Royal Pastimes

I’ve always thought of myself as athletic and artistic. However, when comparing my skills to those of the Thai people, I fear I’m not quite the artist or athlete I imagined.

Muay Thai gets its name from the Sanskrit word ‘mavya’ meaning ‘art of eight limbs.’ Unlike boxing, where fighters only use their fists, Muay Thai competitors can throw punches, kicks, and even head-butt their opponents using all of their limbs.

This ancient practice was first used on battlefields by the Thai military. Trained fighters were used to protect the legs of the royal elephants. By the 1700s, this army technique became the national sport of Thailand.

Another ancient art form is Thai Shadow Puppetry. Now, when you think about puppets, you probably think about sock creatures speaking in silly voices. Or maybe you recall learning your ABC’s from a grouchy puppet in a garbage can? That was experience with puppets before I witnessed Nang Yai here in Thailand.

Nang Yai is Thailand’s version of shadow puppetry, and one of the country’s most respected art forms. Thai shadow puppetry began in the 15th century and has been performed throughout Southeast Asia for centuries. One of the most popular stories told using these puppets is the epic tale of Ramakien. This story of a young prince, saving his wife who was stolen away by a demon god, reminds me of Greek drama. Stories like the Iliad or The Odyssey have a very similar structure: stories with gods, adventures, voyages, and epic battles, with a deeper meaning behind them.