Muay Tha Sao – the Secretive Fighting Style
Muay Thai of the north: a family’s cherished treasure
Among the four schools of Muay Boran (Muay Chaiya, Muay Lopburi, Muay Korat, and Muay Tha Sao), the most mysterious one is Muay Tha Sao [มวยท่าเสา]. The reason for this will be revealed as you go through the article. This boxing school was born in the province of Uttaradit in the north of Thailand in the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767) by Kru Mek, an acclaimed boxing teacher. Muay Tha Sao stands out for its nimble, swift, and decisive movements. One of the most renowned boxing student of Muay Tha Sao was Mr. Thongdee Funkhao, or Phraya Pichai of the Broken Sword, who was King Taksin’s bodyguard. He became a key figure who branched out Muay Tha Sao by combining it with Chinese boxing and sword fighting, and in the process inventing Muay Phraya Pichai known for its unique boxing moves.
Kru Mek passed down this martial art to his successor, Kru Iam who then passed it on to his successor, Kru Aim, who made sure the knowledge lived on through his successor, Kru Aat Kongket, and his five grandchildren from the “Liang-Chuea Family” which was later renamed to “Liang-Prasert.” The five grandchildren, described below, became elite boxers at that time, inheriting sharp moves and dazzling finesse of Muay Tha Sao from Kru Mek.
- Kru Toh, born in 1897, was a heavy puncher with lightning kicks, knees and punches.
- Kru Plong, born in 1901 and known as “Muay Teen Ling” (fast-footed boxer), had the best skills of the five brothers.
- Kru Rit, born in 1903, won many fights in Bangkok and tied with a Muslim boxer named Bang Saleb, who was a student of Kru Saeng Uttaradit, a master of Phraya Phichai boxing.
- Kru Phae, born in 1904, accidentally killed his opponent during the match.
- Kru Ploy, born in 1907, was a nimble and agile boxer trained by Kru Plong. Kru Ploy won several boxing matches but passed away prematurely at the age of 24.
Statue of Phraya Phichai (cr. Khaosod)
After the death of Kru Plong in 1979, Muay Tha Sao was plunged into such a significant decline that even the people of Uttaradit could not tell the differences between Muay Tha Sao and other boxing schools. Today, this martial art is preserved by a small circle of Muay Tha Sao teachers, boxers, and students.
If Muay Lopburi of the central region is known for precision, Muay Chaiya of the South for abundant techniques and Muay Korat of the Northeast for strength, then Muay Tha Sao of the North is comparable to an ax because of its fast, forceful, yet discreet attack. Tha Sao fighters are also known for flexibility and the fast legs that “move like a whip” and can launch a kick at every height and in all directions. And while Muay Korat applies physics to boxing moves, Muay Tha Sao is guided by physiology. Each punch is released not just to score in the game, but it must hit critical areas of the body and truly serve the purpose of fighting because according to the philosophy of Muay Tha Sao, boxing is not just a game but a real combat.
- Techniques and training
Before discussing the training of Muay Tha Sao, it is important to note that not anyone who wishes to learn Muay Tha Sao will be able to do so. As mentioned earlier, Muay Tha Sao is a knowledge that has been passed down in the family. Outsiders wishing to dive into this art must first be assessed and approved by a boxing teacher on manners, attitude, determination, commitment, and gratitude, and they also need to bring along a learning partner because Muay Tha Sao is best understood when practicing with a partner. For these conditions, this boxing school does not see many followers, and advanced techniques or “Mae Mais” [แม่ไม้] are reserved for a chosen few.
The famous technique of Muay Tha Sao for building flexibility and perfecting kicks is called “banana kicking.” One will use a banana trunk as a height reference and try to kick pass the banana trunk, not to ruin it. As the end of this practice, students must be able to kick as high as his head.
- Boxing moves
The Mae Mais of Muay Tha Sao consist of 12 upper and 12 lower moves. Having no designated names, each of the moves is numbered, such as Move 1, Move 2, and so on. Mae mais will only be taught to students who are on the path of becoming boxing teachers to preserve the knowledge. Generally in the boxing glossary, “Mae Mai” means basic or standard moves while “Look Mai” [ลูกไม้] signifies more advanced moves, but for Muay Tha Sao, the opposite is true: Look Mai is a simpler and secondary move while Mae Mai is much more powerful, more advanced and will not be revealed to the public. Even the following boxing moves you are going to read in this article are the Look Mais of Muay Tha Sao.
- “Tai Mek” boxing stance (cloud climbing) – Slowly move the left and right fists higher in a circular motion
- “Nakha Sabat Hang” (Serpent whipping its tail) – After releasing a punch, lean back and immediately kick the opponent. In the Phraya Phichai version, there is no leaning back after the punch is released. Simply brush off the opponent’s arm and kick him at the same time.
- “Tae Liang Bon” (high kicking) – This pose originated from when Phraya Phichai competed with Kru Muek. Being a tall person, Kru Muek had to perform a lower boxing stance. Phraya Pichai took this opportunity to continuously kick his neck back and forth.
- “Nang Salap Bat” (a lady swapping feet) – This pose is a continuous alternation between upper kicks and lower kicks. When the opponent defends his upper body, kick his lower part, and when he defends his lower body, kick his upper part. Continue the kicking until the opponent gives up.
- “Dap Chawala” (putting off the lamp) – When the opponent punches, brush off his arm and strike back with the same arm. In the Phraya Phichai version, a boxer must brush off the opponent’s arm with one hand and punch him with the other.
- “Sok Ku” (double elbow) – Bring your palms together and turn your elbow out to strike your opponent on the left and right.
- “Matcha Len Hang” (a fish playing with its tail) – Kick the air to deceive the opponent. When the opponent punches back, kick off his arm and knock him back with a high kick.
- “Hanuman Tayan” (Soaring Hanuman) – If your kick misses the opponent (intentionally or nor), turn around and jump to strike him with your knees.
- “Khon Khao Phra Sumeru” (toppling Mount Meru) – While your opponent is doing a boxing stance, pull his arm and attack his chine with an upturn punch. Then pull him down by the neck, and stomp on the back of his knee.
- “Sok Talom Fa” (sky-tearing elbow) – When your opponent punches, brush off his arm by turning your body to 15 degrees. As he is launching another punch, elbow him in the face, and use the other hand to grab his arm, twist, and lock it. Use the other hand to grab your opponent’s neck and press it down, and then give an elbow strike at the middle of his back.
(cr. FB: มวยท่าเสามวยพระยาพิชัยดาบหัก)
Regardless of the boxing moves, the core principle of Tha Sao boxing is to focus on the weak points of the body, such as the elbow and knee joints, the bladder, the pelvic area, the sternum or breastbone which houses the heart and the lungs, the throat, and the middle of the back. Another main target of attack is the head area. Tha Sao boxers are trained to pull the opponents’ heads, a move that puts them in a vulnerable position. The boxers then can choose to attack anywhere on the head and the face, whether the neck, the jaw, the nose, the eye sockets, and the temples.
The philosophy of Muay Tha Sao is to fight for fight’s sake. In a combat, there is no compromising. Therefore, when the opponent slips, Tha Sao boxers must make the most of that opportunity by grabbing the hair or pulling the opponent’s head to continue attacking the head area. Most of the boxing moves aim to defeat the opponent in a single attack; otherwise, keep on attacking until the opponent is completely defeated.
- The End of Muay Kard Chueak
With this philosophy, Muay Tha Sao is extremely powerful. Kru Phae, one of the legendary five Liang-Prasert brothers, faced Mr. Jia in a boxing match. Some believed that Mr. Jia was from Cambodia while others argued that he was a member of the Ban Krua Community in Bangkok but the organizer advertised him as such to attract spectators. During the match, Mr. Jia was attacked with the Hanuman offering the rings move from Kru Phae and later died in hospital. However, with a thorough analysis, that critical hit was not necessarily the “Hanuman offering the rings” move since the Mae Mais of Muay Tha Sao have no name. The research found that the coach had signaled Kru Phae to perform a combination of “Move 3 and Move 4,” which happened to bear similarity to the “Hanuman offering the ring” move.
Mr. Jia’s death prompted the Department of Physical Education to cancel the practice of thread wrapping around boxers’ hands and replace it with safety gloves like today. This marked the end of the thread wrapping boxing or Muay Kard Chueak.
Wai Khru movements
Before the fight, Tha Sao boxers must perform the Wai Khru [ไหว้ครู] dance to lift their spirit, bring good luck, intimidate opponents, and stretch the muscles. But before the Wai Kru dance, Tha Sao boxers will first pay homage to Mother Earth Goddess and then to Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction who is revered as a master of martial arts, which is different from other boxing schools that pay homage to Lord Brahma, the God of Creation. Next, the boxers will pay respect to the Triple Gem of Buddhism, and then the Sun which represents all gods in the universe. Only after this can the Wai Khru dance and its four moves begin.
- “Yang Sam Khum” (three-pit walk) – Start with a prostration, and while sitting, perform the “Song Mek” move (cloud looking) to remember Kru Mek, the father of Muay Tha Sao, followed by the “Tai Mek” move (cloud climbing). Next, start the three-pit walk, characterized by the three-point position of the feet which enables boxers to avoid, cover, defend, and evade opponents’ attacks without losing balance.
- “Phrom Si Na Yai” (grand four-faced Brahma) – After a prostration and the “cloud looking” pose, do the “tiger dragging the tail.” While sitting, lift the left knee up and stretch the right leg backward so that the upper part of the sole touches the ground, but the knee is floating. Move forward little by little and turn to four directions. Finish with the “cloud climbing” pose.
- “Phrom Si Na Noi” (simple four-faced Brahma) – This pose is like the grand four-faced Brahma but without the “cloud looking” pose.
- “Sao Noi Pra Pang” (a girl applying powder on her face) – This move, popular among female boxers, demonstrates that boxing is not just about strength but also gracefulness. From the sitting position, lift one knee up and lean forward slightly. Next, lift the other leg off the ground, toes pointing towards the sky. The boxer can gently rock the body to have a good stretch. Pretend to hold a mirror in one hand and gently pat your cheeks with the other hand as if applying powder.
The distinctive feature of the Muay Tha Sao’s outfit is the head garland called “mongkhon.” [มงคล] A mongkhon is made by weaving nine strands of raw thread with a yantra cloth of the school and wrapped with a red yantra cloth on the outside. It is a personal item and cannot be shared with or given to others. Boxers are allowed to wear Tha Sao’s mongkhons only after they have been accepted or “krob kru” as students by boxing teachers.
(cr. FB: มวยท่าเสามวยพระยาพิชัยดาบหัก)
In short, Muay Tha Sao is a martial art that respects the true purpose and sanctity of fighting that has stood the test of time without being turned into a mere sport or game. With this mindset, those who practice Tha Sao boxing must possess mental strength and willingness to stand the ground until the very end. At the same time, it does not teach students to be violent, aggressive, or simply to win at all costs, because during the learning, students must prove themselves to be humble, determined, and not the type to pick fights with others.
Author: Soonyata Mianlamai
June 19, 2022