Muay Thai and Kun Khmer: a comparative overview
Host Cambodia has dropped Muay Thai from disciplines for the 2023 SEA Games, and replaced it with its own version, Kun Khmer. This led to protests by Thailand that the host country had simply changed the name of the sport from Muay Thai to Kun Khmer.
Cambodia, however, argues that Kun Khmer is an ancient martial art, from which Muay Thai was born.
Thailand decided to boycott the Kun Khmer competition on grounds that the Federation of Muaythai Associations (IFMA) has announced that boxing martial arts that involve the use of fists, knees and elbows must be called “muay” only.
What are the differences between Muay Thai and Kun Khmer?
Muay in Thai means boxing.
Muay Thai has existed since the ancient days but there are no official records of when the martial art came into existence.
Kun Khmer in Khmer means a traditional martial art of the ancient Khmer people. Sometimes, it is called Pradal Serey.
It is believed that Kun Khmer originated from the Khmer Empire period in 802AD. There is no evidence on whether Kun Khmer developed from the local people’s culture or from India.
Experts believe Muay and Kun Khmer share the same cultural origin before they diverged into Thai and Cambodian martial arts.
The modern era
In 1913, international boxing was taught at the Suan Kularb College.
This led to the coining of Muay Thai to differentiate the local martial art from international boxing.
In 1921, Muay Thai became a profession with a dedicated permanent stadium in Thailand for the first time. The stadium was used for both Muay Thai and international boxing. Referees were used for the first time and Muay Thai fighters had to wear gloves for the first time.
During the colonial era (1863–1953), the French saw Kun Khmer as a cruel, so they improvised it into a sport by dividing the competition into rounds and requiring fighters to fight on stage with gloves.
Although the two martial arts are similar, IFMA general secretary Stephan Fox said "Kun Khmer is not Muay Thai, like judo is not karate."
Traditional dance before boxing
Muay Thai dances or wai kru that precede boxing originated from the Sukhothai period. There are many postures of the dance.
Kun Khmer dance is called kun kru or thvayobangkoum krou. There are 17 postures and most originate from the Ramayana epic.
Muay Thai’s traditional music is performed by a Java wind pipe, two drums and tiny cymbals.
Kun Khmer calls its traditional music vung phleng pradall or vung phleng klang khek.
The music is performed by a sralai or a pipe, two sampho drungs and tiny cymbals.
Muay Thai and Kun Khmer music sound similar.
Muay Thai and Kun Khmer have similar fighting rules.
Participation in SEA Games
Muay Thai has been held in the SEA Games for five times — in 2007, 2009, 2013, 2019 and 2022.
Kun Khmer is being held in 2023.
In 1995, Cambodia had suggested that Muay Thai, be referred to as "Sovannaphum boxing" or "SEA Boxing", which represented Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
Sovannaphum means "golden land" in Khmer and is written as Suwannabhumi in Thai.
However, other nations especially Thailand, were not keen on this change, arguing that Thailand was responsible for making its boxing style an international sport.