Story and video – Haris Wiranata Muhammad, Fabian Mark Peter, Marie Piscano
A man kneels at the center bowing down as if in prayer. He slowly lifts his body up and moves to a rhythm while arching his back and raising his thighs up and down. He then lifts his arms in the air and begins to dance. He moves with his knees bent to music similar to an out-of-tune bag pipe. Gracefully moving in circles, he ends his dance in a fighting stance. He is now prepared to fight his opponent in a game that can actually cost him his life.
This scene is common before a Muay Thai competition. Muay Thai, Thailand’s national sport, involves a ritual called Wai Khru Ram Muay. Wai Khru Ram Muay (shortened as Wai Khru) is a dance performed by Muay Thai fighters prior to a competition. It literally means Praying, Teacher, Dance and Boxing. Incorporating all these, Wai Khru is a form of prayer to protect the fighter and his opponent. It also serves as a tribute to their teacher coursed through a dance before engaging in a fight.
In contrast to the violence of Muay Thai that sometimes leads to death, Wai Khru is a graceful spiritual ceremony. It distinguishes Muay Thai from violent hobbies and recreation as it gives value to the sanctity of life and the recognition of a higher being. It also shows a value deeply entrenched in Asian Culture: the high respect for teachers. Wai Khru strongly underlines sportsmanship and camaraderie with the ritual being performed in front of the Thai Monarchs back in the days.
Being part of a tradition practiced for centuries, it is quite shameful that Wai Khru is slowly losing its significance to Muay Thai. Currently, Muay Thai is now part of Mixed Martial Arts. It is slowly gaining the interest of foreigners, mostly from the West, which has made it a tourism attraction in Thailand. The La Na Muay Thai Center in Chiang Mai attests to this growing trend. Most students currently being trained by Dan, a former Muay Thai Champion are foreigners coming from Europe and America. Majority of the students we asked do not know what Wai Khru is with some admitting that they only see Muay Thai as a fitness exercise program. According to Dan, Wai Khru highlights the connection of the fighter and his trainer; something he believes is very essential to the sport and winning.
The commercialization of Muay Thai has led to the simplification of what was once an intricate tradition. Perhaps, the Muay Thai we have at present can no longer be compared to the noble sport it once was. Dan explains that the improving living standards have led people to consider it as a barbaric sport and shun Muay Thai creating the stigma that Thai Muay Thai fighters are poor. This was evident when Phomsewahn, a Muay Thai Champion for the under 17 division asked to get paid for his performance of the Wai Khru dance – a transaction urged by his own trainer. Poverty can probably be seen as a factor to Muay Thai losing its traditional value. Former fighters who are now trainers would rather accept this reality than lose Muay Thai which is an integral part of their lives. Not only has training foreigners provide additional income, but it also allows them to continue pursuing their passion for the sport.
When asked about his vision for Muay Thai, Dan responds that he wants Muay Thai to be considered an international sport and to be included in the Olympics. He wants everyone to understand that it is not just about violence. It is skill and grace obtained from hard work, dedication and mentorship.
Wai Khru reflects the fading traditional aspect that makes Muay Thai distinct from other combat sports. It highlights the controversial debate between commercialization and culture preservation most ancient customs and traditions face to maintain their relevance. It is uncertain if the direction Muay Thai is taking will strengthen its significance now and in the future. One thing is sure, the realization of Dan’s dream for the sport greatly relies on the evolving nature of Muay Thai and we can only sit back, wait and see.