The Tiger King (Phra Chao Suea) in Disguise’ is among the oldest and most famous legends in Muay Thai.

Over centuries of retelling the story, you’d expect the modern variants to contain wild exaggerations. Yet, surprisingly, they are mostly true to the original. What’s missing in modern retellings though, are crucial details that you can only find in the original account. These details paint a picture of Muay Thai’s past and reveal interesting facts hidden in plain sight.

Here’s the synopsis of the legend, and other intriguing aspects of the original source.

The Original Source of the Tiger King

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The original source of the Tiger King’s legend is in an entry in the Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya. It recounts an occasion when the king hid his identity to compete in a Thai-boxing match. He didn’t want the opponent to hold back during the fight due to his royal status.

At the village’s arena, the chronicles describe the Tiger King’s opponent as being equally skilled and strong. The fight was suitably matched. Neither boxers made any missteps in the beginning. But, in the second-half, the opponent made a blunder. The Tiger King struck his opponent and won.

Without a doubt, the Tiger King was King Sanphet VIII, who reigned in Ayutthaya from 1703 to 1709. This means the match occurred around 300 years ago. What’s interesting is that the chronicles, in which the story comes from, normally records palace and state matters. Hence, this out-of-the-ordinary entry is a treasure-trove of information.

By extracting forgotten facts in Muay Thai and comparing it to the present-day, be prepared to be surprised…

Fact #1: Long ago, Muay Thai was just known as ‘Muay’

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The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya is among the oldest accounts that contains the word – ‘muay’ (boxing). The term, ‘Muay Thai’ didn’t exist until the 20th century when people needed to distinguish Thai boxing from International Boxing.

To the Thai though, ‘muay’ by default was still used to refer to Thai boxing. They used ‘Muay Sakon’ and ‘Muay Farang’ to refer to International and Western boxing respectively. Foreigners, familiar with International Boxing, referred to the Thai-style as ‘Muay Thai’.

Also, there was no distinction between ancient and contemporary Thai-boxing until 1910. That was when the term ‘Muay Boran’ (literally: boxing ancient) originated.

Fact #2: Thai-boxing Competitions Existed as Entertainment for Over 300 years

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The Tiger King’s legend is the oldest record that depicts a Thai-boxing competition. It confirms that Muay Thai has been a form of prizefighting and entertainment since the early 1700s…

Firstly, the boxing match was part of a festival. Next, there were spectators who reacted and cheered during the fight. Finally, the match ended with the organizers paying the fighters. Furthermore, two olden Siamese laws corroborate the entertainment and prizefighting aspects of Thai-boxing.

The Three Seals code (from Ayutthaya era) protects the fighters and organiser(s) from liability if a match ends in death. It treats prizefighting as a form of entertainment. The even older Mengrai’s laws assert that boxing, as a form of entertainment, is exempt from tax.

Fact #3: Before Stadiums, Thai-Boxing Matches were Common at Temple Fairs

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In the legend, the match was held at a temple fair. Back then, there weren’t any stadiums to compete in. Temple fairs commemorate festivals and are meant to help temples raise funds. These fairs usually have flea markets, music and dances, and boxing matches.

It was only in 1945, when Rajadamnern Stadium was opened, that official Muay Thai matches were fought in stadiums. Nonetheless, matches are still held at temple fairs today. That is how promising nak muay (fighters) from rural Thailand get their initial fight experiences.

Fact #4: Boxers from the Capital Occasionally Compete in Rural Matches

Modern retellings don’t address how the Tiger King joined the competition without prior notice, while still in disguise. After all, the organizers wouldn’t have prioritized an unknown boxer from outside the village.

But, the original explains the situation. The king was disguised as a boxer from Ayutthaya (old Capital). A crown servant issued a royal order to the master of the arena, as quoted (translation by Cushman):

“At this moment one of the boxers from the Capital has come out. He would like to come in for a match and box in Your Worship’s arena”.

This suggests that some boxers from the Capital had the privilege to compete outside Ayutthaya (with royal assent). Organizers would then prioritise these fighters in a match.

Fact #5: The Winner Received 1 Baht (in the early 1700s)

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At the end, the master of the arena gave the winner 1 baht and paid the loser 2 saleung (half a baht). According to the source, that was the market rate for outer villages.

Now, 1 baht (US$0.03) isn’t much today. But, to give you an estimate, it’s the four-day wage of a rural worker in 1889 (wage data not available before 1889). So, we can safely deduce that the 1 baht reward was higher in value at the time of the legend (early 1700s) – more than 4 days of income.

Both Pattana Kitiarsa and Antonio Graceffo report prize money in rural matches as low as 300 baht (US$9). It is roughly the one-day wage in rural Isaan, where most Thai boxers come from. Unfortunately, that means the reward today is lower in value (when comparing it against daily wages). That’s not surprising given the massive number of rural boys who become nak muay to escape poverty.

How many of these facts were you aware of? Do you have anything else to add? Let me know in the comments section.

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