Sunday, June 10, 2018
Lost Origins of Muay Thai
How Muay Boran is coming to represent an entire family of Thai martial arts
I began training Muay Thai in 1994. Most Muay Thai gyms, by large, teach the modern kickboxing adaptation of Muay Thai, and I was lucky enough to find a school in the San Francisco Bay Area that offers the older style of the Muay Thai (Muay Chao Cherk /Muay Chao Chur) and modern military version of the style known as Lerd Rit). Since then I’ve witnessed Muay Thai rise out of obscurity to become one of the most sought after fighting styles in use today.
In 2012, I got the research bug in my head, and kicked off a project to learn what I could about the older Muay Thai styles anda more complete history of the system. It's surprising how few resources are available that touch on where Muay Thai came from. There are plenty of sites that recall the legends of King Naruesan and Nai Khanom Tom. But in the course of my research, I found that many online resources that provide information on Muay Thai’s history contradict each other, or include statements that are not properly validated.
Redundant information on Muay Thai’s history, largely legends of kings and warriors, abound across the Internet. The story is essentially the same, with variations depending on the article you read or website you visit. This is largely because much of the earlier written accounts had been destroyed in multiple sackings of Thailand’s original capital, Ayutthaya. The lack of open sources of historical information on Muay Thai is further compounded by the fact that Thailand is a highly nationalistic society. Thai’s hold close teachings of the older muay Thai systems, teaching foreigners, or ‘farangs’, only the most basic concepts of a rich and complex fighting system.
Muay Thai's origins are also debated among scholars, which makes validating one theory over another a challenge. On top of that, web sites containing information that actually cite their sources are exceedingly rare.
So here I am, hoping to shed a little light on the origins of Muay Thai based on my research, with sources that I have cited.
Two swords, many branches, one name
My research shows that modern muay thai originally came about from a sword-based combat system called Krabi Krabong, which evolved into other open-hand derivative systems including, Muay Chaiya, Muay Chao Cherk, Lerd Rit, Muay Korat, Muay Lao, Muay Khmer, and Lethwei to name a few. Terms such as Thai muay, Muay Thai, Thai boxing and muay boran (ancient boxing) are umbrella terms that are often mistaken for a specific style of Muay Thai, recently popularized in films by Thai actor, Tony Jaa.
Modern Muay Thai, the national sport of Thailand, is a form of kickboxing in which the contestants use fists, elbows, knees and kicks to subdue their opponent. Westerners were first introduced to Muay Thai in the early 1900’s. The sport has grown in bursts of popularity, beginning with the emergence of kickboxing in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and is now widely popular due to its integration in Mixed Martial Arts, the style used in combat sport leagues including, but not limited to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and K-1 Challenge in Asia. Muay Thai is known for being a ‘hard style’ martial art, in which the strikes are powerful and fighters aim to destroy targets, not just hit targets. What is not widely known is that Muay Thai is a blanket term for a scaled down fighting sport, borne from a family of regional combat systems forged from over a thousand years of struggle and surprising influences.
Like many other major martial arts, modern Muay Thai evolved into a safe way for combatants to train and maintain their skill sets during time of peace. The empty hand style of Muay Thai is rooted in the older combat form of Krabi Krabong, in which warriors fought with a sword in each hand. In his essay, A Short History of Krabi Krabong, filmmaker Vincent Giordano noted that the origins of the Thai people came from nomadic Ai-Lao tribes that migrated from India and eastern Tibet into the Yunnan Plateau of China sometime after 3000 B.C.E. Generations of local warfare scattered the tribes into three distinct ethnic groups: the Shans; the Ahom; and the Lao-Tai, eventually each settling in Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. In 250 B.C.E many of the tribes fled southern China to escape slavery and migrated into the lower forests of what is now Thailand. Control of this region of Southeast Asia often changed hands between warlords for hundreds of years. The people of Thailand lived in a state of constant warfare. According to Giordano, a deep knowledge of natural medicine was developed from their time spent living in the forests. By the twelfth century C.E the Ahom people had settled the lowlands of Thailand which are rich in fish and agricultural resources.
Up until the 1600’s Thai weaponry consisted largely of farming tools augmented for battle as well as swords. According to martial arts historians Donn Draeger and Robert Smith, a key milestone in the development of krabi krabong came about in the seventeenth century when Japanese Samurai Yamada Nagasama was conscripted to quell public disturbances following the death of King Song Thom in 1628.  Thai soldiers discovered a two-sword fighting system that proved effective against the Japanese single-hand sword fighting style employed by the Samurai.
A different perspective
However, the late David K. Wyatt, considered by many to be the foremost western expert on Thailand, proposed that much of the techniques in Thai martial arts were founded not through Krabi Krabong, but in Buddhism. I tend to believe that truth is likely to be found in both theories. Chinese as well as Indian Buddhism have influenced Thai culture. For example, the legend of Rama, and the concept of kingship in Thailand came directly from the Indian epic of the Ramayana. Concurrently, much of the nation’s history is spent at war with surrounding states and fending off Western colonial empires.
Your enemies will influence the way you fight
Thai’s have proven over the course of history that benefit can come from absorbing ‘what works’ from other cultures. Thai rulers have been successful at recognizing strengths in other cultures and integrating them in order to improve national stability without greatly diluting their own cultural identity. Some scholars argue that this ability to observe and adapt is partly why Siam (Thailand’s official name prior to 1939) was never colonized by European empires, since the rise of Western powers. For example, during the seventeenth century, the Thai government leveraged relationships with surrounding countries and trading partners to counter trade competition from the Dutch and English.
Instead of going to war against these competitors, Siam embraced potential opponents, enlisting Indians, Malays, Portuguese and Japanese soldiers to guard palaces. They leveraged Chinese and Persian experience as merchants to serve in an official capacity in the trade ministry. If you think about it, their ability involve third party states into the mix made it trickier for world powers at the time to colonize them. The Thai government also outsourced ship building and engineering to Dutch, French and Italian experts.
Given that Thai’s have proven their proficiency in evolution through adaptation, one could also argue that Krabi Krabong was influenced, to an extent, by multiple martial arts including the Chinese, Japanese, Malay, and the perhaps even the ancient Indian fighting system, Kalaripayat.
What is unique to Krabi Krabong, Muay Thai, and the Thai/Loa/Khmer/Burmese variants of the Thai combat styles, as well as other styles indigenous to Southeast Asia, is the inherent aggressive nature in which the combatants engage. Southeast Asian martial arts systems tend to focus on destruction and incapacitation, whereas Eastern martial arts focus more on self-defense. Ajarn Jason Webster describes this offensive mindset, when he explained a core philosophy behind Krabi Krabong: “This apparent simplicity, on the surface of the art, reflects the underlying emotion inherent in it. That is the quick, economical destruction of the opponent.” Webster continued, “Therefore, at the core of the Thai martial arts exists the belief that if fighting must take place, the wholesale destruction of the opponent is warranted – and in the quickest, most powerful fashion.”
In battle, when soldiers lost a sword they did not have time to stop and pick up another sword. Soldiers used their fists, elbows and kicks in lieu of swords to continue the fight until another weapon could be won or obtained. This adaptation of using the body to mimic weapon strikes enabled soldiers to survive battle empty handed. A natural result is the confidence in the reliability, power and efficiency of their own skills, which evolved into an open hand combat system.
From Krabi Krabong sprung a myriad of ancient open hand variant styles of Muay Thai that eventually devolved back into a single system in modern sport Muay Thai where boxing gloves have replaced hemp or cotton wraps, and a large portion of the techniques have been banned to improve fighter safety. This, along with the mass commercialization of the sport and its absorption into hybrid martial arts (MMA) is, in my opinion, watering down what is perhaps the most powerful martial art in existence.
How could such a culturally vital aspect of a nation’s history all but disappear, out side of anecdotal and mythical evidence? The absence of a documented history of Krabi Krabong, and how it influenced many variant-fighting systems is a lesson for this and future generations. Whereas, for example, the Shoalin system of Kung Fu has been preserved via an institutionalized religious order, a number of local styles of Muay Thai went extinct with the death of last masters.
The possible loss of tribal knowledge to the ages, in conjunction with conflicting histories and legends end up becoming the default sources of history. It makes studying the subject of Muay Thai somewhat challenging. It also explains why there are so many conflicting descriptions around the history of Muay Thai.
Enter Muay Boran, a new history for Muay Thai
However, it appears that a new history is being forged on the subject: A history of modern Muay Thai, which, from what I can derive, is vastly different from the ancient combat systems. This new history will be the source of knowledge for future generations who may never know anything about Krabi Krabong; or Muay Chao Cherk; Muay Chaiya; Muay Korat, Muay ThaSao, Muay Lao and others, beyond what we see in choreographed demonstrations at tourist attractions and fight scenes in films.
In a world where we gain our knowledge from YouTube, Wikipedia, and UFC where the media is the message – that are highly influential and very subjective – it’s important to remember that one side of a story is not necessarily the definitive truth. The resurgence of traditional Muay Thai styles (predominantly Muay Chaiya) through popular films such as Ong Bak, The Protector, and Chocolate have popularized the term ‘Muay Boran”, which translates into "ancient boxing". Popular culture, kickboxing gyms, martial arts enthusiasts have lumped the unorthodox or unfamiliar techniques similar to Muay Thai into a single category: Muay Boran. Much like Kung Fu, this general term covers a spectrum of traditional and regional related fighting systems.
Preserving Muay Thai, hopefully
Thai’s are largely hesitant to teach outsiders local styles. Add to that the commercial and cultural influence that ring style Muay Thai has had on modern Thai culture and economy. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), there are between 20,000 and 30,000 gyms that train or instruct Muay Thai worldwide. TAT recognizes the latent opportunity in the growing ‘Muay Thai tourist’ market, where even luxury resorts including The Siam and Peninsula hotels have integrated Muay Thai into their guest wellness programs.
What concerns me about Muay Thai's explosive growth over the past two decades is that a new, lexicon will be created around the subject of Muay Thai in which future generations will not have access to a clear delineation between modern sport Muay Thai, Muay Thai used in MMA and the ancient styles. Today, it's Muay Thai and Muay Boran. What happens to Muay Korat or Lerdrit? Techniques in those systems will eventually become cross-pollinated and lumped into a generic Muay Boran program/style.
I fear a worst-case scenario – which may already be playing out in North America and Europe – in which retail martial arts gym owners and instructors independently construct training curriculum by reverse engineering techniques that they find online, or take short course ‘Muay Boran’ seminars in order to meet a growing student demand for knowledge in this subject. I understand the business requirements of brick & mortar gyms to stay relevant in a saturated martial arts market, but the risk of further diluting an already diluted system whose history is foggy at best, is a recipe for disaster.
What can we do?
Training and fighting does not necessarily make one a subject matter expert. Muay Thai instructors, especially those with an interest in the older and indigenous sub-styles of Muay Thai, must do the research required to educate yourself on the subject. As a kru myself, it is my responsibility to understand the differences among various styles, the history of Thai combat systems and its evolution into a modern sport, and most importantly, to provide my students with the most accurate information possible.
We can't let Muay Boran become a category for all techniques not allowed in ring style Muay Thai competition. Nor does it mean forms. It's also the responsibility of the informed instructor, or Kru, to understand the difference between Muay Thai for competition, Muay Thai for cultural & historical preservation, and Muay Thai for combat.
As Muay Thai continues to grow as a part of popular culture, it’s critical that we a don’t further confuse the history of Muay Thai due to either a lack of due diligence or out of complacency.
My personal journey with Muay Thai is twenty four years in the making and has profoundly affected the way I think about how I could preserve my own culture’s customs and traditions ,espeically since I'm American and popular culture is always shifting. At the current rate, future generations may never know anything but a grotesque permeation of Muay Thai as we know it today unless we work together to record and validate what we can find on the subject, and share the many different styles that came about from Thailand's history.
 Draeger, Donn F., Smith, Robert W., Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts. 1980, Kodansha International, Tokyo, Japan.
 Poolthupya, Srisurang, The Influence of the Ramayana on Thai Culture: Kingship, Literature, Fine Arts and Performing Arts. The Journal of the Royal Institute of Thailand. Vol. 31 No.1, January-March 2006.
 Loos, Tamara; Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand. 2006, Cornell University Press.
 Baker, Chris; Phongpaichit, Pasuk, A Hitsory of Thailand, Second Edition. 2010, Cambridge University Press.