An extract from “MUAY THAI – THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE ART OF THAI BOXING”
An introduction to Muay Thai History by Kru Tony Moore.
Muay Thai history can trace its origins back more than 2000 years to the tribes of the Ao Lai who migrated from southern China down to the central plains of Siam, known today as Thailand. It is difficult to prove conclusively when and where the art originated, because all records of Thai history were destroyed in the Ayuddhaya period when Burmese invaders sacked the ancient capital. Thus, Muay Thai history has been pieced together from remnants of information that escaped this destruction, and that were passed down the generations by word of mouth from teacher to student.
Before ascending the throne of Siam in 1590, King Naresuan the Great, who reigned in the Ayuddhaya period, had been known popularly as the Black Prince. A hostage of Burma until the age of 16, he was renowned for his bravery even prior to freeing Siam from the chains of Burmese slavery. In 1584 he returned to Siam renouncing allegiance to Burma on behalf of his father King Maha Tammaraja.
The King of Burma took great exception to losing his Siamese provinces and sent an increasing number of soldiers to fight against the Siamese. The armies of Siam, under King Naresuan, defeated the Burmese in successive battles. Finally, an army of approximately 250,000 men was despatched from Burma to try to subdue Siam once and for all. History tells many tales of King Naresuan’s courage but perhaps the greatest feat of all was what happened in this final battle.
King Naresuan faced overwhelming odds as the Burmese army far outnumbered the Siamese forces. This great warrior mounted an armoured war elephant and charged through his army to the front line. Seeing the Crown Prince of Burma also seated on a war elephant, King Naresuan challenged the Prince to single combat. After a fierce skirmish, the King cut the Crown Prince in half from shoulder to hip. The Burmese army seeing their leader slain, turned and fled back to Burma. Through this singular act of bravery, King Naresuan freed Siam forever.
King Taksin the Great
King Taksin the Great ruled from 1767 to 1782. He rose to fame, like the legendary phoenix, from the ashes of Ayuddhaya, the then capital of Siam. The Burmese invaders had plundered and looted the city, vandalizing and destroying all of Siam’s historical records in 1767. After a great battle in which the Burmese took Ayuddhaya, King Taksin, with 500 followers, managed to escape, traveling east to Rayong. Here he began to build a new army with the renowned warrior Phraya Pichai Daab Hak as his commander in chief. Daab Hak means ‘broken sword’; this nickname was earned when, during one of the many fierce battles, one of Phraya Pichai’s swords was broken in two. The brave general continued to fight on, ultimately leading King Taksin’s army to yet another glorious victory.
With his small army, King Taksin declared war on Burma. Using guerilla tactics, the army attacked Burma in small bands, continuously harrying the enemy and totally destroying their supply routes. As word of his exploits spread, so inspired were the Siamese people that many more rallied to his cause. Eventually the army was large enough to make an all-out counterattack on Ayuddhaya, which was still under Burmese control. Although still outnumbered two to one, he attacked and routed the Burmese with great losses amid the enemy ranks. This was only the beginning, for throughout his reign the country was constantly at war.
King Taksin many times distinguished himself in battle. A bold and courageous military strategist, he decided to move the Siamese capital to Thonburi because the new site was easier to defend than Ayuddhaya, which now lay in uninhabitable ruins. In battle King Taksin’s strategy and fighting spirit was unsurpassed. After many hard-fought battles, he managed to reunite the kingdom.
Pra Chao Suua
The Tiger King, Pra Chao Suua (1662-1709) Is famous in Muay Thai history, the King loved all sports but especially Muay Thai. He was famous for disguising himself as a peasant and traveling around the country participating very successfully in Muay Thai bouts at public festivals. At one such festival, he fought two champions, defeating both, and was paid two ticals by the ringmaster. He then left undetected, nobody having been aware of the royal presence in their midst. At another village he came up against a fighter know as Panthainorasingh. The bout was very well matched with neither boxer gaining the upper hand. The bout ended when tax collectors arriving at the village interrupted it. Worried that his identity might be revealed, the King had to escape quickly. However, so impressed was he with Panthainorasingh’s fighting skill that he asked the talented pugilist to come to work for him as the steersman of his royal barge (today’s equivalent of a personal bodyguard who drives the getaway car!).
Nai Khanom Dtom
Probably the most famous Muay Thai boxer of all time was Nai Khanom Dtom, known as the Father of Muay Thai, he was the first ever Muay Thai boxer to fight in another country. In 1774, the Burmese monarch, King Mangra, captured him during battle with Siamese forces. Nai Khanom Dtom’s prowess as a boxer was to save his life and win him his freedom. Challenged to fight against 10 of Burma’s best Bando boxers, he defeated them all and was granted his freedom. Annually, 17th March is a very special date in the Muay Thai calendar, being Nai Khanom Dtom Night, when a special event is promoted to commemorate this exceptional Muay Thai boxer.
King Naresuan the Great, King Taksin and the Tiger King, Pra Chao Suua, were all exponents of Muay Thai and were influential in shaping it into the art it is today. The bravery of King Naresuan, the tactics of King Taksin, and Pra Chao Suua’s love of Muay Thai are integral to the warrior spirit that lies at the heart of this fascinating martial art.
Origins and Development
King Naresuan the Great, Prince Ekathotsarot the younger brother of King Naresuan and King Taksin are reputed to have studied at the Wat Phutthai Sawan (Buddhai Swan)in Ayuddhaya. This temple is believed to have been built by the first king of Ayuddhaya, Pra Chao U-Thong, known as King Rama Thibodi, around 1350. It was the site of a school for martial arts for many centuries. The original teachers were Buddhist monks who taught fighting with the sword. Nobody is certain where these monks came from but it is possible that they came from Lanna, the northern kingdom.
The Phutthai Sawan School taught the art of Krabi Krabong (Thai weapons art). There is some debate among scholars whether Muay Thai evolved from Krabi Krabong or developed separately alongside it. Some scholars argue that when the Thais were constantly fighting for survival, besides using the weapons such as swords, spears, pikes and bows and arrows, they also used hand-to-hand combat skills using the body’s natural weapons, namely the hands and feet, and knees and elbows.
The original name for Muay Thai was Mai See Sawk. Later names for the art included Muay Pahuyuth; in southern Thailand it was known as Chaiya Boxing: Muay Tai during the mid-Ratanakosin period; and also as Siamese Boxing. All of these arts can be categorized as Muay Kaad-cheurk, meaning ‘fighting with rope-bound fists’ or Muay Boran meaning ‘old’ or ‘antique boxing’. Many of the techniques from ancient times have been lost, although Muay Pahuyuth is still taught in its original form. From earliest times the knowledge of Muay Pahuyuth has been passed down from teacher to teacher, the last known grand master being Arjarn Ket Sriyapai whose student, Arjarn Panya Kraitus, still teaches Muay Pahuyuth today.
During ancient times, fights could be a dangerous affair. Bouts were fought with hemp-bound hands dipped in either resin or starch. This hardened the hemp, making the hands lethal weapons. It is also suggested in some historical records that, in extreme bouts, the hemp rope was sprinkled with finely ground glass or sand. These bouts are said to have been fought until first blood was drawn or even to the death! It wasn’t until the reign of King Rama VII around 1929 when the use of boxing gloves was introduced, making the sport a lot less hazardous for the participants.
Over the centuries Muay Thai’s popularity grew to such an extent that on 1 March 1941 the Office of the Crown Property laid the foundation stone for Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok. World War II intervened and halted its construction but the project resumed once more in August 1945. A committee was formed to oversee the many rules and regulations of the martial art as well as the conduct of bouts, and on 23 December, just four short months after, the stadium opened for its very first match, the modern sport of Muay Thai was born.
The Spread of Muay Thai Worldwide
The opening of the Rajadamnern Stadium was soon to bring Muay Thai to prominence outside of Thailand. In 1950, an American businessman sponsored to Thai boxers from Thailand to give a demonstration of Muay Thai in Rochester, New York. In 1962 yet another American businessman sponsored a group of Thai boxers, who gave a demonstration of Muay Thai at the Seattle World Fair.
In the early 1970s there were frequent visits to Thailand by Japanese martial artists quick to realize that martial arts could become a very popular spectator sport. Omitting the knee and elbow strikes that were not part of the Japanese arts of Karate, Judo and Jiu Jitsu, and opting to wear long trousers instead of Muay Thai shorts, they initiated the development of the sport of kickboxing.
It was Mr Osamu Noguchi who is credited with the founding and promotion of the sport of kickboxing. Mr Noguchi opened his own kickboxing gym-cum-coffee shop in the center of Bangkok which appealed to the local fight pundits. Unfortunately, he erred by claiming that kickboxing was superior to the mother art of Muay Thai. Following what was considered by the Thais to be an outrageous claim, his reign in Thai society was short-lived and he quickly retreated home to Tokyo.
Derivatives of Muay Thai
There was even further corruption of the rules of Muay Thai when kickboxing spread to the USA. There the use of low kicks was outlawed and fighters were expected to wear protective gear such as shin guards and foot boots. These American modifications included renaming the sport ‘full-contact karate’. Today full-contact karate and kickboxing exist as separate entities, although with the myriad variations of their rules, these sports are still very much in their infancy.
Thai Boxing in Europe
During the mid 1970s, Muay Thai spread to Europe. The Europeans, contrary to the Americans, kept the name Muay Thai, translated as Thai Boxing, along with all the traditions, rituals, rules and regulations.
In January 1984 the World Muay Thai Association was founded in Amsterdam. Countries represented at the meeting to formalize this were Thailand, Netherlands, England, France, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Spain. Dutch representative, Mr Thom Harinck later founded the European Muay Thai Association. Both these associations were very successful in promoting the art of Muay Thai throughout Europe and, for the first time, foreign boxers were allowed to compete in Thailand. Success followed success and soon it was not unusual to see Muay Thai fighters from all over the world training at the boxing camps in Thailand and fighting in the renowned Rajadamnern and Lumpini stadiums in Bangkok. Further developments in the martial art were soon to follow.
In 1986 Mr Bunyuen Suvanatadha founded the Amateur Muay Thai Association of Thailand (AMTAT). A few months later, the association expanded its interests to cover south-east Asia and then internationally with the formation of the International Federation of Muay Thai Amateurs (IFMA). The amateur system of Muay Thai requires boxers to wear body shields and head guards. This safety precaution encouraged more people to take up the art because it made the sport very much safer for participants.
Although the Association had, for a number of years, organised the Prince’s Cup competition for Thai competitors, it was decided in 1994 to organize an international event, the King’s Cup. By the second King’s Cup event in 1997, there were no less than 25 nations taking part in the competition.
The first European Amateur Muay Thai Championship was held in Manchester, England in 1997 and was organised by the British Thai Boxing Council (BTBC) with eight European nations taking part. The Vice-President of the International Federation of Muay Thai Amateurs, Mr Bunyuen Suvanatadha, was a very proud witness of the first, successful amateur Muay Thai event held outside of Thailand.
Today, professional and amateur Muay Thai associations co-exist in nearly every country throughout the world and many world governments have now accepted Muay Thai as a sport. Of even greater importance is that Muay Thai has taken its rightful position as one of the world’s most respected martial arts, as is evident by the now recognised saying
’Muay Thai, Moradok Thai, Moradok Loke’ that is, Thai Boxing, Thai Heritage, World Heritage”.