Muay Thai and its Place in Thailand's Culture

| © Noah Dolinsky / Alamy Stock Photo
Sarah Williams

The ancient Thai martial art of Muay Thai is steeped in age-old traditions and is an important part of Thai culture. For Muay Thai professionals, Muay Thai is life.

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The life of a Muay Thai professional

Professional Muay Thai fighters begin training when young. Manachai Yokkaosaenchai Gym was eight, but some children start even younger. Everyday routines are based around training, waking up early and spending hours on fitness and fighting techniques. You can see the beads of sweat covering Manachai’s body as he trains in his gym, pushing forward every day to improve his game. Fighters typically take part in hundreds of matches throughout their career, always aspiring to become a champion. A huge commitment is required for success.

Muay Thai, history, and royalty

Muay Thai uses the whole body as a weapon and a shield. The fierce fighting style is thought to have been used by soldiers and also by locals protecting their lands. Long before it was a sport, Muay Thai was an important survival tool.

In ancient times, Kings trained in Muay Thai. When Thailand found peace, Muay Thai survived through military training and entertainment.

A deep reverence for royalty is strongly ingrained in a true Muay Thai fighter. Without the strong and fearless leaders of the past, there would be no Thailand (Land of the Free) today. Fighters respect the links between Muay Thai, the monarchy, and Thailand’s history.

Practising Muay Thai in front of ancient Thai ruins

Muay Thai and respect

Muay Thai is traditionally passed down from a master to a trainee. Fighters have a deep respect for their seniors, as shown in the video. Manachai has been inspired by top-level fighters and wants to be like Saenchai, his senior and the namesake of his home gym.

Trainers help to develop fighting skills, mental strength, and self-belief. They pass on dedication, commitment, and passion. Masters bless students for safety, success, and to fight well. Fighters honour trainers with a Wai Kru ritual before every fight.

The pre-fight ceremony also seeks to invoke protection for both the fighter and their opponent; winning is desirable, but honour comes first. Win or lose, fighters congratulate each other and show respect to their opponent’s trainer.

Muay Thai and spirituality

Religion is strongly woven into day-to-day Thai life and also tightly incorporated into Muay Thai culture. The headpiece (mongkorn), armband (prajioud), and shorts all have cultural and spiritual significance. Traditionally, these are blessed to provide luck and protection.

Thailand has many superstitions and a strong belief in spirits. The Ram Muay, part of the Muay Thai rituals, pays respect to spirits. In the regulated world of Muay Thai, there are few practical fears on entering a Muay Thai ring. In the past, however, when fighters were going to war, divine blessings were much more significant.

Military camps and temples were centres of Muay Thai training in the past. Monks often became Muay Thai masters, passing on fighting techniques and religious teachings together.

Muay Thai has many rituals

Muay Thai and children

There are many reasons children begin Muay Thai. It’s rarely because of dreams of becoming a champion. Of course, there are some children who train in Muay Thai for fun, though.

In some cases, as for Manachai, it is their parents’ wishes. Many parents hope that Muay Thai can help families financially. Some, particularly in rural areas, see Muay Thai as being the only realistic opportunity a son has of earning money.

Children from broken homes or homes in crisis sometimes find refuge at a Muay Thai camp. Camps can provide a stable and secure environment for children who would have few opportunities otherwise. For some children, Muay Thai offers a way to completely change the course of their life.

Children may skip regular education in favour of training; keeping up with a demanding training schedule alongside schooling is tough. Once children have devoted their life to Muay Thai, there are often few other options available to them.

Muay Thai and social issues

Parents who can afford it generally send their children to university. Muay Thai offers an alternative path for poorer families. Although wealthy Thais may practice Muay Thai for fitness and fun, it is rare for a professional fighter to come from such a background.

Northeast Thailand, also known as Isan, is the country’s poorest region. Many top Muay Thai fighters hail from this region, most having begun in modest camps with little high-tech equipment. These gyms are very unlike that shown in the video, with its numerous good quality punchbags and modern facilities.

Fighters often need to succeed to be able to earn money, both for themselves and for their families. Although now a competitive sport, Muay Thai is still very much a means of survival for many fighters.

Muay Thai fighters in the ring

Money and Muay Thai

Muay Thai fighters make a modest income. An average fighter might make around 5,000 THB per month. Top-level fighters may earn around 10,000 THB a month. For context, this is approximately 320 USD.

Earnings increase with the number of fights. People take as many fights as they can, entering the ring competitively every couple of weeks. Manachai said he’d had 300 fights already. It might seem shocking but this is normal for a Muay Thai fighter. Fighters need to fight often to make a living, pushing beyond injuries, illnesses, and fatigue.

Consequences of losing

If a fighter has a long losing streak there can be severe consequences. Income is reduced. More significantly, fighters may be told to leave their gym. For those who live at the camp, this can cause real hardship. Fighters who have been tasked with supporting their families may be shunned. While the interviewee doesn’t give his reasons for wanting to be a champion, fame is often just a small part of the equation. For many, the need to win goes far beyond glory.

Muay Thai and retirement

Many Muay Thai professionals retire at a young age, unsurprising given the early age that many begin training and the number of fights they cram into their careers. In the past, retirement often led to hardship; with few other skills, ex-fighters often found it tough to find alternative work. With growing interest in the sport, many former fighters are now able to work by training others.

Muay Thai and gambling

Muay Thai offers the only legal form of gambling (outside of lotteries) in Thailand. Gambling isn’t always only for the thrill; some wager desperately hoping to strike it lucky and get their own break. For some Thais, gambling can be a major source of income, albeit a risky one.

Without gambling, Muay Thai would lose popularity. Gambling is an integral feature of Muay Thai in Thailand today, without which many fighters would be jobless.

In the ring, fighters are like machines. You only need to see Manachai training hard in the video to appreciate the strength that Muay Thai fighters develop. Outside of the ring, however, Muay Thai teaches humility, respect, compassion, and immense self-control. For many fighters, the broken bones, bruises, bloody noses, and other injuries are simply part of making a living in a developing nation that has large numbers of people living in poverty.

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