One of the most popular spectator sports in Thailand, and now gaining world renown, is the martial art of Muay Thai. Exciting enough on TV - the furious punches, crushing elbow strikes, lethal kicks and artful feints are even more riveting when seen live.
Witness the passion and drama of Thailand's national sport amidst crowds of onlookers whose cheers blend with the strains of high-pitched Javanese clarinets, drums and finger cymbals that accompany the fights from beginning to end. For tourists in the Patong Beach area, nightly displays of Thai Boxing are carried out in specially built stadiums on Soi Sai Namyen.
If you don't mind the violence, a Thai boxing match is worth attending for the pure spectacle and the wild musical accompaniment, the ceremonial beginning of each match, and the frenzied betting around the stadium.
The origins of this martial art and sport are claimed to stretch back to the wars with the Burmese during the 15th century. Thailand's first famous boxer was one, ‘Nai Khanom Tom' who was said to have single-handedly defeated nine Burmese fighters in a wager for freedom. A Thai king, Phra Chao Seua (The Tiger King) is said to have been an incognito participant in many boxing matches in the early part of his reign.
The sport has changed a lot from the days when boxers would wrap their fists in thick horsehide trimmed with cotton soaked in glue and broken glass for maximum impact with minimum knuckle damage. Many changes initiated to make the sport safer have reduced the incidence of death and injury. But Thai boxing is still a violent contact sport and considered by many as the ultimate in unarmed combat. Demonstrations of Muay Thai are held in many of the tourist areas but they are mostly for show.
Thai Boxing Traditions and Ceremonies
The training of a Thai boxer and particularly the relationship between the boxer and teacher is highly ritualized. As the boxers enter the ring, they perform a special pre-fight dance known as the 'ram muay'. During the dance, the fighters wear a headband given by their trainer.
It is a sacred talisman earned after many years of dedication to the art. The dance starts with 'wai khru' each boxer kneeling and bowing three times, a show of respect to his teacher. With the ceremonies complete, the fight begins.
Each fight consists of five rounds of three minutes each. Accompanying the fight is music stimulated by action in the ring, rising and falling as the boxers battle it out. All surfaces of the body are considered fair targets, and any part of the body except the head may be used to strike an opponent.
Common blows include high kicks to the neck, elbow thrusts to the face and head, knee hooks to the ribs, and low crescent kicks to the calf. A contestant may even grasp an opponent's head between his hands and pull it down to meet an upward knee thrust.
Punching is considered the weakest of all blows and kicking merely a way to ‘soften up' one's opponent; most matches end with a knee or elbow strike.