Muay Thai is widely recognised around the world as perhaps the greatest standup martial art. It allows for the use of all limbs and points on the body as defensive and offensive weapons, but when did Muay Thai originate?
The martial art of Muay Thai originally referred to as Siam boxing originated in the country of Thailand, formerly known as Siam. Muay Thai was designed to be used on the battlefield when no weapons were to hand.
Today Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand. But its original development is deeply seeded in the art of war. As it was developed as an unarmed form of combat during war times. Utilizing all limbs of the body and at that time including the head, to nullify, disable or kill the adversary.
While the exact historical information on when and where the art originally developed is somewhat clouded. We can still trace the origins back as far as the 12th century. But owing to the extensive wars and much of the historical documents being destroyed when the Burmese army ransacked Ayudhaya, the former capital of Siam, during the 14th century.
While much of the original recorded information which traced the history of Muay Thai was lost. Some of the volumes were saved and are safely stored today as National treasures for future generations to study.
What Is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai is a standup fighting martial art which utilises the entire body as a single until weapon. It is believed that for many hundreds of years, Muay Thai was originally used during wartime. Its use continued throughout many historical periods and countless wars with its neighbouring countries, as well as marauding tribes from further afield.
While the days of war in Thailand may now be a thing of the past. Today Muay Thai has morphed into one of the worlds most acclaimed striking sports. No longer being used to kill on the battlefield. Instead, its application has been adapted to allow for modern-day warriors to compete inside the ring. In an arena which is known to be one of the toughest combat sports in the world.
And along with this toughness also comes hundreds of years of tradition, culture and respect. And this is evident from the outset when before each bout we see the fighters completing their ceremonial dance called the Wai khru ram muay. This dance is steeped in history and is done to pay homage to their trainer and master who have prepared them for the fight ahead.
In previous times of war, this same trainer would have been the seasoned veteran soldier who passed on his own knowledge from the battlefield. And so would very much responsible for the fighters life and how well they were trained and prepared.
The Origins of Muay Thai
Prior to the development of modern-day rules and equipment. The term Muay Boran was used to describe all the martial art styles in Thailand. Originally called by more generic names such as Toi muay or simply Muay before the name being finalised in just the past several hundred years.
As previously mentioned Muay Thai originated on the battlefields where the body itself was seen as a complete weapon of war. Referred to as the Art of Eight Limbs, the eight points of contact on the body were used as weapons when no sword or spear was to hand.
While the hands were seen as the knife or sword, elbows were used as hammers or heavy wielded blunt instruments used to cut or concuss the enemy. The forearms and shins were conditioned to deflect blows and also used to inflict crippling strikes.
The legs were used to create openings and the knees like an axe to cut through the guard. Warriors would catch their opponents in what is now known as the Thai clinch, using the head as leverage and disorientating the enemy before landing their crushing blows.
Early Muay Thai Training Methods
Long before the arrival of the professional modern-day Muay Thai training equipment which now fills the sports bags and gyms around the world. Fighters were forced to be resourceful in their training regimes. And while there was no gym per se, local fighters used mostly what they had to hand which is very much mimicked by today’s equipment.
One of the most common training tools of the day, which is still being used in more rural and poor areas was that of the banana tree. The banana trees soft yet sturdy trunk made for an ideal shape and size on which kicks, knees, thip’s, elbows and punches could be tested. Fighters would repeatedly strike the tree using different combinations, slowly wearing it down.
While not always the case, the final act in the training sequence would be for the tree to eventually fall as a result of the damage taken. For those that did not fall, the local women would use the opportunity to collect any of the fallen leaves to serve food and create bags with which they could carry out their daily chores.
Amongst the many localised training methods used to increase the strength of a fighter’s legs and conditioning was that of walking through strong flowing rivers or even the muddy paddy field (not an Irish field). All of which was done to improve overall leg strength to improve on kicking ability.
Even more leg training included fighters climbing the plentiful coconut trees. This free climbing of the trees helped to increase their overall leg strength as well as their inner thigh muscles which were specifically required to help clinch the tree while climbing.
When they had managed to knock some coconuts to the ground, these too would be used to aid in the conditioning of hand and elbow strikes. Placing them hollow side facing up, then filling the now half-empty coconuts with some sand. They would then use the small target area within the coconut to strike, improving their accuracy and conditioning all at the same time.
Those fighters who had improved their hand’s conditioning and strength would later be able to crack open the coconut shells, by repeatedly striking them in the same location. This is something we still to this day see happening in Thailand, as local fighters crack open a fresh coconut, for the amazed onlookers, many of which being visiting tourists.
The History of Muay Thai
While much of the historical documents are destroyed during the multiple wars with neighbouring Burma and other nearby neighbours. There is still a lot which we know about the history of Muay Thai and it’s origins in ancient Siam.
While there are references to the art ranging back as s far as 2000 years. It was not until the 1200s that the art would become formally recognised an incorporated into the very fabric of the countries culture.
Sukhothai And The Reign Of King Si Inthrathit 1248 – 1270
Established by King Si Inthrathit ( also referred to in Thai as “Pho Khun Bang Klang Hao” ) in 1248 on the banks of the Yom River. Sukhothai which means Dawn of Happiness” or “Emergence of Joy” in the ancient Buddhist language of Sanskrit. Was actually the first in a series of local kingdoms that would later go on to be part of what we now know as Thailand.
During its inception, the King created an army with which to protect the city and the surrounding villages. With each of the soldiers being meticulously trained in the art of hand to hand combat or Siam boxing and use of weaponry, respectively what we today know as Muay Thai and Krabi Krabong.
And through each war which followed, generations of battle-tested soldiers who had fought would pass on their knowledge and training to the next group who would, in turn, carry on the culture and training regime of their now finely honed fighting martial art.
Many of these ex-soldiers would also go on to become instructors and teachers known as Kroo Muay. In camps which began to appear around the country as the popularity of Muay Thai spread amongst the poorer classes.
The Ayutthaya Kingdom From 1350 to 1767
The Ayutthaya Kingdom existed from 1350 to 1767, when the same time as the Portuguese colonialists were present at the southern tip of the Peninsula. And while being considered friendly to traders from external nations including those from Europe and China. The Kingdom continued to fight with more local neighbours such as Lan Na and Lan Sang. And so continued the training and expansion of Muay Thai amongst the population.
The art of hand to hand combat as well as weapons training continued throughout this period as training centres developed specifically for the task. And this training was extremely valid as throughout the period minor as well as major wars broke out in the region including the first Burmese war in the mid 16th century.
The Kingdom came under several attacks by the neighbouring Taungoo Dynasty of Burma, what we know today as Myanmar. The Burmese attacked the city of Ayutthaya but were repelled by the well-trained army. However, a subsequent siege in 1563 was successful with the royal family being captured and sent to Burma.
King Naresuan From 1590 – 1605
Regarded by the Thai’s as a National hero, Naresuan was responsible for liberating the country from the Burmese occupiers. Naresuan was originally aligned with Myanmar, then switched allegiances and defeated their armies in a series of strategic battles.
Naresuan who went on to become King in 1590 was well known for his love of Muay Thai and his prowess in fighting. Then in 1593 Myanmar sent a large army led by their crown prince. Naresuan took on and killed the prince in one on one combat. Forever solidifying himself in the annals of history as a Great leader and Muay Thai warrior.
The Rule Of King Narai From 1656 – 1688
During his reign, King Narai very much opened up the kingdom to trade and exchange with external nations. While looking to lessen the influence of the Dutch East India company in the region. New alliances were formed with both the British and French, which would lead to the occupation of Bangkok.
However, this time was also seen as a period when Muay Thai flourished across the nation. With the introduction of the first ring, constructed of ropes that would be laid on the ground to form the competition area.
Also during this period fighters would use hand wraps consisting of cloth or hemp, often dipped in a starchy liquid that would turn the hand wrappings even stiffer and harder.
Owing to his opening of the country to outside influences. People travelling from other nations would be exposed to the sport of Muay Thai. As both the martial art and subsequently gambling on the sport expanded
Narai’s influence on Thai culture would see him posthumously titled “The Great.” In recognition of diplomacy and for many positive effects on the country. To this day he is revered in nations as far afield as France where a number of streets were renamed “Rue De Siam” to commemorate his life and connections with the French Nation.
The “Tiger King” Era Of King Prachao Sua 1703 – 1709
King Prachao Sua began is reign as king at the age of 40. Already a lover of the sport of Muay Thai, he would compete in tournaments disguised as a commoner. The obvious reason behind this being that if his opponent were to realise it was the king, he would always allow him to win.
Chronicles on the private life of Prachao Sua do not paint a very pleasant picture of his character. And while the records show he was responsible for many heinous acts against his own people. His love for Muay Thai has rewarded him with an important position in the sport’s history of development.
It was during this time that competition amongst local and foreign fighters from neighbouring countries was now quite commonplace. And the already popular sport saw an explosion in people from all walks of life taking up the Muay Thai, including the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich.
It is said that King Prachao Sua was responsible for the improvement in certain techniques that are still used in the sport today. Those exchanges are referred to today as the Tiger King style of boxing. And he himself was known as a great fighter, defeating many local champions in village tournaments. All the while evading detection by his loyal subjects.
The Thonburi Era 1767 – 1782
This period saw the rise of Taksin, also called Phraya Taksin. The Thai army general who would later go on to become King. By 1776 he had driven Myanmar from Chiang Mai, bringing peace to the region. After proclaiming their independence the country began its restoration.
The period of calm and stability in the kingdom saw the sport of Muay Thai taking on a more competitive edge. As the now established camps and Masters sought to pit their very best fighters against one another. The sport as yet did not have the definitive rules we now see today. Meaning that fights would continue until there was a clear winner or one Thai boxer surrendered.
The fighters at the time continued to use the traditional headband known as the Mongkol. With their hands and forearms, being wrapped in hemp or horsehair. And while still mainly meant for military purposes, the sport continued its expansion into the many different layers of Thai society.
The Ratanakosin Era 1782 – 1868
During the 86 year period of reign from King Rama I to King Rama IV. Rules finally became established and the introduction of rounds to fights would also become standardised. The rounds themselves were timed using a coconut in which has a small hole was drilled. With the round times being dictated by how long it would take for the coconut to sink to the bottom of a bucket of water.
Muay Thai was performed across the nation at celebrations and festivities and retained its status as a national sport. And while the introduction of new rules very much saw a modernisation of the sport. Each fight was still decided by which fighter gave up or was stopped by their opponent.
Then in 1788, during the reign of King Rama I, who himself had trained in Muay Thai at a young age. Two French brothers, one of which was a boxer, travelled to the country in search of competition. Having already competed in many countries en route to Siam. The brothers now looked to compete against some local fighters to show the prowess of their fighting style.
The king arranged a match between one of their local champions Muan Phlan and the French brother, having a ring built with ropes and four poles. Very much like the boxing rings, we see today being specifically designed for where the one-off fight would take place.
Once the fight finally kicked off, being the larger of the two fighters, the French boxer was winning in the opening rounds. But before long the bigger man became fatigued and soon began to lose.
Not wanting to see his brother beaten, the other brother jumped into the ring an intervened in the fight, very much to the disgust of the watching crowd. The incident caused a riot and resulted in the two French men being injured. Soon after their recovery, they left the country in shame, never to return again.
Golden Age Of Muay Thai 1880s – 1990s
In the year 1887 King Rama V established the Ministry of Education. He then decreed that Muay Thai be instilled as part of the curriculum in the Physical Education School and Royal Military Academy.
This period from the 1880s until the 1990s would see an explosion in the popularity of the sport around the world. This extended period saw a wealth of talent being developed. As fighters fought not just for their pride and status. But to also simply put food on the table in one of the poorest parts of the developing world.
Great poverty creates great desire to alleviate that poverty. And for most, Muay Thai was their ticket out. And while the Thai cities saw their economies grow, the people living in the hinterlands and countryside still struggled greatly. And so these areas became the breeding grounds for many of the great Thai fighters who would go on to be forever immortalised.
And while today the country of Thailand is awash with some of the most well equipped Muay Thai gyms in the world. In the not so distant past, things would have been considerably tougher. With no floor padding, no machines of any kinds, simply haphazard homemade weights. Along with thinly padded gloves and hard-punching bags. Thai fighters became naturally hardened by the sheer toughness of the environment in which they trained.
World War 1
During the years of World War I, the kingdom of Siam declared war on German and Austria Hungary. Sending an expeditionary force of some 1200 soldiers to the Western Front in France to fight alongside their European counterparts.
While their contribution in terms of military involvement was fairly minor. The war saw the widescale introduction of Muay Thai to the European continent and the wider world. The mission which was by Major-General Phraya Phya Bhijai Janriddhi who himself had lived in Belgium and France, where he had received his military training.
To boost morale and keep the troops entertained, the commander of the forces would organise fights, sometimes against Frech soldiers. These series of fights would be the very first Muay Thai fights to be held on the European continent. Helping to spread the sport outside the borders of the home nation.
Modern Muay Thai
Following on from the golden era of Muay Thai, which included both World Wars. Where many outsiders would go on to learn the sport from the Thai soldiers stationed in Europe. Since that time the sport has since gone on the garner international acclaim and is now widely regarded as the greatest of stand-up striking arts in the world.
The rich cultural heritage and adherence to custom and tradition have seen the popularity of the sport thrive on home soil. While also going on to improve its stock around the world.
Many of the techniques employed in the martial art have made the cross-over into other combat sports, becoming the bedrock for many of today’s champions. The sports modernisation and adaptation in rules have meant that it has very much become recognised as part of the global combat sports tapestry. And not just a local pastime sport limited to the borders of its home nation.
Following the end of World War II and the introduction of its first formal ruleset. Then that of gloves instead of wrapped hands, as well as limited correctly timed 3 x 5-minute rounds and the ability for a fight to be decided on points.
After the first permanent Thai boxing ring was built in 1921 at Suan Kularp, the sport has continued its growth. The new codified rules have seen the introduction of a referee, meaning that for the most part fights would be both clean and fair.
Most recently the sport has received provisional recognition from the International Olympic Committee. Now with some 135 national federations, 60 of which are fully recognised by their National Olympic Committees, with some 400,000 registered athletes. Muay Thai is now truly a global sport and as each passing day comes to a close. It future continues to look even brighter.
There are can be little doubting the extensive and strong heritage of Muay Thai. Its practical applications both on and off the battlefield have seen its popularity spread around the world. Today some of the worlds greatest fighters make the trip to Thailand to experience what it’s like to train in the birthplace of this magnificent martial art and combat sport.
Today, no matter what city you go to in the western world you will find Muay Thai being taught. It’s one of the fundamentals of modern-day mixed martial arts and the style on which many of the world elite western kickboxers base themselves.
When it finally becomes an official Olympic sport. There is little doubting that we will once again see an increased interest and perhaps even a second Golden age in Muay Thai in the making.
For those of us who have trained and competed, we already realise its appeal and effectiveness. Without a doubt, today it is one of the most complete fighting styles in which you can train. Both mentally and physically demanding, but at the same time equally rewarding.