The exact date of Muay Thai origins can be debated, but what’s generally known is that the original fighting style was developed and refined from the 1200s to the 1600s. Not a lot of direct evidence exists from the early time period because much of it was destroyed before and during the Burma-Siamese War. Around 1600, Siam would expel their oppressors using the Muay Thai fighting techniques deployed in jungle warfare strategy. It’s also worth pointing out that while Siamese fighters learned hand-to-hand fighting, they were also trained to use and fight with the various weaponry of their day. It’s not like they only used their bodies as weapons because of some sort of cultural purity.
After 1600, Muay Thai quickly became a point of national and cultural pride. The Siam Kings of this era were invariably Muay Thai warriors. Soon thereafter, it was transformed into a sport. Headbands, armbands, and a ring were also introduced, and the sport became increasingly codified over the next three centuries. By the late 1880s, elaborate, heavily promoted, well-attended tournaments were regularly held. It was the national pastime.
The modern history of Muay Thai is defined by the international exposure to the fighting style that was one of the incidental effects of WWI and WWII. During and after WWII in particular, Muay Thai continued to dominate not only as Siam-now-Thailand’s national pastime but as an increasing international sensation as well. Within a couple decades, the martial arts style would be incorporated in several major movies and become a staple of mixed martial arts training in its current form.
Today, Muay Thai is an intimate part of Thailand’s culture like few other places can understand. It makes football look like a recent fad. It makes soccer in Europe look like a mild whimsy. It makes UFC look like something between a copycat and a Johnny-come-lately.