VENLO, Netherlands--The flag of Thailand hangs on a ringside wall. Upbeat Thai music, played on flutes and percussion, works up the crowd's excitement.
The scene here in this southern town in Holland is a muay thai tournament, whose contestants range in age from 6 to 18. The tournament, held monthly, had 50 boys and girls competing in February.
Muay thai is a martial art similar to kickboxing that uses punches, kicks and strikes with the elbows and knees.
"I love muay thai," said 9-year-old Rumeysa Karakoca, who defeated another girl her age in a match by using repeated knee strikes. "I want to be strong, and in the future I want to be a muay thai instructor."
Her mother, 33-year-old Gurten, supports her daughter.
"The whole family likes muay thai," she said.
Although the Netherlands is known as a leading soccer country, martial arts are also big here.
The country is home to around 420 gyms that teach muay thai or kickboxing and is host to multiple pro and amateur tournaments every weekend.
Not all the competitors aspire to be pros and earn fight money. Some get into it as a family activity or for health reasons.
"Muay thai has already permeated society, just like Japanese karate and judo," said Dale Tan, 57, who runs a muay thai gym and is the organizer of the Venlo tournament.
The origin of the Dutch muay thai boom can be found in Japan.
After Anton Geesink, a native of Utrecht, won the gold medal in judo at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, many Dutch martial artists came to Japan. Kickboxing, a blend of muay thai and karate, had just been created in Japan at the time. When they returned to their country, the Dutch took back kickboxing along with judo.
The Dutch who studied kickboxing developed an interest in the original muay thai and traveled to Thailand, the martial art's homeland.
"I'd fought huge men nearly 2 meters tall, but a skinny little Thai person ... handled me like a baby. I wondered whether it was magic," said Rusien Garbin, 59, the owner of a gym with 30 professional fighters on its staff, as he reflected on his first visit to Thailand in 1979.
The K-1 martial arts event that started off in Japan in the 1990s boosted interest in muay thai even higher. Elbow and knee strikes are not allowed, and the rules are different from muay thai, but many muay thai practitioners compete in K-1. One of them, 29-year-old Buakaw Por Pramuk, is a two-time K-1 champion weighing in at under 70 kilograms.
Many retired Thai muay thai fighters are invited to overseas gyms as trainers.
Fighter Peter Aerts, 41, who won his first of three K-1 championships in 1994, and is now based in the Netherlands, where he continues to fight at the top level, also used to study muay thai.
"Muay thai isn't just about striking blows," Aerts said. "It involves techniques like grappling in close combat."
Although muay thai has spread worldwide, some people want to return the martial art to its original form.
Chinawut Sirisompan, 57, went to England in 1974 to study engineering as an international student. There, his part-time job as a bouncer at a bar led him to open up a gym where he has helped popularize muay thai in Europe for around 30 years. He pointed out that "there are many people with little muay thai experience pretending to be instructors."
At a fight in Thailand, spectators will never fail to see the wai khru, a dance in which the fighters offer up prayers before fighting. Chinawut said there are many muay thai instructors outside Thailand who cannot teach the wai khru.
Chinawut returned to Thailand in 2007, where he now teaches at a Bangkok gym, instructing his students not only how to fight muay thai-style for competition, but also the history of the art and the process by which each individual move was established. Students of muay thai from North America, Europe, Japan and elsewhere visit in search of a deeper understanding.
"Thais should be proud of how muay thai, a product of their culture, has spread across the globe," Chinawut said. "It's not just punching and kicking. I want people to learn everything about it."
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