Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, the most favorite martial arts of the Thai has been in existence for almost as long as the Thai themselves. Muay Thai is best known in the global community, especially among martial arts and boxing enthusiasts, for its various types of blows, and its coordinated utilization of all hard parts of the body with effectiveness and agility. Blows common to Muay Thai are forward and backward elbow strikes, knee strikes, swing and reversing kicks, and foot jabbing.
Muay Thai is different from Western boxing in the diversity of offensive and defensive blows, thus making the art more taxing and challenging to the boxer. Moreover, cultural and psychological elements are added to Muay Thai, as the boxer has to perform a traditional “paying respect to the teachers” ritual or Wai Khru ceremony, complete with rousing Thai music accompaniment. Watching Thai boxing is, then, an entry into the psychological world of the Thai where values such as respect for elders, love of grace, bravery, creativity and adaptability are encapsulated in one short event. This whole mix of a unique form of martial arts and cultural elements is what makes for the fascination with Muay Thai and explains its popularity worldwide.
Muay Thai matches today are organized on a regular basis at the many boxing stadiums in Bangkok and provincial cities. A regular ring that one expects to see at an international boxing event is used as the venue. The Nak Muay Thai (Thai boxer) wears regular boxing gloves yet fights barefooted.
At the start of the match, a Wai Khru ceremony must be performed, whereby the boxers enter the ring wearing a ceremonial rattan headband. An ensemble plays background music for this ceremony, with rousing levels and accelerating tempi throughout the fight.
Typically, the musical instruments used are a Javanese reed-pipe, a pair of low-toned and high-toned two-faced drums and a pair of finger cymbals. The music accompanying the actual fight is quicker in tempo, and the tempo can even be variable. In moments of excitement during the
match, the music becomes more frenetic, and when fighters are not going on the offensive aggressively enough, it can be paced quicker to urge them on. Thus, the music is functional as well as providing appropriate atmosphere.
The two boxers perform the Wai Khru ritual simultaneously with concentration and solemnity. Variations in the Wai Khru styles are possible, and it is not uncommon for boxers to murmur incantations to invoke respected spirits of the ring for protection against serious injuries that could arise from the fight. The purpose is also to stir up excitement and anticipation on the part of the spectators who may appraise the contestants by their performance of the ritual.
On completion of the ritual, boxers return to their respective corners to have their ceremonial headbands removed and receive last-minute instructions from their trainers. Then, boxers go into action to the sound of rousing music and fight, at most, five three-minute rounds alternating with two-minute rest periods.
Fists, knees, feet, hands and elbows may be used, but any form of wrestling, judo or throwing is forbidden. Contestants wear gloves and boxing trunks and fight barefooted. Their kicks can deliver a knock-out blow. The elbows are wielded like hammers, giving a rain of hard blows to the side of the body, or head. Knees are used to jab viciously in the stomach, solar plexus, and ribs of the opponent. Opponents may hit any part of the body except for the groin which is not considered a valid target.
Points are scored for every blow on an opponent. If a contestant violates a rule, points are deducted from his score. The match may end with a winner by a physical or technical knockout or the referee’s decision; or it may be declared a draw.
Muay Thai originated as a fighting skill, using parts of the body and sometimes with additional weaponry such as swords, pikes, and clubs. Muay Thai was used on the battlefield itself, at a time when hand-to-hand combat was the norm, as well as for protection against marauders. At a later stage in the history of Muay Thai, it proved not just a fighting skill in warfare and for protection of the community, but also became a spectator sport. Muay Thai contests gradually became an integral part of local festivals and celebrations, especially those held on temple grounds.
Indeed, Muay Thai was traditionally closely connected—as is the case with other facets of the Thai way of life—with the Buddhist temple or Wat. The Wat as a spiritual, social, and educational centre in traditional Thai village life was also the keeper and moulder of the Muay Thai tradition. The Wat was also a repository of the arts, not only religious kind but also of the a whole spectrum of artistic endeavour, including martial arts. And it was partly from the monks, some of which had military training and experience, that boys and young men studied this art of close-quarter combat, with all its innovations and adaptations.
Muay Thai was fought in contests using only bare fists in a circular open space, about eight metres across, so that fighters could move about freely. The number of rounds was not fixed, and the length of each round was timed by placing in water an empty half coconut shell with a hole bored in its bottom. As soon as the coconut shell submerged, the round ended. The prizes given to the winning fighters were generally victuals, but occasionally small cash prizes were awarded.
The next stage in the evolution of Muay Thai was when the fighters started to bind their fists and lower arms, as described above, for both attacking strength and for protecting their fingers and wrists from sprains and other injuries. This is called khat chueak. Skeins of unrefined hemp threads were used. The contestants immersed their bound fists in water or any sticky liquid, and allowed them to dry, which hardened their fists. Another variant, which would cause terrible pain and injury to the opponent, was the dipping of the bound fists and lower arms into a tree resin mixed with tiny fragments ofglass or coarsely ground stone. The boxer then had to dry the dipped fists in the sun for a short time so that the abrasive materials would be firmly embedded, thus making the punch more painful. There is no evidence of this form of fighting being regular, even in a combat setting, as the hardened fists would impair general hand-fighting flexibility. Such practice is ruled out now.
The Social Status of Muay Thai
Gradually, Muay Thai changed from a popular sport to a means of personal advancement, as the nobility increasingly appreciated the art and invited selected fighters to stay in their residences to teach Muay Thai to the staff of royal households, soldiers, and the king’s personal guards. During the Ayutthaya Period, a platoon of Royal Guards variously known as Kong Thanai Lueak (Elite Retainers) and Krom Nak Muay (Boxers Regiment) was established, comprising officers who were skilled in the art of Muay Thai, having been selected after exhibiting their fighting skills in front of the monarch. The selected fighters, in turn, taught Muay Thai to the princes and nobles, and the art as practiced by the nobility became known as Muay Luang or Royal Muay.This royal patronage of Muay Thai continued throughout the reigns of King Rama V and King Rama VI, whereby fighters who had proven themselves through a succession of bouts in the provinces were invited to the capital city and fight in events attended by the king himself or his representative.
During the reign of King Rama V, the status and social standing of Muay Thai was enhanced further, as the King took a personal interest in the art and attended matches. Skilled fighters were even accorded relatively high-rank titles, as in the case of one boxer who was given the title Phra Chai Chok Chok Chana (Lucky Fighter and Winner) by the King and then went on to become a famous Muay Thai teacher. Another successful fighter was given the title Muen Mue Maen Mat (Knight of the Sharp Punch) and promoted to the high rank of a military officer. Active patronage continued during the reign of King Rama VI (1910-1925), who would travel to many provinces to watch specially arranged Royal Muay matches. It was in 1920, during his reign, that Muay Thai contests finally got their permanent home, the Suan Kulap Arena.
Muay Thai in the Global Setting
In the late 1920s, Muay Thai gradually adapted to a more international orientation. The khat chueak or bound fists were gradually abandoned in favour of Western style boxing gloves because it was felt the latter were less injurious. In 1929 a jock-strap or groin protector (krachap) began to be worn, adopted by a Thai boxer after having seen it used in Singapore, to safeguard against hard kicks.
Since Thai boxing has gained higher international exposure in line with an increasingly globalised world, promoters arranged for Muay Thai fighters to go to the US and other countries, to stage exhibition matches and even to organize tournaments between Muay Thai fighters and practitioners of other martial arts such as karate and Western boxing. In the late 1950s, a Japanese boxing promoter became fascinated with Muay Thai and studied it closely. He then devised a concept of Japanese kick-boxing, fusing Muay Thai kicking techniques with aspects of karate and Western boxing. Later, his troupe of Japanese kick-boxers fought with Muay Thai fighters. He also introduced this kind of competition in Europe, creating some confusion there as Japanese kick-boxing was seen as synonymous with Muay Thai, although in reality they are quite different in terms of conceptual and cultural breadth and depth.
It was in the 1970s that Muay Thai began to flourish internationally. At that time, the oriental martial arts, in general, had a large following, spurred by the popularity of movies starring the Kung-Fu king, Bruce Lee. Thai boxing rode on the crest of this wave and Muay Thai gyms were established in many countries, especially, the US, Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia. It has become well established as the premier martial arts globally, as evidenced by the proliferation of Muay Thai clubs with sites in the worldwide web. World championship matches comparable to those of Western boxing are being held regularly. Muay Thai has come to be acclaimed “the King of the Martial Arts”.
The Wai Khru Ram Muay Ceremony (“Ritual Dance of Homage to Teachers”)
The uniqueness and universal attractiveness of Muay Thai lies partly in the fact that not only is it a highly efficient martial art form, but it is also infused with Thai cultural values woven in a seamless manner, thus making Muay Thai a reflection of some of the intrinsic qualities of Thai society. The Wai Khru or Paying Respect to the Teachers Ceremony is an ancient Thai tradition closely bound with the fundamental concept that all providers of knowledge areKhru or teachers, and are worthy of the highest respect. That respect is expressed in the spiritual, graceful, and highly symbolic Wai Khru Ram Muay, the “Ritual Dance of Homage to Teachers”, immediately prior to the fight.
There are many styles of rituals so that two boxers would not in theory, be performing an identical Wai Khru Ram Muay. The dance starts with the boxer getting into the right frame of mind that will augur well for his fight, by focusing positive thoughts on the following auspicious symbols: one’s religion, parents, teachers, and loved ones who had passed away. Then, he starts with doing three prostrations to mark respect for the three pillars of Thai society: Nation, Religion, and King.
Then, the boxer performs the second sequence in a kneeling posture, one knee to the ground and the other leg bent up front. He pivots around on the spot and repeats the same posture facing all four sides of the ring. But one must take care not to start the sequence by facing the west, which in Thai culture is an unlucky direction.
Last is the ritual dancing sequence where the boxer shuffles out to the centre of the ring in harmony with the live background music, performs the ritual, then returns to the boxer’s corner, and repeats the rite on the other three sides of the ring.
In Muay Thai, rhythmic music accompanies both the Wai Khru Ram Muay as well as the actual contest. The music is played by the Wong Pi Klong (pi klong band) performed by four musicians. One plays the pi chawa (Javanese oboe), two play the Klong khaek (a pair of Thai drums played by two musicians) and another plays the ching (Thai cymbals). The tempo for the Wai Khru ritual is slow and stately to match the solemn mood of the ritual, with a smooth and flowing rhythm.
Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.
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