Muay Thai legends
The Grand Master of Muay Chaiya
The Grand Master of Muay Chaiya, Keat Sriyabhaya (1902-1978)

by Marco De Cesaris

Keat Sriyabhaya
The most well-known traditional combat style in the south of Thailand, Muay Chaiya, is famous for its fighting strategy based mostly on evasive and unpredictable movements, as well as ferocious attacks with the legs—kicks or knees—against the lower parts of the adversary, or sudden series of elbow strikes executed advancing quickly toward the adversary or literally jumping his defenses. An ancient legend says that Muay Chaiya was born from the experience of a monk of Chinese origins called Paw Tan Mar, who after his years wandering, settled in the town of Pum Riang (Chaiya region) and became the abbot of the temple: for that, the style developed in the southern area of Thailand, and for decades was represented by masters of small stature (contrary, for example, to Muay Korat, which was always more apt for people of taller stature), and in its martial application emphasized kicks to the lower lines executed with short and precise trajectories, along with fluid defense and counter-attack movements executed with the arms (fists, elbows, forearms) and directed at higher targets like the neck or head.
The more impetuous the adversary is, and for that, not very smart, the easier it will be to avoid the impact of his strikes, rendering him unable to do damage with formidable actions directed to the exposed parts; that is the credo of the Chaiya Boxer, and that precision accompanied the combats of that style characteristic of Muay Boran in their fights against the representatives of different styles. The man who most contributed to popularizing and perfecting the style in modern times was without any doubt the Grand Master Keat Sriyabhaya.
Born in the district of Tha Taphao in the province of Chumphon in a family of solid martial traditions, Grand Master Keat was undoubtedly the most known and respected figure in Thailand in so far as the technical preparation and moral virtues in the field of traditional Muay Thai in the last century was concerned. Between 1950 and the year of his passing, the Master formidably contributed to the preservation of what for him was the true, original warrior style of Muay Boran, Muay Chaiya, the style from the south, which had its moment of maximum popularity during the rein of King Chuylalongkorn. The elegant technique of Master Keat (transmitted to following generations thanks to his disciple Master Tong Yaleh) was for years one of the best guarded secrets in Thai Martial Arts; in fact, it is said that in the early part of the 1970s, a Japanese Kick Boxing federation got to the point of offering 100,000 bath in the times of Bramajarn Keat for him to reveal the secrets of his Art, but the Master kindly rejected the offer. The techniques of Muay Chaiya go back to the times in which the combats were ferocious and the boxers were proud to represent a style of fighting in combat against representatives of other styles (it’s worth remembering that GM Keat never fought in an official Muay Thai combat because that was considered inappropriate for a person of his lineage, but he defended the honor of his Art on various occasions against challengers from other styles): primarily emphasizing Muay Chaiya’s elegant way of fighting, full of spectacular techniques. The Chaiya Boxer based his actions on apparently “defenseless” positions, which concealed fast and explosive reactions, twisting and bending the body to totally exploit its flexibility, even at very short distances. The more aggressive the adversary was, the more the Chaiya Boxer was able to use the opponent’s own energy against him; that was the basis of the combat for exponents of the southern style, especially for Grand Master Keat.
However, the same Grand Master recognized the value of the other styles, especially the powerful of Muay Korat, whose champions—according to the Grand Master himself—often won against the Chaiya Boxers thanks to its ferocious and very violent form of attacking without rest, with circular kicks and knee strikes, using bones as hard as iron.
The guard position of Muay Chaiya is very different from what would generally define a Boxing guard (which the Thai Boxers adopted in modern times with the introduction of gloves and the established number of rounds); the basic guard at 45 degrees and with the feet parallel that GM Keat preferred (photo) places the fighter in an apparently defenseless position, but in reality it hides a great quantity of possible actions studied for the quick “elimination” of the adversary with attacks on his vital points. Also, the guard on one leg, derived by Yang Sam Khum (photo) looks unstable, but really, thanks to specific training in the Mae Mai typical of Chaiya, it offers the possibility of striking while advancing, receding or even jumping, at the same time avoiding the most known arm and leg attacks.
GM Keat used to say that the Muay Chaiya guard has to seem like the King of the Fruits, the durian, whose exterior surface is hard and bristly with spines, and for an attacker, it is a source of pain just to touch it: knees, tibias, forearms, elbows, if well placed, have an important role in protection, and the experts of the style considered them “passive weapons.” It is also interesting to note how these very characteristic and spectacular positions and movements have been partly used in the production of the famous film Ong Bak for the defensive positions of the protagonist, the actor Tony Jaa, in order to distinguish the traditional Martial Art from the modern forms of Kick Boxing.
Movements of cutting elbow strikes, strikes with the forearms, hammer fists, and strikes with the back of the fist made up part of the Chaiya Boxer arsenal in his combats to death: in order to be able to exploit these weapons in the best way possible, the hand wrapping (done with course cotton rope) only covered the hands of the fighters to the wrist, the reverse, for example, of what the exponents of Muay Korat did, who wrapped all of the forearm.
These days, Muay Chaiya has practically disappeared; however, luckily, thanks to the work of Master Tong Yaleh, the successor of GM Keat, the principles and the original techniques of the style of that Grand Master have been transmitted to a handful of followers who, in relatively recent times, thanks to the mediation of GM Paosawath, have begun to collaborate with the Association of Thai Martial Arts (AITMA), allowing a fascinating Art of combat to be available to us, an Art which almost disappeared forever from the world panorama of Oriental Martial Arts.
“I studied Muay since I was 10 years old; today I am 70 and I still have a lot to learn. If someone says that they know it all and have nothing left to learn, I believe that person will never reach the heart of Muay.”