Fighting into the night

It’s raw, brutal and rarely taught, but a young fighter from Malacca is offering to teach Muay Boran — an ancient form of Thai kickboxing — for free.

Every Saturday night, when the sun sets and the crowd has dispersed, a group gathers at Lake Titiwangsa in Kuala Lumpur. Clutching water bottles and clad in tees, shorts or tracks, the barefooted bunch embark on a mission to toughen themselves up and learn Thailand’s ancient form of kickboxing — Muay Boran.

The blows can be deadly, but since they are beginners, they do it gently. Led by 28-year-old Mohd Khairul Khalid, they punch, kick, head-butt, climb, yell and sweat till the clock strikes midnight. Exhausted, they head home satisfied and a little more knowledgable.

If you’ve watched the movie Ong Bak, starring Tony Jaa, then you’ll have an idea of what Muay Boran is.

Little known, Muay Boran has its roots in the first tribes that settled in Thailand. It was the martial art used in battle when a warrior lost his weapon and had to resort to hand-to-hand combat. Hence, the moves are often raw and brutal.

History tells us Muay Thai came about after formalised rules were applied to Muay Boran. It was made a sport because of the serious and sometimes fatal injuries that resulted during bouts. Muay Thai developed into a popular martial art and fights were held in rings while Muay Boran was only used during war.

Over time, the Thais found Muay Thai to be restrictive and after the movie sequel was released in 2003, there has been an international surge in interest in Muay Boran.

Khairul first learnt the art from his father at 13. Dad, a former army commando, learnt it in a school called Sriwana Chaiyarat in southern Thailand. Every time his father returned from a posting, young Khairul would get private lessons from him. This continued for years.

“While my friends were watching football, I was practising kickboxing with my father and honing my skills. He would make me spar with him and that forced me to use logic to figure out the next move,” says Khairul, a Malacca-based businessman. He later took Muay Thai classes at a local gym.

To share his love for the sport, Khairul started a blog last year and in a month, 500 enthusiasts became members. Within a year, blog membership increased to 7,000 and the number continues to grow, much to his delight.

He says smiling, “There is a huge interest in Muay Boran but people don’t know where or how to start learning it.”

Inspired by Jaa’s slick moves, and after numerous requests from friends, Khairul started offering weekly classes in November 2009 under the Kelab Sri Chaiya Kawanboxx banner.

The club, started in 2008, also has other instructors teaching different forms of kickboxing. On the first day of class, there were four students. Word quickly got around and now the average number of students per class is between 20 and 30. To promote Muay Boran, Khairul doesn’t charge a fee. He comes up to KL on the weekend to teach.

“I admit I’m not a master yet. But I want to pass on what I know because I’m constantly bombarded with requests to teach. I refuse to allow students to call me Ajarn or Khru (master),” he reveals.

There is no age limit for the class — the youngest is seven and oldest, 55. All come in various shapes and sizes.

“Before, we used to have girls in the class but not anymore. Perhaps the sport is too aggressive for them,” he says. “Also, the timing is too late and they don’t want to stay till midnight.”

Khairul reckons there are other Muay Boran instructors in Malaysia but most are operating on a small scale or focus more on Muay Thai. A number of our Muay Thai boxers have carved a name for themselves by winning several regional championships.

Instead of wearing gloves like in Muay Thai, Muay Boran fighters wrap their fingers and wrists with hemp. This allows for hard punches, but protects the fairly delicate wrist and finger joints, and minimises fractures. In the olden days, fighters would dip their hands in water before sparring to harden the bindings and deliver more stunning blows.

“In class, we don’t use hemp, but we wear the full attire when we do shows and demonstrations. It’s not how you look but the discipline, technique and safety that are more important,” says Khairul.

The techniques used in Muay Boran focus on efficiency and maximising the amount of damage from each blow. The aim is to neutralise the enemy as quickly as possible because others might be around to strike.

Unlike boxing, the entire body is a target in Muay Boran, which utilises nine weapons: hands, legs, elbows, knees and head. If the groin is kicked, serious injury can occur. If knee strikes are used, they can cause internal damage or break limbs, while head-butting can result in concussions.

However, Khairul focuses more on defensive techniques and ways to avoid blows.

“It’s very acrobatic,” Khairul explains. “You can watch all the Muay Boran clips on You Tube, but it’s impossible to master the proper technique without a teacher.”

When Khairul shouts out “Hanuman” or “Break the Elephant’s Neck” or “Bird Returns to its Nest” or “Climb the Mystical Mountain”, his boys know what to do.

Class begins with exercises to limber up joints called “Senaman Tua”. Then Khairul talks about body alignment and proceeds to teach defence and attacking techniques. Students practise sparring with different partners and the class ends with a preview of what he will teach the following week.

“I don’t train every day but try and remember what my father taught me. If I’m going to teach more advanced steps or have forgotten something, I usually refer to him.”

Two of Khairul’s senior students are Anuar Ahmad and Mohamed Jemain Ridhwan, both 26. The duo became friends when they took Muay Thai classes at a different outlet. Wanting something more challenging, they surfed the net and discovered Muay Boran last year. Now, they’re hooked.

“The skills are different here and I enjoy the stunts and jumps. It’s just a hobby, but to perfect my technique, I train intensively daily. Sometimes we do shows at least three times a week to promote the sport so I have to practise hard,” says Anuar, a school administrative assistant. Fortunately, he hasn’t used his skills in real life yet.

“In the initial stages, I sustained minor injuries during sparring sessions. This is expected in any martial art. Once I jumped on Anuar and he passed out!” Jemain says.

Like traditional Indian and Chinese martial art, Muay Boran has a lower and wider fighting stance and requires fighters to have greater agility, flexibility and speed. A signature move is when a fighter climbs and jumps off his opponent’s knee to deliver a blow to the head. By stamping the face, he tries to “break the neck” — a move that took Jemain three months to master. But his foot does not touch his opponent’s face because the intention in class is not to hurt.

“It’s sheer mental strength in this martial art,” says the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) researcher. “You must have good stamina and absorb the pain inflicted by your opponent.”

It helps if you have prior knowledge of other martial arts but it’s not necessary in learning Muay Boran, says Khairul. All you need is enthusiasm and a desire to learn.

Khairul concludes, “I want to increase the profile of Muay Boran and someday, build an empire on it. That would be a dream come true.”

o If you’re interested in picking up Muay Boran, drop by Restoran Nelayan, Lake Titiwangsa. Class is conducted in front of it every Saturday night (9pm-midnight). For more information, visit or e-mail

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