A common misconception of the Wai Kru Ram Muay is that it is a Buddhist belief. However, Thailand as with most nationalities that have embraced religion has many customs that are unique to their culture. The Wai Kru Ram Muay is one of them.
As with all asian cultures there is a huge amount of respect constantly shown to their elders or people in authority, something that seems to be lost at times in the west.
Teachers are held with the upmost respect in Thailand as they are passing on knowledge and wisdom to help the younger generation in their future. I’ve been in situations where a past Thai teacher has incorrectly translated a word in to English but the person using this word would not believe me when I tried to correct them as I was not Thai and not a teacher. Although this can get annoying it does demonstrate the level of respect that is given to people in this type of position and a Muay Thai trainer would be in this very bracket.
Historically the student would have to under go many chores to show their dedication before the teacher would take them under his wing. I suppose the easiest way to picture this is from those cheesy Kung Fu movies where the student sits outside the teachers home in a hope he would eventually be granted the privilege to learn.
The Wai (roughly translated as bow) and Kru (teacher) is performed prior to a Muay Thai contest in order to pay their respects to their trainer. The Wai Kru is actually performed at many schools in Thailand at the start of term for this same reason.
As well as the Wai Kru Ram Muay there are several other Thai customs performed before the fight as part of a traditional ritual.
As the boxer gets to the steps of the ring you will often see them kneel down and bow quickly three times. From here they will grab some dust off the steps and sprinkle it onto their own head.
The idea behind this was to supposedly to cast a spell on the opponent to make him weak during the contest. The more likely reason was that before the introduction of rings, they fought on the ground so they really needed to know the texture of it in order to be able to fight accordingly i.e if it was unstable (slippery or sandy) then they wouldn’t kick as much and if it was dry and hard then ..well they can kick more.
The boxer then climbs over the ropes. It is believed that if he goes through the ropes it will enable bad luck to follow him into the ring and potentially cause harm. Another custom to stop “bad luck” entering the ring is by walking around it anti-clock wise as to seal it from any negative forces.
The three bows that are performed in a Buddhist ritual are not the same as those in the Wai Kru. Where Buddhists will bow to Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha in Muay Thai you are bowing to your parents, your trainer and your country.
Even though the Wai Kru is not praying to a god it does mean that out of respect you bow your head down. The south of Thailand has a huge Islamic community and has an abundance of top Muay Thai fighters yet in the islamic faith bowing to anyone other than god is strictly forbidden.
Many of the Islamic Thai born boxers do not do the Wai Kru but instead perform Dua and ask for protection from Allah before starting the Ram Muay.
There are hundreds of different types of Ram Muay (Ram roughly being translated as ‘dance’ and Muay meaning boxing/fighting). You may have seen some fighters reenacting the God Rama firing a bow and arrow at their opponent in order to kill their spirit, others demonstrate making a grave for their opponent and I have personally had someone write my name with their foot in my corner (using the foot is a sign of disrespect) and then stamping on it three times to finish. Ram Muays such as these are aimed at intimidating the opponent and are referred to in thai as ‘Pra Ram Plaeng Sorn’
In the past you could tell what camp the boxers came from or what region they originated based on their dance, however this is a little more difficult now as Muay Thai is big business in Thailand and boxers are sold similar to football players. This means that most camps now have fighters from many different provinces in their gyms and probably all doing different dances taught to them by their original trainer.
The Ram Muay is a time that most boxers use to get their thoughts centred and to focus themselves at the task in hand. It also offers the opportunity for boxers to get their first glimpse of their opponent, the way they move, how their balance is and even to try and intimidate them.
Often you will see a boxer walking around the ring while he is performing the Ram Muay, this is similar to the sprinkling of dust I mentioned. They would be testing the ground texture, checking for any lumps and bumps to avoid and becoming accustomed to the space they have to work with.
The Ram Muay also allows the boxer to warm up and stretch the muscles that they will be using during the fight.
Some people may find some of these superstitions strange but in all honesty they aren’t very dissimilar to some our own beliefs in the west such as not walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors or seeing a lone Magpie.
The Ram Muay has nothing to do with Buddism it is a cultural belief passed on through generations of Muay Thai practitioners and still stands today. It is these rituals and customs that separate Muay Thai from other fighting arts and is something that should not be lost over the course of time.
Below is Islamic Thai fighter Numsaknoi performing the Ram Muay. He is regarded of one of the best in his generation and was actually given an award for the best Ram Muay throughout Thailand.