The first time I ever handled a Mongkol in Thailand I was at Ratchadamnern Stadium. It was back in 2012, when Pinsiam Omnoisirichok was fighting one of his last fights at the stadium. He was midway through the Wai Kru when the owner of the gym motioned his arm from the floor up the ring stairs, inviting me to remove the Mongkol from Pinsiam’s head.

I was proud that the owner asked me to remove the Mongkol since it was an honourable ritual in Thai society. But to be honest, I hadn’t a clue what to say. So instead of closing my eyes and reciting a prayer for Pinsiam, I couldn’t help but take in the crowd of gambling Thais that filled the stadium’s concrete seating. I murmured some words about who knows what to who knows who, removed the Mongkol, and hung it on the metal pole ringside.

Fast forward six years later and despite sitting ringside five shows a week, I feel like my understanding of the Mongkol is still only skin deep. I can’t fully understand what the Mongkol means or symbolizes to the Thais. I can project my own beliefs onto it, and the beliefs of the Thais who are capable of translating its meaning to me in English. But yet, I feel the Mongkol signifies something more.

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A young fighter receives another blessing before stepping foot in the ring. Photo by Thanit Watthanaya

Muay Thai is steeped deeply in Thai tradition. From sacred amulets to pre-fight dances, there is no other country that entwines its culture with its combat like Thailand. Before every Muay Thai fight in Thailand you’ll find men reaching up and unhitching stiffened, circular ropes with dangling tails from high places—sometimes from hooks, sometimes from tape. They’ll hold these weathered garlands to their heads and pray over them. And then, when they’re done, they’ll lay them over the crown of their fighters’ heads.

“Some trainer pray for win and strength. But everyone not same,” said Ot Sansuk, the owner of Or. Sansuk Gym, as he leaned against the fence enclosing his gym and chickens. “What to pray for up to trainer. But for me, I pray my fighter win and safe.”

It’s a ceremony known as pitee sai mongkol. During the ceremony a Muay Thai fighter has the Mongkol put on his head by someone he trusts, like his father, his coach, or his brother. He then wears the Mongkol to the ring, where he performs the Wai Kru and returns to his corner to have the Mongkol removed, a ceremony known as pitee tod mongkol.

When not in use, the Mongkol is hung someplace high. Ot has three of them hanging from his rafters. Like most practitioners of Muay Thai he never lets them touch the ground, and he never treats them disrespectfully. The Mongkol is, in a sense, sacred.

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But at what point does a Mongkol become sacred? Thepnimit Sitmonchai, who fights out of Sitmonchai Gym, makes his own Mongkols. The fighter has a stocky build about him. His brows are littered with fine-lined scars. But his smile is inviting. And it’s with this smile he talks about the Mongkol. “Mongkols take on meaning right away,” Thepnimit said, “with the intention of making them.”

Thepnimit gets his handmade pakamaa cloth from his aunt in the Northeast of Thailand. He inspects the cloth, rubbing it between his thumb and index finger before deciding if it’s the right material. Once he finds the cloth he likes, he begins the creation process. Thepnimit lays a rope on the cloth and then carefully wraps the cloth around it. He brings the ends of the Mongkol together and ties them with a smaller piece of cloth to make a tail.

It’s with this intention—not only to create something aesthetically pleasing but something that can be revered—that the Mongkol begins to take on meaning. After Thepnimit makes the Mongkol, he takes the garland to a master monk who draws yants on it and prays and blows over the Mongkol. After this process the Mongkol is considered energized.

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A young fighter in Isaan wears a Mongkol made by Thepnimit Sitmonchai. Photo by Thanit Watthanaya

But gyms and fighters can further add to the Mongkol, personalizing it and deepening its meaning. Some gyms will add amulets to the Mongkol. Some will add strips of cloth that their family members wore. And some will add prayer flags. Some Mongkols are passed down through generations. And some are outright priceless.

In 2012 Buakaw, then fighting out of Por. Pramuk, lost his Mongkol. The Mongkol had been in the gym for thirty-five years. Buakaw and Por. Pramuk sent pleas out across the internet for its return and even offered a reward. After a few days it arrived by mail on the desk of Stefania Picelli from Yokkao.

This just goes to show how meaningful and necessary Mongkols are in Muay Thai. And although I don’t plan on putting one on or taking one off again anytime soon, the power they evoke intrigues me enough to keep exploring what the Mongkol represents to Muay Thai fighters in Thailand.