>Many parents, particularly those in the western world, would never allow their child to participate in a full contact sport such as Muaythai. However, for some children in Thailand, an adolescent life spent in this pastime is an inescapable reality. With the existence of child prostitution and sex trafficking, an increase in child labor, and a poor economy, children living in poverty throughout Thailand are left with very few options in life. When given the ultimatum between a life of cultural transgression or a life of fighting for honor, who can blame a struggling family for sending their offspring into the world to accomplish the latter? Viewed through western spectacles, Muaythai is often mistaken for a blood sport. Yet, it’s at the heart of the sport where many find hope and the means to provide for themselves and their families.
Muaythai, which had its birth over a thousand years ago, is a martial art in which practitioners use eight parts of the body as weapons for attacking and defending their opponents; they are the fists, the elbows, the knees, and the legs(Rebac). The art was originally used on the battlefield to protect Thailand, known then as Siam, from attacks by foreign invaders. Although very little is documented about early Muaythai, legend has it that a Thai fighter by the name of Nai Khanom Thom was captured by the Burmese and earned his freedom by defeating over ten Burmese boxers. According to another legend, when King Sen Muang Ma passed away, a successor to his throne could not be decided, so his sons Fang Keng and Ji Kumkam fought a Muaythai match to decide who would be the next king. The story goes on to say that Ji Kumkam won the match thus becoming the next ruler of Thailand(Rebac). However, despite its strong roots in the Thai culture it wasn’t until after World War II that Muaythai became the popular ring sport that it is known as today.
Shortly after the war, rules and regulations were set into place and two major stadiums were constructed for competition; they were Ratchadamnern Stadium and Lumpinee Stadium. This was a pivotal time for Muaythai as many spectators flocked to watch fighters battle it out in a mix of technical beauty and physical prowess. For other combat sports, it was hard to parallel what Muaythai was and with this increase in popularity, Muaythai soon found its way on television. After which, the sport started spreading west. At the same time of this westward movement, promoters saw the potential to make huge profits and in the 1990’s started promoting the sport even further. Year after year they pitted the biggest names in Thai boxing against each other in what would be dubbed The Golden Era of Muaythai. Because of the fighters’ abilities to earn big money, the sport was establishing itself in the poorer areas of Thailand with training camps popping up all across the country. Those living in poverty soon realized that if their children became good enough at Muaythai, it would be another form of income for the household. In a land where the per capita income is only about 141,000 baht, or roughly $4,714, every dollar helps(2011).
Because of this low-level income, life in poverty throughout Thailand remains daunting. The exploitation of children through child labor is a harsh reality that many of the Thai people have to contend with on a daily basis. According to a study by the United States Department of Labor, 13% of Thai children ages 5-14 are being used in Thailand’s work force(2010). This is despite the laws and regulations set in place to prevent crimes such as these from occurring. Along with illegal labor practices, the same study has shown that child prostitution is just as prevalent with approximately 22,500 to 40,000 Thai’s under the age of 18 working in the sex industry(2010). Without Muaythai as a backdrop to this viscous cycle of life, these statistics might be higher. Muaythai may provide families with just enough extra income where their children won’t be subjected to a life of illegal labor practices or prostitution. However, because of Muaythai’s physical toughness, there are people who group the sport into the same cruel systems as previously mentioned. This is because many people see participation in Muaythai only for its physicality on the surface. However, for those fighters who become good at the sport, Muaythai is their way out from the struggle.
For example, world renown combatants such as Saenchai Sinbimuaythai and Buakaw Por. Pramuk have paved the way for future generations of fighters who yearn to follow in their footsteps. These greats have given hope where there is none. Throughout their careers, they’ve traveled all over the world and amassed large amounts of prize money, earning enough to take themselves and their families out of poverty and provide for an average lifestyle(2011). However, you don’t have to be a world class fighter to reap the benefits of big pay days. Even the top fighters who remain in Thailand can earn a hundred-thousand baht per fight. Furthermore, some may earn close to one-million baht for tournament fights. Following a few of these big wins, and after splitting shares with the gym, a fighter may be able to provide a house and land for their family. Although, what about the fighters who don’t make it to the upper echelon?
Even mid-tier fighters who’ve never made a big name for themselves in the ring have had just as much of an opportunity with the right determination. For example, Chansadeth “Cheetah” Chanthanao, who now lives and teaches Muaythai in San Francisco, California, started off his career as a young boy fighting throughout Thailand(2008). After amassing an impressive number of fights, Chansadeth moved to America to pass on his knowledge of the art to those who might not be able to study it in Thailand. Another example of a person who has a made a living after fighting is Ajarn Prasit Thang Dong. Ajarn Prasit retired from fighting with over 250 fights and now travels annually from Thailand to America to share his passion and love for Muaythai.
For individuals like Chansadeth “Cheetah” Chanthanao and Ajarn Prasit Thang Dong, Muaythai has, is, and always will be their path for survival; whether as young boys or grown men they’ve counted on it to make a living for themselves and their families. Nevertheless, what was it about the teachings of Muaythai that caused them to stick with the sport for most, if not all of their adult lives? Was it something intangible that spoke to the their souls, or perhaps it was something more external and physical?
When I tell people who aren’t familiar with Muaythai that most children start off fighting at just eight years old, usually what follows is a heavy gasp for air. Most are surprised to hear that young kids at that age are learning to fight; to take and to give punishment by way of elbow, knee, punch, and kick. However, is it really that bad? Is allowing your child to step into the ring at that age any worse than allowing your child to sit in front of a video game for hours on end, until they bear the resemblance to that of a zombie? For these children in Thailand, the ring teaches them about life, firsthand. It teaches them early on about winning and losing and developing the characteristics to handle both with humility. Nonetheless, it goes even deeper than that.
Muaythai doesn’t only teach its participants about winning or losing, it also teaches them other valuable traits like the importance of respect and community; two virtues that seem to be dying off in today’s society. Even the champion fighters who’ve made a decent earning for themselves continue to live and train at the gym under some of the harshest conditions. These champions, despite being at the top of the heap, continue to help with everyday tasks around the camp. Sweeping the floors, cleaning up the garbage, and taking time to tend to the foreigners who visit their camps are all things they do on a daily basis. They never get “too good” to help out. Whether these traits are more characteristic to the Thai way as opposed to the western way, it’s hard to say, but what can be argued is that the things these children learn growing up at Muaythai camps, and what they learn by participating in the sport, can be carried with them throughout their entire lives. On top of that, this doesn’t only benefit the individual but it also serves the longstanding traditions of Thailand.
Muaythai has been a part of Thailand’s culture for thousands of years. Although it’s not as mainstream as some would like it to be, it was at one point important enough to the Thai people that they declared it the National Sport of Thailand(Moore). Additionally, with the ever-expanding influences of the western world, there’s never been a more important time for smaller cultures – like that of Muaythai in Thailand – to preserve what little they have left. With that said, without the continuos participation of children in Muaythai, the sport may eventually fade away only to become a distant remembrance of the past. Not only will Thailand lose a sport rich in customs and values, but it will also lose a way of life; a path in which countless numbers of children have found salvation from the perils of poverty.
“2009 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor – Thailand”. 2010. United States Department of Labor, 15 Dec 2010 .
“About Chansadeth “Cheetah” Chanthanao”. 2008. Cheetah Muaythai Academy. 2008. .
“Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs – Thailand”. 2011. U.S. Department of State. 28 Jan 2011. .
Moore, Tony. Muaythai: The Essential Guide to Mastering the Art. United Kingdom: New Holland Publishers, 2004.
Rebac, Zoran. Thai Boxing Dynamite. Colorado: Paladin Press, 1987.
“Saenchai Sor Kingstar”. 2011. Wikipedia. 28 June 2011.