Over the last 30 years, arguably since the success [of the world’s worst researched film] “Kickboxer”, the art of Muay Thai has spread all over the western world. To this day it is still one of the most misunderstood martial arts. Muay Thai is from Thailand and sometimes referred to as Siamese Boxing. Many people refer to it as a modern combat sport, but it’s roots can be traced back to the 16th century when captured Siamese soldier, Nai Khanomtom, defeated the Burmese King’s best fighters and earnt his freedom. His style would one day be recognized as the national art and sport of Muay Thai. It is impossible to separate Muay Thai from Thai culture, so it’s wise to understand some often misunderstood connections.
#1 The foot-face connection
If you’ve ever been to a Thai Fight night and somebody, usually a westerner, lands a Teep to the face, you might remember hearing the Ooohs. Like most Asian cultures, the shoes are removed when entering someone home out of respect. In Thai culture the feet are considered impure, even profane. Conversely, the head is considered to be spiritual and holy as the Thai’s believe the soul resides there. So logically the foot to the face, particularly the bottom of them, is your ticket insulting your host country and you opponent.
It doesn’t just stop there, when you go to the barber, they sometimes will sometimes apologize for touching your head. Never raise your feet up on a desk and point your soles at other people and it’s probably a good idea to run if you obnoxiously step on an image of the King or the Buddha. That includes coins and notes with their image on.
Thai’s are very forgiving people but it’s important to respect their beliefs and culture.
#2 – What’s in the name?
In the western world, Buakaw Por. Pramuk is one of the most famous Thai fighters to burst out of the kingdom of Siam. He took the world by storm when he dominated the K-1 circuit with technique and finesse. Most westerners are surprised to hear that Por. Pramuk is not actually his real name. Buakaw was born Buakaw Banchamek, Por. Pramuk is the name of his gym that he fights out of. In fact many of the famous Thai fighters adopt their gym’s name as their surname to honor their academy, their coaches and most importantly the other fighters in their “family” that do the same thing. Muay Thai is a blanket name like “Kung Fu” and there are many different styles being practiced at the different gyms around Thailand. The adoption of the name represents this and lets people know their lineage.
#3 – Where did the other limb go?
The Art of 8 limbs use to be the art of 9 limbs in its previous expression, Muay Boran, but the modern rules banned the use of the Headbutt. With the modernization of the sport, the use of the head has become illegal like in most combat sports.
You can however still see the 9 limbs in action as the Thais take on the Burmese every year in the ring sport of Bama Lethwei which is fought with bound hands and allows the use of the head as a weapon. Despite the disadvantage to the Thais of not preparing for the rules of Lethwei in their own sport, they are more often than not victorious in these meets. Most people argue that the Thai fighters are not only more experienced due to the popularity of the sport, but due to the poverty in Myanmar, the Thai fighters are also more athletic.
#4 – Insulting people with your politeness.
Many westerners have adopted the Thai version of the bow, called The Wai, in an attempt to show respect to the Thai culture. You may have in avertedly insulted a few people by not realizing when and how the Wai is used. There are 3 levels of the Wai that are used according to your relationship with the person. Luckily Thai people are forgiving of people’s misunderstanding of their culture; just don’t ever insult their king.
It might help to think of the Wai as having three levels – Low, Medium and High – referring to the level of height as to where you hold it and your relationship with the person. There are three times you would use a Wai, the first being if someone does it to you, the second is if you are introduced to a group of people and the third being when someone is deserving of your respect.
It’s best not to Wai unless someone does it first to you. The Wai is more of a way of showing respect than to say hello, and the junior person usually performs it first. If it isn’t returned, don’t be insulted, it is common for someone of much higher rank or age to simply smile or raise their hand. Monks are not required to Wai back as they are representatives of Buddha, so don’t be insulted.
The baby and the bathwater
Modern martial artists, particularly in MMA, have a gift of being able to take the best of everything and applying it to their paradigm, but is there a cost? Much of the power in Muay Thai comes not just from the techniques, but in the centuries of pride and culture that come along with it.
See you on the Mat,
Dylan and Liam Resnekov.
Muay Thai Kickboxing, Martial Arts, Self Defense for Adults, Kids and Teens in Chatswood, Roseville, Crows Nest, Cameray, Gordon, St Ives, Killara, Gordon, North Sydney and Castle Cove.