Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

Is Muay Thai a Traditional Martial Art?

When someone brings up traditional martial arts, you may usually think karate, kung fu, or something along those lines. But it is not so easy to identify a traditional martial art. What does ‘traditional’ even mean? And is Muay Thai one of these traditional martial arts? Today, I am going to present the research I’ve gathered surrounding the classification of ‘traditional martial arts’ and whether or not Muay Thai falls in this category.

Muay Thai can be considered a traditional martial art, but it mostly on what you consider ‘traditional’. Muay Thai does have many traditions revolving around the sport, making it much more than just kickboxing. These traditions include sacred headbands (Mongkon) and armbands (Pra Jiad). Thai fighters also engage in pre-fight rituals, such as the ‘Wai Kru’. This ritual is passed down through generations, and is meant to protect the fighter inside the ring.

In the rest of the post, I’ll go more in to depth on what these rituals consist of. I will also be taking martial arts that are more widely accepted as traditional, and comparing them to the traditions of Muay Thai.

What Makes an Art Traditional?

When I bring up traditional martial arts to someone, the first thing they’ll say is, “oh like karate?”, which is expected. But the question is, why is this one of the first martial arts we think of? What exactly makes the art traditional? If you ask whether boxing is considered a traditional martial art, the consensus will be no. Now clearly, there is a difference from karate to boxing, so I’ll explain this now.

In karate, there are many more things taught to its students than simply how to fight. Karate teaches its forms in depth, as there are 4 major styles of karate, each with its own individual kata (forms). However, the depth comes from the philosophies taught in karate dojos. In karate, one of the most important aspects is called budō, and is basically the self-development aspect of karate.

This focus on self-development is the major difference between karate and boxing. Budō is meant to be a spiritual approach to life, whereas Bujutsu is the physical approach to combat. Both of these are taught together in a dojo, and collectively called karate.

Gichin Funakoshi emphasized the purpose of karate in the bigger picture of life.
Gichin Funakoshi emphasized the purpose of karate in the bigger picture of life.

The “Father of Karate”, Gichin Funakoshi, emphasized teaching his students about how to live life. He created a book called The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate, which doesn’t pertain to the physical aspect of karate. Instead, it is more of a guide for Funakoshi’s students to become, as he states, “become better human beings”.

I believe that when a form of combat is combined with an ideology or philosophy, the combination of the two creates what is known as a traditional martial art. The ‘traditional’ part consists of the ideas that are passed down from generation to generation, with a trainer’s purpose to guide their students through life and combat.

When defined in this way, Muay Thai is easily identified as a traditional martial art. With its rituals and teachings outside of physical, Muay Thai offers much more than just punches and kicks. Let’s take a deeper look at these other aspects of Muay Thai.

Pra Jiads and Mongkons

Whereas karate seems to be more philosophical, Muay Thai is instead spiritual and religious. The prime example of this is the use of Mongkons and Pra Jiads. A mongkon is a headband, awarded to a student after their trainer had acknowledged their experience and knowledge of Muay Thai. It is said to have special powers that protect the fighter while inside the ring.

The mongkon is to never be touched by the fighter themselves, as it would lose its special power. Instead, it is placed on the fighter’s head by their trainer. The headband may not touch the ground either, or this would also negate its power. For this reason, fighters enter the ring by going over the ropes, so as not to risk dropping the sacred headband. The headband is removed before the fight begins.

Muay Thai fighter prays in a corner of the ring, while wearing a Mongkon headband.
Muay Thai fighter prays in a corner of the ring, while wearing a Mongkon headband.

The second accessory worn in Muay Thai is an armband called a Pra Jiad. The concept is similar to the Mongkon. The Pra Jiad is typically fashioned out of a piece of cloth taken from a mother’s dress, and also has mystical qualities that help the fighter. After being created they are taken to a monk to be blessed in a certain way.

Fighters may want a Pra Jiad for a specific purpose, such as to hit harder or take more hits. It is worn around the bicep, and fighters may wear one or two while fighting. When not being used, the Pra Jiad is to be kept in a high place. Similarly to the Mongkon, when it touches the floor, it loses its mystical power.

Today, many western school use the Pra Jiads as a ranking system, similar to the belt system in karate. Next I will discuss the role of these accessories in the dance ritual done prior to a fight, known as Wai Kru.

The Wai Kru Ritual

The Wai Kru is a ritual dance performed by a Muay Thai fighter before fighting. The full name of the ritual is Wai Khru Ram Muay, and it literally translates to “war-dance saluting the teacher”. The ritual pays respect to the fighter’s trainer, parents, and ancestors.

Popular Muay Thai fighter Buakaw performs the Wai Kru.
Popular Muay Thai fighter Buakaw performs the Wai Kru.

Once they have entered the ring, the fighter will bless each corner of the ring with a short prayer, so as to keep the effect of the ritual inside the ring. They will then commence the performance of the Wai Kru, which consist of a unique dance passed on to the fighter by their trainer.

The mongkon and pra jiad are usually a part of the dance. The effect of the dance is ultimately to protect the fighter while providing him with the power needed to emerge victorious from the bout.

Compared to Karate/Kung Fu

Generally, most people would consider both Karate and Kung fu traditional martial arts. Having also classified Muay Thai as being a traditional martial art, I will make some quick comparisons to see where the differences lie. In the karate, the teachings are more philosophical, and the ideas the student has learned should be applicable to everyday life.

In contrast, Muay Thai (as I mentioned before) is more spiritual, and its teachings are used to respect one’s gods and ancestors. This is really the only difference between Muay Thai and karate, besides the obvious ones (style of fighting, ranking system).

In conclusion, I would consider Muay Thai a traditional martial art. The traditions involved with the martial art are literally what make it ‘traditional’. With its continued practice of performance art and sacred accessories, Muay Thai has carried on its traditions for years, giving it the distinction of a traditional martial art.

If you’re interested in training or already have started training Muay Thai, check out the Training Tips page, where I address common questions asked by people who start training. Thanks for reading!