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Thai, oth­er­wise known as ‘The Art of Eight Limbs’, is Thai­land’s form of box­ing that makes lethal use of eight con­tact points of the body, in­clud­ing the hands, shins, fore­arms, knees and feet. It has be­come one of the pri­mary rea­sons for mar­tial arts devo­tees to visit the coun­try – from the se­ri­ous prac­ti­tioner train­ing for the next fight, to the ca­sual tourist look­ing for a lit­tle phys­i­cal con­di­tion­ing be­tween days on the beach. The pop­u­lar­ity of the sport has grown so rapidly that lo­cal economies have been founded – and are thriv­ing on – Muay Thai’s new in vogue sta­tus, mak­ing it a boom­ing, year-round highlight of Thai tourism. This brand has been suc­cess­fully pack­aged and ex­ported for world­wide con­sump­tion.

The ex­act ori­gins of Muay Thai have been de­bated by the nu­mer­ous schol­ars who have re­searched this mar­tial art form. By some ac­counts, as­pects of this fight­ing form are be­lieved to have come from China, stem­ming from the out­ward flow of im­mi­grants to the south­east­ern parts of Asia. Some believe that Muay

[Muay Thai] makes lethal use of eight con­tact points of the body, in­clud­ing the hands, shins, fore­arms, knees and feet

Thai’s in­fancy orig­i­nated from the Kh­mer Em­pire (the pre­de­ces­sor to mod­ern Cam­bo­dia), from a mar­tial art called Pradal Serey. What is cer­tain is that the sport of Muay Thai was spawned from the many early Thai com­bat fight­ing styles lo­cated through­out the re­gion. Muay Chaiya, Mae Mai Muay Thai, Muay Lop­buri and Muay Ko­rat were the sev­eral styles that, with time, merged to form the prac­tice of Muay Bo­ran, which trans­lates to ‘an­cient box­ing.’ Fur­ther con­sol­i­da­tion of fight­ing styles with the even­tual veer away from its ap­pli­ca­tion as a com­bat­ive prac­tice to­wards a sport led to what we know today as Muay Thai.

The Sukhothai Era, 1180–1377 Tra­di­tional Thai his­to­ri­ans have noted that it was dur­ing the early- to mid-12th cen­tury that the Sukhothai King­dom was founded as the be­gin­ning of the Thai na­tion. It was here, in what is today cen­tral Thai­land, that bat­tles raged against the Kh­mer Em­pire. Large swaths of fight­ing forces were dis­patched to first, win suc­ces­sion, and then de­fend the young cap­i­tal city. With the birthing of a new na­tional iden­tity tak­ing place, it is thought that the for­ma­tive style of early Muay Thai hand-to-hand com­bat was cre­ated here. Dur­ing this pe­riod, it was ex­pected that ev­ery­one – from the com­mon peo­ple to roy­alty – would prac­tice the dis­ci­plines of Muay Thai.

The Ayut­thaya Era, 1400s – 1590 Pe­ri­ods of con­quest be­tween the neigh­bour­ing king­doms of Sukhothai and Kam­phaeng Phet and Phit­san­u­lok con­tin­ued the on­go­ing re­fine­ment of the Muay Thai mar­tial art. As at­tempts at dy­nas­tic uni­fi­ca­tion con­tin­ued, the fight­ing style of Muay Thai evolved in both tech­nique and as a cul­tural di­vid­ing force dur­ing on­go­ing con­flicts be­tween the Angkor Em­pire and later, Burma.

In the lat­ter years of the 16th cen­tury, nu­mer­ous wars con­tin­ued to be fought against Burma, but it was un­der the reign of one of Thai­land’s most revered mon­archs, King Nare­suan, that there was a turn­ing point for Muay Thai. Ow­ing to his pas­sion for the Muay Thai fight­ing style, King Nare­suan was in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing the first great up­surge of in­ter­est in the art as a lo­cal sport. It was dur­ing this time that new sport­ing fight­ing tech­niques evolved and led to the be­gin­ning of Muay Thai com­pe­ti­tion. Early pro­fes­sional fights were by no means a friendly af­fair, as no time lim­its were given, and so bouts of fight­ing con­tin­ued un­til ei­ther com­peti­tor gave up, or was knocked out. The in­creas­ing pub­lic appreciation of Muay Thai as a lo­cal sport meant that it slowly moved away from its early raw com­bat­ant roots to­wards a more recre­ational prac­tice.

King Prachao Sua the ‘Tiger King’, 1697 – 1709 An­other his­tor­i­cal fig­ure who was in­stru­men­tal in keep­ing Muay Thai cul­tur­ally in­tact was King Prachao Sua, the king who loved com­pet­ing. He was known for en­ter­ing com­pe­ti­tions dis­guised as a com­moner in or­der to be able to fight un­hin­dered by his revered royal sta­tus. Be­cause no one recog­nised him as the king, he was able to par­tic­i­pate in tour­na­ments against highly skilled and no­table fight­ers.

But while the iden­tity of Muay Thai was flour­ish­ing as a sport do­mes­ti­cally, con­flicts with neigh­bour­ing Burma had not yet played out. In 1767, the in­vad­ing armies of Burma at­tacked the Ayut­thaya King­dom of Siam. Dur­ing this pe­riod of the con­flict, many Thai fight­ers were cap­tured and taken to Burma. This is where the leg­end Nai Khanom Tom was born.

Known for his mas­tery of fight­ing skills, Nai Khanom Tom was cho­sen by King Man­gra of Burma to par­tic­i­pate

A fighter crum­bles against a punch in the cor­ner of the ring

Bouts of fight­ing con­tin­ued un­til ei­ther com­peti­tor gave up, or was knocked out bot­tom

in a seven-day fes­ti­val. Put up against a Burmese cham­pion, it was said that Nai Khanom Tom over­whelmed his op­po­nent, end­ing the match with a swift de­feat by knock­out. Fol­low­ing this, King Man­gra of­fered Nai Khanom Tom his free­dom – if he could suc­cess­fully de­feat nine more Burmese fight­ers in suc­ces­sion. Leg­end has it that at the end of the tenth fight, Nai Khanom Tom was re­leased and pro­vided with safe pas­sage back to Siam, along with two Burmese wives.

Be­cause of Nai Khanom Tom’s legendary hero­ics, Thai­land cel­e­brates Boxer’s Day – or Na­tional Muay Bo­ran Day – on March 17.

The Golden Age of Muay Thai King Rama V was an­other fig­ure in Thai royal lin­eage who pro­moted the sport. From the late 1880s on­wards, his in­volve­ment in tour­na­ments and im­por­tant in­ter­na­tional events helped el­e­vate the iden­tity and sta­tus of Muay Thai, na­tion­ally and abroad. Like his pre­de­ces­sors, it also pro­vided a means for him to find per­sonal guards and royal of­fi­cers. In 1887, the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion was cre­ated, which in­cluded Muay Thai as part of the mil­i­tary cadet teach­ers school cur­ricu­lum.

Mod­ern Muay Thai The turn of the 19th cen­tury wit­nessed changes that high­lighted Thai­land’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with – and ac­cep­tance of – out­side in­flu­ence. Its most dra­matic shift in terms of the so­cial po­lit­i­cal land­scape oc­curred prior to and in the wake of the fall of King Rama VII. Sweep­ing changes took place within Thai­land that re­sulted in many of the old ways be­ing dis­carded. The di­rect im­pact of th­ese times on the sport could be seen in the in­tro­duc­tion of Bri­tish box­ing into the Muay Thai cur­ricu­lum at Suan Ku­lap Col­lege. It was around this time that the sport was cod­i­fied; rules and reg­u­la­tions were in­tro­duced. This led to the in­cor­po­ra­tion of the first in­ter­na­tional-style three rope ring with red and blue padded cor­ners. The fight­ers were re­lieved of the rope bind­ing of the arms and hands as padded gloves took their place.

After the world wars, large sta­di­ums were built and re­mod­elling con­tin­ued. Weight classes were in­tro­duced, and five rounds with a time limit were in­cluded. The makeover of re­fin­ing the sport’s con­duct helped pro­mote Muay Thai’s ap­peal to a for­eign au­di­ence. Muay Thai had en­tered a new pe­riod, in­creas­ingly in­flu­enced by the West with more strin­gent stan­dards of pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

Today, Muay Thai’s al­lure con­tin­ues to grow, and large gath­er­ings in Bangkok’s Ra­j­damn­ern and Lumpi­nee sta­di­ums are an an­tic­i­pated weekly event. The broad­cast­ing of th­ese live events be­gan over two decades ago, and con­tinue to be shown to fans through­out Thai­land today.

On a global scale, Muay Thai has be­come one of the fastest grow­ing mar­tial art prac­tices. It has been firmly es­tab­lished as one of the in­te­gral pil­lars in today’s multi-mil­lion dol­lar mixed mar­tial arts in­dus­try. As it gains in­creas­ing ac­knowl­edge­ment around the world, Muay Thai’s pos­si­ble in­clu­sion in the Olympic Games seems likely.

Look closer I re­cently de­cided to take a closer look at this fast-ris­ing in­dus­try to get a bet­ter sense of what kind of peo­ple are at­tracted to the sport, and to find out if this rel­a­tively new sport­ing craze is here to stay. I made my first ac­quain­tance with Muay Thai in the prov­ince of Phang Nga, sit­u­ated on Thai­land’s south­ern An­daman coast. It was here that I found a modest but at­trac­tive train­ing camp nes­tled within a quiet ru­ral com­mu­nity.

Un­der­neath a high roofline of steel gird­ers and me­tal roof­ing to guard against the midday trop­i­cal sun, a mix of sweat-drenched ap­pren­tices were en­thu­si­as­ti­cally learn­ing their trade. A chaotic blur of fly­ing limbs ac­com­pa­nied by de­mand­ing com­mands from sea­soned in­struc­tors oc­cu­pied the four sep­a­rate box­ing rings. I quickly re­treated be­hind the rel­a­tive safety of my viewfinder, where I could ob­serve ex­hausted tourists and mo­ti­vated ex­pats dressed in flam­boy­ant shorts obe­di­ently ex­e­cut­ing pad strikes to the syn­chro­nised bel­low­ing of their Thai train­ers.

The fight­ers were re­lieved of the rope bind­ing of the arms and hands as padded gloves took their place

Stand­ing alone as he tested his hand wraps, Dar­ren, an ex­pat from Canada, was get­ting ready for a train­ing ses­sion in prepa­ra­tion for his third pro­fes­sional fight. I asked him why he had de­cided to choose this par­tic­u­lar camp, and what he looks for when con­sid­er­ing a place to train.

“I pre­fer train­ing some­what off the beaten path, as I find that too many peo­ple some­times amounts to less qual­ity or not enough coach­ing time,” he shared. Press­ing him fur­ther, I asked if he could elab­o­rate on the dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties of Thai box­ing gyms.

“Usu­ally, if you are a ded­i­cated fighter, you’ll be given the at­ten­tion you need. But I have wit­nessed oc­ca­sions where the train­ers have not taken their craft too se­ri­ously, or there are just too few train­ers for the num­ber of stu­dents in a class. I’m wor­ried that the suc­cess of Muay Thai is chang­ing the spirit of the sport. I guess when you go global, a bit of the soul gets kicked out of it.” Dar­ren ad­justed his hand wraps and climbed back into the ring.

Later, he went on to men­tion that while the train­ing it­self is fun­da­men­tally the same and con­sists of rou­tine small­pad com­bined with heavy-bag work­out, each gym can vary the train­ing process. The mush­room­ing va­ri­ety of gyms in Thai­land can be as di­verse as their clien­tele, from op­u­lent re­sort-styles for the wealthy, to the gritty, street- roped gyms for those with more modest in­comes. He ex­plained that ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion tends to be a big fac­tor; there are in­nu­mer­able op­tions through­out Thai­land, from cities to moun­tains and camps near the sea. “Th­ese days, the big­ger, big name camps have ac­tu­ally di­ver­si­fied into a broad spec­trum of other forms of health and fit­ness

op­por­tu­ni­ties such as yoga, cross-fit, and Brazil­ian ju­jitsu. I chose this camp be­cause it’s fo­cused ex­clu­sively on Muay Thai,” he ex­plained.

Sit­u­ated a few hours south, on the is­land of Phuket, is the high-oc­tane nightlife of Pa­tong Beach. For a few nights a week, a box­ing sta­dium in the heart of Pa­tong fills with both tourists and Thai peo­ple. I at­tended fight night and sat ring­side next to a lo­cal Thai trainer who was there to sup­port his club’s young fight­ers.

“Many peo­ple have come to watch the fight­ing tonight,” he said, flash­ing a wide smile of pride as the first boys en­tered the ring to per­form the pre-fight rit­ual. The sig­na­ture high-pitched whine of the Thai box­ing mu­sic called sarama echoed through the sta­dium. The Muay Thai dance, known as waikhru­ram muay, is a pre-fight trib­ute per­formed in honour of the lo­cal club and its trainer. It is a tra­di­tion dat­ing back to a 16th-cen­tury fight­ing style that was born from the bat­tles fought be­tween Burma and Siam. The Si­amese war­riors soon de­vel­oped one of the fiercest rep­u­ta­tions through­out South­east Asia in this ex­tremely ef­fec­tive ‘eight limb’ of­fen­sive-based com­bat dis­ci­pline.

The first round com­menced with a face-off be­tween two boys of eight and ten years old. Both boys had en­gaged in pre­vi­ous fights and were be­gin­ning what they hoped would be promis­ing ca­reers. “This de­pends on whether they con­tinue with a strong heart and with few in­juries,” their trainer said.

The fight­ing was a vi­o­lent real­ity check: I wit­nessed sev­eral bloody knockouts from con­nect­ing fists and head-kicks that brought home the risks in­volved in full-con­tact Muay Thai. As if read­ing my thoughts, the trainer said, “There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween fight night and padded train­ing in the gym. And I make sure that each one of my stu­dents watches this be­fore I al­low them to step into the ring.”

“I’m wor­ried that the suc­cess of Muay Thai is chang­ing the spirit of the sport”

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