The Original Mixed Martial Art of Southeast Asia

By Singhasiddh Sriyapant


The art of Silat Tomoi has its roots in the Indochinese history for more than 2,000 years as the result of cross-cultural exchanges through migration, trade and wars. However, like most other martial arts, the exact history and description of the art is limited and scarce. As a matter of fact, the name for Silat Tomoi might have been something else throughout the sands of time. Very little is accurately known of its ancient history that predates the first century AD. Many attempts have been made to describe and define the art of Silat Tomoi today. Among the most popular assumption would be the fact that this art originated from the northern region of Malaysia. There is also a popular misconception that the art of Silat Tomoi is in fact the same as the Thai combative sport of Muay Thai.

The emergence of Silat Tomoi cannot be attributed to any individual or group. Through careful examination and understanding its origin, we come to understand that this art is in fact the result of a ‘borderless’ convergence of traditions in the northern region of Malaysia and southern region of Thailand. To the practitioners of Silat Tomoi, the issue of ethnicity and religion has very little significance since this art has been practiced by both Thais and Malays alike for a long time. What differs from one school to another is the cultural factors being adapted and practiced by different masters.

Silat Tomoi can be quite complicated and challenging to learn, if compared to today’s modern Muay Thai. From the basic stances to advanced elbow techniques, it takes many months and years to actually master them before one can advance to the higher levels. Usually, teachers would guard this knowledge jealously and reserve it only for a few selected students whereas some teachers have even considered it a ‘secret’. The reason for this is simple: the art is not for sport! Neither is Silat Tomoi for show and there are no fancy moves or flashy techniques in this art as this was the knowledge that was developed and devised by assassins and warriors of the bygone days for the sole purpose of specializing in countering enemy forces and oppression from raiding invaders. The main goal of Silat Tomoi is to neutralize one’s enemy or to kill. Thus, before fighter is allowed to go into an actual battle or mission, he or she must be an extremely well prepared to execute and win. Defeats would eventually lead to capture and eventually death.

It would be inaccurate to say that Tomoi is entirely a ‘Malay’ or ‘Thai’ heritage as this art actually evolved from the result of wars and cultural exchanges between the region of northern Malaysia, southern Thailand and its neighboring states, such as the Burmese and Khmer. This includes a hybrid of techniques adapted from the Chinese, Japanese and Indian fighting arts that has been developed over the years to become one of the region’s most feared fighting arts and have given rise to some of the well known Southern Thai schools such as Muay Chaiya and Muay Yawi in Thailand. With the influence of the Malay dominated culture and fighting tradition, it includes an arsenal of unique weaponry system which can be found nowhere else.


It is important to understand the fact that unlike other oriental martial art traditions, knowledge and history of the Malay martial arts are almost entirely oral while the Thais have very minimal sources based on ancient records that survived throughout the years. This makes any references difficult to the author and most of the information derived from this article is mostly sourced from first hand experiences and traditional knowledge gained from the author’s teachers and martial art circles.

As with all orally transmitted knowledge, the historical interpretation and understanding of the art entirely depends on the version of story transmitted from one teacher to another, or one school to another; each has their own right to agree or disagree with one another based on what is justifiable or acceptable between the differing hypothesis.

Segenting Kra, or the Isthmus of Kra

It is said that Southeast Asia is a meeting place of the world’s civilizations, cultures and religions. Its history and culture were heavily influenced by external and indigenous factors. One of the most intense points of contact is located at the Peninsula that bounds the eastern side of the Strait of Malacca, where the ‘Malay world’ encounters with the rest of the world via its lucrative trade route. The less than 80 kilometers of land has been in frequent contact with international trading, migration, cultural and literacy exchanges. This narrow section of land in southern Thailand that separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand is known as the Isthmus of Kra or Segenting Kra in Malay. In Thai, it is called ‘Khor Khot Kra’ (คอคอดกระ).

Throughout its history, the isthmus has been an important overland passage to allow shipping of goods to bypass the Strait of Malacca due to difficulties in navigation and threat of piracy. It was the strategic meeting point for people from China, India, Sri Lanka and the neighboring region. Discoveries of artifacts and metallurgical objects could be traced to prehistoric times, as far as 4,000 and 1,000 B.C.

Langkasuka, Pattani and Kedah and its common link to the Nusantara Region

Advancement of technology and civilization that has spanned itself way back into prehistoric times where ancient kingdoms were already established with forces of military, forts and advanced weaponry system. The history of Langkasuka, Pattani and Kedah goes beyond the time of formation of the Malaccan, Johorean and Selangor sultanates (pre 14th and 15th Centuries). According to the early Chinese literatures, it is mentioned that the Langkasuka was founded in the 01st Century A.D.

Based on the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (The Kedah Annals), the state of Kedah Zamin Turan was initially called Langkasuka. From Langkasuka, came later states such as Siam, Pattani and Gangga Negara. Indian and Javanese texts have also mentioned the name Langkasuka as a territory of the Srivijaya Empire.

The tradition and culture of the locality could be a post-Srivijaya legacy linking itself to the rest of the Nusantara Region, of Javanese in particular. The Javanese influence on the Thai and Malay arts are exemplified in the Panji tale of Inao and Budsabha (Inu and Puspa) which originated in the second half of the 11th century Java which was popularized in the 13th to 15th centuries during the golden age of the Majapahit Kingdom.

Definition of terms


In the opinion of the author, Silat basically means ‘morality’ or ‘principles’, originating from the Sanskrit word ‘Sīla’. The author would like to quote from his teacher’s (Jak Othman) article ‘Lightning Fast, Bone Crushing Malay Art of War!’ where he describes that Silat as the combative characteristics of fighting.

In his article, Guru Jak explained that Silat is the short form for ‘Si Kilat’ or Lightning (Kilat) in the Malay language. The old masters have described that a Silat practitioner (Pesilat) must be bright, (in knowledge and wisdom) possess beauty, speed and grace in movement, while also deadly and elusive just like the lightning in the sky. In other words, you can feel its presence, but you do not know where it comes from. The speed of lightning is very fast and it destroys every object it strikes. Since the majority of Silat stylists are Muslims, the metaphor of lightning is believed to be the weapon of the angels to punish the devil. Therefore, Silat is against evil.


In the northern region of Malaysia, there exists a more localized dialect of the Thai language closely associated to the old Siamese influence. Tomoi is an adapted word in the Malay language. Tomoi, in its true sense derived from the Thai language, ‘Dtoi Muay’ (ต่อยมวย). 'Dtoi' (ต่อย) generally translates into a general term for 'boxing', fight, and sting or to engage in a fistfight.

The term 'Muay' (มวย) for ‘Muay Thai’ (มวยไทย) has several possible meanings which it could derive from;

Firstly, it refers to the act of ‘binding’, such as binding of ropes, strings, cloth and other sacred objects of a fighter as a kind of charm in order to protect them while on battle. It also refers to the act of ‘binding’ of the hair ‘Muay Phom’ (มวยผม). This may metaphoricaly symbolize the act of unity by 'binding' together against the enemies.

A more interesting and controversial note on the origin of the term could have also originated from the Sanskrit word ‘Mallayuddha’ (มัลละยุทธ์ in Thai and मल्लयुद्ध in Devanagiri) which means 'Boxing/ wrestling match' which has its roots in India.  Some are of opinion that there is a possibility that the Malays are also linked to this term based on reference of the southern region, in which the Thais have always called them as ‘Malayu’ (มลายู).

Today, the art of Muay Thai generally refers to a modern, collective integration of the different, older regional styles or also known as Muay Boran (มวยโบราณ). In the past, there was no codified term or regulation in order to describe ‘Muay Thai’. Rather, it was simply called ‘Muay’ or ‘Dtoi Muay’, a term that has been etched into the native language of the northern Malay Peninsular for a very long time!

The term ‘Muay Thai’ only came into popularity during the 19th and early 20th centuries when modern boxing ring and codified rules were introduced. This includes the use of gloves, hand wraps and ankle guards. Many ancient techniques were banned and considered illegal, impractical or unsafe for use in ring matches. This leaves the old masters no choice but to carry on the knowledge of the art as a ‘high level’ knowledge while teaching the ‘new’ form of Muay while keeping the ancient knowledge esoteric and revealed only to those who were worthy of learning.

Other names

One of the closest resemblances to the Thai name ‘Nawa Awoot’ is ‘Senjata Sembilan’ in Malay. Other names that the locals in the southern region of Thailand and northern peninsular of Malaysia would be ‘Siku Lutut’, which literally means ‘Elbows and Knees’. Generally, some teachers would put in the ‘number’ of elbows as another name for the art, perhaps in a codified manner to identify their school.

Others incorporated some Chinese derived techniques and names into the art, making it ‘Kuntau Tomoi’. Kuntau is generally believed to be derived from the Southern Shaolin Kung Fu. Some Malays have also called the art ‘Silat Siam’ (Siamese Silat) due to its close resemblance to the Silat stances and techniques or ‘Muay Yawi’ by the Thais to refer to the art as a form of ‘Muay’ practiced by the Malays.

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Singha-siddh Sriyapant @ H.M. Khen
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