Global Muay Thai fighters meet annually in Ayutthaya
to pay respect to their teachers, past and present
Wearing red boxing trunks, a white ceremonial headband (the mongkhon, which Thai fighters wear into the muaythai ring before the first round begins), matching sacred armbands, and white hemp fist wraps, international champ Buakaw Banchamek (left)works through a dramatic display of muaythai moves, brown muscles rippling under the klieg lights.
As a sea of fighter disciples on the huge meadow echo the moves in silent respect, virtually the only sound heard is the whirring of camera drones overhead. It’s an inspiring moment for someone used to the noisy streets of Bangkok
Every March, nearly 1,500 fighters from more than 50 nations around the world gather in the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya to pay homage to the masters and inherited wisdom of muaythai, Thailand’s legendary martial arts tradition.
Held on the grassy grounds of the venerated Wat Mahathat temple ruins in the centre of Ayutthaya, the three-day event centers around the final day’s wai khru, a ceremony in which disciple fighters from far and wide pay respect to their teachers, both past and present. The wai khru culminates in a group performance of the elaborate, dance-like combination of muaythai moves called ram muay.
This year the ram muay was attended by Thailand’s greatest living ring veterans. Along with Buakaw Banchamek, I spot Samart Payakaroon, Anuwat Kaewsamrit, and Saengmani Umkatongchiangmaiyim. Buakaw himself, often cited as the greatest muaythai champ ever (and as of May 2017, ranked the number 6 lightweight in the world across all martial arts by Combat Press), leads the ram muay from atop a small dais near the main stage where grandmasters were seated.
Back during the Ayutthaya Kingdom’s 400-year reign, when muaythai was a staple of Thai military culture, wai khru ceremonies were held annually. But after the sacking of Ayutthaya in the late 18th century, and the subsequent shift of the royal Thai capital to Bangkok, muaythai training splintered into various factions.
These were re-united, at least in theory, following the founding of the International muaythai Federation (IMTF) in 1994, when the annual wai khru was revived at Bangkok’s National Stadium. Training and teaching standards were further united and codified with the formation of the Kru muaythai Association (KMTA) in 2003.
This year hails the 13th edition of the annual ceremonies, as organized by the KMTA with support from the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the city of Ayutthaya. The association oversees khru muaythai (muaythai teachers) belonging to IMTF, working through nine total levels, from assistant teacher to teacher, master to grandmaster, and finally senior grandmaster. As fighters attain each of the nine levels, they receive a different colour mongkhon in a system roughly analogous to coloured belts in karate, taekwondo, and other East Asian martial arts.
The similarity to other Asian martial arts systems ends there. In muaythai, a 10-point arsenal of fists, elbows, knees, shins, and feet—hardened by years of full-contact training—batter away at virtually every point of the opponent’s body. The Thai word muay translates loosely into English as “boxing” or “martial art”, but the term derives from Sanskrit mavya, meaning “bind”, a reference to the binding of the fists with hemp (now replaced by padded boxing gloves for stadium fights), as well as the ceremonial bindings of the head and arm.
More formally known as Phahuyut—from the Pali-Sanskrit bhahu (arm) and yodha (combat), Thailand’s ancient martial art is arguably one of the kingdom’s most striking national icons. Overflowing with colour and ceremony, as well as exhilarating moments of clenched-teeth action, the best matches serve up such a blend of skill and tenacity that one is tempted to view the spectacle as emblematic of Thailand’s centuries-old devotion to independence in a region where most other countries fell under the European colonial yoke.
Ayutthaya’s ancient temple sites are an appropriate venue for today’s wai khru, since Thais heavily identify the martial art today with the history of what was once the world’s grandest city, as European traders described Ayutthaya. London and Paris, at the time, were said to be mere villages in comparison.
The earliest known Thai written reference to muaythai, found inscribed on palmleaf chronicles in Chiang Mai during the earlier Lanna era (1296-1558 AD), mentions a ferocious style of unarmed combat that decided the fate of Thai kings. But most of what is known about the early history of Thai boxing comes to us from Burmese and Cambodian accounts of warfare with Ayutthaya during the 15th and 16th centuries. When the Burmese first invaded the royal capital in the mid-16th century, a nine-year-old boy named Naret was among the many Siamese prisoners taken back to Hamsavati (Pegu, or modern-day Bago, Myanmar) as hostages. The boy showed a keen interest in martial arts, and after he defeated the kingdom’s best Burmese fighter in a public bout at the age of 15, the Burmese court of King Bayinnaung allowed him to return to Ayutthaya.
When Naret later found himself crowned as King Naresuan (1555-1605) in the Ayutthaya royal court, he made muaythai a required component of training for all Thai soldiers. With his armies thus trained, Naresuan successfully led the Siamese to independence from Hamsavati rule. A fighter to the last, the king died in combat repelling yet another Burmese invasion during which he slew Crown Prince Bayin, the son of King Bayinnaung, on elephant-back.
Another Ayutthaya king, Sri Sanphet VIII, further promoted Thai boxing as a national sport by encouraging prize fights and the development of training camps in the early 18th century. At this point muaythai began making the transition from a system of defense practiced only by the military to a spectator sport that could be enjoyed by all.
In these early days, massive wagers and bouts to the death were not uncommon. Combatants’ fists were wrapped in thick horsehide for maximum impact with minimum knuckle damage. In grudge matches between particularly keen rivals, the hands were bound with glue-soaked cotton or hemp and then dipped in ground glass to inflict further injury. Tree bark and seashells were used to protect the groin from lethal kicks. Sri Sanphet VIII himself became an incognito participant in many of the matches during the early part of his reign, earning the nickname the ‘Tiger King’ for his ferocity and daring.
The first commoner to earn lasting distinction as a fighter was Khanom Tom, one of 30,000 Thais taken prisoner during another attack on Ayutthaya in 1767. At a large Buddhist festival held in Yangon the following year, the Siamese pugilist was invited to represent the prisoners of war in a round of public boxing matches. Before a crowd of hundreds, Khanom Tom unleashed a barrage of bare fists, feet, knees, and elbows that polished off his Burmese opponent in a matter of minutes. The Alaungpaya royal court, hoping to save face, sent one Burmese boxer after another into the ring against the Siamese, only to see each one roundly defeated. After 10 consecutive victories, the Bago royal court was so impressed that Khanom Tom, along with many other Siamese prisoners, were set free and allowed to return to Siam.
Khanom Tom’s heroic performance is said to have taken place on March 17th, and now, over two centuries later, that date is honoured as National Muay Thai Day with the annual wai khru. Beyond the actual ceremony that takes place in Ayutthaya on that date, attendees enjoy a daily roster of live muaythai matches in which fighters from all over the world do battle in a stadium-standard muaythai ring.
I witness tremendous action from the ringside press pit, including a match in which Thai pugilist Namtarn Por successfully defends her championship belt against Swedish native Teresa Wintermyr, a model-turned-fighter now based in Phuket (both pictured above). Meanwhile another section of meadow is devoted to tents where food vendors dish out tasty specialties from all around Thailand. Another tent section is reserved for several local khru sak yan, masters who practice the art of Thai sacred tattoos using mai sak, the traditional metal needle-and-shaft that applies blue-black ink through the epidermis by hand.
At the tattoo tents, I watch as fighter-disciples perched on low stools receive designs believed to offer protection and power in the muaythai ring. Most are given smaller designs but a few master fighters are inked with Hanuman the Hindu monkey god, an icon for those who would emulate his courage, fortitude, and exceptional fighting skills. Back in the Ayutthaya era, Hanuman tattoos were done using actual monkey blood in the belief that this would help Hanuman’s possess the fighter’s body in combat. Nowadays sterilized tattoo ink is used.
Later, photographer Jessica Boisson and I pay a visit to Ajahn Kob, one of Ayutthaya’s most famous local sak yan masters. Kob, a direct disciple of the late Luang Pu Nai, a severe-looking monk revered for his powerful tattoo magic, lives near the edge of a large, peaceful lotus pond on the northern edge of town.
A few years ago Ajahn Gob inked the underside of my left forearm with a relatively small, geometric yantra invoking forgiveness from others. Today I balance that blessing with one of similar size, and in the same spot, on my right arm. This time I receive the hermit’s walking stick, believed to impart wisdom and decisiveness.
It must be working, because I’ve already decided, a year in advance, to attend next year’s muaythai wai khru in Ayutthaya.
Words by Joe Cummings/CPA
Photos by Jessica Boisson