Muay Boran: Before Muay Thai

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To martial arts practitioners and enthusiasts. Muay Thai and Thailand are practically intertwined. However, Muay Thai fans who delve a little deeper will find an art that’s both similar and different from Muay Thai. And that’s the art of Muay Boran.

If you follow Muay Thai, chances are that you’ve already heard of it. If you would like to know more about Muay Boran, read on to learn about this other Thai fighting art.


What is Muay Boran

Muay Boran is the traditional fighting arts of Thailand. 

It (Thai: มวยโบราณ) literally means “ancient fighting”. That’s because Muay (มวย) translates to “to fight” and Boran (โบราณ) when translated means “ancient”. 

The term “Muay Boran” is actually used to collectively describe all the ancient unarmed techniques originally designed by Thai people for use in warfare. It refers to the techniques before they were developed and organized into the modern form of combat sport we know as Muay Thai. 

It was around the 1930s, that many consider being the point when Muay Boran and Muay Thai split. The latter branched off into a more modern direction and evolved into the sport that we know and love today.

On the other hand, Muay Boran retained much of its original form. In fact, if you look at the art’s aesthetics, it doesn’t even use gloves of any kind. Practitioners wrap hemp ropes around their hands instead.

Another name for Muay Boran is Muay Kard Chuek (Thai: มวยคาดเชือก) which refers to boxing using Muay Thai ropes (Chuek means “rope” in Thai). 

Muay Boran as it is practised today is somewhat a little more limited than what it used to be. It can be said that it’s now restricted since it ‘s not really used for actual competitions  anymore. 

Like other traditional martial arts such as Chinese Kung Fu and Karate, Muay Boran is now largely practised for performance and entertainment purposes

Muay Boran also shares its roots and many similarities with other Southeast Asian martial arts like Pradel Serey (Cambodia), Muay Lao (Laos) and Lethwei (Myanmar). 


Muay Boran Styles

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As mentioned above, Muay Boran is a broad term. It covers several styles and techniques with distinctive variations.

The fact that Thailand has several ethnic groups living in different regions is probably one of the factors there are several styles of ancient Thai boxing.

Let’s look at some of these styles and a few details about each one:

Muay Chaiya

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Muay Chaiya’s (Thai: มวยไชยา) roots can be found in the southern part of Thailand in the Chaiya District (in Surat Thani province). It is a well-documented style that gained prominence over 200 years ago during the time of King Rama V. 

This style uses elbow and knee strikes quite heavily as it specializes in close-range combat. At the same time, it puts a lot of focus on defense as well as clinching along with its use of a low stance.

Ropes go up to only the wrists due to its extensive use of forearms and elbows.

Muay Chaiya is highly-regarded as being a very complete style that continues to be well-received and practised in Southern Thailand. 

Muay Korat

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Muay Korat (Thai: มวยโคราช) is the style that came from the region of Korat in the northeastern part of Thailand. It is said to originate from the Ayutthaya period.

It is a “hard” style that puts particular emphasis on power and heavy punches. Fighters that use this style are taught to use as much power as they can in their strikes. Ropes are wrapped all the way up to the elbows in this style.

Muay Korat uses a high guard and an upright stance.

Muay Lopburi

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Muay Lopburi (Thai: มวยลพบุรี) originated in the province of Lopburi in central Thailand.  It is sometimes referred to as Muay Pra Nakorn (Thai: มวยพระนคร) or Muay Giew (Thai: มวยเกี้ยว).

Muay Lopburi dates back to around 7th century and is said to have been influenced by the movement of monkeys and elephants. It emphasizes fighting intelligence and strong punches.

Practitioners of this style wrap their hands with ropes halfway up the arms as well as around their ankles.  

Muay Thasao

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The next style, the Muay Thasao, known for its fluidity and speed. When translated, Muay Thasao (Thai: มวยท่าเสา) means “boxing from Tha Sao”, a district in the mountainous Northern region of Thailand. 

The style is also known as “Monkey feet boxing” for its swift movements and fast kicks. 

There is not much documentation about this style. Muay Thasao is allegedly linked to the legend of historic Thai hero, Phraya Phichai Daap Hak (Thai: พระยาพิชัยดาบหัก).

Phraya Phichai was a general who served King Taksin in the 18th century. He was said to have practised the Muay Thasao style. The movie “Broken Sword Hero” starring Muay Thai star, Buakaw Banchamek is based on the story of Phraya Phichai.

Krabi Krabong

Source: Kru Tony Moore

It is worth mentioning Krabi Krabong in this section. Krabi Krabong (Thai: กระบี่กระบอง) is the weapons-based martial arts system of ancient Thailand designed for war. 

Krabi (Thai: กระบี่) is a Thai sword while Krabong (Thai: กระบอง) is a wooden staff. Ancient Siamese sword fighters wield the sword and staff -or two swords- hence the name.

The system was taught alongside unarmed martial arts to soldiers. King Naresuan the Great and King Taksin were known to be practitioners of this art.

Krabi Krabong gradually faded into obscurity after the wars ended when there was no need for sword fighting. It is now practised for recreational and performance purposes much like Muay Boran.


Muay Boran Techniques

Let’s now talk about some techniques used in Muay Boran. 

Muay Boran techniques are often divided into two groups: Mae Mai (Thai: แม่ไม้) which is a collection of fundamental techniques for all and Look Mai (Thai: ลูกไม้) are  techniques taught to the more advanced.

Mae Mai and Look Mai techniques are taught and depicted as a counter moves in response to an attack. The techniques in each group may differ between different styles (discussed in the previous section).

Here are some common Mae Mai and Look Mai moves often seen in Muay Thai movies or live demonstrations:

Hak Nguang Aiyara

Hak Nguang Aiyara (Thai: หักงวงไอยรา) depicts the action of “breaking the elephant’s trunk”. For this technique, you catch the leg (trunk) of the opponent when he throws a middle kick. Then drive down an elbow right into the thigh area of the caught leg.

Chawa Sad Hok

Chawa Sad Hok (Thai: ชวาซัดหอก) is an elbow technique named after the “Javanese Spear”. It is a counter movement to an opponent’s punch executed by a slip (as in boxing) followed by an elbow strike to the ribs or chest of the opponent. 

Mon Yen Luck

Mon Yen Luck (Thai: มอญยันหลัก) is basically the teep kick. It is a front push kick thrown to a charging opponent’s chest, solar plexus or abdomen to disrupt his forward movement or break his punches. This is a common technique in both Boran and Muay Thai.

Jarakhe Fad Hang

Jarakhe Fard Harng (Thai: จระเข้ฟาดหาง) literally means “alligator tail” in Thai. It is a spinning back kick thrown to the neck or head of the opponent. This technique is common in other striking arts like Taekwondo and kickboxing. 

Hanuman Thawai Waen

Hanuman Thawai Waen (Thai: หนุมานถวายแหวน) is a Look Mai technique named after the Hindu God, Hanuman. It means “Hanuman makes an offering” in Thai. This technique is similar to an uppercut but with two hands instead of one. It is aimed at the chin or the throat.

Ruesi Bod Ya

Ruesi Bod Ya (Thai: ฤาษีบดยา) translates as “hermit crushing medicine”. This is a spectacular move that is favored as a finisher in Muay Thai movies such as Ong Bak. The technique involves jumping onto the opponent’s leg and driving a heavy elbow right onto the top of the skull. Goodnight, Irene. 

Here is a scene from the movie Broken Hero Sword showcasing the techniques that are just described: 

It must be noted that there are some ancient techniques that are forbidden in Muay Thai as they can be lethal. Some examples include breaking arms (elbow joints) or snapping the opponent’s neck as illustrated below in the technique known as Hak Kor Erawan (Thai: หักคอ).

This is a key difference between Boran and Muay Thai as the former was designed to -potentially- kill the opponent. However, some Muay Thai fighters have used Boran techniques to a good degree of success as displayed by Somrak Khamsing in this highlights video below:


Similiarities Between Muay Boran vs Muay Thai

muay boran

The conventional wisdom is that Muay Thai originated from Muay Boran or at least heavily influenced by it. So it’s inevitable that they would have similarities.

Muay Boran was created for used on the battlefields but it developed into a sport over time. During time of King Naresuan in the 16th century, notable interest in fighting as a sport started to take off.

Boran tournaments were first held for the royal court and became widespread among commoners over time. This eventually led to the birth of Muay Thai as a sport in its modern form.

So what exactly are the similarities aside from the most obvious ones? Let’s take a closer look to compare Muay Thai and Muay Boran.

Rituals & Traditions

Since we’re talking about similarities. Let’s start at the literal beginning. Both Muay Boran and Muay Thai fighters perform the Wai Kru before every match. Wai Kru is a tradition inherited from the times of war when Siamese soldiers performed a ritual before going into the battlefield.

This ritualistic dance is meant to pay respects to the fighter’s trainers, parents and Buddha (or Allah for Muslim fighters). It’s unique to the two arts and displays the close ties they have to Thai culture and tradition.

Fist Techniques

Muay Boran and Muay Thai also use the same punches and punching combinations. Those are the jab, cross, hooks, and uppercuts. Although it needs to be stressed that Muay Boran uses it to a lesser extent than Muay Thai as it favors different strikes for its primary weapons.

Kicks

The two arts are also similar in that they utilize a lot of kicks in their attacks. From the teep kick to the roundhouse kick, along with various kicks, these long-range weapons are used to devastating effect.

Elbows & Knees

Muay Boran and Muay Thai also feature a lot of knee and elbow strikes in their attacks. They are thrown from both close and medium range for maximum effectiveness. However, Muay Boran puts more emphasis on the two strikes as we’ll touch in the next section.

Clinching

Clinching is used a lot in both fighting arts. We know that clinching is used as a form of stand-up grappling, while also serving as a position to launch close elbow and knee strikes. In Muay Boran the clinch is also used to set-up locks (e.g. headlock), which isn’t really used in Muay Thai.


Differences Between Muay Boran vs Muay Thai

Just as glaring and important to note are the differences between Muay Boran and Muay Thai. 

Again, we need to stress the fact that Muay Thai has developed to a point that it’s now both a combat sport and martial art. While Muay Boran retained its original purpose as a fighting style that’s meant for warfare. 

Here are the distinct differences between the two.

The 9th Limb

If Muay Thai is known as the art of 8 limbs, Muay Boran should be called the art of 9 limbs. That’s because the head can also be used as a weapon in Muay Boran.

Headbutts are allowed, so you can basically use 9 limbs for attacking and defending yourself. The head is added to the 2 fists, 2 elbows, 2 knees, and 2 shins/feet. It’s an added weapon that’s practical in the battlefield and in cases of self-defense.

Stance

The stance is another one of the differences between Muay Boran and Muay Thai. In Muay Boran, there is a variety of stances depending on the style and application. 

One common variation is the wide and low stance.. This is a more defensive stance that helps protect the more vulnerable parts of the body such as the groin area.

Keep in mind that there are not as many rules in Muay Boran as there is in Muay Thai. Fighters need to protect the most vulnerable parts of their body and a wider and lower stance helps.

Elbows & Knees

Elbow and knee strikes are more emphasized in Muay Boran than in Muay Thai. You’d think it’s the same in Muay Thai, but you’ll understand the disparity when you see a Muay Boran demonstration.

There are more flying elbows and flying knees that are meant to cause as much damage as possible and take down their opponents. Such moves are much less common in Muay Thai as they are risky to execute.

Rules

There are no rules in Muay Boran. Anything goes in a fight except for the use of weapons. Groin attacks, ground fighting, throws and any move that is illegal in Muay Thai are all fair game in Boran.

A fight in both Muay Boran and Muay Thai ends only when one fighter is knocked out or unable to continue. But there are no rounds in Boran. This is unlike Muay Thai, which is is typically fought under 5-round matches of 3 minutes each with 2-minute rest in between rounds. 

Muay Thai fighters tend to feel each other out for the first couple of rounds and it is possible to win by points. Muay Boran has no rounds and no rest – the fight ends only when one fighter is unable to continue and the other emerges victorious. 


Where to Learn Muay Boran in Thailand

For those of you interested to learn Muay Boran, there are various gyms and academies around Thailand that offer classes. Here is a list of some of the notable training centers for learning Muay Boran:

Tiger Muay Thai (Phuket) https://www.tigermuaythai.com/trainers/kru-oh

Rawai Muay Thai (Phuket) https://www.rawaimuaythai.com/

Baan Chang Thai Arts School (Bangkok) http://www.samkhum.com/en/index.html

Muay Thai Conversation Center (Bangkok) http://suphan-muaythaiboran.com/


Conclusion

The ancient art of fighting that is Muay Boran has managed to survive and persist until the present. 

However, it owes a lot to the present popularity and awareness of Muay Thai as a major reason why people are interested and still discovering it.

The undisputed truth about Muay Boran is that it has earned its rightful place in Thai history and tradition. There is no denying this fact as the people of Thailand and the sport of Muay Thai owe much to this ancient fighting art.

Muay Boran will live on in every flying elbow or knee that’s thrown in Thailand and beyond.

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