Many archival materials on the subject of Muay Thai were destroyed as a result of the Burmese-Siamese wars. The information that we currently have at our disposal comes from the notes of Burmese travellers, Cambodians and the first visitors from Europe, as well as several chronicles from the Kingdom of Lanna in Chiangmai.

The beginnings of Muay Thai are associated with the journey of the tribe ‘Thai’ (meaning ‘free man’) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD from the provinces of Juang-Xi, Sichuan and Hubei in the south of China to the place we now know as Thailand. The speculation that Thai boxing allegedly has its roots in Kung Fu (Chinese boxing) probably comes from this, although now the fighting style and training methods are completely different. Other sources claim that Thai boxing came to exist during the bloody battles that were waged between the Kingdom of the Thai people and their neighbours: Burma, the Khmer Empire and the Kingdom of Champa (present day Vietnam).

The Thai warriors documented their strategies and battle techniques over a thousand years ago. Clans of warriors created records of battles fought for years until they settled in the place that is now known as Thailand. In this ancient collection, known as Chupasart, were instructions on fighting with knives, swords, spears, battle-axes, clubs, and also archery. It became the Bible of warriors and the textbook of battle for young pupils.

Legend has it that, using this textbook, experienced warriors taught young novices how to fight with weapons, so much so that without weapons, sticks and swords were substituted with legs and hands. Their bodies were used as weapons instead and thus Thai boxing was born, an art that has transformed itself over the centuries from military skills into the combat sport we know today.

HISTORY

Thai boxing underwent constant change. By means of hand-to-hand combat political disputes were settled, and the art was also taught in public schools and military training programmes. The nationwide popularity of Thai boxing came about with some incredible events.

In the fourteenth century, the king of Thailand Sen Muang Mu died and his two sons, Fang Keng and Ji Kumkam, began a battle over the throne. Because both contenders had many ardent supporters, the conflict increased and the country was faced with civil war. It was therefore decided that representatives from both fractions would fight each other and the victorious leader would take the throne. The fight was won by Ji Kumkam, for which he became king.

A historical document dating back to 1560 describes the duel between the Thai prince Naresuan (the so-called “Black Prince”) and Bayinnaungiem, son of the king of Burma. The duel lasted several hours and ended with the death of the Burmese prince. As he was the only heir to the throne, the Burmese, without a great leader, abandoned their attack on Thailand.

In 1767, Lord Mangra, the king of Burma, decided to give a seven-day feast for his people to celebrate the conquest of Thailand. When he discovered that one of the captives was Nai Khanom Tom, the best boxer in Thailand, he decided to organise a fight between him and his own best warrior. Before the fight had begun, Nai Khanom Tom danced around his opponent Wai Khmu – a ritual dance practiced to this day. This ritual is a sign of respect for the opponent, and it is also thought to have the aim of helping the warrior concentrate on the fight. The Burmese boxer was taken by surprise by the scene that played out before him and when the signal was given to start the fight, the Thai boxer immediately moved forward and dominated his opponent, finishing the fight within a few seconds. The judges didn’t recognise the knockout, arguing that the Burmese fighter Wai Khru had been distracted. Nai Khanom Tom was instead ordered to fight the next nine opponents, each of who had been given the order to kill him. One after another the Burmese fighters fell unconscious under a hail of elbow strikes and knee and shin kicks. The last of them, a boxing instructor from the city Ya Kai, ended up with such a mutilated body and limbs that none of those remaining wanted to pit themselves up against the Thai boxer. Lord Mangra was so impressed with the Thai’s skills that he offered Nai Khanom Tom any amount of money, or two beautiful women as wives. Nai Khanom Tom regained his freedom and returned to his homeland with two freshly married spouses.

With his victory over the best Burmese boxer of the times, Nai Khanom Tom secured himself a permanent place in Thai history and to this day tournaments are organised in his name to commemorate those events. Around 20 years later, two French boxers arrived in Bangkok and challenged all the Thai competitors, proclaiming that not one of the Thais was capable of beating them. This bold assertion prompted the king to call the best Thai fighters to come to the capital and defend the honour of their country. Muen Phlaan, Thai boxing and wrestling instructor accepted the challenge. A special pavilion was built for the occasion, close to the western theatre Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the start of the tournament was eagerly anticipated. The fight was clearly uneven and both Frenchmen were defeated, and, thanks to this event, Muay Thai and the skills of its masters were heard about far beyond Thailand.


At the end of the 18th century, thanks to the leader known as the Tiger King, Thai boxing went through an exceptional prime and enjoyed great popularity. King Pra-Chao Sua was an expert in Muay Thai, but – due to the fact that raising your hand to the king was a serious crime – he was forced to hide his identity by putting on a mask.

TRADITION

Musical, ritual ceremonies held before fights and the giving of nicknames to competitors are traditions present in Muay Thai to this day. They come from Buddhism and are a fundamental part of Thai culture; however, it happens that competitors from other cultures don’t abide by them.

In Thailand, fighting competitors are accompanied by an orchestra playing a certain kind of rhythmic music that adapts to the pace of the fight. The orchestra consists of drums, cymbals and the Javanese flute and, if the pace of the fight increases, the rhythm of the music speeds up, and vice versa.

As mentioned earlier, the old custom of Wai Khru is an expression of respect. First of all, the boxer greets the audience with ceremonial bows and by moving his arms loosely around his head. Then comes a series of free, spiritual dance moves characteristic of the fighter and the school from which he came. Besides being a sign of respect, this ritual also has the aim of helping the fighter concentrate, loosen up his body, relieve anxiety and to drive out evil spirits from the ring. After the performance the fighter goes to his corner and takes off his Mongkhon, which is a type of head covering (headband) made from a stiff rope tied at the back.