The Legend of Nai Khanomtom: Hero of Muay Thai


Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand

In 1767 the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Siam fell to the Burmese. Burma occupied Siam only briefly because Burma’s king, King Hsinbyushin (a.k.a. King Mangra), was forced to withdraw his troops to combat a Chinese invasion to his homeland. The Thais were fabled to be valiant fighters and even had a numeric advantage, but they were easily put into disarray by Burmese forces. Even King Mangra was said to have declared that he couldn’t have taken Ayutthaya had the leadership of the opposition been more effective. [Keep in mind that even if he did say this, it might have been more a dig at his Thai counterpart than an expression of his true feelings.]

The Burmese captured a many prisoners during their Thai campaign and true warriors were particularly coveted as prisoners. One such fighter was Nai Khanomtom (fyi: it’s also written Nai Khanom Tom.) Nai Khonomtom was renowned for his skill in Muay Boran, an early Thai fighting style related to Muay Thai. This made him a logical choice to headline for the Thais in a tournament that would pit Muay Boran against Thiang–i.e. the indigenous martial arts of Burma (e.g. Lethwei and Bando.) The tournament would be part of King Mangra’s seven day festival in honor of Buddhist relics, the festivities of which would also include plays, comedians, and sword fights.

Nai Khanomtom was pitted against a Burmese champion, a man who was clearly the audience favorite. Timed rounds didn’t exist in those days. Fights stopped when one of the fighters was physically unable to continue, and not before. The Burmese fighter wore a kind of sarong that was the usual attire for the men of Burma, and Nai Khanomtom wore a loin cloth tied up in the traditional Thai style (see the statue pic above.) Each fighter wrapped only ropes on their forearms and hands, and each may have had some padding over the groin–though not as insurance against an accident, but because crotch kicks were fair game.

Nai Khanomtom began with a Wai Kru, which perplexed the Burmese. Wai Kru is a pre-fight ritual that has several purposes, the most important of which is to show respect for one’s teachers, deities, and the audience. The practice can take several minutes and some variants of it can be physically demanding.

When the fight started, Nai Khanomtom charged over the fight space taking the fight to his opponent and laying down a barrage of kicks, knees, elbows, and punches. By some accounts, his victory was declared invalid by a judge, who’d been distracted by other festival events (and who–no doubt–wasn’t pleased by the swift defeat of the Burmese champion.) The decision was made despite the fact that the Burmese fighter had been knocked unconscious.

The King was thrilled by the fight and offered Nai Khanomtom his freedom if he could fight nine more Burmese fighters. Nai Khanomtom didn’t get breaks between these fights, and as soon as an opponent went down the next was queued up to come after the Thai fighter. And so it was that Nai Khanomtom took on the Burmese fighters in an ironman fashion. The last of his opponents was a famous martial arts master teacher from Rakhine, a coastal region in Burma’s southwest. Nai Khanomtom went after the Rakhine master with flurry of kicks. It’s worth noting that in those days Burmese fighters were said to have relied much more heavily on hand strikes than kicks, and so the kicks may have given Nai Khanomtom a range advantage while presenting his opponent with attacks that the Burmese fighter was less practiced at defeating.

At the fight’s end, King Mangra honored his agreement, and Nai Khanomtom was granted his freedom and provided safe-conduct back to Siam. There are varying accounts that say that Nai Khonomtom returned home with either two Burmese wives or a number of his fellow prisoners as an additional payment for providing a spectacle that the Burmese king found gripping. In these accounts, Nai Khanomtom is usually said to have turned down a cash payment.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to King Mangra that goes, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom, even with his bare hands he can fell ten opponents.” [FYI-It should be noted that seeing the same words quoted by several sources isn’t proof of truth, because the quotes could have a common (and false) point of origin.  So take it all with a grain of salt.]

[Note: The details of this story vary. So you may hear–or have heard–a slightly different version of events. The exact details are likely lost to history and–when that happens–embellishment may creep in. That said, the variations that I’ve heard are neither great nor particularly significant. It’s also worth noting that these events are celebrated in Thailand every March 17th on what is called Boxer’s Day or National Muay Boran Day.]

Krabi Krabong Double Swords: Coordination in Action

Earlier in the month I took a few Krabi Krabong classes during my two-week visit to Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand. For those who are unfamiliar, Krabi Krabong is a Thai martial art that focuses on weapon fighting. However, Krabi Krabong is what one might call a comprehensive martial art. That is, there are a number of different weapons utilized, and there is also an unarmed component. (It’s apparently unclear whether Krabi Krabong was practiced in conjunction with Muay Boran [the old Thai boxing style that predates Muay Thai] or whether they were always independent. Some of the weapons used in Krabi Krabong are sword (singly and in pairs), sticks (singly and in pairs), long staff, shield (used in conjunction with sword or club), halberd, and clubs worn on the forearms called mai sawk (the latter look vaguely reminiscent of the Okinawan tonfa, but upon closer inspection are quite different and are not designed to be spun freely like tonfa.

While I saw the instructor work with both staff and mai sawk, what we learned were double club techniques that the instructor did with double sword as well. The use of twin short weapons is common in Krabi Krabong. Working with two independently operated weapons is fairly new for me. In Japanese martial arts the use of weapons in such a way isn’t that common. Miyamoto Musashi advocated using the long and short swords in unison, and there are a few sword schools that teach this. I learned the fundamentals of one such school, Jinen-ryū Ni-tō-jutsu, but never practiced enough to develop any skill with it. So it took some effort just to get the basic warm-up drills down (e.g. spinning both sticks simultaneously with each stick going in the opposite direction. It’s a piece of cake if they are both going the same direction.) Of course, in any martial art one is likely have to drill a lot of movements where one is doing two or more different things with different limbs at the same time, but it can still be a challenge finding a grove with double weapons.

In most cases what we were doing was moving one stick through a guard position as the other was attacking. This creates a set of exchanges of strike and counter that feels fast.

I learned four basic forms. The first was just alternating downward angled hits at neck level. The second alternated downward strikes first at neck level and then at knee level. (When I was looking through Youtube videos on Escrima–which I’ve heard has dual stick fighting that looks similar to that of Krabi Krabong–I did see a single-stick Eskrima drill that looked quite similar.) The third form also involved two neck and two knee strikes, but it didn’t look like the previous form because it involved a spinning maneuver such that the last two strikes were to the outside of opponent’s same knee with the first one being a forehand hit and the second being a backhand strike coming off the spin. Spinning techniques were brand new to me. Contrary to what one sees Tom Cruise do in Last Samurai, spinning maneuvers (and other “fancy” techniques) are anathema to the Japanese mindset. The fourth form was head strike – knee strike on the same side and then the same on the other. (So unlike form 2 which was head – head – knee – knee, this was head – knee – head – knee.) We then ran these forms together in various orders.

I see the value in drilling this way to ingrain coordination. However, as someone who is relatively slow but has a decent command of range, I’m not sure how comfortable I would be utilizing the approach we practiced as my go-to tactic. In other words, there was a lot of staying at a range the opponent could strike one and relying on being able to get the guard/block/parry in place. This has the advantage of keeping one in striking range as well, but you’ve got to be confident you’ll have the upper hand in speed. Of course, I saw a minuscule part of the system, so maybe there’s more making the opponent reach out for one among the techniques (or maybe we were practicing them wrong and the instructor was just worried about us getting the basic movement down.)

It was definitely an interesting, educational, and humbling experience.

5 Differences Between Muay Boran and Muay Thai

IMG_4014What is Muay Boran? It’s “ancient boxing,” and is considered an ancestor to the more well-known Muay Thai. Muay Boran isn’t a single unified system. Practicing Muay Boran is a bit like practicing “Karate,” which is to say there are a number of different and distinct systems that go by that generic name—some of which bear little resemblance to others. Muay Boran was originally a combat martial art, but came to be practiced as a sport as well. The latter practice included some rules, though relatively few in comparison to Muay Thai. Instead of padded gloves, they fought with their hands and wrists bound with hemp rope.

When I was in Thailand, I had an opportunity to participate in a couple rudimentary Muay Boran classes. I’d just read about this system in the June/July 2013 issue of Black Belt magazine, and was interested in seeing for myself how the discipline was distinct from Muay Thai. I’m fascinated by how martial arts that are more jissen (real combat) oriented differ from systems whose primary objective is something else (e.g. sport, wellness, etc.)  If one looks at a sport martial art such a Muay Thai, one can see how the nature of the rules and equipment subtly shape the nature of the movement. For example, if crotch attacks are illegal and one wears a cup to handle the occasional accidental crotch shot, one won’t worry about that vulnerability and–as one focuses on gaining advantages or minimizing disadvantages–one may end up with a vulnerability that would be disconcerting in jissen martial arts.

Before anyone gets huffy, I should point out that this isn’t a criticism. Sports must have rules so that they can be enjoyably practiced (and watched.)  Given the rules that are in place, one should optimize one’s performance to being as fast, powerful, and effective as possible. In other words, it would be silly to make one’s stance optimized to protecting one’s groin if the opponent can’t attack it (plus one has a little insurance policy against accidents) and if protecting that [non-existent] vulnerability made one any slower, less powerful, or otherwise less effective. I’m also not saying that combative sports are completely ineffective as self-protection. For sports like Muay Thai or MMA there is a huge space of overlap with the no rules combative situation, and—furthermore—the athleticism developed will allow one to adjust to the non-rule environment quickly.

That being said, I’m curious about how Muay Boran is different from Muay Thai and what that might mean in terms of jissen-optimized fighting versus sport-optimized fighting. Here are a few things that I noticed both in the classes that I had at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, in the aforementioned Black Belt article, and from a few videos and articles that I could find on the internet from what I believe to be reputable sources. [I should disclaim that I’m far from an authority here. Full Disclosure: I’ve had 3 hours of MB training and done some reading and research.]

1.)    The basic Muay Boran guard covers the centerline. In other words, one’s hands are one fist in front of the other with both fists aligned on one’s centerline. This is as opposed to the boxing or Thai boxing guard in which either hand is to the outside of one’s head. Practitioners of Wing Chun or the system I am most familiar with, Gyokko-ryū will be familiar with what I’m talking about. I have vague theories about why protecting the centerline might be more advantageous in combat than sport. For one thing, it might help one make contact with incoming limbs in a way that supports transition into grappling. For another, it allows one to protect against coup-de-grace attacks more efficiently.

2.)    The basic stance of Muay Boran is lower and wider than in Muay Thai. I suspect this has to do with ranging and protection of vulnerabilities (e.g. the groin is harder to hit.)

3.)    While Muay Thai is considered the style of “8 weapons”: (leg (X2), knee (X2), elbow (X2), and fist (X2), Muay Boran is based on 9 weapons (i.e. it includes the good ole head-butt.) This isn’t a surprise. Without a head-butt prohibiting rule, one would expect people to use this devastating close-range weapon.

4.)    Muay Boran utilizes attacks against the limbs. In sport Muay Thai, there is little to be gained from this, but in a combative art if one can deaden limbs one gains a big advantage.

5.)    One thing that perplexed me at first is the fact that Muay Boran supposedly uses flying knees and flying elbows prolifically. (I should note these are used in Muay Thai occasionally as well, but they’re relatively rare as they are hard to land and to use without having mid-air vulnerabilities exploited.) What I found strange about this is that jissen martial arts tend to be much less flashy and rely on much simpler techniques than do sports. The old motto of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is often spoken in jissen martial art dōjōs. However, I do have a theory about why the power generated by such tactics might have made them appealing. One mindset difference between sport and jissen martial art practitioners has to do with the role of time. In combat, time is not on your side, and pacing yourself can be a lethal strategy. You want to try to land strikes that have a high probability of putting the enemy out of commission, even if at a risk. That is, of course, just a neophyte’s theory.

I enjoyed learning a few Muay Boran techniques, and I can see how it was an effective combat system.

How to Choose a Muay Thai Gym in Thailand

Tiger MT Beginner's Area. (The mats are up for cleaning to prevent Staph outbreaks.)

Tiger MT Beginner’s Area. (The mats are up for cleaning to prevent Staph outbreaks.)

So you’re going to Thailand and you want to learn a bit of Thai Boxing. Where do you go to train? This is the question under consideration in this post.

I just got back from two weeks of training at Tiger Muay Thai & Mixed Martial Arts on Phuket. This was my second experience training Muay Thai (MT) in Thailand. In October of 2012, I spent 6 days at the Muay Thai Institute (MTI) in Rangsit (a suburb of Bangkok.) The training at both places was awesome, but quite different. This got me thinking about what type of student would find each of these two places ideal. Both of these schools has a niche of students who would find it better suits their needs than the other.

First let me point out a factor that one might think is crucial that really isn’t so much, and that’s price. While I’ve only attended the two schools, I did quite a bit of web research and found that prices don’t range that widely. Particularly in Phuket, where there is a saturation of the market, everybody seems to charge around 3,000 Baht ($91USD) per week—give or take 500Baht. While 2,500 to 3,500 Baht ($76 to $106 USD) might seem like a big gap, there could be very reasonable explanations for why a gym is at the high or low end. Low cost gyms may be more remote, and thus have fewer customers. One should take into account that if one has to rent a scooter or take taxis or pay exorbitant rates for food, one might not be so happy with tuition savings. A gym at the high-end might offer more training opportunities beyond MT, may have more facilities, or may have more prestigious trainers (or just more trainers–period.) [Note: For what you pay you can probably get 24 to 28 hours of classes in per week.]

Now I suspect there are some who will say, “Hey, stop relying on the internet. Find out where locals train. There are gyms that produce winning fighters, but that just aren’t as fancy/web-savvy but are much cheaper.” This may be true, and– if one speaks Thai–that may be the way to go. However, the places that have glitzy English-language websites, usually also have trainers and staff that speak English and that can be a big advantage if one doesn’t know more than Su-was-dee-krap and Kob-Kun-krap.

Note: What I’m saying about price doesn’t necessarily apply to lodging and food. Some gyms offer accommodations and meal plans that may not be competitive with what one can do at local guesthouses and restaurants. Web research should tell you whether you are getting a decent deal staying at the gym. If you don’t mind Spartan accommodations (and I don’t) the baseline gym rooms often offer great savings. I stayed at the gym at both MTI and Tiger, and found it was a good deal (but, again, I don’t need TV, AC, or other luxuries–a bed, a fan, and my Kindle pretty much have me covered.)

Tiger had a meal plan, but I didn’t use it. However, I can’t say that I even looked at its price. I like to try as many different places as I can, and I ate at most of the restaurants and cafes on that strip. I will say there are a lot of cheap, tasty, and nutritious places to eat within walking distance of Tiger. My experiences with the restaurants on the strip were overwhelmingly positive.

So this brings us to what does matter. Some questions you should ask are:
-What is the typical student/trainer ratio?
-What styles are taught at the gym? (i.e. Only Muay Thai or other disciplines as well?)
-Are classes mixed abilities or are there skill level divisions?
-What does the typical class consist of for the level at which you will be training?
-What are the trainers like and how does that jibe with what you need?
-Where is the gym located, and how close is it to the services you’ll need?

Of course, the central question that undergirds five out of six of the questions above is, “What do you want to get out of the training?”

The MTI Gym from my room.

The MTI Gym from my room.

Student/Trainer ratio: How important this is varies radically depending upon what one wants from training. If one is going to class primarily for fitness, having a low student/trainer ratio may not be important. However, if you are looking to improve your technique, it matters greatly because you need attention to the minutest details.

I attended Tiger in peak season and MTI just before peak travel season. That said, I think I can safely say MTI probably always offers lower student/ trainer ratio. (I don’t think MTI’s student attendance is as tourism-cyclic as it has more Thai and expat students and relatively few foreign visitors at a given time. Tiger MT is probably very tourism-centric at the beginner level.) In Rangsit, there was often one trainer to every one or two students. The beginner’s class at Tiger had many students per trainer. However, Tiger offers four separate classes of Muay Thai (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and Fighter), and as one moves up there are fewer students per trainer. So if you “test out” of the beginner’s class your ratio gets better.

One should note that at the extremes one may find a low student/trainer to be more a curse than a blessing. First, one will not have many different people to train with, and diversity of training partners is important to growth. Second, having eyes on you every second may become overbearing, particular if the trainer is fixing every tiny error. In such situations, one may never get into the grove.

What do they teach? The two schools I’ve attended were at opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue. MTI taught Muay Thai–that’s it and that’s all. If you just want to improve your Muay Thai, MTI is a great place for it. There’s not the distraction of tons of people coming through doing other things.

Tiger MT, on the other hand, taught about everything there is to teach. If you want to get into Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), they’ve got you covered with classes on MMA tactics, Brazilian Jujutsu (BJJ), and Boxing in addition to Muay Thai. On the other hand, if you’re a martial arts wonk, who likes to get into the evolution of the arts or understand the combat aspects, they also teach Muay Boran and Krabi Krabong. Muay Boran is the unarmed ancestor to Muay Thai, and Krabi Krabong is a weapons system.

Mixed abilities v. Tiered classes: If you are a rank amateur, an advanced practitioner, or a competitive fighter, you may be pleased with multiple tiers of classes. A beginner may be intimidated or uncomfortable training with advanced students. Advanced student may have a lackluster training experience when working with a lot of people who are well below their skill level. On the other hand, if one has a bit of confidence and fitness, one may find a mixed abilities class enjoyable because one gets an opportunity to pit oneself against more skilled or experienced training partners.

In reality there was not much difference between Tiger and MTI here, though it might look like there was. As mentioned, Tiger MT had four different classes for MT and these were held in distinct areas, but all the other courses (e.g. MMA and BJJ) were mixed abilities. At MTI, everybody was taught in one big gym. However, because there was a low student/trainer ratio, there were usually at least three or four distinct groups (sometimes groups of one or two) training concurrently and the gym was big enough for these small groups to not be in each other’s way.

Class schedule: There’s a widespread standard approach to Muay Thai teaching that goes: running laps, other warm-up exercises, drills / shadowboxing, rounds of bag work, rounds of focus mitt drills, rounds of sparring, and cool down exercises. However, the emphasis can vary tremendously from one gym to another. In particular, some schools will make great efforts to drill the basics before putting a student into sparring or teaching more complex tactics. Other schools have their beginners hit the ground running to a greater degree. Each of these approaches will appeal to a certain type of student. Some want to get into the meat of training by sparring as soon as possible even if their fundamentals are a bit shaky. Others are concerned about having solid foundations before building upward.

Of course, this is all a matter of degree. At every gym, beginning students are going to spend more time drilling than sparring—and that’s as it should be. One needs to learn the techniques well before one can have any hope of applying them in a quasi-competitive / competitive environment effectively. Usually the emphasis for beginners will be on getting the basic mechanics down, and intermediate students will spend more time pumping up the power and working on application.

Of the two places I trained, MTI took a like more time and attention with the nitty-gritty details of form and technique, and Tiger gave one a pretty broad experience from the get go, i.e. they got student into light free sparring right away.

What are the trainers like? I’m not just talking about their fight records or whether they were champions or not. Both of the places I trained at had trainers with very impressive fight careers. Also important is the trainer’s disposition. If you’re just trying to get fit and learn a move or two, an intense, scar-faced task-master who works you till you puke and kicks you till you collapse may not be for you. On the other hand, if you’re preparing for a fight or are just deadly serious about your training, the smiling old softy may leave you disheartened. Some students may want someone who is a stickler for detail, and others may want someone who will focus on getting them in better shape. Unfortunately, while you can probably get information about a trainer’s fight history online, you may only be able to get information about their disposition by visiting, trying the place out, or by talking to people who’ve trained there.

It should be noted that a common complaint about many MT gyms is that the trainers don’t seem to care. Students need to understand that they may have to be a little proactive to get the best relationship out of their trainer. Keep in mind that trainers are overwhelmingly extremely driven individuals. Often a trainer has had 200+ fights in their Thai-boxing career, and they still do their own training every single day even if they’re 40 or 50 years old. Plus, they have their own young fighters to train for competition. They will often have a very low interest in–or tolerance for–tourists who just want to half-ass the training as an alternative to jazzercise class. If you want to get their respect and prove worthy of their attention, you’ll need to gut it out day-after-day.

To put this more clearly, don’t whine about the trainer not giving a damn if any of the following apply to you.
-You join laps 20 minutes into class to avoid all the running.
-You leave early so you don’t have to do all those dreadful push-ups at the end of class.
-You take a water break right in the middle of a round of bag work.

Your trainer is someone who has probably:
a. trained until he puked
b. exercised until his muscles literally gave out
c. used the ropes to climb to his feet
If that was you, would you have a lot of enthusiasm for the half-assers?

Keep in mind, the most gregarious trainer may not be the one who’ll give you the best training experience. The guy who doesn’t say a word and seems mean as hell may take the greatest efforts to develop your skills. At MTI there was a trainer who smacked my arm every single time my guard was not perfect.

Location: I’m not just talking about whether it’s beach-adjacent or not. (Some may find nearby beaches or nightlife too tempting or distracting, while others may be into that.) There are a range of services you’ll want ready access to such as laundry, ATM, food of variety, taxi services / scooter rental, the occasional Thai Massage, and massive amounts of bottled water.

MTI was located in a Bangkok suburb. If you don’t mind a good walk, pretty much everything one might need or want was within walking distance via shopping malls, 7-Elevens, and even hardware stores. Tiger was in a less developed area, but it was on a stretch of road that was littered with MT gyms and fitness centers, and so all the essential businesses a foreign student would need were plentiful on that strip of road, and it was a short ride to Phuket Town for those things that long-term visitors might unexpectedly find that they needed.

If you are interested in martial arts, I’d highly recommend putting in some time at a MT gym while you’re visiting Thailand. It’s exhausting, but worth it. I hope this post will give you some food for thought about what to consider in picking a gym.