T
o the uninitiated, Muay Thai appears to fall neatly into the category of combat sports. With a few restrictions, the goal is to take your opponent out in a set number of rounds. However, the shrill sound of the sarama, ringside music played live by an arrangement of oboes, drums and cymbals, is the first of many signs that Muay Thai belongs in a category of its own. Fighters step in unison to the hypnotic music. The first jabs are thrown. A kick connects to the face. The sarama picks up tempo as the rounds pass and the fight gains steam. Suddenly, a knee finds an opponent’s temple. The bloodied corner of the ring becomes a deeper shade of crimson. A muscled body drops with a dull thud. Medics see to the wounds that trainers can’t patch up. The music stops for a moment, before starting anew in a conciliatory, peaceful cadence.

In a dusty parking lot behind the dignitary-lined boxing ring that serves as the centerpiece for the annual World Wai Kru Muay Thai Ceremony, fighters are sprawled out on bamboo mats in various stages of exhaustion. There’s a United Nations-like bouquet of languages in the air and a sense of camaraderie. Some fighters have just arrived from cross-country, multi-day journeys. Others started sparring at dawn.

World Champion Ashley Nichols sits with her back to the ring, facing the tranquil waters that surround the park. Representing Canada, she’s set to fight Thai favorite and 2015 Female Fighter of the Year Kwanjai Sor. Tawanrung. It’s a hotly contested matchup between two fighters with something to prove on this seminal day.

“The dances, paying respect to teachers and ancestors, are such a beautiful part of Muay Thai,” says Nichols. “Coming from a spiritual background in the First-Nations community, I found that I could really relate to it.” Nichols grew up in the Chippewa of the Thames, a First Nations community in Ontario and found common ground in Muay Thai’s spiritual elements.

There’s no pump-up music or Beats-clad boxers fueling their energy with a light dose of competitive rage. They get in the zone by meditating. Those just about to hit the ring are getting rubbed down with pungent, eye-watering Tiger Balm to warm the muscles while an entourage of trainers wraps their gloves. It’s a paradoxically energizing and calming atmosphere. And the scene behind the ring is just the beginning of the action at the pilgrimage of Muay Thai.

The World Wai Kru Muay Thai Ceremony is part boxing tournament, part graduation and part cultural festival, with a hefty dose of celebration. Fighters from around the world travel to the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya, 80 kilometers north of Bangkok, to pay homage to Muay Thai masters and others receive teaching credentials to spread the sport and its culture. Set in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ayutthaya Historical Park, temple ruins from various rulers serve as a backdrop for the festival. March marks the beginning of the hot season in Thailand, and the dependable tropical weather patterns do not disappoint. Temperatures are pushing 100-degrees without a cloud in the sky, but it’s not slowing down the action.

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This year over 1,200 Muay Thai fighters and devotees from 57 countries have made the trip to Ayutthaya. It’s the biggest gathering of its kind in the world. There’s an air of celebration with an overriding sense of reverence. Thais and foreigners alike are here because of their dedication to Muay Thai, a sport where respect, spirituality and culture are linked. It’s no surprise, then, that boxing is only one part of the festivities.

In the name of the ceremony, Wai refers to the Thai showing of respect to people of seniority, in which one joins their hands in prayer at heart center and gently bows. Kru is a title reserved for teachers, denoting status and respect. It’s here at this festival that a new group of Muay Thai teachers is dramatically crowned — or rather banded, with ceremonial braided armbands worn around the bicep — by Thailand’s Muay Thai elite.

Beyond the ring, a swordsmith prods a blade in the making into the impossibly hot coals of a long-burning fire. Devotees of the practice stand awe-inspired in the radiating heat of the fire despite the 100-degree weather. Young fighters practice their kicks on banana tree trunks strung up near the placid river that winds through the park, while distinctly Thai aromas of ginger, lime and chili drift over from nearby cooking fires and food stalls where dietary staples like khao man gai (a chicken and rice dish with the optimal blend of protein and carbohydrates) are prepared to a fighter’s exacting standards.

There’s no pump-up music or Beats-clad boxers fueling their energy with a light dose of competitive rage. They get in the zone by meditating.

The most popular attraction, though, is the Sak Yant pavilion, an open-air traditional tattoo parlor where fighters are queueing to select one (or more) traditional designs from a hand-drawn flash sheet. Done in the Buddhist tradition, these tattoos are believed to offer protection and bring good fortune. Spirituality trumps aesthetics with this needle.

“As foreign fighters, we respect the history of the sport,” says Kru Vaz Facey while adding another Sak Yant tattoo to his growing collection. Facey trained under an Arjan (a master instructor with over 25 years of experience) for a decade to earn his instructor’s title. He was inspired to pass the practice onto others after experiencing the need for training firsthand.

“Muay Thai was originally a way of protecting oneself and the family.” One night, shortly after moving from Jamaica to London, Facey and a friend were mugged. His friend happened to teach Muay Thai.

“I’ve been practicing the sport ever since. It’s been eighteen years, and I’ve been coming to the Wai Kru ceremony for the past six years. I’ve always felt welcome,” Facey says before darting off to pay homage to an especially respected master instructor. “I love the passion of it,” he adds. “The smile people have on their face. Even if they’re getting beaten, there’s always a smile. There’s a smile on my face as well.”

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Known as “The Art of Eight Limbs” because of the eight parts of the body used to strike, Muay Thai is often credited to one man and his epic fight for freedom. Ayutthaya native Nai Khanom Tom was captured, along with many other boxers, by the neighboring Burmese and taken as a prisoner of war in 1774. Tom was forced to fight as entertainment in a festival in the Burmese capital of Rangoon. Before his fight, Tom performed the wai kru, a slow, meditative dance in the ring that pays respect to one’s teacher and ancestors, along with the spectating crowd and the opponent.

Legend has it, the opposing fighter was so entranced by the dance that Tom knocked him out seconds into the fight. Unimpressed by the round-one knockout, the Burmese king sent out nine more fighters for Tom to beat one at a time to prove himself. Of course, he won every fight and earned his freedom along with two Burmese wives. Tom returned a national hero and March 17 became the day Thai people celebrated his feat. The wai kru, along with the respect and spirituality it encompasses, remains a fixture in contemporary Muay Thai.

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A statue of Nai Khanom Tom watches over the festival, and every fighter joins their palms in prayer as they pass, expressing the wai. Fighters still wear the traditional mongkohn (headband) and pra jiad (armbands) into the ring when they perform their wai kru before each fight. Elaborate and colorful, the adornments date back to the days of Nai Khanom Tom and Thailand’s turbulent past. It’s believed these garments, almost always blessed by a Buddhist monk, would keep the fighters safe in the ring and lead them to victory.

Thailand is roughly 95 percent Buddhist. The customs and beliefs of the religion are so entwined with the sport that non-Buddhist fighters still wear these garments into the ring, and there’s a strong sense of urgency to keep these customs in Muay Thai even as the sport globalizes.

“It’s not just getting in the ring and fighting,” Nichols explains moments after leaving the ring. The sun is setting on the day; the attention is turning away from the ring and toward the temples where fighters will show their respect for their masters, and where some will take a step toward that hallowed title. Once again, the world champ expresses her dominance with an authoritative knockout victory.

She’s calm. Her trainer gingerly dabs a homemade concoction on her various gashes. “There are a lot more teachings behind it all, and that’s what makes it so special to people who practice. Back home we are really instilling these values behind the sport: respect for the culture, the teachers, and our ancestors.”