History of Muay Thai – Thailand’s 600 Year Old Sport

Bangkok's Lumpinee Stadium.

Muay Thai has a long and fascinating history and the country’s national sport has been integral to Thailand’s culture for over 600 years.

Today, Muay Thai draws in foreigners from around the globe who flock to Thailand to learn more about this ancient combat sport. 

Regardless of whether you’re more of an armchair observer or a fighting fanatic, you’ll find you’ll definitely enjoy the sport even more once you learn a little about the importance of Muay Thai’s history and origins!

The Origins and History of Muay Thai
Muay Thai history is rich and fascinating!

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Muay Thai History & Origins

Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing, is the national sport and ancient cultural martial art of Thailand. It has a longstanding history and was developed many hundreds of years ago as a type of close-combat sport. Back then, before the introduction of modern equipment and rules, the sport was a type of Muay Boran, which is an umbrella term for the different types of unarmed martial arts that existed during the Siamese period.

Muay Thai statues at Wat Khai Bang Kung show all of the different Muay Thai fighting positions.
Muay Thai statues at Wat Khai Bang Kung show all of the different Muay Thai fighting positions.

Unlike other martial arts, Muay Thai uses the whole body as a weapon, which led it to become known as the ‘art of eight limbs’ and the most effective of the striking sports. The eight limbs that are being referred to are both fists, elbows, knees and shins. 

In the late 20th century, Muay Thai burst into the mainstream when it began to be adopted by those from the West. It has continued to grow in popularity ever since. 

Muay Thai ring outside
Muay Thai is known as the ‘art of eight limbs’.

Although scholars are certain that Muay Thai has a long history, the origins of this combat sport are slightly harder to pin down. Back in the 14th century, during the looting of Ayutthaya (the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam, now known as Thailand), many of the early writings on Muay Thai history were lost, leaving a lot of gaps about its exact origins. 

Some have suggested that the sport has its roots in Kun Khmer, the national sport of Cambodia. Carvings at Angkor Wat suggest this form of boxing was practised under the Khmer Empire, which ruled over not only Cambodia but the neighbouring countries of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Also read 👉 Muay Thai vs. Kun Khmer

14th Century: Muay Thai was used by Ancient Thai Warriors

What we do know is that Muay Thai is believed to have been first used as a fighting method by Thai warriors. Many argue that originally it was used by the Siamese army, who employed the fighting style to defend their government and people from neighbouring tribes. 

The soldiers were taught how to fight using hand to hand combat whilst using their entire body as a weapon. This was the basic foundation for what would later evolve into Muay Thai as we know it now.

As the threat from neighbouring tribes grew, Thai boxing training camps began to pop up all over the country, with many monks deciding to teach the martial art at temples.

Wat Bang Phra, Temple of the Flying Tiger, Thailand
Many monks began teaching Muay Thai at temples.

Although it was initially taught to those in the army, it quickly attracted the attention of the Siam royalty and the two sons of the first King of Sukhothai enrolled at the Samakorn training centre. It was expected that brave leaders were also accomplished warriors so being confident in the art of Muay Thai was a must. 

15th-16th Century: Muay Thai passes on to the Next Generation

As the years went on, men continued to teach the Muay Thai fighting style to their sons. As this sport was historically so brutal, many died in combat, leaving only the most accomplished to pass on their knowledge, leading to a kind of Darwin-like ‘survival of the fittest’.

17th Century: Muay Thai Developed into a Sport

It was during the reign of King Prachao Sua (1697-1709) that Muay Thai was first practised as a sport. The King was hugely passionate about the martial art and he often took part incognito in village contests himself, winning many of them. 

During times of peace in Thailand, he would keep the members of the army occupied by insisting that they train in Muay Thai. At this point, there had still been no formal rules introduced so the winner was crowned based on who was left standing. 

18th Century – The Father of Muay Thai, Nai Khanom Tom, and the First Ever Wai Kru

After the pillaging of the Thai capital Ayudhaya in 1767, the Burmese took a group of Thai locals prisoner. In amongst this group was the accomplished Muay Thai fighter Nai Khanom Tom. 

Upon the arrival of the army and the prisoners back in Burma, the King decided to hold a week-long festival to celebrate his victory in Thailand. He announced that there was going to be a Thai boxing match between some of the prisoners and a selection of handpicked notable Burmese fighters. The boxing ring was set up in opposite the throne so the king had a front-row seat. 

Nai Khanom Tom entered the ring but first asked the King if he could prepare for the fight. Once this wish was granted, he began to dance around the courtyard and his opponent, both surprising and confusing the Burmese crowd.

The spectators believed that Nai Khanom Tom was trying to curse his opponent and demanded he explained his actions. He told the spectators that through this performance, he was paying his respects to his Muay Thai trainer, the sport and his country. This is thought to be the very first instance of Wai Kru ever seen. 

YouTube video

Also known as Ram Muay, this dance ritual is unique to each Thai boxing teacher and is passed on to students. The dance involves the fighter touching each corner of the ring with a prayer, as a way of showing his respect to the ancient art. Wai Kroo is still performed by Muay Thai fighters before each fight. 

Wai Kru Muay Thai
The Wai Kru is performed by the fighters before each Muay Thai fight.

After nailing his first fight, Nai Khanom Tom continued to successfully win a string of matches against notable Burmese fighters. His ability and skill, when faced with danger, was second to none and he impressed the Burmese King so much that he gave the fighter his freedom.

As if this wasn’t incredible enough, the king also offered Nai Khanom Tom a reward for his skills. He was given the choice of financial compensation or several wives to take for his own. He chose the wives and returned to Thailand a hero. As the story travelled internationally, Nai Khanom Tom was elevated to legendary status, earning him the title of the ‘father of Muay-Thai’. On March 16-17th every year in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, the ‘World Wai Khru Muay Thai Ceremony’ is celebrated in his honour. 

This advert for Thai energy drink, Carabao Dang, pays homage to the story of Nai Khanom Tom below.

YouTube video

19th Century: The Golden Age of Muay Thai

This period of Muay Thai history begins around 1880, under the reign of King Rama V. He was hugely passionate about the value of Muay Thai and worked hard to promote it nationally. Tournaments were hosted all over the country and the victors were often selected to become personal bodyguards to the king. 

Competitive Fighting at Attachai Muay Thai Gym, Bangkok.
Muay Thai fights became popular all across the country.

The globalisation of Thai boxing began to happen some years later, during the First World War. Thai fighters were sent to stations in Europe and in particular France, where Muay Thai fights were put on to boost morale. Many of the local French boxers would often get involved, thus spreading the news about the sport far and wide. 

20th Century: Modern Muay Thai Boxing

As Muay Thai began to draw more international attention, those from the west became more curious about the skills and techniques needed to master this art. Eager to learn the combat sport for themselves, they asked the Thai soldiers to teach them.

muay thai trainor and trainee Punch it Gym Koh Samui Thailand
Muay Thai has since exploded globally and travellers come from all over the world to learn.

This is considered to be the catalyst for a more strict set of rules which transformed the sport into what we know today. Through tighter regulations, Thai boxing could be better organised and managed, thus making it more appealing to an international market. 

The traditional courtyard setting evolved into a modern-day ring in the 1920s and the gear was upgraded to provide better protection from the hard-hitting blows. In addition to this, it was decided that fights would be split into five rounds, each with a time limit. 

In Thailand, dedicated Muay Thai stadiums began to be built in the major cities across the country. Not only was there a ring for fighting but these stadiums also had plenty of room for spectators, many of whom would make bets on the outcome of the fight.

Rajadamnern Stadium Bangkok
Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok was the first ever stadium built in Thailand.

While gambling in Thailand in general is illegal, gambling in Muay Thai is perfectly legal and in some ways, positive. Wages for a Muay Thai fighter aren’t that high so big bets can enable them to bring home more money. However, the negative side of gambling is that those in charge of the money have the power to influence the decision of the judges, potentially leading to unfair outcomes. 

Read more about the stadiums to watch Muay Thai in Bangkok here ?

21st Century: Muay Thai Put Forward as an Olympic Sport

In 2016, Muay Thai received provisional recognition as an Olympic sport. This means that the sport will receive $25,000 USD annually from the Olympic committee. After three years, the sport can then apply to become part of the Olympic games. Whilst the first application was rejected, it is still possible that we may yet see Muay Thai become an Olympic sport in the future! 

Did You Know? Muay Thai Superstitions

As you may already know, superstition has long been a part of Thai culture and Muay Thai is no exception. For many centuries, fighters have tried to deter evil spirits from following them into the ring by using amulets, potions, tattoos and rituals. 

Thai Buddhist Amulets.
Thai Buddhist Amulets.

It is not uncommon for Muay Thai fighters to wear the bones of their ancestors within their headdress to protect them from getting hurt in the ring! Amulets which are worn around the neck are also believed to have magic powers, leading to a better fight performance. 

Thai ‘Sak Yant’ tattoos have long been administered by witchdoctors in Thailand to provide special protection. Whilst these are not just sought out by fighters, it is said that the inscriptions can be very powerful, granting courage, strength and good fortune – things everybody wants when they’re gearing up for a big fight!

Check out the quality of the artist who will do your tattoo.
Thai ‘Sak Yant’ tattoos are believed to offer protection for fighters.

Do You Want to Learn Muay Thai?

Now that you’re clued up on the origins of Muay Thai, why not give it a go? There are countless Muay Thai centres and gyms all over the country offering intensive packages and classes to those who want to learn. 

Whether you’re looking for an idyllic location, the option to train with a professional fighter or a programme which incorporates a detoxifying diet, we’ve got you covered in our article all about the best Muay Thai camps in Thailand!

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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