Kun Khmer vs. Muay Thai

battle conquer muay thai 2, Phetchabun

Most visitors to Southeast Asia are familiar with Thailand’s national sport, Muay Thai. But how many of those people are also familiar with Kun Khmer, Cambodia’s national sport? Due to recent controversies (which we’ll talk about later!), there has been much debate as to how the two combat sports really square up to each other. 

Travellers to Thailand have long been fascinated by the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’. But very few have heard of, let alone practised, Kun Khmer. However, this Cambodian martial art is gaining popularity, leaving many to wonder what the difference between Muay Thai and Kun Khmer actually is. 

So, let’s jump in the ring and settle this endless debate… Kun Khmer vs. Muay Thai – how do they differ and which one is right for you? 


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What are Muay Thai and Kun Khmer? 

Muay Thai

The ancient ‘Art of Eight Limbs’, known as Muay Thai, is Thailand’s national sport. A full-contact combat sport, it is famous for its use of knees, elbows, fists and shins, hence the eight limbs. The history of Muay Thai cycles back hundreds of years but the modern version is believed to have evolved from Muay Boran, an umbrella term for a range of unarmed combat sports from the Siamese period.

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Kun Khmer

Also known as Pradal Serey, Kun Khmer is Cambodia’s national combat sport. It consists of clinch fighting and stand-up striking. Much like Muay Thai, punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes are all permitted during combat. While the sport has long been practised in the country (and was also influenced by the French colonialists when they ruled Cambodia), the Khmer Rouge genocide and its results meant that this ancient art was nearly lost. Today, the Cambodians are working hard to restore and promote this part of their cultural heritage. 

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Kun Khmer vs. Muay Thai – The Debate

Coverage

Muay Thai is a cornerstone of Thai culture and the numbers reflect this. As of 2024, the country is home to over 300 Muay Thai gyms. It is important to remember that this number has been collated based solely on the information online – there will undoubtedly be other gyms which don’t have an internet presence and aren’t represented in that number, making the sport incredibly widespread. 

Unlike Kun Khmer, Muay Thai is known internationally and every year, thousands of foreigners head to Thailand to enrol in a camp taught by the world’s best. Many of those who teach the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’ across Thailand are, or once were, professional fighters who have toured the globe. For students who dedicate themselves to the craft and demonstrate high ability, there is the chance to fight in stadiums across Thailand.

👉 Thailand’s Best Muay Thai Camps.

Muay Thai training. Koh Samui. Punch it
Crowds of foreigners flock to Thailand to train in Muay Thai.

Even if you are not interested in learning how to fight Muay Thai, you will probably brush up against this ancient art at some point during your trip to Thailand. Stadiums, much like camps, are scatted across the country and watching a fight makes for a great night out! 

Kun Khmer is way less known than Muay Thai. In fact, unless you have a specific interest in Cambodian culture or combat sports more generally, you are unlikely to have heard of it. While its roots run deep through Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge genocide radically changed Cambodia and the Khmer people are still struggling to restore their customs and traditions, over 40 years on. 

As such, the Kun Khmer scene is much less established and there are far fewer gyms throughout the country. Despite this, the sport is growing in popularity, both with locals and tourists, the latter of whom are seeking something a bit more off the beaten path than Muay Thai, which has boomed in popularity over recent years. 


Origin

Remember I said that Kun Khmer has attracted a little controversy over recent years? Its origin story is heavily linked to that! 

Muay Thai is believed to be an evolution of Muay Boran, a term used to describe a range of close-contact Thai boxing-style sports. It has a long history but much of this is patchy due to early writings on the subject being lost, leaving scholars unsure as to its exact origin story. It seems that it dates back at least as far as the 14th century and was first used as a fighting method by Thai warriors during war. 

Kun Khmer, traditionally called Pradal Serey, is believed to be a modern evolution of the close-quarter combat system called Bokator which dates back to the Khmer Empire. You can even see depictions of people using this combat sport in the carvings around the Angkor Wat site! While this is different to today’s Kun Khmer, the Khmer Empire used to rule Thailand so both combat sports may have had the same origins.

Temple at Angkor
Carvings at the Angkor Wat site have helped to date Kun Khmer.

Kun Khmer as we know it today is most likely a mash-up of traditional Bokator and Western boxing, as introduced by the French during the colonisation. Originally, Khmer boxing had limited rules and hands were wrapped in rope. This lack of regulation made the sport incredibly dangerous and there were plenty of fatalities. The French introduced boxing rings, and gloves, as well as rounds to stop the fighting from going too far. 

Unfortunately, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian traditions and culture were all but eradicated throughout the country. This genocidal regime planned to crush ‘modern’ society (a.k.a. society influenced by the West) and replace it with an agrarian civilisation. 

Traditional martial arts like Kun Khmer were banned and many of the sport’s flagship fighters were sadly killed by the regime. As such, the knowledge of this ancient fighting sport was nearly lost. 

In 2023, at the Southeast Asian Games,  a row erupted over the name of the kickboxing competition. Cambodia was hosting and decided to rename the event, calling it Kun Khmer instead of Muay Thai. They reasoned that Muay Thai likely originated during the Khmer culture and therefore, this should be reflected in the naming of the event. This looks to be an attempt by the Cambodians to revive their cultural heritage and push Kun Khmer into the mainstream. After all, as the old adage goes, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about! 

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Both countries have a huge degree of national pride in their respective sports (not to mention relations are perpetually a little rocky between the two countries) and Thailand was so angry, that it boycotted the Southeast Asian Games in protest. Ouch!


Performance

Anyone who has ever watched a live combat sport in Southeast Asia will know that music is a very important part of the proceedings. Muay Thai fights open with a pre-fight ritual known as Muay Thai Wai Kru. This allows fighters to show gratitude to their teacher and ancestors. It is a very important part of a Muay Thai fight and is always accompanied by a specific song known as Sarama. After the Muay Thai Wai Kru, the fight will begin and the music will change to Phleng Muay.  This will reach a crescendo as the fight peaks. 

Kun Khmer also incorporates a prayer-type ritual before the fighting commences. It is known as Kun Kru or Thvayobangkoum Krou. There are 17 versions of this ritual, with most being based on Hindu stories. These rituals serve two main purposes, to warm up the body for the fight and petition the spirit of the teacher to focus their minds. The music used in Kun Khmer is called Vung Phleng Pradall and increases in tempo as the fighting progresses. 


Style

In all honesty, Kun Khmer and Muay Thai are very similar combat sports. They both originated in Southeast Asia and to the untrained eye, are likely to look the same. Despite this, there are subtle differences between the two. 

The main difference commonly cited is the increased use of elbows in Kun Khmer, an essential part of the fighting style.  Clinching also works differently in Kun Khmer when compared to Muay Thai. In Muay Thai, clinching is a common technique however, Khmer boxers tend to ignore clinches and if they do engage, the clinch doesn’t usually last too long. There is more emphasis on throwing powerful strikes instead, rather than fluidity and technique.

Girls fighting Muay Thai. Koh Samui. Punch It. Name..jpg
The fighting styles vary between Kun Khmer and Muay Thai.

The scoring system for both combat sports also differs. In Muay Thai, the scoring takes into account, dominance, aggression and techniques, whereas in Kun Khmer, it works on a point system which is based on knockdowns and clean strikes. 


While the two combat sports undoubtedly have a huge degree of overlap, in terms of performance, origin and style, there are subtle differences between the two. 

If you want to learn more about either of these fighting sports and even get involved, we encourage you to do your research. Owing to the popularity of Muay Thai across Thailand, it is far easier to find a suitable gym and package within your price range when compared to a Kun Khmer gym in Cambodia. There are simply more options!

Despite this, Muay Thai has boomed in popularity over recent years and a few months spent training in Thailand is no longer the unusual thing as it was a couple of decades ago. If you want to learn about an ancient combat sport and still retain that feeling of doing something different from your peers, a Kun Khmer training package could be the way forward!

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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