Muay Lao and Muay Thai are the same martial art, they are just practiced in different countries: Laos and Thailand respectively. “Muay” comes from the Sanskrit word “Mayya” meaning “boxing” and this unarmed kickboxing style of martial art has been a part of Southeast Asia culture for hundreds of years.
The Khmer Empire existed between 802–1431 AD and covered what is now modern day Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The army of this Empire practiced ‘Kbach Kun Pradal Khmer’, an unarmed combat style involving punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes. It also featured the clinch, where the fighters would grab hold of each other and launch short range attacks: elbows and knee strikes.
Scenes of fighters sparring were carved into stone wall scenes that were produced during the Khmer Empire.
Originally the fights took place in pits dug into the ground and had limited rules. The fighters hands would be wrapped in rope and, occasionally, seashells would be coiled around the knuckles to cause even more damage.
When the Khmer Empire eventually fell, the fighting culture was left behind and remained in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
When the French colonized the area, they viewed the fighting style as violent and brutal. In an attempt to ‘civilize’ the style, they introduced rules including timed rounds, a boxing ring and padded gloves to reduce injury.
Today, it is Muay Thai that has become famous around the world even thought the same fighting style is practiced in the neighbouring regions. This is for a variety of reason, not least because Thailand has one of the largest populations in the area. It also has one of the most developed economies with rapidly rising living standards.
As a result, Westerners started to travel to Thailand to learn and improve their fighting skills. This popularized the name “Muay Thai” to describe this particular fighting style even though it is not restricted to Thailand alone.
This naming convention is unlikely to change in the near future. Thailand dominates the sport:
- The fighting prize money and skill level is much higher in Thailand when compared to Laos.
- There are only a few registered professional fighters in Laos.
- Professional fights are only held in Vientiane (the Capital of Laos) twice a month.
Because of this, it unlikely that Muay Lao will be used to describe this fighting style outside of Laos itself any time soon.
The situation is gradually improving in Laos: prize money is gradually increasing; sponsors including Singha Beer are beginning to support the fights; and local TV is beginning to cover the fights.
Muay Lao is also being practiced further away from the Capital rather than being focused in a small regional area. This can only increase the number of fighters coming out of Laos.
Many Muay Lao fighters also travel across the border to Thailand to train and compete, tempted by the chance to win a much higher fighting purse when compared to their home country, When they return, they bring the knowledge and skills they gained back to Laos to uplift the overall fighting level in the country.