Muay Lao: the Kick Boxing Scene in Vientiane, Laos

Ask a European about Asian kick boxing, he for sure will answer: "yes, Thai boxing!". Ask Thai people about kick boxing, you most likely get the answer: "Of course, it's Muay Thai, we invented it, and we are the best!". But Laos’s people will probably explain, that "Muay is a Southeast Asian traditional martial arts with its roots in Cambodia, the Thai people call it Muay Thai, and here in Laos the name is Muay Lao." 

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In Southeast Asian sport events the term "Muay" often acts as an umbrella for all traditional kick boxing styles mainly from the Indochinese countries like Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The word "Muay" comes from the Sanskrit term mavya and means "boxing". Unarmed martial arts have always been a constant part of Southeast Asia since ancient times. Evidence shows that a style similar to kick boxing was practiced by the Khmers in the Angkor era. Since the kingdom of Angkor at that time dominated and controlled most parts of Indochina, it is highly probable that Muay started with the early Khmer people. In this context the often used label for Muay Laos as "the little brother of Thai Kickboxing" seems to be wrong, but there are also historians who claim that Muay Lao originated in Northern Thailand.

In any case there is no doubt that Muay Lao is still a much less developed sport in Laos than Muay Thai in Thailand. Professional fights are only held in Vientiane twice per month and there are still only few registered professional fighters in the whole country. However, times are changing. A couple of years ago the venue for the professional fights moved from the old Sok Sai stadium in Vientiane to the bigger nearby Circus. Sponsors like Singha Beer from Thailand support the fights, the price money grows slowly but steadily and the local TV broadcasts the most important fights. The Circus is jam-packed especially when foreign boxers from Thailand or Burma are invited.

Muay Lao, but also Muay in general, is known as the ‘art of eight limbs’, referring to the eight points of contact a boxer can use to strike the opponent. Allowed are punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes and clinching techniques. During the colonial period in Indochina Muay was considered to be brutal and uncivilized until the French tried to lessen the injury by adding timed rounds, boxing rings and western style boxing gloves. But still Muay Lao is a passionate full-contact sport, many fights end in a knockout and it is not uncommon that a boxer is carried out of the ring on a stretcher.

In Laos kick boxing is popular, but mainly practiced in and around Vientiane. In villages far away from the capital still "temple fighters" are common: boys who would like to fight are looking for a trainer, which could be the older brother, the uncle or a friend of the family. Only thing is they know a little bit about Muay Lao. A sandbag for training is fine, but if not handy, a banana tree does the same job. The boxing bouts often take place on Buddhist holidays, where the villagers come together on a countryside festival. A simple improvised boxing ring is all they need, and the young "temple fighters" enter the ring to win 5000 or 6000 Kip, which is less than a Dollar. It is not much, but kick boxing means inevitable betting at the same time. If a fighter wins, at least his family can make some profit with a bet. In villages or small towns near Vientiane the Muay Lao scene is already a bit more professional and better developed. Usually once per week young boxers fight for little price money and for an invitation to join the "big fights" in the Circus in Vientiane.

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Many of the Muay Lao fighters are surprisingly young. The weight of the boys starts at about 35 kg, and often the young boxers weigh only between 40 and 52 kg. Outside the ring the young lightweight boxers with sometimes way too big boxing shorts look pretty harmless, but once they enter the ring the wiry and unbridled fighters show their full potential. A match consists of five three-minute rounds, this a very long time, and in order to save energy very often the fight in the first round looks more like a dance than a real fight. But with the sound of the bell to open up the second round all containment is gone and the iron will to win the fight takes over. An elbow strike can be highly effective for a sudden knockout, but is in the same time most destructive and can lead to broken jaws or cracked ribs. For that reason many Muay Lao boxers try to avoid the extensive usage of elbows unless they fall behind in the fourth round or the opponent is from Thailand. Very often the fighters are starting to clinch. Opposed to western style boxing, where a clinch is not very much desired and mostly used to regain some energy, a clinch in Muay Lao is an important part of the fight: the boxer tries to throw the opponent to the ground to set a major point. At the same time a clinch is highly risky, because knee and elbow strikes in a clinch can weaken the opponent or lead in the best case to a sudden knockout. Very often one fighter in a clinch has a slight better position to land repeatedly one strike after the other, the audience loves that and supports each strike with a loud cheering.

After a major event like the SEA Games 2013 in Myanmar the kick boxing scene in Vientiane seems to hibernate for a little while. Most of the fighters relax and skip training for a time, but the next event is just around the corner, the National Games in December 2014 in Oudomxay. A growing number of well-trained Muay Lao boxers start to compete regularly against their Muay Thai counterparts from Thailand. More and more professional kickboxing gyms are set up in Vientiane and big companies and sponsors like Singha Beer from Thailand or Beerlao from Laos are getting involved. The expectations are high, many people in Laos believe in a couple of years their boxers will be as good as the boxers of Thailand. Also girls and women are more and more interested in Muay Lao, however, the big professional Saturday fights in Vientiane are still highly dominated by young men.

One of the already established boxing gyms in Vientiane is the Kwanjai Sikhot Boxing Gym not far away from the international airport. Kampanad Xunlavong, a participant of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, is the head coach and an experienced sparring partner for the young talents. Another upcoming boxing gym in Vientiane is the Safaa Gym located in Phon Papao village. The owner Safaa Freeman prefers to teach K-1, a Japanese kick boxing style without elbow strikes and without clinching. However, he plans to set up a small but effective Muay Lao fighter group the next couple of years. But one thing is for sure: many more promising boxing gyms will arise the next years, and it will be very exciting to see, if the dream of the Laotians boxers to close up to the famous Muay Thai boxing scene will eventually come true one day.

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