Other Features: Kicking & Screaming

More formally known as Phahuyut (from the Pali-Sanskrit bhahu or ‘arm’ and yodha or ‘combat’), Thailand’s ancient martial art of moo·ay tai (or muay Thai) is one of the kingdom’s most striking national icons. Overflowing with colour and ceremony as well as exhilarating moments of clenched-teeth action, the best matches serve up a blend of such skill and tenacity that one is tempted to view the spectacle as emblematic of Thailand’s centuries-old devotion to independence in a region where most other countries fell under the European colonial yoke.

Many martial-arts aficionados agree that moo·ay tai is the most efficient, effective and generally unbeatable form of ring-centred, hand-to-hand combat practised today. According to legend, it has been for a while. After the Siamese were defeated at Ayuthaya in 1767, several expert moo·ay boh·rahn (from which moo·ay tai is derived) fighters were among the prisoners hauled off to Burma. A few years later a festival was held; one of the Thai fighters, Nai Khanom Tom, was ordered to take on prominent Burmese boxers for the entertainment of the king and to determine which martial art was most effective. He promptly dispatched nine opponents in a row and, as legend has it, was offered money or beautiful women as a reward; he promptly took two new wives. Today a moo·ay tai festival in Ayuthaya is named after Nai Khanom Tom.

In the early days of the sport, combatants' fists were wrapped in thick horsehide for maximum impact with minimum knuckle damage; tree bark and seashells were used to protect the groin from lethal kicks. But the high incidence of death and physical injury led the Thai government to ban moo·ay tai in the 1920s; in the 1930s the sport was revived under a modern set of regulations. Bouts were limited to five three-minute rounds separated by two-minute breaks. Contestants had to wear international-style gloves and trunks, and their feet were taped – to this day no shoes are worn. In spite of all these concessions to safety, today all surfaces of the body remain fair targets, and any part of the body except the head may be used to strike an opponent. Common blows include high kicks to the neck, elbow thrusts to the face and head, knee hooks to the ribs and low kicks to the calf. Punching is considered the weakest of all blows, and kicking merely a way to 'soften up' one's opponent; knee and elbow strikes are decisive in most matches.

Unlike some martial disciplines, such as kung fu or qi gong, moo·ay tai doesn’t entertain the idea that martial-arts techniques can be passed only from master to disciple in secret. Thus the moo·ay tai knowledge base hasn’t fossilised – in fact, it remains ever open to innovation, refinement and revision. Thai champion Dieselnoi, for example, created a new approach to knee strikes that was so difficult to defend that he retired at 23 because no one dared to fight him anymore.

Another famous moo·ay tai champion is Parinya Kiatbusaba, aka Nong Thoom, a gà·teu·i (transgender person) from Chiang Mai who arrived for weigh-ins wearing lipstick and rouge. After a 1998 triumph at Lumphini, Parinya used the prize money to pay for sex reassignment surgery; in 2003, the movie Beautiful Boxer was made about her life.

While Bangkok has long attracted foreign fighters, it wasn’t until 1999 that French fighter Mourad Sari became the first non-Thai fighter to take home a weight-class championship belt from a Bangkok stadium. Several Thai nák moo·ay (fighters) have gone on to triumph in world championships in international-style boxing. Khaosai Galaxy, one of the greatest Asian boxers of all time, successfully defended his World Boxing Association super-flyweight world title 19 times before retiring in 1991.