Muay Boran is an ancient and more dangerous fighting style than Muay Thai, with no gloves and techniques that can cause serious harm. It is still practiced in Thailand and gaining popularity in the West. Muay Thai is a more formalized system with rules and protections.
Muay Boran is an older and more traditional ancestor of modern Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing. Muay Boran is usually translated simply as Ancient Boxing and contains a number of regional styles, such as Muay Chaiya, Muay Korat, Muay Lopburi and Muay Thasao. Although an ancient style, Muay Boran is still widely practiced in Thailand. Muay Boran has been featured extensively in the famous Hollywood film Ong Bak. This has led to a sudden interest in the art, especially in the West where it is both practiced and taught in small schools in both the US and the UK.
Muay Thai was the result of a more formalized system than Muay Boran, integrating many ideas from Western boxing. In particular, Muay Thai fighters wear gloves and are subject to a fairly tight set of rules. While still more freeform than true Western boxing, in the late 1930s many Thais found Muay Thai too limited, and so began to focus on maintaining the older fighting style.
Muay Boran is also sometimes called Bound Fist Combat, because it doesn’t use gloves. Instead, hemp is wrapped around the fingers and wrists. This allowed for hard punches, but protected fairly delicate wrist and finger joints, so they didn’t break as often. Historically fighters dipped their hands in water before fighting, allowing attacks to harden and produce more stunning strikes. It is said that some fighters even dipped their hands in resin and broken glass, although this is not seen today.
Many of the rules developed for Muay Thai were created to protect fighters from serious injury and death. Muay Boran lacks these protections, making it both freer and substantially more dangerous. As a result it is rare to see major fighting academies in Thailand teaching Muay Boran, and you usually learn one-on-one with a teacher. Some schools say they teach Muay Boran, but in reality they only teach the kinder Muay Thai under the ancient name.
In Muay Boran, a number of techniques are allowed that can cause serious bodily harm. The entire body is an eligible target, which includes the groin, opening up the possibility of serious injury. Knee strikes are permitted, which can cause internal damage or break limbs. Headbutting is also permitted, which can cause concussions or serious bone damage upon contact.
While Muay Thai is conceived much more as a sport, with strict rules and physical protection, Muay Boran is much more of a raw fighting style. The emphasis in Muay Boran is on fast, hard attacks and an economy of energy. Each attack is considered in terms of winning physical damage for the energy used. Consequently, both knees and elbows play an important role in Muay Boran, as they are capable of inflicting serious damage with minimal performance. At the same time, Muay Boran is an energetic and visually beautiful martial art practiced, and Muay Boran performances have become relatively common in Muay Thai events.