Wai Kru images courtesy of Kyle Ching: instagram.com/muaythaixl
Muay Thai has deep ties with Thai culture. Many consider it to be more than just a martial art. It is deeply rooted in both the people and traditions of Thailand. And there is no better manifestation of that significance than the Wai Kru.
What exactly is this Wai Kru and how does it serve as a bridge between Muay Thai and Thai culture?
What is The Wai Kru Ram Muay?
Muay Thai followers are likely familiar with the spectacle of the Wai Kru (Thai: ไหว้ครู). To unfamiliar eyes and first-time spectators, it would seem like a strange mixture of dance steps and unorthodox moves.
The Muay Thai dance is performed by the competing fighters before the start of every match. We can refer to it as a dance ritual or ceremony, although it’s much more than that.
The proper name for this essential component of Muay Thai is the Wai Kru Ram Muay, although we know it simply as Wai Kru. Wai Kru translates as “paying respect to the teacher” in Thai.
Nak Muay’s (Thai: นักมวย meaning: Boxer) perform the Wai Kru for the purpose of paying respect to their teachers and their family.
Another purpose is to bless themselves so that they will be victorious in their battle in the ring.
The Significance of The Wai Kru Ram Muay
The Wai Kru is an integral part of Muay Thai, and of Thai culture by extension. Some even consider it to be sacred. As such, any fighter who is planning or will attempt to perform it needs to take it very seriously. They should never, ever make fun of it. Foreign fighters need to take special note of this.
Every fighter needs to strive to perform a good Wai Kru. They should avoid performing a poor one at all costs. It would be seen as a form of disrespect or even an insult to the trainer and the gym.
So if you are a fighter you should always aim to do a good one. Keep in mind that the act would serve to display your confidence and somehow help intimidate your opponent.
Elements of the Wai Kru Ram Muay
There are two distinctive parts to this complex dance ritual. The first is what’s known as the Wai Kru and the second is the Ram Muay.
The Wai Kru
The first part of the ritual dance is what’s actually known as the Wai Kru. It’s composed of two words, Wai (Thai: ไหว้) and Kru (Thai: ครู).
The first one, Wai, refers to the greeting made by Thais when they put their hands together that’s similar to a prayer. Hands are pressed together in front of the face and similar to the way prayer is done. The lower the bow and the higher the hands means more respect is given.
Aside from being used to pay respect, the Wai is also used in prayer and when making an apology.
The word Kru means teacher. It originates from the Sanskrit word for Guru (Sanskrit: गुरु) or teacher. You pay respect to your Kru because you wouldn’t be the Nak Muay that you are now without their guidance and teaching.
In the Wai Kru, the fighter will first circle the ring three times, then kneel and bow down another three times. This is a sign of respect to both God and man.
The Ram Muay
The second part of the dance is the Ram Muay (Thai: รำมวย). Ram (Thai: รำ) means “dance” in Thai and Muay (Thai: มวย) means “boxing”. So Ram Muay literally means a “boxing dance”.
Think of it as a combination of a warm-up and stretching routine that also displays the particular fighter’s style. At the same time, it’s a way of paying respect and gratitude to coaches and opponents.
A Ram Muay is unique and personal for every fighter that does it. It can be simple or it can be complex, depending on the fighter as well as the training camp.
The region where the fighter is from can contribute to the style of the Ram Muay as well. However, modern Ram Muay is getting less elaborate and more generic. This is due to the modernization of the sport to appeal to a global mainstream audience.
The sarama is the traditional Muay Thai music that is played along with the Wai Kru. It serves as the accompanying music to the ritual dance performed by each fighter before the actual fight begins.
Once the sarama starts playing, the fighter will also commence performing his version of the Wai Kru.
The sarama music is also played throughout the course of the fight. For more on the sarama and its significance, read”Sarama: Muay Thai Music”.
The Mongkhon and Prajioud
Muay Thai fighters wear special pieces of gear while performing the Wai Kru. These are the Mongkhon and the Prajioud. Each fighter is equipped with these even before they enter the ring.
The mongkhon is a headpiece that is worn by the fighter for the ritual dance. It’s blessed by Buddhist monks before the ritual and is believed to bring the fighter victory and good luck in the ring.
Tradition dictates that the mongkhon should never touch or even come close to the ground. If it touches the ground, the belief is that the blessing will be lost. This belief is also one of the reasons why fighters go over the ropes when they enter the ring instead of under it.
Another belief about the mongkhon is that only the coach should handle it and not the fighter. This is why when the Wai Kru is done, the coach will be the one to remove the mongkol as he and the fighter pray together.
Although the Wai Kru has roots in Buddhism, it is performed regardless of a performer’s spiritual background. Thai fighters from the Southern province, some of whom are Muslims add their own flavor by wearing the Keffiyeh (Arabic headgear) instead of the mongkhon.
The prajioud is an armband that’s also worn by the fighter during the performance of the Wai Kru. But it’s still worn by the fighter even after the dance ritual and during the fight. It is worn on both arms.
For more on the Mongkhon history and background, read “Mongkhon: Muay Thai Headband Meaning“
How The Wai Kru Ram Muay is Performed
We briefly described a part of this ritual dance above. But that was only a small part of the entire process of the Wai Kru Ram Muay.
The sarama or traditional Thai music will start and the fighter will then seal the ring to block any negative forces that will come from the outside.
In order to do this, the fighter is going to circle the ring in a counterclockwise manner. The fighter will utter a short prayer in each corner of the ring while doing so.
As the fighter makes his way from one corner to the next, his right hand will usually remain in contact with the rope while his left hand is raised to his face.
After the fighter has sealed the ring, the Wai Kru will commence. The entire dance ritual can sometimes last up to five minutes in total. This is the reason why the ritual is often shortened when performed in events and matches outside of Thailand.
The Wai Kru Ram Muay is a ritual that is unique to Muay Thai. It serves as the link between Muay Thai as a fighting art and the culture and traditions of Thailand and its people.
One thing’s for certain though, it was created with respect and spirituality in mind – an often overlooked aspect that’s also at the core of the “art of 8 limbs”.