Thai Martial Arts: Muay Boran in the Modern Era

Muay Thai
Shutterstock / nattanan726
Muay boran is commonly thought of as the traditional martial art of Thailand that eventually became the ring sport and modern martial art we know as muay Thai. This is a silly perception for two reasons. The first is that the so-called “modern martial art” of muay Thai is historically verifiable as being older than many styles labeled “traditional,” such as taekwondo and shotokan karate. The second is that the style known as muay Boran doesn’t actually exist.

That’s a fairly loaded claim that I now have to justify. Muay boran is actually an umbrella term in the same way kung fu is. If someone tells you he does kung fu but doesn’t tell you what style of kung fu it is, you could dismiss that person as someone who does not actually train or as someone who works out at a McDojo that doesn’t have any sort of lineage.

Muay boran is much the same. It is not a style; it’s a catch-all term that refers to multiple styles of boxing that are found in various regions of Thailand (and, technically, Southeast Asia as a whole, but that’s a debate for another time). There are multiple traditional styles thought of as muay boran, and they are largely the same. The real differences come in which specific techniques the traditional style favors.

When you take a muay boran class, what you are actually getting is a hodgepodge of traditional movements in a style that is fundamentally based more on modern muay Thai than on any traditional style. When it comes to matters of self-defense, muay Thai will always be superior to these traditional styles because full-contact sparring with minimalistic moves is the only way to truly prepare yourself for a full-contact situation. But for those looking to embrace a traditional style, going to a muay boran class won’t bring you any closer to Thai history and culture.

So what is muay boran in the modern era? It’s complicated.

Some styles are faring better than others. On one hand, all muay boran is rare, especially when compared to arts like kung fu. You might have to search hard to find a white-crane school in your area, but there are bound to be at least a few in your country, never mind the world. On the other hand, muay boran varies from style to style, and a couple of those styles have some representation, while others are so rare you might wonder if they are extinct.

Muay chaiya dates back to 1769. Its history is most closely associated with Ajarn Khetr Sriyabhaya. His lineage still exists today with Kru Lek, who continues to teach the style.

The style is snappy, with a clear rotation of the trunk on every strike and parry. You notice this especially when observing the style’s approach to kicks, which are quick and snappy and primarily target the legs.

Muay chaiya’s low kicks serve to slow and hurt the opponent, as well as to interrupt the opponent’s technique on start-up. When you see the opponent move, it’s time to low-kick. The kicks are generated in a strange, oblong manner, where the kick doesn’t come straight to the target but almost switches angle mid-kick with a snap. The mid-angle switch comes with the kicker’s head and shoulders turning all the way around to get maximum torque in the kick.

One advantage to learning muay chaiya is that there are a few (though not many) clearly relevant tutors. The most notable is Kru Lek, who was taught by grandmaster Khem.

Meanwhile, muay khorat, a style known for its punches, is in a slightly more awkward place. On one hand, it has a decent presence in the military. On the other hand, muay khorat and its offshoots can be hard to find.

Nowhere is this more true than in the muay khorat offshoot known as lertrit. It’s a military style of muay khorat developed by a man named Lertrit during his time in the navy. It’s also a dying art, with Gen. Tunwakom being one of the only remaining masters. He teaches lertrit at the Muay Thai Alliance in Thailand, but the likelihood of there ever being a true successor to carry on his lineage is unfortunately slim.

Marco De Cesaris, an influential man in the “muay boran sphere,” does teach a style called lertrit, but it’s not the same thing. It is his own style inspired by lertrit, but it isn’t the same martial art that Lertrit taught.

Lertrit’s style, as taught by Tunwakom, is a gritty system reminiscent of both modern muay Thai and the traditional martial arts. The practitioner aims to hurt the opponent and will make the most of wedge blocks and elbow parries to get inside in order to do it.

Unlike some traditional martial arts, lertrit and muay chaiya heavily feature sparring in their training. This benefits the styles in the long run as it stops them from just being “technique museums.” Instead, they are living, breathing arts that have to be practiced live in order to become effective.

These muay boran styles find themselves in an awkward spot, however. Muay Thai, the beloved style that came about from formalizing the local arts into one sport, is more efficient overall. While the novelty of kung fu is that nothing recreates the experience of training, muay boran struggles to find relevance when its more practical descendent is so wildly available. It struggles with cultural and historical relevance because, while we know that these are, in fact, real historical styles, information on them is scant — with much of the art’s history not having been recorded.

This leads to situations in which anyone can set up a school and claim to be the true progenitor of muay Thai when the person really is teaching a form of recreation (which, in fairness, is usually the case). It also enables people to propagate outright lies about the art they’re teaching. Several such scams have been called out by Kru Lek.

There is still much to learn from the muay boran styles. As their popularity increases, however, the actual awareness and respect for real styles has gone down. We can only hope that styles like muay chaiya and lertrit won’t be forgotten.

Introducing Martial Arts School Listings on Black Belt Mag!
Sign Up Now To Be One Of The First School Listed In Our Database.
Don't miss a single issue of the worlds largest magazine of martial arts.