Muay Thai is not just a Thai institution, it is a national passion. The whole country comes to a grinding halt when important matches are broadcast and much of the nations wealth is tied up in betting on the outcome. Over the past couple of decades this martial art has become popular internationally and with its emphasis on stamina as well as both defense and offense, it is something everyone can learn.
Along with football Muay Thai is the most passionately followed sport in the country. Fights are shown on the major television network five days a week and the newspapers report all the major results. The most famous stadiums in the country, Lumpini and Ratchadamnoen are in Bangkok and although most provincial capitals have boxing rings it is the dream of every young fighter to reach Bangkok to fight in front of thousands of screaming fans.
Traditional Muay Thai has a long history in Thailand although time has blurred the factual details. Hundreds of years ago the Thais developed a form of close, hand-to-hand combat best suited for the types of rough terrain battles they were constantly fighting with their neighbours. Over time it became a rite of passage for young men to be trained in this martial art and it became increasingly associated with the nobility as not only was it taught to princes of the Royal House but became a compulsory part of military training.
A major milestone occurred in 1774 when Nai Khanom Tom was captured by the Burmese. He was forced to fight ten Burmese boxers in front of the Burmese King and after defeating them all, one at a time, he was freed and returned to Thailand as a national hero.
Muay Thai now differs somewhat from its original incarnation, with the most obvious changes being the gloves the practitioners wear and the fact that it takes place in a boxing ring similar to the type used in Western boxing.
A match is fought in five three-minute rounds with two minutes break in between. Before the fight begins both competitors pay homage to their teachers by performing a wai-khru dance which is also useful as a warm-up. The match is decided by a knockout or through a points system. Three judges decide who wins the round and the one who wins the most round is declared the winner.
It is sometimes referred to as The Art of Eight Limbs as the fighter has the ability to execute strikes using eight points of contact with hands, shins, elbows and knees all being brought into the fray. From the teacher the modern Muay Thai fighter learns not just this art of fighting but also about himself and the spiritual expression of his art and skill.
Each boxer wears a headband and armband. The headband, called mongkhol, is blessed before the fight by a monk or the boxers own teacher and is therefore believed to bestow luck upon the wearer. It will be removed after the wai-khru dance by the trainer. The armbands however stay on until the fight has finished as it is believed they offer protection.
There are now Muay Thai schools all over the world, particularly in Europe and America. Not only are more and more people trying this martial art, but it is a popular spectator sport and demonstrations are often put on in major capitals. So whether you are in Thailand or just about anywhere else it is worth watching a match to appreciate not only the skill involved but the spiritual and cultural elements that have been seamlessly interwoven into this historic art.