Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand. Its history is deeply rooted in tradition. To many Thais, it is a life-long career and a way of life. Muay Thai is known as the Art of Eight Limbs because it makes use of punches, kicks, elbows and knees with eight points of contact. Muay Thai is derived from an older martial art called Muay Boran, which is known as The Art of Nine Limbs because it adds headbutts as the ninth offensive technique. Historically, Muay Thai was simply known as Muay, and it was used during warfare together with Krabi Krabong (weapons-based Thai martial arts). When soldiers lost their weapons, they would fight Muay with their bare hands. Eventually, fighters started to wrap their hands and forearms with hemp rope. This was called Muay Khat Chuaek. Coban said it was for practical reasons (adds protection from and friction to a strike), but it also had symbolic meaning (protection and blessing from Monks).
In the 19th century, Thailand was at peace, and the art of Muay became a way to stay fit, compete, defend oneself, and earn a living. King Rama V contributed a lot to the growth and advancement of Muay. The King used Muay as a spectator sport. Masters of Muay began teaching young men in training camps, where they would eat, sleep and train. They became a second family of sorts. The student would be bestowed with a first name by the teacher – typically the nickname of the fighter – and adopt the camp’s name as the last name. This tradition continues to this day in Thailand. The Royal Family would often order competition between different camps.
In the 20th century, Muay became modernized, and became known as Muay Thai. The use of boxing gloves, referees, rounds, and a ring was introduced. Rules were adopted, and many of the techniques, such as headbutts, became illegal or impractical. So, to distinguish the older form of Muay, it became known as Muay Boran (“ancient boxing”).
Westerners began learning about Muay Thai in the 70′s and 80′s, and the “Golden Age of Muay Thai” peaked in the 90′s when fighters, such as Coban, began fighting internationally with foreign fighters with great strength and techniques. Muay Thai is now considered one of the most effective striking martial art.
Muay Thai camps abound in Thailand, and many foreigners travel to Thailand to get a taste of the camp life. Muay Boran schools, however, are not so commonplace in Thailand, but they are around. According to Coban, there is a growing effort by the Thais to keep the tradition alive. Unlike Muay Thai, Muay Boran is mostly taught in “form” as an art, almost like katas in Karate. For Coban, Muay Boran reminds us how beautiful Muay Thai is, and Muay Thai reminds us how effective Muay Boran was in combat.