top of page

The Complicated History of Muay Thai

Shutterstock / Sirisak_baokaew

If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, no doubt you have heard all sorts of stories explaining the origins of the martial arts. From the tale of wing chun kung fu having been developed by a woman to protect herself in an arranged marriage to the claim that taekwondo was designed to enable soldiers to kick enemies off horses on the battlefield, they are numerous. Most of them, however, are just legends.

Whether they are the product of folklore or — and this is often the case — outright fabrications from hustlers, such legends are linked to the martial arts. Part of the reason so much mystique surrounds the arts is that mystique is often what draws people in.

The other part of the reason these myths exist is simple: The martial arts are and always have been a niche component of human history, and as such, the creation of any given art is often poorly documented. And when a creation story is written down, it’s usually by the person developing the art. For example, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was created in the 1900s, yet because all the records were made by the Gracies, there are many inaccuracies. (See my article on Kimura vs. Rikidozan for more information). The histories of muay Thai and the related martial arts of kun Khmer/pradal serey, muay Laos and lethwei are complicated for similar reasons. These arts are all more or less the same with the only difference being that lethwei allows head butts. The actual techniques taught in these styles are identical.

This implies that they all share a common ancestor. Unfortunately, however, unlike East Asian martial arts such as karate and kung fu, which were popular among middle- and upper-class people, Indochinese boxing was largely practiced by people who were illiterate. That has left us with very few details on their origins.

Bokator, for example, is sometimes claimed to be the father of muay Thai, and its purported offspring kun Khmer is believed to be older than muay Thai — by Cambodian people, at least. Yet there is no way of knowing that because there are no historical records of the formation of the martial art. Bokator has very little in the way of records prior to the current revival of the martial art, which we have seen during the past two decades. Yet even if there were documents at one time, the cultural revolution and the takeover of the Khmer Rouge led to the destruction of so much history that some questions will never be answered.

Unfortunately, a similar thing also happened in Thailand in 1767, when the ancient capital of Ayutthaya was sieged by Burmese invaders. So many records were destroyed that archaeologists have been forced to piece together what they can from other nations’ records of having interacted with Thailand. In previous articles, I’ve written about a few of the muay boran styles that are verified to have existed — and my experience researching those styles and finding reputable historical sources was like getting blood out of a stone.

It’s often stated that muay Thai was a battlefield martial art that in the 1600s and 1700s was transformed into a spectator sport, but this is like saying that medieval knights were transformed from Sir William Wallace to Sir Billy Connolly. While it’s true there is something of a through line — the martial art practiced on the ancient battlefields of what is now Thailand probably does have a lineage that extends to modern muay Thai — that doesn’t mean muay Thai itself was being practiced 500 years ago.

When we look at video footage of muay Thai from the 1920s, it is visibly different from what we see today. It is clearly part of the same tradition, but it is not the same art. The art, like all martial arts, has adapted and changed over time as new practitioners have adjusted it for new purposes. We actually have no clue how muay Thai was practiced on the battlefield or if it was at all. There are no manuals like you see from medieval fencing. There are only paintings and illustrations that don’t necessarily show the martial art as it truly was.

That is why the history of muay Thai is so complicated. With martial arts like karate, which do not have as old a lineage, you can trace the origin of each style directly back to the styles that influenced it. With Southeast Asian martial arts, it’s not that simple.

This becomes a problem when people advertise themselves as teaching traditional muay boran. After all, if older masters of muay Thai struggle to know their own lineage, why would newer people know — especially Westerners? Yet we see muay boran classes popping up and purporting to teach traditional muay Thai that is more lethal or more authentic than the ring sport.

Most people aren’t as familiar with muay Thai as they are with karate or kung fu, and even fewer are capable of doing proper historical research into the art they’re studying. As a result, people are likely to be scammed by martial artists who are essentially teaching modern muay Thai with a bit of “woo” flair. There isn’t much that can be done to recover records that no longer exist, but spreading the knowledge that the ancient history of muay Thai has actually been lost would be a great step forward in stopping scammers from exploiting people who do not know any better.

bottom of page