master San Kimsean managed to gain the support of the Cambodian government and was installed as the president of the Cambodian Traditional Martial Arts Federation.
“Master San Kimsean says that he is the grandfather of the traditional Cambodian martial arts, which is not true,” Pat says heatedly on this subject. “He stole the techniques from this older master and then kicked him out from the federation. Master Chan Bunthoeun is a danger for Master San Kimsean because he knows the truth. And even though everybody now knows the truth, still Master San Kimsean doesn’t want Master Chan Bunthoeun to be involved because he represents a danger not only to him, but to the politics of Cambodia. It’s not only about martial art, it’s about politics too,” he says.
The plot seems to thicken with every word.
Pat and his students trained with Master Chan Bunthoeun for two weeks before returning to America. After finding a true master and seeing him struggle in poverty, now Pat is determined to help Master Chan Bunthoeun and preserve the septuagenarian’s knowledge of Cambodian martial arts. To that end, Pat has created a website that will allow people to find out more about Master Chan Bunthoeun and how they, too, can go to receive training in Bokotor at the master’s school in Phnom Penh.
During the Pol Pot regime of the 1970s, many of the Yuthakun masters were killed along with millions of other Cambodian people. “Cambodia is incredibly rich in culture, and the Khmer Rouge tried to erase it. Four million people died in three years.”—Sithan Pat
In the Beginning
The passion Pat has for his country’s history is evident by his obvious zeal in relating stories from its past. But his voice becomes quiet when he alights on the topic of his own past. Born in 1967, Pat was a child during the Pol Pot regime.
“For three years of my life I was locked in a working camp for children, eating only a bowl of soup once a day when we worked 16 hours a day,” he says. “My family and I were separated and much of my family died. My parents died. My family had 14 brothers and sisters, but seven died during the war, and now we have seven left.”
He says he ran away from the Khmer Rouge—for three nights and three days across the jungle, with other children.
“There were landmines everywhere and we survived but caught all kinds of sickness,” he adds. “I even lost one of my toenails in a mine explosion.”
Some children died in the risky escape attempt, but Pat was one of the fortunate ones. He reached a refugee camp in Thailand and was later adopted by a family in Belgium.
Sensei Sithan Pat’s history is one of both immense suffering and inexorable hope, and he is intent on using his experiences to help protect the cultural heritage of Cambodian martial arts for future generations.
Pat remembers his grandfather, a Bokotor grand master, teaching him Khmer martial arts when he was 6 years old. But then the war came and his grandfather was killed by the Khmer Rouge. However, when Pat was safe in Belgium, his interest in martial arts returned and he began studying again. He started by learning a modern type of Cambodian kickboxing, then went on to learn Vietnamese Kung Fu and Chinese Karate. He traveled around the world to train before moving to Santa Cruz three years ago, but it was always his dream to find a real Cambodian martial arts master and reconnect with his cultural heritage.
“So many killings have given the Cambodians a very bad image,” Pat says. “But when you look into the soul of the Khmer people, they are not into war. They just want to have a peaceful life. They have so much to say about the culture, about beauty, about art. When I went back to Cambodia, I, of course, wanted to help myself, to gain back my identity, but also to show people that Cambodia has so much to give.”
By trying to help Master Chan Bunthoeun regain his rank and dignity, Pat’s bonds to his own cultural identity grow stronger. “It’s not only about the Master, it’s about the whole story in Cambodia.”
In addition to preserving Cambodian culture through martial arts, Pat is preserving the country’s rich heritage through prose. “Tears of the Mekong” is a novel that Pat is writing in French about the history of Cambodia. The book is about the story of a man, one of his ancestors. It begins during the Middle Ages, when the Khmer empire was on the zenith of culture and peaceful philosophy and religion. The personage of the book tells the story from the beginning, then through his descendants, until now.
As Pat shares more about his novel with me, I can’t help but think back to the time I spent in Cambodia. Will the little spider-eating girl grow up to appreciate her cultural identity?
Despite the suffering of past and present, the people have an innate respect of their Khmer past, evident in the pride shown in historical relics such as Angkor Wat—an image of which appears on everything from the country’s flag to cans of beer. The eloquent martial arts instructor sums up the premise of his book by saying, “It’s a love story between that man and his country.”
One could say exactly the same thing about Sithan Pat.
For more information about Cambodian martial arts, visit the website yuthakunkhmer.com.
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