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Muay Thai, the sport of kings

The Thai monarchy’s favourite sport attracts thousands of tourists every year. It even has its own national holiday. Discover the history of this millenary martial art.

The myth of the Tiger King

Thai monarchs have been passionate about the national sport for centuries, so no wonder it is billed the sport of kings. Take the legend of the Tiger King, for instance. King Phra Chao Sri Sampetch VIII, who ruled from 1703 to 1709, loved Muay Thai so much that he was reluctant to give up fighting after his coronation. Known for his ferocious style, he supposedly sneaked off, disguised as a commoner (the most imaginative storytellers say he’d wear a tiger mask) to participate in local tournaments and justly beat his rivals. During his reign, he promoted the sport more than anyone, making it part of the army’s training because he considered it essential to governing a country like Thailand, at the time, kingdom of Ayutthaya.

 

A war technique reimagined as sport

According to the official version, Muay Thai was born in Siam between the 13th and 15th centuries. The constant wars between the kingdoms of Myanmar and Cambodia forced Thai soldiers to hone their war skills. They started to use their own body parts as weapons: fists, knees, elbows…everything was allowed as they kicked and punched their way to victory. It became a professional sport during the peace period, under King Narai (1604-1690).

 

 

The ritual before the fight

Like most Thai traditions, Muay Thai also has a spiritual element. The Wai Kru ritual is carried out before each fight, and varies slightly, depending on the gym and city. Fighters perform the ritual as a sign of respect towards their teacher and all the teachers that came before them. On March 17, National Muay Thai day, Ayutthaya hosts the annual World Wai Kru Muay Thai Ceremony where fighters and their teachers from more than 57 countries congregate. The event pays homage to national hero Nai Khanom Tom, considered the father of Muay Thai after defeating ten Burmese soldiers in 1774.

 

From Siam to…the Olympics?

Muay Thai is extremely popular around the world. A great number of boxers have built the traditional Thai discipline into their training and enthusiasts travel to Thailand to experience it at the source. Thailand’s major cities, including Bangkok and Chiang Mai, host professional combats and conduct lessons in hundreds of specialised gyms. The sport is currently so well known that, unless the IOC changes its mind, it will soon be included in the Olympics.

 

Where to see Muay Thai fights in Thailand

The main cities in the country have large stadiums where every strike is celebrated and cheered enthusiastically. The famous Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok hosts between 8 and 10 fights a night over almost four hours. The capital also houses Rajadamnern Stadium, nicknamed Radja. The most famous venue in Chiang Mai is Thapae Boxing Stadium, whilst Hua Hin has the Grand Sports Stadium and Thai Boxing Garden. In addition to large stadiums, other tournaments are organised off the professional circuit and tend to be cheaper but more authentic.

 

Tips for Muay Thai training in Thailand

Many people travel to Thailand to practice this sport and fight against the best in the business. Notable gyms include Eminent Air Boxing Gym in Bangkok, where you can learn with genuine champs. Other options in the Thai capital include Fighting Spirit Gym, opened by an Australian in the Silom area, or Jitti Gym, in Ratchada. For a truly immersive experience, you can also sign up for a Muay Thai camp. There are several of these around the country, based on strict discipline and approximately six hours of training a day. Prices vary from one to another and are usually negotiated on arrival. Training is very demanding and a high level of endurance is required. It is the sport of kings, after all.

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