25 Sep Muay Thai Traditions
Muay Thai is a sport steeped in tradition. Muay Thai’s origins, equipment, its ring rituals and gender dynamics all point to the rich ways in which Muay Thai is part of Thai culture.
Muay Thai History
The ring sport emerged from the martial arts of the Thai people and was used to defend themselves against invasion primarily against the Burmese during the Ayutthayan Era (1350- 1767).
This period saw one of the heroes and pioneers of the sport emerge, Nai Khanom Tom, who was a prisoner of war in the late 1700s. He was summoned to the perform an exhibition before the king of Burma and successfully defeated ten Burmese fighters in a row using his Muay Thai skills. Nai Khanom is considered to be the father of Muay Thai and March 17th is national Muay Thai day in Thailand in celebration of the Thai hero.
The sport became regulated and codified after the death of a boxer. In 1926 Jia Kaegkhem clung to the ropes of the ring, his hands still bound with hemp rope or kaad cheuk, and the referee was unable to count him out due to the lack of rules at the time. Kaegkhem died and authorities introduced gloves, weight classes and timed rounds to ensure the safety of the boxers. The rules established were similar to those of western boxing’s Queensbury rules. The major stadiums of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern were built in 1956 and 1945 respectively.
Muay Thai equipment
Muay Thai has a distinctive dress as part of its long history. The boxers are glad in gloves, ornate shorts, ankle supports, metal groin protectors and mouth guards. Most distinctive are the mongkols and the Prajieds.
The mongkol is a circlet worn around the head before the bout and is considered to be a charm that protects the boxers against damage. During the Siamese period of Thailand soldiers would tie bandannas around their head before going to war. The custom of wearing the mongkol is believed to be derived from this pre-battle ritual.
The mongkol is often woven in with a piece of fabric that has personal relevance to the boxer, or will include lucky Buddhist amulets. A gym generally has a mongkol that is worn by all its fighters.
Before putting on the mongkol the trainer will bless the boxer and put the circlet on the boxer’s head and again after the rules meeting with the referee the trainer will remove the mongkol and pray for the boxer one more time.
Like the mongkol the prajied is another lucky charm for the boxer. Tied around their biceps the cloth will often include an item that they venerate and esteem such as a lock of a relative’s hair or a piece of their clothing.
Pre Fight Rituals
The most iconic ritual in Muay Thai is the Wai Kru Ram Muay. The pre-fight dance is a way for boxers to show respect for their teachers, parents and trainers. Wai Kru means to pay respect to the teacher, while Ram Muay is boxing dance. It is also a way for the boxer to get used to the ring and stretch before the bout.
Upon entry into the ring the boxers will generally bow in all four cardinal directions and then seal the ring running their gloves along the ropes. This is to prevent any negative outside influence for getting into the ring.
The boxers then perform the actual dance itself. The Ram Muay will vary from camp to camp and audience members used to be able to identify a boxer’s region, style of fighting, and ring abilities by their Ram Muay. Now the dance has been more or less standardized with some variations such as boxer’s shooting an arrow at their opponent, catching frogs/fish as an homage to Isaan countryside life, or climbing onto the ropes and waving the arms in a slow bird like manner.
The dance can extend for several minutes and boxers have been awarded prizes and medals for their Ram Muays. Of note is Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn whose extensive dance was repeatedly praised.
Women in the Sport
Women have fought in Muay Thai events almost as long as their male counterparts but have been regulated to the side in the past. This has been changing due to the growing international popularity of the sport and many Muay Thai matches outside of the country of Thailand treat women similarly to men. Recently one openly transgendered boxers, Nong Rose, fought at Rajadamnern stadium on a Onesongchai promotion.
The regulation on women began due to the belief that the female presence would interfere with the blessings bestowed upon the fighters and were banned from touching a male boxer’s mongkol’s. In addition, women are generally not allowed to fight at the large Muay Thai stadiums in Thailand such as Rajadamnern and Lumpinee and when they do fight at other stadiums are required to enter the ring by going under the bottom rope.
Muay Thai has a rich heritage derived from the Thai culture and as the sport grows so too does the understanding of these elements.