While most people are familiar with Thailand’s national martial art, Muay Thai, far less is understood about its ancient forerunner, Muay Boran.
Muay Boran is not a spectator sport. Like its counterparts in the region and around the world, this precursor to Muay Thai was shaped by the absolute needs of a more brutal age, an era defined by survival and conquest.
While the ancient martial art has fallen out of practice in the relative safety and security of a more civilized time, its lethal, efficient strikes have captivated the public’s imagination, inspiring the Ong Bak film franchise that catapulted Thai martial artist Tony Jaa to international stardom.
Here, Thailand NOW dives into the history of Muay Boran, differences with modern Muay Thai, and the forbidden techniques of the so-called, “Science of Nine Limbs.”
What is Muay Boran?
Muay Thai Boran (literally, “ancient Thai boxing”), or simply, Muay Boran, is a newly coined term referring to a range of hand-to-hand combat techniques that existed before Muay Thai became codified as a national combat sport in 1930.
Though it is generally agreed that Muay Boran arose out of military training in the 13th century, there is no clear evidence pointing to a single founder. Many of the documents chronicling the history of Muay Boran were destroyed during the Burmese-Siamese War (1765–1767), but these turbulent times also gave rise to Muay Boran’s most famous fighter, Nai Khanomtom (🇹🇭), who is revered as the “Father of Muay Thai.”
Following the defeat and sacking of the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, Burmese King Hsinbyushin (known to Thais as King Mangra) organized a martial arts tournament in Rangoon (presently, Yangon) in 1774, pitting Thai boxers against Burmese boxers—Muay Boran against Lethwei. During the tournament, Nai Khanomtom is said to have defeated 10 Burmese boxers in a row.
King Hsinbyushin allegedly remarked, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom. Even with his bare hands, he can fell thirty opponents.”
Impressed with Nai Khanomtom’s skill, the Burmese King granted him freedom to move back to Thailand, where he returned as a Muay Boran teacher.
At the turn of the 20th century, King Rama V sought to formalize the art, crowning masters of different styles: Muay Lopburi, Muay Korat, and Muay Chaiya, representing the central, northeastern, and southern regions, respectively. Other styles would emerge later on, including Muay Thasao from the northern region.
Muay Boran vs Muay Thai
The two martial arts are very similar, but as Muay Boran developed from martial art to combat sport, differences emerged.
As a sport, Muay Thai fighters must use regulation equipment such as boxing gloves, are matched according to weight class, fight for five rounds of three minutes each, and cannot strike the groin or employ deadly techniques such as flying knees to the head. Furthermore, no points are awarded for strikes to the limbs.
Of course, no such restrictions or incentives apply to the ancient, life-or-death circumstances that faced the Thai soldiers relying on Muay Boran. Instead of gloves, ancient Thai soldiers would wrap their hands and forearms in hemp rope, which is where Muay Boran gets its other name: Muay Kard Chuek (literally, “rope-bound boxing”).
In modern Muay Thai, fighters adopt a relatively narrow stance compared to practitioners of Muay Boran, placing one foot in front of the other with hands guarding the face. Conversely, a Muay Boran practitioner will set their feet further apart in a lower, wider stance, while keeping their fists along the centerline. It is theorized that the wider stance provides a better defense against what would have been illegal blows or pointless strikes in a modern Muay Thai match.
The Science of Nine Limbs
Modern Muay Thai is sometimes referred to as the “Art of Eight Limbs” comprising two fists, two feet, two elbows, and two knees. In Muay Boran, there is one extra limb referred to as the ninth limb that is forbidden in Muay Thai: the head!
A headbutt attack would often occur if the combatants were engaged in a clinch, or locked in a standing grapple. However, there is a special move called Ruesee Mud Sra, or roughly, “The Hermit Dives into the Pool.”
Here, the boxer charges into his opponent and performs a diving headbutt to the midsection. It is an advanced move that is rarely used, but this illustrates how creative Muay Boran can really be.
Learning the Fundamentals
The fundamental techniques of Muay Boran are referred to as Mae Mai, while more advanced moves are referred to as Look Mai. The exact techniques that qualify as Mae Mai or Look Mai can change style to style, though the Thai Junior Encyclopedia Foundation (🇹🇭) lists 15 moves for each. The techniques are generally characterized as counterattacks.
Examples of Mae Mai Techniques
Hak Nguang Aiyara (Breaking the Elephant’s Trunk)
The boxer catches his opponents’ leg (elephant’s trunk) then counters by throwing an elbow at the captured leg to break it.
Jorakhe Fad Hang (Crocodile Tail Kick)
The boxer throws the Thai version of the spinning heel kick (crocodile tail) towards the neck or head area of an opponent.
Inao Taeng Krit (Piercing the Dagger)
The boxer uses his defensive arm to block an attacker’s punch then throws an elbow (dagger) at his opponent’s midsection.
Examples of Look Mai Techniques
Hanuman Tawai Waen (Monkey Presents the Ring)
The boxer sidesteps a punch to throw a double uppercut (the monkey’s rings) to his opponent’s chin.
Hirun Muan Phaendin (Flipping the Earth)
The boxer quickly spins around 180 degrees to throw a reverse elbow (flipping the earth) to his opponent’s throat or chin.
Hong Peek Hak (Breaking the Swan’s Wing)
The boxer intercepts the punch of his opponent to throw an elbow to the shoulder (breaking the wing). If executed with enough force and precision, the shoulder could dislocate.
Where to learn Muay Boran?
While Muay Boran has not quite entered the mainstream like its successor, movies like Ong-Bak and Tom-Yum-Goong have helped to raise awareness of the ancient art form and popularized specialized training courses. Given the relative danger of the techniques, however, Muay Boran is practiced more for exhibition than sport. Here are a few places where you can learn Muay Boran:
- Muay Thai Conservation Center: Located at Siam Square in Bangkok, classes are taught by Master Suphan Chabairam. He provides private classes and a grading system to judge his students’ performance.
- Baan Chang Thai Arts School: Another venue in Bangkok situated at Sukhumvit Road on Ekamai Soi 10. Master Kridakorn Sodprasert or Kru Lek is the main instructor, and he teaches Muay Chaiya.
- Tiger Muay Thai: Popular among expats, Phuket’s famous Muay Thai gym also offers Muay Boran lessons taught by Master Waigoon Promsuwan or Kru Oh. He is also a master of Krabi Krabong, Thailand’s traditional weapon-based martial art for swords and staffs.
What we know as a combat sport began as an essential wartime skill that grew into a rite of passage for Thai men—so much so that King Pho Khun Sri Inthra Thit, the first monarch of the Sukhothai kingdom, sent his sons to train in the martial art.
Without Muay Boran, modern Muay Thai would not exist as we know it—the arm bands, the headdress, and the Wai Kru ritual we know today all speak to a storied past filled with purpose and the values of deferential respect that echo throughout modern Thai society.