According to Muay Thai: A Living Legacy, an English-language book about the sport by Kat Prayukvong and Lesley Junlakan, Thais first began training in Muay Thai in the Sukhothai period (1238-1377)—a skill they would later use in multiple wars against the neighboring country of Burma. In temples, Buddhist monks taught young boys Muay Thai as part of their daily education. At that time, the training included punching loincloths hanging on tree branches and kicking banana trees, says the Web site for the Muay Thai Institute in Bangkok.
Muay Thai training camps began to flourish after the capital moved from Sukhothai to the city of Ayutthaya. Perhaps the most famous Muay Thai story from this time is that of King Sri Sanpetch VIII, better known as the Tiger King, who in 1702 disguised himself as a common villager so that he could fight in a country fair, where muay contests were commonly held. He defeated the town's best fighters before disappearing back to his palace.
In 1767 the Burmese captured Ayutthaya and destroyed the written records about Muay Thai. A statue now stands in Ayutthaya that tells the legend of Nai Khanom Tom, a Thai boxer taken prisoner during the Burmese invasion. In 1774, the Burmese king ordered a boxing exhibition to determine whether Burmese boxing was superior to Thai boxing. Nai Khanom Tom defeated ten consecutive Burmese opponents on a single day, March 17, which is now "Muay Thai Day" in Thailand.
During his reign from 1868 to 1925, King Chulalongkorn oversaw Muay Thai's evolution from a military practice to royal entertainment. The king invited boxers from throughout the country to fight in his presence at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Prayukvong and Junlakan describe how the king awarded the winners honorary titles that matched their boxing styles, such as Pra Chai Choke Shok Channa (Lord Lucky Fight and Win) and Muen Cha-ngad Choeng Shok (Knight of the Clear Fighting Tactic).
By the middle of the 20th century Muay Thai had become a wildly popular commercial sport in Bangkok. Every day there are fights in Lumpini Stadium or Rajadamnern Stadium, as well as smaller stadiums in cities and villages across Thailand. Five days a week, the bouts are televised. If baseball is America's national pastime, Muay Thai could be Thailand's equivalent.
The five boxers at Saktaywan Boxing Gym were initially amused by my presence, grinning and cracking jokes about the white farang, or foreigner, whenever I couldn't keep up—which was all the time.
It became clear to me after only a few days of training at Saktaywan that Muay Thai consumed most of their lives. Thai boxers don't just train in their camp—they live there. At Saktaywan they cook meals together, share one bathroom and sleep side-by-side on the floor of a cramped shack.
The fighters train seven days a week, their schedule beginning at 6 a.m. and ending around 7 p.m. The morning starts with a 45-minute run along a Bangkok highway, weaving through crowds of schoolchildren in yellow uniforms, feeling the breeze of cars that whiz by within a foot. The five-mile run is made more difficult by having to breathe the densely polluted and humid Bangkok air.
The boxers then eat a light breakfast, sometimes not more than water and a little rice, before starting the first of two daily training sessions. They warm up by jumping rope and shadowboxing (sparring without a partner to practice technique and stretch the muscles). Then they punch, kick, knee and elbow the punching bags filled with sand packed so tightly that it feels like hitting a metal pole. Much of this contact is designed to build resistance in the shins, which are used for both kicking an opponent and blocking kicks. (Mine had dents in them the first two weeks of training, until they began to callus.) All the training takes place outdoors in 90-degree heat.
Meanwhile, Ajarn Sit calls boxers into the ring one by one, holding pads that he orders them to strike in various combinations. He is an effective motivator. I had the bad habit of dropping my hands when I got tired, leaving my face exposed. Ajarn Sit noticed. "Hands up!" he would yell, just before smacking me in the face with the pads. It worked.