Thailand is the mythic Siam, Bangkok its capital since the 17th century, and its people, the ‘Thais’ a world in itself: they’re a proud people because they are clean of any foreigner invasions and because they have preserved their unique cultural manifestations. Performing arts are an essential part of this preseved legacy: Dance (Lakhon), Theatre (Kohn), Shadow theatre (Nang yai), Puppet theatre, and their impressive martial art, Muay Thai. Obviously, in the source of martial arts there is no performing art but just martial action. However, time has made this very special fight form into a successful spectacle among the other performing arts created by Thai people. I went to Lumphini Stadium in Bangkok to feel, as a spectator, this impressive perfoming art, and it didn’t disappoint me.
Lumphini Stadium is one of the meccas of Muay Thai, crowds of Thais and foreigners go there to yell, to bet and to live a night full of excitement, whose only source is the ring/stage. Like in the ancient theatres and spectacles from Asia and Europe, life in this places is unpredictable: there are explosions of energy everywhere, there is movement, music, food, money, exitement, and the drama stemming from the fight, from the action itself. Fighters here are stars, they know they are seen by thousands, they are attractive, seductive, they have studied every movement made inside the ring; they hold the public in their hand, to win means to get fame and money, but the pinnacle of their whole professional life lays on the ring/stage, moments before, during, and moments immediately after the fight, the apex maximum is the lapse where drama occurs.
The Western world knows Muay Thai as a Thai Boxing, a kind of fighting style that has become an international and regulated event, sport and TV spectacle. However, many of its ancient traditional rules remain at its base: their ancient training techniques, the ritual aspect thatmany fighters opt not to perform,yet which requires they show respect for their masters through one ritual dance, called Wai Kru. During the whole event traditonal music is played with ancient Thai instruments, and the fighters keep in mind a strict ethic-religious (buddhist) code in their behavior on the ring. But, those strong links with the traditional past notwithstanding, commercialization, ratings and money itself have provoked a lax attitude and fighters have lost many of those links. To avoid that, groups of purists have retaken the ancient model of this martial art, Muay Boran, which literally means ‘ancient fight’. Muay Boran doesn’t use the international boxing rules, but the basic ancient ones; it could become a brutal fight, but buddhist behavior is still present, as well as Wai Kru (dance), costumes (if they can be called that), music, rules… It’s a comprehensive ritual in the middle of the 21st century arena.
There are some Muay Boran competitions year long, but usually unknown to the masses; Muay Boran is specially ‘performed’ in the main venues every night as a demonstration of a national treasure. Imagine yourself in the midst of a crowded stadiums with TV crews, people yelling and betting, eating, searching for a better view, even jumping in excitement, and two traditional fighters dancing and fighting as their ancestors did.
The night of December 8th 2006 i had the opportunity to see and feel one of these impressive fights along with the usual Muay Thai. I took a video and some photographs, which I think are the best way of sharing this unique experience.
These sites contain a lot of information about the history, rules and fighters of this martial art. The last link is a French site with an interview with an anthropologist who joined as a Muay Thai fighter and who talks about the ritual and religious aspects of this martial art.