A fascinating history of ancient traditions… and the ultimate full-body workout!
“Jab! Punch! One, two, ten times!” my trainer shouts at me. As hard and fast as I can, I hit the punching mitts held up in front of me, while sweat is flowing down my forehead and into my eyes, making them burn. Another fast succession of instructions follows—knee, uppercut, right elbow, left elbow, front kick! I stop to catch my breath and, inhaling deeply, hear fragments of Survivor’s famous hit song “Eye of the Tiger” blaring from the speakers in the background. Another deep breath. Gritting my teeth, I try to channel my last ounce of strength and energy and draw back my right leg for one final round kick before hurrying out of the ring to fuel my body with cold water and wipe the sweat off my face. Welcome to your average Muay Thai kickboxing class.
Passed down from one generation to another, Muay Thai has been part of Thailand’s cultural heritage for centuries. It’s often referred to as the “Art of Eight Limbs”, as the entire body is used as a weapon and shield with eight points of contact—including hands, shins, knees and elbows. Originally practiced as a method of close-quarter combat during war, it soon grew to be so popular among the public that it became Thailand’s national sport, with bouts arranged during festivals and the best fighters appointed as royal guards.
Folklore is a crucial element of Muay Thai, and one of the most popular heroes in the many legends is Nai Khanom Tom. After being captured as a prisoner by the Burmese during the fall of Ayutthaya, the Burmese king forced Nai Khanom Tom to fight several of his best Burmese boxers. He subsequently defeated 10 without a break. Acknowledging his skills, the warrior was allowed to return to Siam, where he became known as the father of Muay Thai.
The sport became first known among foreigners as “Siam Boxing” during WWI. Traditionally a no-holds-barred affair, with little to no rules, it wasn’t until the 1920s that boxing gloves replaced cotton yarn hand wraps, and open courtyards gave way to professional boxing rings. After WWII, major stadiums were built and formal rules and regulations, including time limits and weight classes, were created—in turn making it a safe international ring sport for the 20th century. In 2016, Muay Thai was granted provisional recognition as an Olympic sport and has been added to the programme of the upcoming 2020 games in Tokyo.
If you don’t want to wait for the Olympics, one of your best bets to witness a real Muay Thai fight in Bangkok is at Rajadamnern Stadium (Rajadamnern Nok Rd). On four nights a week— Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday– several fights take place. The matches start from 6:30pm, with ticket prices ranging from B1,000 to B2,000. Alternatively, a bit further out of town, Lumpinee Stadium (6 Ram Intra Rd) holds fights on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. Whether you’re a boxing enthusiast or not, witnessing this cultural spectacle is an experience like no other.
Many of the century-old traditions have remained a part of modern Muay Thai, including the ritualistic dances performed by the fighters before the bout. The dances are composed of two parts—the wai kru and the ram muay—with the former being a way to pay respect to the fighter’s teachers, the sport itself, and the country. By circling the ring three times before kneeling and bowing a further three times, the fighter honours the Gods, asking for an honourable fight and protection for themselves and their opponents. By contrast the ram muay is either a simple or complex combination of movements, demonstrating the fighter’s control and style, and is unique to each gym, region, and/or instructor the fighter represents. While demonstrating this pre-fight ritual, the fighters wear headbands known as mongkols and armbands called prajioud for spiritual strength and protection.
Both these rituals, and the fights themselves, are usually accompanied by traditional music—sarama and khaek chao sen—using instruments that include cymbals, a Javanese oboe, and an Indian drum. And although it’s illegal nationwide, gambling is permitted at officially registered Muay Thai boxing arenas, and adds to the experience at live fights as gamblers can be seen shouting and gesticulating wildly within the crowd.
Ready to get in the ring yourself? Thanks to the city’s ever growing number of Muay Thai gyms—ranging from modern air-conditioned studios, to more basic and low-key rings—finding a place to suit your individual requirements isn’t difficult. However, in case you need any suggestions, check out Bangkok Fight Lab (137, Sukhumvit Soi 50) and Elite Boxing (Sukhumvit Soi 30/1), both of which offer Muay Thai training, in addition to other forms of martial art. Other recommended options include the Banchamek Gym (22, Phokaew 3, Yeak 19, Nawamin Rd), whose owner and head trainer is Muay Thai superstar Buakaw Banchamek, or Sor Vorapin Muay Thai Gym, a workout centre that also offers homestay programs as well as normal classes at its two Bangkok locations (13, Trok Kasab, Chakrabongse Rd; and 37/15, Suanpak Soi 1).
Through friends, I first joined Mankong Phranai Muay Thai over a year ago and stayed on thanks to its friendly and laid-back atmosphere and welcoming community. Nestled amidst a handful of houses in a leafy courtyard down Sathorn Soi 1, the outdoor gym was opened by Arpinphan ‘Ann’ Ruengmanamongkol and her husband Suttipong ‘Kwan’ Raktaprachit just under three years ago. After the couple invited former professional boxer and trainer Umat ‘Mas’ Mankong (left) to train them, it didn’t take long for the word to get out and the place grew into a business with over 200 regular customers and several other trainers. Regular classes are priced at B400, while for B4,000 you get 12 sessions (which are also possible to share). Hand wraps and gloves are also available, so all you need to bring are gym clothes, proper gym shoes, and the right attitude.
Growing up in Nakhon Nayok City, about 100 km north east of Bangkok, Mas took up boxing as it provided a means to earn money for himself and his family. Starting at the tender age of seven, his arduous daily training included 5 km runs and several rounds of fighting (he would even double his workout two weeks before a fight). Before retiring at 30—the average career of a professional is usually somewhere between 15 to 20 years—he participated in nearly 200 fights.
Paradoxically, however, many of my fellow boxers at the gym—myself included—never intend to get into professional fighting, but instead started practicing the martial art solely for its numerous health benefits. When I asked Ann and Kwan why they started to practice Muay Thai in the first place, Ann’s reply was, “I just want to train to get fit. Also it’s fun and there’s lots of motivation from the trainer, not like running where you are alone and no one forces you to do it. I don’t want to fight, I just want to learn how to kick and punch. I also think boxing is the best cardio!”
Besides killer cardio training, Muay Thai also improves your stamina and strengthens the entire body from the legs to the core and arms. A typical session begins with a half-hour warm-up mix of rope-skipping, interval running, shadow boxing, and stretching. That’s followed by four 4-minute rounds in the ring, and the session then ends with “cardio boxing” on the punching bag, and several dozen sit-ups.
The health benefits also extend to a mental level, as the training promotes the brain to become more responsive; increasing focus and helping to control both the mind and emotions. On top of the obvious endorphin rush, boxing is also a perfect way to release stress and tension—a perfect antidote to counter the effects of a busy day in the office!
Another important reason why many people—in particular women—are drawn to the sport is its empowering element. As you get stronger and learn how to kick, punch, and defend yourself, it leaves you with a feeling of confidence. It’s no coincidence that 60-70 percent of Mankong Phranai’s customers are female. However, while there may be few limitations for women on an amateur level, professional female fighters still face many obstacles.
A report last year by the BBC interviewed several professional female Muay Thai boxers, highlighting the challenges women face within the sport, including conservative views on family commitments, lack of sponsorship, and problematic spiritual beliefs (for instance, menstruation is seen as detrimental to the sport’s protective magic). Adding to those challenges is the fact that in both Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums—two of the most prestigious in Thailand—women are not allowed to compete. Despite these obstacles, the future looks more positive as female Muay Thai fighters are now slowly becoming more accepted within the sport.
With such a long and colourful history, Muay Thai has come a long way; from the battlefields of ancient Siam to state-of-the-art gyms all over the world—and soon the Olympic Games. Whether you want to get into shape, learn the moves, or enjoy a night out watching the professionals, Thailand’s national sport offers a little something for everybody. And as the sport continues to develop with its times, it is comforting to know that its inherent cultural tradition is still very much alive and kicking.
Words and photos by Julia Offenberger