Utterly different from the gumbo of kicks and punches known as kick boxing, Muay Thai is a highly traditional art dating back hundreds of years, and is continually gaining in popularity. Over the last decade, many Muay Thai schools have opened up round the world, but Samui and Thailand draw in fighters who come here to train and experience the sport in its original home.
It’s easy to see why. Watch Thai boxers as they train, and you realize this is one of the most serious workouts you can give your body. Since this martial art allows the use of more than just fists, the entire body has to be in tip-top condition in order to have a chance of winning. There are 30 fighting tactics to master in Muay Thai, and to do so requires years and years of practice. The ‘nak muay’ or Thai boxer uses punches and kicks as well as his or her elbows and knees. This martial art is definitely not to be confused with boxing; boxers face great challenges when they switch to Muay Thai – even the basics are very, very different.
The Muay Thai that you’ll see today is a modern version of the older kind, or ‘Muay Boraan’, literally ‘ancient boxing’, which was a fighting style originally taught in villages to help the community defend itself against invaders. Men, women and children took part. Over the years, it evolved until it became a sport in the twentieth century. The newer version, Muay Thai, appeared in the 1920s with the word ‘Thai’ being added in order to distinguish it from foreign styles of boxing. But it adapted some of the Queensbury rules in order to promote safety and consistency. That’s why you’ll see roped rings, leather gloves and the various weight categories of the fighters. But Thai boxing remains anchored in its culture, and respect has to be given to the spirits who watch over the ring and the matches. There is a lot of tradition to be observed, and it’s not just a question of pummelling your opponent until he or she goes down.
Before a Muay Thai fight begins there are some elaborate rituals that are performed, which date back centuries. Before a boxer enters the ring, he or she asks three times for protection, a prayer which is addressed to the three spirits who are in the boxer’s corner of the ring. Some fighters also touch the top rope as they go in. This is to ward off evil. Then there’s a special dance done to honour the teachers of Muay Thai, not just the fighter’s own teacher, but all of them through the ages. This dance is done on one knee and includes some very precise rocking movements and is repeated in all the four directions of the compass.
Each fight is subdivided into five rounds, with each round becoming increasingly fast. You may well find the action too fast to follow with your eyes – and your camera may record just a blur. The blows are lightning-quick, with elbows, feet and knees all being employed to batter the opponent. The fighting is accompanied by a live orchestra that sets the tempo according to the pace of the battle raging in the ring – this is improvisation at its best. It’s a combination of pipes, drums and cymbals that to most westerners sounds eerie and disquieting. It builds into a roar of music until the round comes to an end – marked by a bell that stops all action.
When you watch Muay Thai you’ll most likely be impressed by the sheer speed and nimbleness of the fighters. There’s all the grace you’ll find in a highly choreographed dance, yet there’s nothing set about the fight. Movements are precise, targeted and devastating. Few people would disagree it’s an art form, not just a way of trouncing an opponent. It also requires an inordinate amount of toughness, discipline and, of course, sheer determination. As with all martial arts, training goes on forever; humility is required at all levels, and seems to be a quality that most boxers exude. Children start early; you may be shocked at the age of some fighters you see in the ring. The sport’s definitely not for the faint-hearted, even as a casual spectator.
To see some action for yourself, head for Phetch Buncha Samui Stadium (just off the Laem Din Market in Chaweng). There are flyers, billboards and speaker trucks making sure everyone knows about the upcoming fights. And if you’re interested in training for Muay Thai yourself, then there are plenty of camps on Samui where you can enrol.
Thai boxing may be centuries old, but it’s evolved into a modern cultural phenomenon, that just like Thai cuisine, is becoming ever more famed the world over. But Thailand naturally remains the epicentre, and boxers from all nationalities therefore come here to find the sport’s roots – and when you go and watch a fight, then in all probability you’ll see non- Thai faces in the ring. Perhaps in years to come the sport will lose some of its ‘Thainess’, but certainly for the moment, it is gallantly managing to keep its rituals more or less intact, with Thai and foreign fighters alike keen to uphold all its traditions.