The history of Muay Thai can be traced back over the last two thousand years to when the Thai race were referred to by the Chinese as the tribes of the Ao-lai. The first positive records of these tribes show them living in the rich valleys of Yunnan province in southern China, (many are still there today and indeed many modern Thais make pilgrimages back there).
Life in these tranquil looking valleys was far from peaceful though as the diverse ethnic groups struggled to hold onto the more productive lands. Thus the early Thais fought constantly, resolutely defending they're right to exist, constantly moving, ever searching for a more secure homeland. Survival in those days meant fighting!
The Thai settlements flourished and grew until two hundred BC when the Han Dynasty began its expansion pushing the empire outwards in all directions.The Ao-Lai fought as they had always done, to be free, and managed to hold off wave after wave of invading armies.
Eventually overcome by an enemy of much greater numbers the Ao- Lai were forced to migrate southwards. The people divided into three distinct groups; the Shans settled in northern Burma; the Ahom went east into Vietnam, while the Loa- tai settled first in the basin of the Mekong River and from there moved south into what was to become the kingdom of Siam.
To maintain their territory the Thais were in a state of perpetual war against their enemy of one thousand years, the ever expanding and aggressive Chinese.
Constant fighting did however bring about the unity of the Thai peoples.
First they fought against the early inhabitants of the lowlands, the mons and some aboriginal tribes but as they moved south they ran into the powerful empire of the Khmers.
The Khmers dominated mainland South East Asia, with the strongest and richest empire that spanned the south of Vietnam and Laos all Cambodia and most of Siam - down to the Malay Peninsula. Khmer rule was enforced by an elite warrior caste called the Nayar who were trained in all aspects of warfare.
Fleeing south from China the Siamese settled in the northern parts of the Khmer empire, eventually outnumbering their rulers. In spite of the power of their Khmer overlords, the Siamese warriors managed in 1283 to capture a major provincial capital of the Khmers near modern day Sukhothai. Here they set up the first ever-Siamese kingdom under King Ramkhamheang. They called this Muang Thai, or the "land of the free"; a name the Thais still use for their nation today.
By 1350 the northern Siam states were united under the dynasty of Prince Uthong Ayuthaya, which lasted for four hundred years. To ensure the survival of the country the greatest fighters of the time came together to assemble and record their fighting techniques. Because the methods of combat were recorded and constantly revised, the Thai martial arts never became doctrines or fragmented into competing schools. Improvements and innovations were recorded only after they had first proven themselves in the white-hot fury of the battlefield. A training manual called the Chuppasart, which denied the idea of a secret esoteric knowledge that could only be shared between master and disciple, explained hand combat techniques from which are laid the foundations for modern day Muay Thai. This openness and ready availability of combat wisdom effectively stopped ‘frozen’ knowledge between master and trainee and eliminated the implicit suggestion that that the fighting skills could not be improved. Consequently, new techniques became general and available to everyone’s teacher. This constant revision underlined the need to evolve, change and challenge the authority of the past.
Modern weaponry with its long-range killing heralded the advent of Muay Thai over Krabbi Krabbong. The first and major separation of Muay Thai from Krabbi Krabbong occurred under the Black Prince Naresuan in the middle of the sixteenth century.
Prince Naresuan was a legendary martial artist; he spent his youth as a hostage of the Burmese and rigorously studied the art of warfare. When he returned to Siam he set about teaching the skills of warfare to his people. To cut down on training casualties he continued the modification of Muay Thai insisting that practice be fought empty handed and that the strikes and the blocks duplicated the movements of weapon combat. He staged boxing competitions and large scale combat exercises, the training becoming nation wide. Due to the proficiency in unarmed combat Under Prince Naresuen the Thais were nicknamed the eight-armed race!
Kings have had much to do with the development of Muay Thai. The Tiger King, Pra Buddha Chao Sua was legendary for his ferocity as a Muay Thai fighter. He loved the life of the Nahk Muay (Muay Thai Fighter) so much that he would travel incognito around the country fighting anyone who would take up his challenge at temple fairs. He ordered the army to train in Muay Thai and was active in setting up training camps for his people.
Thai boxing became Siam’s favorite sport. Rich poor young and old all flocked to the camps to join in the action. Every village staged fights and had its champions. Every contest became a betting contest as well as a contest of local pride. The gambling traditions associated with Muay Thai have remained with the sport this is a major reason why trainers prefer to stay in Thailand rather than go abroad.
Contests under the reign of the Tiger King were much different to that of a modern day fight programme. Choke holds were then legal, as were hip throws and kicks to the groin, there was little punching, the hard work comprising clawing gouging chopping blows as well as rigid finger strikes. No gloves were worn, hands were bandaged in hemp rope and in grudge matches the hands were dipped into glue and then ground glass. The fights had no rounds and no fixed ring or fighting area, the man left standing at the end would invariably be declared the winner.
From the Tiger Kings time to today, Muay Thai has been the major sport of the Thai people and a military skill, which has evolved and changed with society.
Muay Thai was part of the school curriculum up until the 1920’s when it was withdrawn because of the rate of injuries to students were too high. However young boys still went through the motions of Muay Thai in school physical education.
It was the injury rate that brought about the next big change, in the 1930’s with the intervention of the Thai government forcing the competing regional associations to adopt international boxing style rules; weight divisions rounds and padded gloves. Battlefield Muay Thai had made its final transition into a ring sport.
|Nai Khanom Tom|
Over the centuries the greatest of the Muay Thai fighters have become legendary. Stories are told of their battles and adventures to eager listening children by the village story tellers. Perhaps the most famous of all Siamese fighters was Nai Khanom Tom. He was a brilliant athlete and a strong courageous man, holding the title of the best fighter in all Siam. During the many wars that Siam had with her neighbour Burma, Nai Khanom Tom was captured by Burmese soldiers. They had heard of his great fighting ability so they decided to pit him against 12 of Burma's top Bando fighters (Bando is a martial art of Burma and similar to Thai Boxing), and if he could defeat all 12, Nai Khanom Tom would be allowed to go free.
So the next day in a stadium packed with thousands of people, Nai Khanom Tom prepared to fight bare handed against the cream of Burma's top fighters. One by one they came at him, all out to hurt him and become heroes themselves for defeating the greatest martial artist in Siam. As each fighter pitted his skills against the great Nai Khanom Tom, he was instantly injured and unable to continue, being dispatched with lighting elbow strikes and murderous knee blows. As the day word on, the great Siamese champion had defeated all of his opponents. The spectators, who had been cheering fort their own men, suddenly began to cheer for this magnificent fighter from Siam. They were full of admiration for the prisoner who had fought and defeated several men without rest or being wounded himself. The King of Burma had no alternative but to let him go free.