Muay Thai is Thailand’s most famous sport, tradition and excuse for gambling. Despite its long history, it continues to mark popular culture, recently spurning world-famous film titles, such as Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong with Tony Jaa (known in Thailand as Ja Panom) , Beautiful Boxer, about a gay (transvestite) boxer fighting his way to success to win money for his poor family, and the national geographic documentary, NongMai, about a drug addicted girl who takes up Thai boxing behind bars and winning. Whether documentary or film, these portrayals are intense and emotional, quite different from what one usually perceives of the ‘peace-loving’ nation. This sport is one of the outlets in a society where ‘jai yen’, or strive for calmness, and that goes for both the guys and the girls.
Above: The inspiration behind ‘Beautiful Boxer’
The sport remains popular with young people, regardless of sex. Above: ‘Pattaya Papaya’
A kung-fu and ninjitsu expert friend of mine swears that traditional Muay Thai can “beat the crap out of any other martial art”
What makes Muay Thai stand out is its more aesthetic and spiritual side, which is often overlooked. There is the ‘wai kru’ or ‘rom muay’ ritual where respect for elders and the ‘teacher’ is given in a traditional dance ceremony accompanied by Thai instruments. The ‘Hanuman Rom Muay’ is a particularly beautiful dance, done in honour of the monkey god, before any given fight.
With Thailand’s taste for the dramatic, Muay Thai will always be popular with the Thais. Today, there are more rules than in the past, but we’re still allowed elbows, head butts and nut-kicking, making it the younger, more rebellious brother to international boxing, which is considered less testosterone-driven, and boring with all the padding and unnecessary restrictions. And of course Muay Thai also fits it neatly with the Thai’s penchant for gambling and tattoos.
Muay Thai’s glamorous air is often portrayed in film.
Tony Jaa (JaaPanom) bandaging his fists with ropes in anticipation of a traditional Muay Thai fight in ‘The Protector’
The Rajdamnern Stadium near Sanamluang still has a retro and dramatic air about it, often with painted murals instead of posters.