Muay Thai, as it is known today, didn’t actually exist until the 1930s. The term Muay Boran describes the distinctive styles of fighting used throughout Siam (modern day Thailand) before Muay Thai eventually emerged. Muay Boran doesn’t refer to one singular style, rather to different fighting styles throughout the empire. Each is loosely interconnected, like fish swimming in the same river. Fish are all similarly evolved aquatic animals and they inhabit the same waterways and they act, eat, and live in subtly different ways. Muay Boran originated in Siam, with subtly distinctive styles of fighting evolving simultaneously to one another.
Muay Boran had its roots in religion and warfare. The technique originally developed as a means of violent combat, gaining ceremonial and religious elements as it did so. Buddhist monks became the main teachers of the early styles of Muay Boran. At this time fighters fought with no hemp rope wrapped protectively around their hands or arms. Eventually ceremonial fights started appearing in temples and during festival events. Martial arts started to become very popular, and in the Rattanakosin era the distinctive regional styles started to subtly merge under the umbrella term Muay Boran.
While Muay Thai didn’t exist then, these roots formed the mighty Krabaak tree that Muay Thai has become today. A large part of the success of this modern martial arts form can be traced back to kings like Rama V, who ascended to the throne in 1868. His patronage of the martial arts form as a sport greatly increased the popularity of Muay Boran. Skilled fighters began to live in the royal palace and train the palace guards or even tutor royalty themselves.
Muay Boran did not have a strong set of rules, only practical ones in place to ensure that fighters did not kill one another, such as no groin hitting or eye gouging. As new developments and rules started to constrict the previously uninhibited nature of the sport, and as Western influences in the 1930’s like the boxing ring and Western style gloves started to be introduced, modern day Muay Thai was born.
Muay Thai is a very technical discipline that takes extreme physical and mental dedication to master. It is a martial art but it is also a science of the efficiency of the human body, and the limits to which human biology can be pushed in aggressive combat. Muay Thai has become a popular spectator sport. Contemporary Muay Thai fighters are now known not only in Thailand but internationally. These fighters have helped the martial art gain its rightful place among the great styles, like Karate, Jujitsu and Kung Fu. A large number of Westerners that visit Thailand look forward to watching Muay Thai matches that are even now taking place simultaneously all over the country. And many end up staying to learn the discipline.
The passage of time changes all things and Muay Thai is no exception. The style has now become a regular form of fighting in mixed martial arts, the most popular and diverse application of martial arts styles ever seen, resulting in popularity on a global level like never before.
Westerners have seen the strengths of the discipline and have incorporated their own martial techniques. While change can be good, some Muay Thai purists decry the incorporation of other styles, preferring to adhere to the traditional elements of the discipline.
Muay Thai has not stopped evolving and will continue to do so as it rises in popularity.