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
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.
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
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.
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