Muay Thai: Thailand’s national sport

Muay Thai (Thai boxing) is not only Thailand’s national sport, but an integral part of Thai culture and history. The origins of the sport go back to ancient Siam when a form of Muay Thai was used in unarmed combat. Known as the ‘art of the eight limbs’, fighters are able to make use of fists, elbows, knees, and shins. Even if you aren’t normally a fan of boxing, attending a genuine Muay Thai fight to sample the atmosphere and the sights and sounds of the pre-fight ceremonies make this a memorable cultural experience.

Muay Thai exhibition bout
(Photo: Shutterstock)

National Muay Thai Day

In Thailand, March 17 is designated as National Muay Thai Day. It’s a day when those involved in the sport celebrate the life and times of a man called Nai Khanom Tom. According to legends, he was a fighter of renown who was captured by the Burmese when Ayutthaya was invaded in the 1760s. In a subsequent contest organised by the Burmese king, Nai Khanom Tom defeated many Burmese opponents. The skill and spirit of the Thai man impressed the Burmese king so much, Nai Khanom Tom was rewarded and granted freedom. 

Nai Khanom Tom was born in Ayutthaya and it is this ancient capital of Thailand which has special meaning for all Muay Thai fighters. Although Muay Thai Day is acknowledged nationwide, it is in Ayutthaya where events have added significance as the birthplace of the legendary Nai Khanom Tom.

Muay Thai rituals

The training and practice of Muay Thai instils respect and discipline. The importance of the trainer or teacher (known in Thai as ‘khru’) can be seen in the pre-fight ceremonies. With the sound of traditional Thai music playing in the background, the fighters (nak Muay) perform an elaborate ‘wai khru ram muay’ dance that pays respect to the people who taught them how to fight. 

Muay Thai rituals
(Photo: Shutterstock)

Boxers also wear a number of items as a form of spiritual protection. The modern-day adornments of cotton armbands (prajiad) and the sacred headband (mongkhon) are a continuation of the traditions of the ancient Siamese warriors. The headband is always removed by the boxer’s trainer;  it is bad luck for a fighter to remove the mongkhon himself.

When they enter the ring, fighters perform a number of respectful bows. The first is in the direction of the fighter’s birthplace. They then bow to each side to honour teachers and trainers, past and present, as well as the guardian spirit who is believed to reside in the ring. The fighter circles the ring and may pray to each corner and also touch the rope which symbolically seals the boxing ring and prevents evil spirits from entering.

Fight rules

In Muay Thai, any part of the body (with the exception of the head) can be used to strike an opponent. The target area is any part of the body with the exception of the groin. Although fighters wear boxing gloves, it is often an elbow or a kick to the head which results in knock-outs. If there is no knock-out, the referee and judges score the fight. 

Professional bouts usually consist of five rounds with each round three minutes long and fighters getting a two-minute rest between rounds. For amateur fights, bouts may be shorter. 

Where to watch Muay Thai in Thailand

Fights take place at different venues across Thailand. In some tourist areas, the fights are of dubious quality. However, there are also genuine fights featuring amateur overseas fighters who have moved to Thailand to train for Muay Thai.

Two of the best venues to watch professional Muay Thai bouts and sample the colourful atmosphere are the famous boxing stadiums in Bangkok, Lumpinee and the iconic Rajadamnern Muay Thai Stadium.

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