Those with a desire to learn about and participate in Muay Thai, inevitably find their way to Thailand. When they do, they discover quite quickly that Thai culture is drastically different from Western culture. The longer farang stay in Thailand, and the more they fight, the more they develop a sense of Thai culture, and a deep respect for it.
Muay Thai is deeply rooted in Thai culture; it’s an ancient tradition that has been passed down through generations of practitioners. There are some obvious clues about the traditional nature of Muay Thai. Rituals such as the wai kru – the ceremonial dance before the fight – and the wearing of the mongkol around the head prior to the fight are both hallmarks of something much deeper than the western concept of a sports competition.
There are also aspects of Thai culture that are not so obvious or marked by ritual that farang may struggle to understand and appreciate. Having some knowledge of Thai culture will greatly accelerate your fight preparation, as it will enable you to better understand and communicate with your trainer and your Thai training partners.
Whereas western culture is individualistic, Thai culture is collectivist. Thai people are likely to describe themselves in terms of their social relationships and roles rather than their personal attributes. They have very close, long-term relationships with a “group” such as a family or a fight gym. Loyalty to one’s group is very strong. There is less emphasis on personal achievement, personal rights, and privacy than is typically seen in individualistic cultures. Self-entitlement does not go down well here.
Social relationships in Thailand are hierarchical rather than egalitarian. Deference is shown to people who are senior in age and social status, and there is a strict protocol in the way people of one rank treat and refer to people of a different rank. Trainers, like teachers, elders, parents and bosses, are superior to their subordinates (i.e. fighters). This means that attitudes towards superiors is very formal and respectful, and that teachers and trainers can display a paternalistic attitude towards their students.
Even as familiarity grows between you and your trainer, probably more and more humorous exchanges, the hierarchy will never disappear, and it’s a mistake to assume that it will, and it’s a mistake to overstep the boundary.
Thai culture is “tight” as opposed to “loose.” Thai children are taught to observe patterns of behavior that have been handed down from generation to generation, rather than to explore and experiment and find their own identity. Thai people tend to honor and maintain tradition.
Muay Thai training is tightly traditional. Very few Thai trainers or gyms have embraced aspects sports science, and even fewer show any inclination to do so. Trainers tend to train their fighters the same way they were trained when they were fighting for a living. From the trainers point of view, the traditional way of training works, and there is no need to explore alternative practices.
Personal relationships take time and a lot of patience to build. It is essential to invest the time in building strong relationships with the gym if you want to maximise your learning. If you want your corner to really get behind you in the ring, and to put the time, energy and care into your fight preparation, then you need to build relationships ahead of time.
Relationships are built by being aware of cultural differences,and by being respectful. Personal relationships are further strengthened by acts of appreciation such as paying a percentage of your fight purse to your trainers.
Relationships tend to be long-term and stable. Possibly in order to maintain harmony, Thai culture tends to be non-confrontational. If a Thai person says “yes” to a request or proposal, it may not mean that they agree with you or accept your proposal, particularly if the relationship between two people is not yet well established.
Thai people are sensitive to loss of face, and will tend not to admit to making a mistake. They also prefer not to stand out or be singled out. Harmony and saving face are important. Bear this in mind if you have a disagreement to settle or a request to make; tactfulness and discretion may make a huge different to the outcome you are seeking.
You cannot take the “Thai” out of “Muay Thai”, and making the journey to Thailand is so much more than mechanically refining your skill for the ring. You have the amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in a wonderful new culture, so open your mind, be aware of cultural differences, and relish the opportunity.