Ask any one about sport in Thailand, and 99 % of the time, people will respond Thai boxing or Muay Thai. In recent years, with the gaining popularity of mixed martial arts competitions like the UFC and such, Muay Thai, along with one or two other martial arts, have dominated these sports and its popularity has boomed. Interest in Muay Thai has grown in its spiritual homeland, Thailand, not just amongst Thais, but with an ever increasing numbers of foreign practitioners and devotees.
Muay Thai is a stand-up combat sport, where fighters are not allowed to take the fight to the ground. It is fast-paced and combines both boxing and kicking in one swirling melee of a bout. In Thailand, it is known as the art of eight limbs, referring to the eight points of contact that are used to strike the opponent. The sport uses the human body to mimic the weapons and combat of centuries gone by. The fist takes the place of the sword and daggers, and the elbow emulates the crushing mace. The feet and knees take the place of the axe and staff. The shins and forearms are specially trained and hardened to play the role of armor and shield and are used to block blows. In practice, the sport uses a combination of punches, elbow strikes, kicks and knee strikes, to create one of the most exhilarating and bloody combat sports today.
Muay Thai has its origins in the 16th century, during the period of conflict between Siam and the Konbaung dynasty of Burma. After the capture of the legendary warrior Nai Khanomtom by the Burmese, he was given the opportunity to fight for his freedom in hand to hand combat. He used his expertise in hand to hand combat to win his bout and was freed by his Burmese captors. Upon his return to Siam, he received a hero’s welcome and his fighting style grew in popularity and became Siamese style boxing. This style of combat soon became a national sport in Siam, and is the forerunner of today’s Muay Thai.
As the sport grew in Thailand – from demonstrations of combat techniques in front of villagers to a spectator sport – it soon became an integral part of many of the local festivals held all around Thailand. Soon afterwards, it became a national spectator sport.
The 19th century was the golden era of Thai prominence and culture, especially under the rule of king Rama V (Chulalongkorn). The king, who had a special interest in the sport, greatly promoted and encouraged Muay Thai. As a result, the sport grew and developed, and became a stalwart of exercise, recreation, and personal advancement amongst Thais. During this period, many masters of the sport set up training camps or schools, where they could train and develop the next generation of fighters. These camps would become the familial home of the fighters and a lot of fighters would adopt the camp’s name as their own.
Today, Muay Thai is a national sport in Thailand. Around Thailand, there are many arenas and stadiums that are hosting fights on an almost nightly basis. Well known fighters in Thailand are treated as superstars, and are as famous and appreciated as Hollywood celebrities. Although most fighters come from the lower socio-economic groups in the Thai society, the sport provides a way out of poverty and up the economic ladder. Despite this, Muay Thai is not a sport just for poor Thais – many people from the upper echelons of Thai society are interested in the sport and take it up as a form of exercise and self-defense training; although they do not join the ranks of professional fighters.
If you look at any Thai guide book, most of them will place having a night out at a Muay Thai fight in Bangkok as one of the highlights of visiting the capital. Betting on Muay Thai fights in Thailand is legal and available in most of the big fighting venues. The sight of frenetic action, whether with fists and kicks or baht and dollars in the gambling areas, truly provides for an exhilarating night to remember, that should be part of any visit to Thailand.