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Muay Thai: A deep dive into Thailand 's most iconic sport

BY Yasemen Kaner-White

9th May 2023 Sport

Muay Thai: A deep dive into Thailand 's most iconic sport

Muay Thai is now a practiced sport the world over. But where did it come from and why is it so popular?

Muay Thai, translating to "Thai boxing", is the sport most integral to Thailand. Historically starting out as a mode of self-defence, then becoming a sport, it is now also a skilled form of exercise too. The ancient art form is something most people of all fitness levels can try, whether at home or optimally, in the sport's home country – Thailand.  

What is Muay Thai exactly


Mastering the change between stances is known as "switch hitting"

Muay Thai is the art of self-defence which uses body parts as "weapons", commonly known as the art of eight limbs. These include the two hands, two feet, two knees, and two elbows, and traditionally the head too, named Nawa-ahwut, meaning nine weapons, though now it’s prohibited in modern fights. When the "weapons" are used together in a skilled manner the ultimate protection is obtained.

"Muay Thai is the art of self-defence which uses body parts as "weapons""

The boxer would usually form a triangular shape with his feet; the front foot toes pointing directly at his opponent, while the back foot toes point outwards. Even when moving, this stance is largely kept in order to maintain balance. Whichever fist is the boxer's strongest will be at the back, with the other positioned at the front. To protect the boxer's chin, they marginally tuck it into the top of their chest and slightly curve their shoulders inwards. The position is minimal but usually there.

Ultimately each boxer has their individual stance, and while boxing it is common to mix up stances. Those that can do it swiftly are called "switch-hitting" boxers. Various levels can be achieved, with Senior Grand Master being the highest rank. 

When and why did Muay Thai begin?


Now a ring sport, Muay Thai was originally a form of self-defence used when a weapon was lost in close combat. Photo credit: Baoat13579

Although the actual date is debatable, elements of Muay Thai began circa 1255 AD, when Thai tribes had to fight numerous battles until reaching settlement in ancient Siam, now called Thailand. To gain advantage over their opponents when weapons were lost in close combat, they devised ways to use their limbs as effective weapons.

"To gain advantage over their opponents when weapons were lost in close combat, they devised ways to use their limbs as effective weapons"

Kings’ guards were chosen during contests to find the best Muay Thai fighters and the Tiger King, an ancient King of Siam, born in the year of the tiger, was instrumental in making Muay Thai a ring sport. It was common for demonstration fights to be at celebratory events.  

What can you expect to see at a Muay Thai fight? 


Boxers wear a headband and armbands, usually gifted by their teacher. Photo credit: S Pakhrin

Usually fights take place in the evening. While the crowds are mixed it feels male-dominated and when it comes to betting, again, that’s mainly men. It depends on the stadium but there’s often food and drinks on offer. In the ring, there are two opponents and a referee to ensure no foul play, such as groin or back-of-the-head hits. A headband called a mongkon and armbands called Pra Jiad are worn by boxers before fighting. They wear them with pride, often gifted by their teacher and blessed by a monk, sometimes with an amulet placed within for luck. They then perform a warrior dance called Wai Kru Ram Muay, to pay respect to their teachers and God. They go to each corner of the ring to "seal" it with a ritual. The dance is also a way to "play" with their opponents and aids stretching. There is a live band playing music which paces the fight, and all the steps create a mesmerising sight. Although rarer, female boxers can be seen which shows how far the sport has come since they were historically banned from the ring.  

Where can I practice or watch it? 

The best place would be in Thailand, the hub of Muay Thai, and where it is most culturally immersive. It's not hard to find there as there are Muay Thai training camps all over the Kingdom. Luktupfah Muay Thai Camp in Bangkok is a Muay Thai gym that focuses on the culture and traditions of Muay Boran as well as Muay Thai, led by Grand Master Woody. There are perhaps more plush, beachfront, and "Instagram-worthy" Muay Thai camps clustered around Phuket and elsewhere, but the key is to search for accreditations.

"Wherever you are in the world there’s likely to be a Muay Thai gym to train at with the teachers most probably having had a stint in Thailand themselves to learn"

The Siam is a stunning design-led hotel on the Chao Phraya River and the first hotel in Bangkok to house a Muay Thai ring for guests to box; they even have a Muay Thai-themed suite to rest in post-training. Then there’s renowned Thai wellness retreat Chiva Som which offers guests the chance to try their hand at the sport, focussing on the fitness appeal. Wherever you are in the world there’s likely to be a Muay Thai gym to train at with the teachers most probably having had a stint in Thailand themselves to learn. To watch it, you cannot beat the oldest and most well-known stadium in Thailand, which is in the capital, Bangkok, called Ratchadamnern Stadium

What benefits does Muay Thai have? 


As well as being a mindful practice, Muay Thai is also excellent cardio exercise. Photo credit: Gerrit Phil Baumann

Firstly, a sense of confidence comes from knowing you have the skillset to physically defend yourself if need be, and practising regularly keeps you fit as it’s an all-over body workout, burning many calories. Some say the practice is a form of mindfulness too, so can aid mental wellbeing, not to mention it combats stress and it can also be a lot of fun to learn!  

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