Fighting back for culture

Art August 23, 2012 00:00

By Chanon Wongsatayanont

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Muay chaiya lives in muay thai's shadow, one a sport of rules, the other an art of principles

Muay chaiya has nowhere near the name recognition that muay thai enjoys, but you might actually know more about it than you realise, especially if you’ve seen the martial-arts movies “Ong Bak” and “Tom-Yum-Goong”.

Most people think they’re seeing muay thai in those globally popular films, but the fighting is closer to muay boran – “ancient” boxing. And muay chaiya is a branch of that. 
How can you tell them apart? Muay thai is a sport, constrained by rules and primarily focused on scoring points to win the match. Muay chaiya is strictly a martial art. 
Most of Panom “Tony Jaa” Yeerum’s moves in “Ong Bak” that wouldn’t be allowed in a boxing ring are muay boran – all the flying kicks, the bone-crunching grapples and the liberal use of elbows and knees. 
Muay chaiya employs these and external weapons as well. It’s thought to have developed in conjunction with krabi-krabong, in which combatants wield swords and quarter-staffs.
It looks utterly brutal in the films, but actual muay chaiya is far from it. “What I’ve taught you, use none of it!” one of its masters, Chan “Kru Pong” Ditkrajan, admonishes his students. “The skills in muay chaiya must only be used as a last resort, when all other options are exhausted.”
Its primary purpose, says another master, Sakkapoom “Kru Lamp” Juthaphongdham, is “to make peace through self-defence, inflicting minimal damage to both attacker and defender”.
So the essence of muay chaiya isn’t attacking but defending – parrying the attack. Kru Lamp, 50, has seen the training tame many aggressive young men who had come to learn how to hurt others. Instead they developed calm and control. It brings “discipline to the body and mind”, he says. 
Novices are invariably stiff and clumsy in their movements, sometimes even tumbling over because their bodies aren’t in balance. Training imbues a natural fluidity – Kru Lamp calls it “moulding the body into the form of a martial art that’s been around for hundreds of years”. It dates in fact to the reign of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V.
Muay chaiya is, in effect, an art, and a national art at that, part of Thailand’s culture. This is why Kru Lamp is trying to preserve this fragment of what it means to be Thai.
He took up muay chaiya in 1983 under Kru Thong, one of the great revered masters. Kru Thong was struggling to revive the form, but Kru Lamp nevertheless continued to witness its decline. 
“There are fewer skilled practitioners than there are endangered dugongs in Thailand,” he says, referring to the marine mammals whose population is estimated at around 250. Even counting the students, he doubts the number of people involved in muay chaiya would exceed 1,000. 
By comparison, muay thai has an immense following around the world, and its popularity is growing all the time.
Muay chaiya’s paucity of practitioners accounts for it being confused with muay thai, its sporting descendant. “Many people know only the surface of muay chaiya, what they’ve heard through the mass media,” says Kru Lamp, “but the heart of it can only be taught through training, and that’s what is dwindling.” 
Delighted to see interest in muay chaiya on the rise again, he frets that some of its inherent style might be lost because people don’t understand this core principle. Sport could subsume the art.
Kru Lamp founded the small non-profit group Thai Achira last year to promote muay chaiya through demonstrations at public events. He combined thai – “free” – with achira, meaning active and nimble, attributes of muay chaiya’s movements and also the methods Kru Lamp uses to promote it. 
Small groups of practitioners travel around the country putting on shows of their hand-to-hand combat and weapon-based sparring. The demonstrations are informal and inexpensive to organise. The group is based at the easy-to-access Don Muang Youth Centre, where it offers free classes every Sunday afternoon.
Thai Achira’s latest project is Yuwachon Thai Achira, for youth. Members earlier this month showed their skills to 50 students at a small junior school in Ubon Ratchathani. 
Kru Lamp points out the younger generation worryingly tends to ignore traditional Thai culture, but people forget that kids rarely get to see the old crafts, texts, paintings, dances and martial arts in person. For lack of access to our most celebrated arts, they turn to handy alternatives from Japan, South Korea and the West. 
That’s why he’s taking muay chaiya to the schools. He wants to inspire youngsters with a glorious part of their culture. 
The writer studied muay chaiya in Phuket.
Three boxers
  • Nutchayuda Tephabutr, 20: “It was my parents’ idea that I take classes because they wanted to make sure I had some basic knowledge of self-defence. “I’m not particularly good at it, but I’ve grown to like it, and I have heightened awareness. And I think I can take better care of myself!”
  • Maik Hofmann from Germany, 32: “I became interested in muay thai from films like ‘Ong Bak’ and learned about muay chaiya from the Internet. A friend of mine told me about Kru Lamp, so I contacted him and here we are. “I think muay boran, including muay chaiya, is the basis for modern muay thai, so it will help you learn what each move is for. I really enjoy it and I’ll definitely continue practising.”
  • Napat Tephabutr, 14: “I want to learn muay chaiya because I’m studying in a foreign country [Singapore] and want to at least know how to defend myself. It’s also a very dynamic way to exercise while learning something useful. Actually I started learning when I was seven – my dad wanted me to do it – but I started to really like it as a martial art.”