What we know today of the origin of Muay Thai is unfortunately quite limited and subject to debate. Much of its recorded history was lost 1767 when the Burmese sacked Ayuthaya, then the capital of Siam (Thailand) and destroyed vast troves of written history and artifact. Scholars have associated much of the early origins of Muay Thai to the Tai tribe migrating south from China in the 8th-10th centuries. These tribes moved through Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam engaged in constant battle for territory.

Weaponizing the Body

Scholars debate as to whether the Tai people developed this fighting style to conquer territory over the centuries or to defend outside aggressors. Regardless of intent, the Tai people were in constant war and battle with neighboring tribes, nations and oppressors. Over the centuries, a style of fighting emerged that weaponized the body. It allowed soldiers to rely less on physical weapons which often proved unreliable, heavy and awkward.

The Sukhothai Era (1238-1375) marked the earliest recorded period of time of formal training in hand-to-hand combat. Sukhothai was the first Siamese Kingdom to gain independence from the Khmer Empire. Given the constant threat of invasion, almost all males learned the fighting art that would later develop into Muay Thai. This martial art aimed to replicate physical weapons with hands serving as swords and knives, forearms and shins as armor, elbows as hammers, feet as staffs and legs as axes. Solders trained to deliver strikes with absolute force to decimate one’s opponent quickly and efficiently before moving on to the next.

Ruins of the ancient city of Sukhothai

Naresuan the Great

The Ayuthayah Kingdom (1350 – 1767) soon absorbed Sukhothai under the reign of King Naresuan. Naresuan the Great was the 2nd monarch of the Sukhothai dynasty and ruled from 1590 to 1605. King Naresuan loved Muay Thai and was apparently an excellent boxer himself. He was the first to mandate and truly integrate Muay Thai into military training. This training proved extremely effective on the battlefield and eventually led to Thailand’s victory in the Burmese–Siamese War (1593–1600).

Muay Thai would eventually evolve into sport and a means of negotiating conflict. We will cover this evolution of Muay Thai’s origins into sport in the next article.