I remember not so long ago, I was sat around a table with an American, a German, an Aussie and a Thai bloke. It had got to that stage of proceedings when we were missing our home lands and the ugly sceptre of patriotism raised its’ head. The theme of the conversation turned itself to what our homeland had brought to the world. Being a Brit I put soccer, rugby and cricket on the table. The American offered baseball, basketball and American Football, the Teutonic one offered BMW’s and lager, the Thai mentioned excellent food, Red Bull and Muay Thai. When it came to the Aussie’s turn he blushed a little and with more than a hint of embarrassment he muttered, “Errr. Well umm. Rolf Harris and Dame Edna.”
Now I could be evil and vent my sarcasm on a certain member of that group but because I’m in a good mood I’ll focus on my personal favourite sport of “Muay Thai” or “Thai Boxing” as it’s know in some quarters. It’s been described as the “Art and Science of Eight Limbs” and by another writer on a different site as “The most graceful way in the world of beating the snot out of some one”. Personally I wouldn’t have used the word snot, but I’m an ungracious Northerner. The Thai’s are justifiably very proud of their national sport and at some time in their lives, most schoolchildren will undergo some form of tuition in this ancient art. On a personal front Thai Boxing helped me stay on the straight and narrow when I could have got involved in less savoury parts of society, and when I’m in Thailand helps me work up a healthy thirst before I go out and undo all the good it’s done me.
The Muay Thai of today has undergone a metamorphosis from its original form. Its exact provenance is a little vague, as the country’s records were destroyed when some bad tempered guys from Burma decided to set a torch to the ancient capital of Siam (Ayuddhaya) in 1767, destroying the country’s Royal Archives, so what we know of the history of the sport is pieced together from manuscripts found in the adjacent countries.
The earliest written record is in 1411 up in Chiang Mai. After that the “fistic art” goes unmentioned until around 1590, when King Naresuen got a look in for heralding it as a form of self defence and unarmed combat against invaders, and documented some of the moves that characterise it today. In 1703 “The Tiger King” continued encouraging his countrymen to partake and was rumoured to fight himself (incognito) in a number of villages.
No article on Muay Thai would be complete without mentioning Nai Khanom Dtom, a Siamese soldier who famously won freedom by beating twelve of his Burmese captors and won national respect in doing so. From 1703 onwards the sport carried on merrily with the only change being the swapping of leather hand bindings for ones made of cloth, which if both parties agreed could be dipped in glue and ground glass. In the old days it was a sort of “last man standing” type of contest but in the 1930’s after a few too many fatalities they introduced rules and regulations, which have remained mainly unchanged to the modern day.
The changes of the 1930’s were to insist the contest took place in a ring, break the fight into five rounds of three minutes, replace the hand wraps with gloves, insist on mouth and groin guards and let a referee get in the ring to ensure fair play.
If you’re in Bangkok and want to enjoy the spectacle there are two different stadiums, Rajadamnern (five minutes walk from Khao Sarn Road) and Lumpinee where there are bouts staged most nights of the week. It’s a commonly held belief that the Lumpinee fights are of a slightly higher standard although it is hard to separate them. Whichever you chose, you’ll experience a night of true sporting excellence. The sport is still steeped in superstition and spiritualism. When the fighters enter the stadium, they’ll be dressed in silk gowns with garlands of orchids round their shoulders and a “Mongkon” (a ceremonial band) around their head.
On entering the ring (over the top rope if tradition is adhered to) they will remove the gown and perform what is known as a “Wai Kru” it’s a dance which is designed to pay homage to their mentors, family and Buddha but it also helps them focus and warm up. Often the competitors will have spent the day praying, meditating and being blessed by monks.
During the bout, the fighters wear a “Kruang Ruang” or “Ring of Charms” around their bicep, which usually contains a Buddha image. The fight itself is accompanied (as is the Wai Kru) by music from a three piece band made up of cymbals, drums and an oboe.
As the tempo of the fight raises and falls, so does the tempo of the music. Uninitiated spectators are often taken aback at what they see as the “brutality” of the fight. The competitors are allowed to strike each other with fists, feet, shins, elbows and knees. It can look a little scary, but the guys in the ring are highly trained in defensive techniques as well as offensive.
In the early rounds the fighters will typically “fell each other out” looking for gaps in their opponents defence. In the later rounds spectators are usually treated to a spectacular display of pugilist technique.
At the end of the five rounds if neither fighter is concussed, the winner (as in Western Boxing) is the one who has attacked and defended most effectively. Putting the fight’s themselves to one side for a moment it’s important to understand the enthusiasm of the crowd. The Thais live and breathe Muay Thai. When you attend the stadium the atmosphere is similar to a Premiership Football Game and if you chose to flick through the channels on a TV in Thailand, it’s unusual not to find at least one fight being shown.
Despite the brutality of the contest, the combatants have a great deal of respect for one another. They are highly trained sportsmen. Most of them start early, at the age of around seven or eight, and if they are accepted to a gym or “Camp” the Thai word is “Sit” they will often take on a “fight name” which encompasses the name of their gym or their mentor. They live in the gym under a Spartan regime and spend as much as seven or eight hours daily training.
To outsiders it may seem harsh, but Muay Thai offers an escape from poverty and a more healthy alternative to drugs or alcohol for a great many young Thais. The fighter’s career is often over by the time they’re in their mid twenties, with a successful fighter often having some two hundred fights under their belt. It’s hard to classify “Muay Thai” as either a “Martial Art” or “Sport”, I tend to put it in a box of it’s own and call it a “Martial Sport”. It differs from the more “conventional” Martial arts like Karate or Wing Chun, where participants receive grades and practice “forms”, it can seem a lot less formal, although the spiritual aspects of the fight separate it from a traditional sport.
On the international scene Muay Thai remained in the shadows for quiet a while, but films like “The Man With the Golden Gun” and “Kickboxer” have done a great deal of good in opening western minds to its potential.
If you’ve seen the James Bond classic, Golden Gun, 007 visits Lumpinee. The two fighters who were paid to perform for the cameras (Master Woody and Master Toddy) along with Master Sken were among the early pioneers to take the sport abroad. Towards the end of the seventies they settled in Manchester (where the rainfall must have reminded them of the monsoon, but I’m not sure what they made of the temperature) and went about training westerners in their art. They acted as ambassadors for Thailand, and have done a great deal of work in promoting the sport worldwide.
During the mid nineties Muay Thai was going through something of a slump, but was cast into the limelight again by Noong Tom, the famous lady boy boxer who competed wearing lipstick and nail varnish, until he was bared from competition when he underwent re assignment surgery.
In the martial arts field Muay Thai is universally respected as being one of the most complete forms, I don’t want to get into the “if a karate expert and a Thai boxer got in a scrap” type of conversation, but there are well documented examples of other disciplines trying to compete under Muay Thai rules and failing.
If having seen a few bouts and you fancy giving it a whirl there are plenty of gyms dotted around which welcome novices, and don’t be put of by the brutality of the contests. If you attend a gym the professional trainers are well versed in tailoring the sessions to an individuals capabilities. I can personally recommend Sor Vorapin on Chakrapong (the Gullivers World end of Kha Sarn behind the watch shop), Jitty’s (Soi 49 Sukumvit), Sityodthong (Nakula north of Pattaya), Sitpholek (Weekender Resort 2nd Rd Pattaya) and Jungle Gym (Haad Rin Kho Pha Ngan). Other’s which enjoy good reputations, that I can’t comment on personally are Fairtex (Trok Kai, Th Anuwong Bangkok), Chitlada (Rama IV Bangkok) and Lana (Chiang Mai). If you fancy competing you need to put aside a lot of time (years) to attain the levels Thais attain and foreigners don’t have good record of attaining a comparable level, although there are some noteable exceptions including Ronnie Green of England, Raymond Decker and Ivan Hippolyte of Holland, I also believe the Japanese are putting forward some serious contenders.
To conclude if you’re passing through Bangkok and want a taste of culture you could do a lot worse than to spend anevening of watching fights (lots of sexy bodies if you’re a lady and a good scrap if you’re a bloke) and if your worried about getting fat, pop down to a gym, they won’t hurt you but you might ache a bit the next day.