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This Songkran Muay Thai Tradition is Brutal

Muay Thai fight in rural isaan

Imagine fighting not just nine times in eight days but three times in 18 hours, each in a different province. This incredible feat is but a regularly occurring reality that unfolds during Songkran. While most people associate Thai New Year, aka Songkran, with massive water fights, Thai fighters nationwide go to work.

Over the years, Songkran has become a global sensation. People now plan their vacations around this age-old tradition, a testament to its universal appeal. While the celebrations have grown in scale, the essence of family and tradition remains at the heart of Songkran.

Each year, Thais return home to join their families in pouring water on the shoulders, hands, and feet of elders to wash away their sins and bad luck, and to ask for blessings in return. Many Thais will head to the temples to make merit in the early hours of the morning and partake in many symbolic rituals that have been part of Thai culture for centuries.

In modern times, the holiday falls on 13-14-15 April annually. However, in 2018, Thailand’s government extended the holiday from 9 to 16 to give residents more time to travel home and partake in local festivities.

So, what does Muay Thai have to do with all of this?

Most of those local festivities will include Muay Thai fights. Whether hosted by the local village chiefs or temples, almost every district and sometimes even sub-district celebration will consist of fights, concerts, and giveaways. This is especially the case for Isaan, Thailand’s underdeveloped and poverty-stricken northeast.

Isaan has long been known as a region rich in Muay Thai. In addition to hailing as the area with the most Muay Thai fighters, it also produces the most champions. Take a look at Bangtao’s very own Kru Mai from Buriram; a veteran of well over 500 fights and still an active fighter, he has spent as many Songkran festivals as he can remember treading down Muay Thai’s trodden path.

Glory and fame aside, Kru Mai was in it for the money (as is the case for most of Thailand’s Muay Thai mainstay). Fighting as much as he possibly could was no different than those working overtime on Christmas Day in the West. Fighting two to three times a day is normal for Kru Mai. Each year, he would try to book as many fights as possible — fighting from the 9th to the 16th, not taking a single day off, fighting multiple times each day; this was all in a season’s work.

The temples and village heads promote the fights during Thailand’s Songkran festivities as a way to give back to the community. The fights are almost exclusively free and relatively low-pressure for those in the ring. Even though winning was always on his mind, Kru Mai knew that the promoters and fans would understand if he didn’t perform to his full potential. As can be expected, he wasn’t the only fighter working overtime.

Established fighters on the Bangkok circuit usually don’t take part unless they’ve been given the green light from their gym boss. Instead, it’s an opportunity for the young ones to gain experience, and for those looking to make a career out of it to test their skills. For the journeymen, such as Kru Mai, this was their chance to shine and earn big.

Making a run at the Songkran fights is not for the faint of heart. It requires traveling from province to province in the back of a pickup truck and covering thousands of kilometers from village to village over just a few days. The ordeal is made stiffer by the last-minute opponent changes and cancellations, and the debilitating injuries that naturally occur when fighting so frequently. Despite Kru Mai’s nonchalant attitude about his Songkran experience, no matter the level of expertise, make no mistake, it’s a painful pursuit.

Songkran is a trial that tests the will and hunger of every fighter willing to run the gauntlet. This year and the next will be no different.

Cover image: Lord K2