Muay Thai is a form of hard martial art practiced in several Southeast Asian countries including Thailand. The art is similar to others in Southeast Asia such as: Kun Khmer in Cambodia, Lethwei in Myanmar, Tomoi in Malaysia, and Muay Lao in Laos. Muay Thai has a long history in Thailand and is the country’s national sport. Traditional Muay Thai practiced today varies significantly from the ancient art Muay Boran and uses kicks and punches in a ring with gloves similar to those used in Western boxing.
Muay Thai is referred to as “The Art of the Eight Limbs“, as the hands, shins, elbows, and knees are all used extensively in this art. A practitioner of Muay Thai (“nak muay“) thus has the ability to execute strikes using eight “points of contact,” as opposed to “two points” (fists) in Western boxing and “four points” (fists, feet) used in the primarily sport-oriented forms of martial arts.
Various forms of kickboxing have long been practiced throughout Southeast Asia. As with the most countries in the region, Thai culture is highly influenced by ancient civilizations within Southeast Asia, India, China and Theravada buddhism. Muay Thai’s origin in Thailand can be traced back to its ancestor Muay Boran (“ancient boxing”), an unarmed combat used by Siamese soldiers in conjunction with Krabi Krabong, the weapon-based style, and may be traced back to Bokator, the martial art of the Khmer Empire. Eventually Muay Boran was divided to:
- Muay Korat (Northeast) emphasized strength. A technique like “Throwing Buffalo Punch” was used. It could supposedly defeat a buffalo in one blow.
- Muay Lopburi (Center region) emphasized movements. Its strong points were straight and counter punches.
- Muay Chaiya (South) emphasized posture and defense, as well as elbows and knees.
- Muay Pra Nakorn (North) emphasized speed, particularly in kicking. Because of its faster speed, it was called as well “Ling Lom” (windy monkey or Loris).
There is a phrase about Muay Boran that states, “Punch Korat, Wit Lopburi, Posture Chaiya, Faster Thasao. (หมัดหนักโคราช ฉลาดลพบุรี ท่าดีไชยา ไวกว่าท่าเสา)”.
As well as continuing to function as a practical fighting technique for use in actual warfare, Muay Thai became a sport in which the opponents fought in front of spectators who went to watch for entertainment. This kind of muay contests gradually became an integral part of local festivals and celebrations, especially those held at temples. It was even used as entertainment to kings.
Eventually, the previously bare-fisted fighters started wearing lengths of rope wrapped around their hands and forearms. This type of match was called muay kaad chuek (มวยคาดเชือก).
Muay gradually became a possible means of personal advancement as the nobility increasingly esteemed skillful practitioners of the art and invited selected fighters to come to live in the Royal palace to teach muay to the staff of the royal household, soldiers, princes or the king’s personal guards. This “royal muay” was called muay luang (มวยหลวง).
Some time during the Ayutthaya Period, a platoon of royal guards was established, whose duty was to protect king and the country. They were known as Grom Nak Muay (Muay Fighters’ Regiment). This royal patronage of muay continued through the reigns of Rama V and VII.
The ascension of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to the throne in 1868 ushered in a Golden Age not only for muay but for the whole country of Thailand. Muay progressed greatly during the reign of Rama V as a direct result of the king’s personal interest in the art. The country was at peace and muay functioned as a means of physical exercise, self-defense, recreation, and personal advancement. Masters of the art such as former fighters or soldiers began teaching muay in training camps where students were provided with food and shelter. Trainees would be treated as one family and it was customary for students to adopt the camp’s name as their own surname.
After the occurrence of a death in the ring, King Rama the VII pushed for codified rules for Muay Thai, and they were put into place. These included the rules that the fighters should wear modern gloves and cotton coverlets over the feet and ankles. It was also around this time in the 1920s that the term Muay Thai became commonly used while the older form of the style was referred to as Muay Boran.
At the time of the fall of the ancient Siam capital of Ayutthaya in 1767, the invading Burmese troops rounded up a group of Thai residents and took them as prisoners. Among them were a large number of Thai boxers, who were taken by the Burmese to the city of Ungwa.
In 1774, in the Burmese city of Rangoon, the king of the Burmese, King Mangra decided to organize a seven-day, seven-night religious festival in honor of Buddha’s relics. The festivities included many forms of entertainment, such as the costume plays called likay, comedies and farces, and sword-fighting matches. At one point, King Mangra wanted to see how Muay Boran would compare to the Burmese art Lethwei. Nai Khanom Tom was selected to fight against the Burmese champion. The boxing ring was set up in front of the throne and Nai Khanom Tom did a traditional Wai Kru pre-fight dance, to pay his respects to the Burmese king, as well as for all the spectators, dancing around his opponent, which amazed and perplexed all the Burmese people. When the fight began, he charged out, using punches, kicks, elbows, and knees, pummeling his opponent until he collapsed.
The referee however stated that the Burmese opponent was too distracted by the Wai Kru, and the knockout was invalid. The King then asked if Nai Khanom Tom would fight nine other Burmese champions to prove himself. He agreed and fought them all, one after the other with no rest periods in between. His last opponent was a great boxing teacher from Ya Kai City. Nai Khanom Tom mangled him by his kicks and no one else dared to challenge him any further.
King Mangra was so impressed that he remarked, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom. Even with his bare hands, he can fell nine or ten opponents. But his Lord was incompetent and lost the country to the enemy. If he would have been any good, there was no way the City of Ayutthaya would ever have fallen.”
King Mangra granted Nai Khanom Tom freedom along with either riches or two beautiful Burmese wives. Nai Khanom Tom chose the wives as he said that money was easier to find. He then departed with his wives for Siam. Other variations of this story had him also winning the release of his fellow Thai prisoners. His feat is celebrated every March 17 as “Boxer’s Day” or “National Muay Thai Day” in his honor and that of Muay Thai’s.
Today, some have wrongly attributed the legend of “Nai Khanom Tom” to King Naresuan, who was once taken by the Burmese. However, Nai Khanon Tom and King Naresuan were almost two centuries apart.
Tradition of Wai Khru
One of the most important traditions of Muay Thai is Wai Khru (Paying Respect to Teachers). In order to become a fully-fledged Muay Thai fighter, a person has to pass through a series of ceremonies. First comes the Initiation as a Trainee Fighter Ceremony (Kuen Khru), in which the khru muay accepts young fighters as his students and pledges to teach them to the best of his ability. After fighters have been accepted, they must demonstrate a good conduct, diligence and endurance, in addition to training as hard as they can, following implicitly all the teacher’s rules.
During their apprenticeship, young fighters will experience the second type of Wai Khru ritual, the Annual Homage-Paying Ceremony (Wai Khru Prajam Pee). This annual ceremony is usually held on Muay Thai Day (March 17) for young fighters to pay respect to their teachers and souls of teachers long passed away. The ceremony then progresses to the students honoring all the teachers present, who will mark sacred symbols on the fighters’ forehead in order to bestow prosperity and success upon them – a custom known as jerm. The ceremony culminates with the third form of Wai Khru, the Ritual Dance of Homage (Wai Khru Ram Muay) performed by the fighters as a mark of respect.
It is only when fighters have passed all these three milestones (initiation, training and participation in contests) that they are entitled to call themselves as real Muay Thai fighters. When fighters have satisfied their teachers on all these counts, then they can participate in the fourth Wai Khru ritual, the Initiation as a Teacher Ceremony (Khrob Khru), which bestows on them the rank of khru muay and again involves a performance of the Ritual Dance of Homage.
Approaching the Ring Rites (Kuen Suu Weitee)
In ancient times, Siamese people believed in the power of incantations and protective amulets, the common belief was that everything was ruled and inhabited by unseen spirits, and that places were either blessed or cursed. Because of these beliefs, it was necessary to perform special rites before a fighter entered the ring, asking the spirits’ permission to do so.
Even today, before entering the ring many fighters perform rituals. It is very much a matter of individual preference these days, with no prescribed rules. Some may kneel before the ring, others might pray with their khru muay or perform a series of repetitive movements, such as touching the ring ropes 3 times and avoiding the bottom stair before taking the first step up to the ring.
Fighters always leap over the ropes into the ring, because the head is considered to be more important than the feet and therefore it has to stay always above the feet while entering the ring, then they will go to the center and pay respect (panom muae wai) in all four directions to the spectators.
Ritual Dance of Homage (Wai Khru Ram Muay)
Wai Khru Muay Thai is a tradition which goes back to ancient times, it is not an optional ritual or reserved for special occasions: the official Muay Thai regulations specify that both fighters must perform the Wai Khru Ram Muay before each and every bout. It’s a tradition in which fighters pay respect to their teachers, parents and things they hold sacred and pray for their safety and victory. The ritual has been developed in different ways, in different regions, even under different teachers and therefore it is theoretically impossible for two fighters to perform identical Wai Khru.
The Wai Khru is graceful and aesthetic ritual, both practical and spiritual. In a practical sense, it functions as a final pre-fight warm-up and gives the fighter some time alone before the fight to collect his thoughts. It can be divided into three main sections:
- The Royal Homage Sequence
This was originally intended to show devotion to the King, going back to the days when fighters were selected to display their skills in front of him. It has three subsections: Prostration, Outstretched Arms and Act of Homage.
- The Kneeling Sequence
This section is performed in a kneeling posture, one knee on the ground and the other leg out in front. the fighter pivots around on the spot to repeat the same sequence facing all four sides of the ring, a tradition which comes from Krabi Krabong.
- The Standing Sequence
In this section, the fighters go out from the center of the ring in one direction, to perform the Dramatic Interlude. Some fighters imitate the motions of “Rama Shooting an Arrow” from the Ramakien, a hunter, a soldier, or an executioner. Some fighters use this ritual to attempt to scare their opponents, commonly by stomping around them. But in a deeper sense, the fighter is expressing religious devotion, humility, and gratitude. Transcending both physical and temporal limitations, he opens himself to the divine presence and allows it to infuse his heart.
Removal of the Head Circlet (Pitee Tod Mongkon)
After the Wai Khru is completed, the fighters return to their own corners for the Removal of the Head Circlet Ritual (Pitee Tod Mongkon). The fighter stands in his own corner, lowers his head and raises hands to his chest for panom mue wai pose, while khru muay standing outside of the ropes facing the fighter, raises his own hands to return the wai. A fighter maintains the posture while the teacher utters an incantation and blows three times on top of fighters’ head before removing the Mongkon. On the completion of this ritual and after a review of the rules by the judge and a glove shake, the contest may begin.
Muay Thai techniques
In its original form, Muay Thai consisted of an arsenal of nine weapons – the head, fists, elbows, knees and feet – known collectively as na-wa arwud. However in modern Muay Thai, both amateur and professional, headbutting an opponent is no longer allowed. Muay Thai is unique in the way it uses all parts of the body, including the elbows and knees, for both training and competitions.
To strike and bind the opponent for both offensive and defensive purposes, small amounts of stand-up grappling are used: the clinch. Formal Muay Thai techniques are divided into two groups: Mae Mai or major techniques and Luk Mai or minor techniques. Muay Thai is often a fighting art of attrition, where opponents exchange blows with one another. This is certainly the case with traditional stylists in Thailand, but is a less popular form of fighting in the contemporary world fighting circuit. With the success of Muay Thai in mixed martial arts fighting, it has become the de facto martial art of choice for competitive stand-up fighters. As a result, it has evolved and incorporated much more powerful hand striking techniques used in western style boxing and the Thai style of exchanging blow for blow is no longer favorable. Note: when Muay Thai fighters compete against fighters of other styles (and if the rules permit it), they almost invariably emphasize elbow (sok) and knee (kao) techniques to gain a distinct advantage in fighting. Almost all techniques in Muay Thai use the entire body movement, rotating the hip with each kick, punch, and block. The rotation of the hips in Muay Thai techniques, and intensive focus on “core muscles” (such as abdominal muscles and surrounding muscles) is very distinctive and is what sets Muay Thai apart from other styles of martial arts.