With swords and stunts, Thai youth embrace ancient martial art

This photo taken on July 8, 2019 shows students practicing Krabi Krabong, a Thai martial art, at the Thonburee Woratapeepalarak school in Thonburi, on the outskirts of Bangkok. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)


by Sippachai Kunnuwong 


THON BURI, Thailand (AFP) — Armed with a wooden knife and shield, a teenage girl fends off four sword-wielding boys with high-flying kicks in an action-packed homage to Thailand’s neglected sword fighting tradition.

The fighters are part of a growing group of students at a school on Bangkok’s outskirts mastering “Krabi Krabong,” a martial art used in centuries-old warfare between rival kingdoms.

“It is a fighting technique used in a bygone era,” 16-year-old Nantakarn Duangthongyu told AFP after her “4 vs 1” drill at Thonburee Woratapeepalarak School.

“We add new tricks and routines to make it more exciting.”

Soldiers used to deploy the elegant Krabi Krabong, meaning “sword staff”, in hand-to-hand frontline combat or from the back of war elephants.

But as guns replaced swords, Krabi Krabong was reduced to a remnant of Thailand’s medieval past.

Experts preserved the deadly skill by turning it into an art form and practitioners now duel with mock weapons in contests or for entertainment.

But it has failed to catch fire unlike Thailand’s better known martial art of Muay Thai kickboxing despite campaigns to teach it in public schools.

The lack of experienced trainers and the complexity of managing an array of weaponry while engaging in hand-to-hand sparring makes it “a difficult art form”, school coach Phatcharaphon Banditketmala told AFP.

“But it offers the fighters… a more ‘ultimate’ fighting (experience) than Muay Thai,” he said.

In order to spice things up for a younger audience, teachers and students at the Thonburi school have added more moves and gymnast spins, giving fighters in action the appearance of blockbuster stunt doubles.

“It’s a very cool sport that teaches you about focus and partnership,” team captain Nattapong Pulluk told AFP.

While small the club has gone on to win prizes in martial arts contests in Thailand and abroad.

It has also cultivated a troop of female fighters who account for nearly half of the 22-strong team.

“Some girls may love cosmetics but I like challenging activities. And I get to exercise,” Nantakarn, who has trained for five years in the sport, told AFP.

Others say it has armed them with self-defense skills in a country that has yet to have a #MeToo-style public reckoning with sexual assault and harassment.

“If some psychopath tries to attack me or abuse me, I can grab a stick and fight them,” said 14-year-old Aiyakarn Lueakha.

© Agence France-Presse