Muay Thai Culture

Muay Thai is the cultural martial art of Thailand, a national sport and an ancient fighting system. It originated with monks who would fight hand-to-hand using weapons like sticks, swords, knives or even their fists in order to defend themselves from wild animals or humans that threatened their temple grounds. Muay Thai has spread out worldwide as a way for people to get fit and have fun while working on developing self-defense skills and learning about local culture through competition.

Muay Thai is a martial art originating in Thailand. It is the national sport of that country and has become popular internationally, especially in the United States. Muay Thai combines boxing with elements of kickboxing and wrestling.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Bryan Schatz, who has now become a full-fledged Art of Manliness writer after guest writing for us for a few months. Bryan, welcome to the team!

***

Just as we get out of the vehicle, the monsoon rain stops. We pay our 85 baht, thank the driver, and go onto a blackened cement pavement where the air is thick with heat and humidity, nearly stifling. Before we even get to the stadium, we can smell the odor of stale perspiration and strain. We stroll past several filthy dogs lazing in the throng outside, through the food sellers and Tuk Tuk drivers, until we come to a halt outside the entrance, where we are halted by ticket touts.

Lumpini Stadium is a battleground of dirt and sweat. Blood is mixed in. The most of it was old and had dried on the canvas, but there were a few new sprinkles from tonight’s battles. It’s a jumble of hardened and discolored concrete, cigarette smoke, Chang beer, a deafeningly loud crowd, and, of course, terrible fighting.

***

Muay Thai, Thailand’s national sport, is a fighting sport unlike any other. Bone-crushing blows are delivered with the knees, elbows, shins, and palms. It’s a martial art with thousands of years of history that thrives in a culture where people throng to stadiums and local TV screens to watch bouts, sometimes risking all they have in the hopes of winning a large baht (Thai money) payment.

Thai fighters typically start their professional careers when they are as young as five or six years old, getting into the ring as often as twice a month. It is not unusual for seasoned Thai boxers to have fought hundreds of times by the time they retire. Rolling glass bottles across them, kicking banana trees, and a lifetime of training toughen the shins. Training routines are tough, with round after round of Thai pads, clinch work, heavy bag work, sparring, and more frequent fighting than any other martial art, yet they simply become a part of a fighter’s daily rhythms.

Crossing Boundaries

Muay Thai, on the other hand, is not exclusive to Thailand. The sport has grown in popularity across the globe and is largely regarded as one of the most efficient forms of stand-up combat. It’s becoming a more important part of any MMA fighter’s arsenal, as well as one of the most difficult styles of kickboxing, and it’s being employed more often in the Octagon and in K1 battles. Muay Thai fighters like Wanderlei Silva, Paul Daley, and Anderson Silva are well-known in the MMA world. Thailand’s national sport is being taught in gyms all around the globe. Many fighters’ ultimate objective these days is to fly to Thailand and train with the Lumpinee Stadium Champions.

I had been training in Muay Thai on and off for many years until my girlfriend Brittany and I decided to take the leap last year when we took time off from job and school to travel internationally. Our first visit was Thailand, but before starting a rigorous training routine, we hired a tuk tuk and rode to Lumpinee Stadium, Thailand’s most renowned stadium in the middle of Bangkok.

 

***

We attempt to avoid the ticket touts because I want to get inexpensive seats in the stadium’s back row, where the atmosphere is high and the betting is rife. That’s where I’d try my luck. The touts will attempt to persuade you that the cheap tickets are sold out, forcing you to pay extra for ringside seats. The prospect of getting your money back via some good old-fashioned gaming is gone.

“1500 baht, ringside!” they shout as we fight our way past a swarm of street dogs and noodle stands. I say, “Nope, 500 baht, standing, with the elderly folks betting at the back.” They try again, so I repeat myself, and they shrug and wave us through to the ticket desk. There are three indications to look for. The first is the most obnoxious: 2,000 Baht- Ringside. The next step is to stand for 1,500 Baht. And here’s the kicker: it’s just 200 Baht if you’re Thai. Just a moment. What about the 500 baht offer I heard about? What’s up with the gamblers? Is it in the back? Standing? A good fortune… No? “No.” At the desk, they affirm. We turn around, and there he is, wearing a huge delighted smile and holding a stack of tickets. Dammit.

Muay Thai has a long and illustrious history.

Ancient Muay Thai fighter portrait with taped hands.

Though a type of Thai Boxing has existed for over 2,000 years, documents from the Ayuthaya period show that it dates back barely 400 years. The history of the sport prior to this time is the subject of much academic discussion.

Muay Thai fighters in the early days battled bare-knuckled, regardless of weight divisions or ability level. The only requirement was that each warrior announce his or her readiness to battle. Groin shots were legal, and heads may be used as weapons, thanks to a mere piece of soil as the ring and no real restrictions. Some of it altered at some time during the Ayuthaya era. Fighters started tying strips of raw hemp around their wrists and fingers to protect their wrists and fingers, resulting in more durable and well-protected fists. Muay Kaad Chuek was the name given to this specific style, and it immediately gained popularity.

Taped hand of fighter.

According to legend, warriors would soak their hands in water and then dry them; the hardened hemp could then do massive harm. According to certain accounts, hemp was sometimes laced with microscopic shards of glass. During Sonkran (Thai New Year celebrations), an annual Muay Kaad Chuek contest is still conducted in the northeastern side of the Thai/Lao border, where boxers fight till knockout, or if both combatants are still standing at the conclusion of the fight, it is ruled a draw. Muay Thai now has tight regulations, with boxing gloves and wraps being required, thanks to sanctioning organizations and a worldwide audience.

***

We’re seated two rows back, the reedy Muay Thai music on the opposite side of the ring belting out its trance-nerve screech song, as two combatants pound each other with their fists within the ropes. The first bout concludes in a unanimous decision; the man with a red stream running from the cut over his eye loses. The audience is teeming with life.

 

Muay Thai for Kids

The fact that youngsters as young as five and six years old start their careers in such a brutal sport has clearly sparked debate. Muay Thai gyms attract children for a number of reasons. Muay Thai is a two-sided coin in Thai culture, despite the fact that it ignites a significant human rights controversy. For these kids, it may be a chance to turn a crisis into a chance,” says Chira Wichaisuthikul, a Thai director whose film Lumpinee investigates the world of Muay Thai and its importance in the lives of a group of youngsters. Some of the kids come to the camps to get away from a life of homelessness, drug addiction, and wandering. Others make early commitments only for the love of the game. As a consequence, boxing camps operate as enormous family groups, with coaches often filling in for missing dads and everyday activities carried out communally.

***

I can’t believe we’ve arrived, and I turn over to see Brittany’s joy, but it’s not quite there; she seems drowsy, and her eyelids flicker closed slowly. The music starts up again, as two fresh combatants make their way around the ring, beginning their Ram Muay. In a Muay Thai battle, the opening few rounds are usually sluggish as each fighter assesses the other before unleashing their cannons. Britt’s eyes are a little droopy. Another round of blinks. I let out a yawn. The competitors get more invigorated and angry as they hurl knees and kicks, fire off straight rights, swing nasty hooks, and clinch in the final rounds, setting the whole stadium ablaze.

Values and Tradition

Boxers praying before the match.

Suggestions that Muay Thai is merely a brutal, human dogfight (as some do) are understandable, but they represent a significant misconception of the sport in my view. Though it is plainly brutal, it also cultivates significant ideals and traditions, as do many martial arts. It has the ability to humble, discipline, and inspire in the right environment.

Every Muay Thai battle, for example, begins with a “Wai Khru” (in which combatants claim each corner of the ring) and a “Ram Muay,” a traditional dance meant to show respect for the fighter’s opponent and camp, as well as admiration for their own instructors, families, and personal faith. Fighters wear “mongkon” (traditional headbands) and a “Prajiad” around their biceps, which are both thought to bring good luck.

Muay Thai, like any other martial art, has the potential to instill immense self-confidence as well as humility in a person’s life.

***

I’ve never heard a crowd that raucous. They answer with a chorus of “Hoo!” with each knee, elbow, kick, and punch. “Oh-Way!” and “Zyah!” As the fighting get more intense, the cheers become louder. The blue fighter hits his red opponent in the face with a push-kick. “Zyah!” exclaims everyone. Then a left hook and a round kick are thrown at him. Zyah! Oh-Way! Everyone is yelling. Britt’s head sags, but she fights off the slumber and her eyes open for a brief while. Another yawn comes to mind.

 

The Ramon Dekkers Legend

Thai fighters have long dominated Muay Thai, and they cling to the Lumpinee Stadium championship belt with firmly clinched and muscular hands, as one would imagine. There have, however, been a few foreigners who have achieved Muay Thai superstardom. Ramon Dekkers is one of those select handful. Dekkers, a Dutch native who dominated the tournament, has become a legend among Muay Thai fans for being one of the few outsiders to participate against Thai fighters. If challenged, he would fight up to two times a week, and he finished his career with over 200 bouts, similar to many of his Thai competitors.

***

Red has the clinch under control and is hitting knees on Blue’s ribs one by one. Kneeling. Hoo! Another bend of the knee. Hoo! Knee. Kneel, kneel, kneel, kneel, kneel, kneel, kneel, kneel, Oh-Way! The blue-clad combatant collapses to the ground. Britt’s eyes open for a short moment.

The boxers are back at it after an eight count, and Britt’s head slumps forward, eyes closed. Red steps in to take advantage of the situation; he clenches his fists and continues to hurl knees at his opponent, who is unable to stop him. An elbow throws him back hard and smacks him in the chin. He slams into the ground more harder this time. And that’s the end of it. He’s knocked unconscious and tossed onto a rickety wooden backboard, his arms falling limply over the edges. The audience erupts in laughter. They hurl the warrior out of the stadium, as the other raises his arms in triumph. My hands are sweaty from the adrenaline rush. Each of us has a blaze in our eyes.

Britt is fast sleeping on my shoulder.

It’s a good thing I didn’t buy my cheap seats from the back with the elderly guys betting. For the wealth I desired would have turned into a monetary shortage, with Thai baht disappearing like dew droplets in a dry desert. I maintained a mental tally of who I would have bet my money on throughout the night; I would have kissed my cash goodbye every time.

Those that want to train in Thailand

Many people dream of training in Thailand, but they don’t know where to start, how to locate a gym or lodgings, how to budget for the length of their stay and travel fees, or just are unsure of their talents and hence are hesitant to try it out.

To begin, it should be stated that you do not need to be a professional fighter, or even remotely close to one, to train in Thailand. I trained (as an amateur at best) alongside men and women of various ages and skill levels, some pursuing their championship fight dreams and others just looking for a good workout. Next week, I’ll go through the different gyms, lodging options, hydration and diet recommendations, and so on, in order to give you a general idea of what’s available for those of you who are interested.

 

 

 

The “muay thai articles” is a great resource for learning about the culture of muay thai. It includes information on the history, techniques, and training.

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