Muay Thai Culture in Thailand
Lounging around catches up with you quickly, and having spent a few days taking it easy during the Phuket Sandbox I thought it was time to do some exercise again. What better way to do that than to visit the world renowned Muay Thai gym, Tiger Muay Thai?
As an avid Muay Thai and martial arts fan, I arrived at the gym overwhelmed with excitement. Then, I was greeted by a short and unassuming Thai trainer named Chok Sagami.
While I went into the training session brimming with enthusiasm and doing the wai at every turn like an overly polite farang, the training session left me gasping for air praying for the rounds to end early.
I made the joke that Chok exemplified muay thai so well, however, that I exemplified nuay thai (which meant tired). The pun fell flat and I was met with a pitiful exhale from Chok.
But not only did I learn about my lack of conditioning in the unrelenting heat of Phuket and my lack of humour in Thai, I learned more about the trainer, Chok.
Horizon Beyond Agrarian Life
Despite the language barrier (which I blame on my joke falling flat), I discovered that Chok was a former Super Welterweight Muay Thai champion with over 250 fights.
He wasn’t originally from Phuket either, but from the Northeast of Thailand, Isaan, near where I would be teaching. This was also the case with many of the trainers at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket.
It also dawned on me that while Chok said that he had over 250 fights, he still looked very young. He had also been retired for a few years, meaning he would have amassed these fights in a short timeframe, attesting to the relentlessness of a Muay Thai fighter’s work ethic.
It reminds me of one of Thailand's most exciting prospects at the moment - Rodtang. The fighter has already amassed 319 professional fights at the ripe age of… 24.
While Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, it offers a special route in particular for low income families that live in rural areas of Thailand such as Isaan. Although football is the national sport of England, child footballers can’t directly capitalise on their skills early in life the same ways as child fighters can.
Most Muay Thai fighters start out at a young age (sometimes as young as 6 years old) and they’re often encouraged by their families in order to seek income into the household. Although many fight due to their love for the sport, Muay Thai can offer a fortune that extends beyond the rice paddies or sugarcane plantations for them and their families.
In fact, many of the most notable Muay Thai practitioners have come from rural areas in the Northeast of Thailand. Should fighters find success in the art, not only will their income increase exponentially, they might find themselves fighting at one of the prestigious exhibitors, Lumpini Stadium in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok.
Muay Thai also provides shelter for children from broken families in Thailand. With regular income, regimented training schedules, and a newfound brotherhood, the Muay Thai gym becomes a sanctuary for some escaping a less fortunate home environment. In many cases, fighters even adopt the names of their gyms to honour them as family.
A Lifelong Commitment?
Spending their days running and training for hours on end, fighters are conditioned to fight competitively multiple times per month. This earns them a very modest income, and the average salary of a Muay Thai fighter ranges drastically according to their skills, experience, promotion, and marketability.
While it may benefit their household income greatly, it often comes at the cost of their education. Because of the vigorous training schedule, many of the children sacrifice their education to pursue a career in prizefighting. For those who succeed, the sacrifice may seem well worth it.
However, those who commit their life to Muay Thai without seeing the gold and glory may feel cornered as they retire. Fighters that have losing records will see a reduction in income, and not only does this leave them with less, their role as the earner for their family diminishes.
Inevitably, fighters sustain injuries and accumulate damage which makes retirement common during their 20s or 30s. Retirement can be difficult, especially those who dedicated their lives without the level of success as others. With an admirable work ethic but a niche set of skills, retirees often remain within the confines of Muay Thai gyms.
Transcending Language Barriers
Although I had spent an hour training with Chok Sagami before leaving Phuket for Chaiyaphum, it wasn’t the last I had heard about him. I joined a number of local Muay Thai gyms in the area, and each trainer had heard of the young yet highly seasoned veteran.
One of my coaches (and a former champion) in Chaiyaphum even claimed that he had fought, and not only beat, but knocked out Chok in a fight when they were teenagers. Additionally, the coach was a former trainer of Rodtang and Superbon - two of the best in the world fighting in the established martial arts promotion One Championship.
These were impressive feats, and I didn’t expect to find someone with such credentials merely minutes from my apartment. However, despite his victory over the Muay Thai champion Chok and his coaching of current world Muay Thai champions, his career trajectory was significantly different and less successful than Chok’s.
Another experienced coach also knew Chok and began playing videos of him in the gym to demonstrate his “beautiful” Muay Thai abilities. Someone who I had briefly met in Phuket became such a talking point in the gym and facilitated discussion between people who didn't even share the same language.
Muay Thai transgresses many of the language obstacles that living abroad presents. Although I couldn’t speak in Thai with my trainers and vice versa, I can remember having countless conversations in Thainglish about Muay Thai.
Following a training session I embarked to buy the delicious Thai banana roti, and the vendor we called roti man happened to be watching a live Muay Thai event in his stall. Despite usually only saying hello and thank you in Thai to him, I was able to strike up a [broken] conversation about Muay Thai’s legends.
This was the first time I had been able to communicate with him authentically, as it was a common interest that wasn’t to do with buying and selling. Before I knew it, another customer recognised my Muay Thai shorts before claiming that he too was a former champion. At that point, Muay Thai felt ubiquitous and inherent to the culture of Isaan.
Thai Culture Exemplified in the Ring
Despite the brutal nature of two fighters competing against one another, Muay Thai is rooted in tradition, rituals and spirituality which exemplifies Thai culture so well. Fighters enter the ring donning ritualistic attire such as the mongkhon - a headband - before performing a graceful dance known as the wai kru ram muay to honour their trainers.
The intricate wai kru dance, high pitched music known as the sarama, immediately followed by a bout of gruelling combat makes the sport one which overwhelms the visual and auditory senses. What is initially calm and visually pleasing becomes simultaneously fascinating and brutal.
Social etiquette in Thailand is also visible within the ring. Despite high stakes and stress at work, in social situations, or in the boxing ring, Thai people are proficient in remaining respectful, calm and composed. Upon leaving the ring, whether fighters win or lose and regardless if they are bloodied, they are expected to display honour to their opponents in a demonstration of respect.
Thailand’s laid back lifestyle can be embodied by the term sabai sabai, which means relax, and it is frequently used in the gym. Coaches frequently guide their trainees to sabai when they are too tense, because Muay Thai is beautiful and requires composure and looseness for it to be effective.
Other quirky aspects of Thai culture visibly seep into the Thai boxing ring. Just as the foot is symbolically low and considered to be dirty, whereas the head is considered to be sacred, an opponent kicking another using the bottom of their foot would be the height of disrespect in a Muay Thai bout. While it is technically a legal shot in a sport which involves kicking, it is markedly frowned upon.
Where Did Muay Thai Come From?
Muay Thai stems from an ancient martial art called Muay Boran (Ancient Thai boxing) which was developed by the Thai military during the Sukhothai dynasty in the 13th century. While Muay Boran established itself as the “art of nine limbs,” the modernisation of the art (and the omission of using the head as a weapon) led to what we now know as the combat sport Muay Thai - the “art of eight limbs”.
Once used as a weapon to fight off foreign invaders, Muay Thai is now recognised as one of the most effective forms of striking martial arts, and is practised by millions globally by Thais and also foreigners who are known as nak muay farangs (foreign boxers).
Foreigners from all around the world visit Thailand purely to train in the sport, and whether you’re a teacher or a traveller, practising Muay Thai has invaluable benefits. If you want to improve your fitness and discipline, learn self defence, meet people, or gain cultural insight into a national sport, Muay Thai offers something for everyone.