Chiang Mai: The Mystique of Muay Thai

7 Min. Read

“I think we passed it” I yelled to Norm, my new Canadian friend sitting next to me as the wind whipped by. Our tuk-tuk driver was speeding down the busy streets of Chiang Mai, a beautiful city in northern Thailand known for its culture and cuisine. “I think he’s taking us to a different one,” I continued. I tapped the driver lightly on his shoulder not wanting to startle him. “Sorry. Thapae Stadium. Muay Thai.” He nods and pulls over to orientate himself quickly on his smartphone. “Okayyyy,” he said with a big smile as he began to drive again, taking the back streets. We were running late. The fight started at 9pm. And it was already 9:15. This was going to be my first time watching a Muay Thai match and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Our trusty driver takes us right to the front of the stadium and we pay the fare, tipping him extra for his quick skillful driving. I had bought my front row ticket earlier that day and I invited Norm, since he was into martial arts and also my hostel roommate. We step up to the ticket booth and Norm purchases the seat next to mine. “This way, follow me,” says one of the casually dressed employees. He leads us down a hallway filled with parked mopeds, paintings of traditional Muay Thai fighters and a restaurant. He shows us to the front of the ring. Around the ring there were long portable tables and foldable chairs. We sat were my spot was reserved with my name on a piece of paper. Norm and I order two Chang beers from an attendant and he brought it to us with paper cups explaining to us that it was a holiday and that we couldn’t drink out of the bottle. It was the Buddhas’ birthday.

At half past nine, a Thai gentleman stepped into the ring with an oboe with a microphone clipped to it. Two men from a tall stand began to play a steady rhythm from a drum and small cymbals. The gentleman then began to play a high pitched tune from his oboe to the drum beat which lasted for a couple of minutes. Norm and I cheersed to our first Muay Thai fight and watched the pre-fight ritual. I knew a bit about Muay Thai from back home and if you grew up in the 90’s like me, my first encounter with Muay Thai was in Street Fighter 2. Remember getting to Thailand to fight Sagat? That insanely tall and frustrating character that would incessantly throw “Tiger” punches? 

Muay Thai fighter.   

The music stopped and two young girls no older than 14 or 15 stepped into the ring. Both began to go around the ring counter-clockwise stopping at each corner where they would get down and pray on their knees bowing three times, paying respect to the judges, their teacher and to the Buddha. At each corner their coaches would finish prepping them and give them last minute words of advice. The bell rang and the live music started again. The steady beat of the drum and clanging sound of the two cymbals rang throughout along with the eerie high pitched melody of the oboe.

The two stone-faced girls draw near each other, both with their hair tied back and with a serious look in their eyes. One red, one blue. They throw light jabs testing each others distance and power all while tapping their left foot the beat of the music being played, which is known as Sarama. Suddenly, “Thawack!” a quick low right kick connecting to the thigh followed by another jab. They exchange punches and return to their stance sizing each other up and tapping their left foot again, keeping themselves light. Another quick exchange of punches and kicks gets thrown which then develops to a clinch: Legal in Muay Thai. “Swaap, Swaap, Swaap!” The girls pound each other in the torso with their knees and the art of Muay Thai begins to show itself. One girl throws an elbow to the face and the other pulls away, immediately throwing a roundhouse kick to her opponents face but not connecting. More punches to the face were thrown followed by a frenzy of kicks to the legs. The two girls trade blows furiously and become entangled. “Ding!” The bell sounds and the Sarama music stops. The two warriors retreat to their corners and sit down on small stools for their two-minute rest period. Their coaches and assistants place a large metal tray under their feet and dowse their legs with ice water, massaging them for the next round.

This is Muay Thai, literally meaning Thai Boxing. The national combat sport of Thailand which use stand-up striking and clinching techniques. The discipline which is known as “the art of eight limbs” because of the use of fists, feet, elbows and knees, can be traced back to the mid 18th century during the battles between the Burmese and the kingdom of Siam (Thailand). During this tumultuous time a famous fighter by the name of Nai Khanomtom was captured by the Burmese army and knowing of his excellent hand-to-hand combat skills offered him the opportunity to fight for his freedom. A boxing ring was set up in front of the throne and he was to fight against a Burmese champion skilled in the martial art known as Lethwei, or Burmese bare-knuckle boxing. Prior to the fight Nai Khanomtom performed a traditional pre-fight dance, which paid respect to his teacher, ancestors and spectators alike, slowly dancing around his opponent. When the fight commenced he charged towards the champion and dominated him with a fury of kicks, punches, knees and elbows till he was knocked out. The referee then stated that the Burmese champion was too distracted by the Wai Kru dance and that the win wasn’t valid. The King Mangra then asked Nai Khanomtom if he would fight another 9 Burmese fighters to prove his skill. After agreeing, Nai Khanomtom won every single fight…with no rest in between. Nobody else dared to challenge him after. The king was so thoroughly impressed that he then said, “Every part of the Siamese is blessed with venom.” King Mangra then granted him his freedom along with the choice of two wives or riches. Nai Khanomtom chose the two wives, stating that money was easier to find and then set out back home to Siam.

His fighting style was then known as Siamese-Style boxing, later to be known as Muay Thai. In the 19th century the martial art of Muay Thai then advanced and grew in popularity throughout all of Thailand. Today, it is considered to be one of the most effective and brutal of all the martial arts and is practiced by many all over the world. 

“Ding!” the bell rings again and the two girls rush to each other throwing punches and kicking, each sweaty and giving their all. 

A Muay Thai match consists of 5 rounds with three minutes each and a 2 minute rest period in between and the two girls fight all the way. Norm and I watch intently and he critiques a bit. “These girls are pretty tough” he says. I nod in agreement. But I must admit that when I first saw two young girls step into the ring for the first fight I was skeptical. But both girls fought bravely for all five rounds without either of them getting knocked out. This was my first experience with Muay Thai and I immediately became a fan. One girl is declared the winner and they both give thanks to the judges and the crowd.

There were 5 more fights that evening and I began to notice the effectiveness and brutality of this sport. Each following fight was with young men, mainly teenagers, and each one was won by a knockout. The blows that they delivered were very audible and their kicks were strong and precise. One was knocked out by a roundhouse kick to the face. One with a devastating cross. Another was knocked out with a menacing right hook and then a powerful downward right elbow to the forehead. Blood spurted out and he was knocked unconscious. A doctor rushed in to attend to him and he was carried out of the ring. Every single fight was fierce. And each started the same way. With the very interesting traditional pre-fight dance ritual.

It is known as Wai Kru or Wai Kru Ram Muay, meaning ‘war-dance saluting the teacher’ and it goes something like this: The fighters after entering the ring the circle it counter-clockwise and pray at each corner, bowing their head three times in salutation to the Buddha, Rama and the Sangha of monks. After this they both perform the Ram Muay dance, movements based on Hanuman, a god in Hinduism. Each Ram Muay dance is unique and personal to the fighter and shows respect to the fighters teacher, parents and ancestors. From what I noticed, the movements usually consist of slow spinning of the fists, slow stretching and bent knee movements. They can also contain clues of where the boxer is from and who their teacher is. All of this is accompanied by the aforementioned live Samara music. The boxers are also wearing a special headband called the ‘Mongkol.’ It presented to the boxer by the trainer once that he feels that the student has learned a great deal about Muay Thai and ready to represent the gym in the ring. After performing the Wai Kru, the trainer will take off the Mongkol and place it in the corner of the ring for good luck. The fighters sometimes also wear a special type of armband called ‘Pra Jiad’ which is usually made out of pieces of cloth by a close family member and is worn for good luck and confidence. The Wai Kru is a very interesting and special aspect of Muay Thai. Other than it being traditional, there is definitely a spiritual aspect to it that really grabs my attention. 

This is more than just fighting it would seem. 

There is something magical about it. 

As if somehow, the Wai Kru gave the fighters divine power in the ring. 

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