Thailand Kicks Back
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
In an old Khmer temple in Thailand, a dozen boys move in perfect unison, going through delicate choreographed moves. They practice muay boran, the preparatory routine that used to be the start of every Thai boxing match.
ERIC PASQUIER / TCS captured the boys as they practice this martial art in its purest form.
Their frail bodies, covered in constellations of black ink drawings, seem to merge into one, moving gracefully as though in slow motion, as though freeze-framed in time and space.
Their faces show intense concentration, a profound determination to move in perfect harmony, individually but especially as a group. They are totally absorbed in the moves they’ve already been rehearsing for the past 15 minutes, apparently oblivious the presence of their Master. Standing a few paces away from the action of this astonishingly graceful ballet, the old Master silently watches his pupils’ every move with a relentless eye.
We are in the sacred confines of Wat Pra Dhat Choeng Chun temple, a Khmer temple that dates back to the 11th century. In a setting that emanates the sumptuous and mystical past of a country steeped in spiritual tradition, the venerable Master Sanan teaches his young students the secrets of Muay Boran, an arcane, superbly expressive art of physical grace and control.
This delicate martial art form is, paradoxically, a preparatory discipline for that most violent of contact sports: Thai boxing.
Thai boxing is unquestionably one of the country’s greatest “cultural” exports, the most renowned and appreciated the world over.
Titled champions come from around the world to compete in Bangkok’s National Stadium. American, Russian, Arab, Japanese and Australian champions come here and – bowing down to the golden rules of the art, utterly respectful – they absorb the sport and the local culture as best they can.
They mime to perfection every ritualistic movement of the combat, a sort of slow-motion ballet/dance called Whai Khru.
The zeal of the outsiders is appreciated by the locals here. But the true Thai professionals – those of the “old school” of Thai boxing – will tell you that physical training, technique and concentration, though important, are not enough.
As in any martial art, Thai boxing necessitates a subtle coordination between the body, soul and mind.
There is an all-important spiritual dimension that many young players only manage to comprehend partially. Many professional Thai boxers, it is known, also lose sight of this important perspective, after receiving an education with an excessive emphasis on physical factors. The result is that their art is incomplete, superficial.
“The problem,” laments the venerable Master Jumlong Nuanmanee, “is that today, young people no longer begin at the beginning. They’re in such a rush to get in the ring that they don’t take the time to study the fundamental stage, the basis and the message, the very raison d’être of Thai boxing: the secret of Muay Boran.”This martial art form dates back to the 17th century. Originally from Laos, it was imported into Thailand via Sakon Nakhon, in the eastern part of the country near the Laotian border. Muay Boran is a form of relaxation and meditation comparable to Tai Ch’i Chuan and to the spiritual conditioning that Japanese Samurai go through.
It prepares the body for the perfect movement necessary in hand to hand combat: it is a physical and mental warm-up phase, prior to the actual fight.
More than just that, Muay Boran provides the fighter with insights into the meaning and the rules of physical confrontation – it is a sort of philosophy of aggression and warrior virtues inherent to Thai boxing.
A belt is intrinsically part of the image of the Thai boxer, and so is the profusion of tattoos adorning the muscular bodies of the professionals. The Khmer calendar tattooed directly onto the body is considered a guarantee of divine protection. The same is true for the young novices of Wat Pra Dhat Choeng Chun temple, with one difference: their tattoos are painted onto their skin with erasable ink.
The practice of tattooing spread widely throughout Thailand over the course of the centuries; it is particularly appreciated by that group of the population whose professions imply daily physical risk. In the past, it was mostly the country’s corps of warriors who were tattooed; today, regular soldiers, policemen, fighters of all kinds of gang members are the major clients at the tattoo shops. Tattoos are “magic” in Thailand, believed to provide supernatural protection.
Most people who wear tattoos in Thailand believe themselves capable of acquiring two types of power: kwam yu yong kong kraphan and meta mahaniyon. The former concerns invulnerability to weapons – the tattoos themselves are thought of as shields, capable of deflecting bullets or knife blows. The latter concerns the tattoos’ supposed abilities to exercise a positive influence on others, i.e. to attract admiration and even love.
The most common themes for tattoos are animals (two-tailed lizards are especially popular), famous figures out of classic Thai mythology, such as the warrior chimp Hanuman, magic syllables or symbols. Though theoretically any part of the body can be tattooed, in practice there are a tacit set of rules that designate precise locations for specific markings.
Thus the top of the head is particularly good for symbolic representations of Buddha; the chest and upper arms for magic texts and pictures of strong and valiant animals like the lion, tiger or panther. Young disciples of Muay Boran must wait several years before having the privilege of proudly bearing these body symbols, emblems of strength and courage. The drawings made in washable ink on the young fighters are strictly symbolic. Over the entire back, the Master traces the lines of the Khmer calendar, a great classic of ritualistic tattooing supposed to guarantee divine protection.
The most important phase, however, actually occur after the tattooing session. The tattoo alone is nothing by itself; it can provide its bearer with neither power nor protection until it has been properly ordained in a ritual presided over by the Master – a sort of benediction consisting of incantations and prayer, at the end of which the drawings are blown upon by the Master, giving them their full sacred powers. The students are then finally ready to dance the “dance of the animals, a ritualistic series of movements danced by the children, at once limber and tense in an extreme effort of absolute control of their bodies. They assume the position of the tiger stalking its prey or the flight of an eagle with equal apparent ease. Their performance is astonishingly life-like. With their piercing eyes, mouths twisted in a grimace – now menacing, now fearful – the adversaries stalk one another, approaching and withdrawing in a slow ballet of blue and red.
Apprenticeship of the Muay Boran technique teaches the novices more than just the physical and mental rules of Thai boxing. It instils in them life’s most fundamental moral principles and rules. It is an educational process of great importance. In this way Muay Boran can be likened to the boy-scout movements of the Western world – but the Thai way goes more deeply into the sense of values, the distinction between good and evil, and a multitude of virtues like self-control, the importance of thinking before acting and so on: lessons likely to discourage violence, drug abuse and all sorts of juvenile perils facing young Thais today.
This is one of the reasons why the venerable Jumlong Nuanmanee deplores the decreasing number of students in Muay Boran apprenticeship centres. Today there are only between three and four thousand children studying this martial art in Thailand – studying this unique and venerable approach to life, one could say. And every year they are fewer and fewer.
As one of the great uncontested gurus of the teachings of Muay Boran, Jumlong Lanon Masters every position of the discipline. “One never stops learning and self-improving,” he says. “Muay Boran is above all an unquantifiable interior kind of work, an inner self-improvement. It is limitless: one could study it for a lifetime without ever truly penetrating its deepest secrets and subtleties…”
Unfortunately, Jumlong Lanong no longer teaches. His position as a monk constrains him to 227 rules and a multitude of interdictions. He may not sleep on a mattress or imitate animals – something that makes his vocation incompatible with the practice of Muay Boran. He passed on the torch to younger Masters but continues to observe the progress of their students. He earnestly hopes that their numbers will soon increase, that the importance of the teachings of Muay Boran will gain much-needed recognition as an absolute prerequisite to Thai boxing in particular, and as a method of teaching young people the basics of life in general.
Thailand’s delicate cultural cohesion – a national identity based as much on social customs as spiritual tradition – is seriously threatened by outside influences. But Muay Boran remains a vital element of Thai culture: the martial arts are taught in lower schools alongside history, mathematics etc. The “dance of the animals” is one of these priceless cultural traditions, vaguely accessible to our western way of life; were it to disappear, it would be yet another crack in the fragile structure that is the soul of Thailand.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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