Why Wai?

The reader who is unfamiliar with Thai culture may well be thinking, “What is wai?” and “Why wai?” What follows is, therefore, a brief “beginner’s guide” to this gracious custom and its usage in everyday life, as a basic understanding of the wai and its functions in Thai society will enhance the Muay Thai devotee’s understanding of the ritualised and traditional elements of this martial art.

Like so many aspects of Thai culture, the origins of the wai can be traced back to India. In essence, the wai is extremely simple: it involves raising and putting together the palms of the hands and extended fingers. It is a gesture which, accompanied by a verbal salutation or not, conveys a range of sentiments, from a simple “hello” or “goodbye” to a request, expression of gratitude, sign of respect, or an apology.

The subtleties of the gesture can be hinted at in answer to another question: “Who wais who, when and how?” Essentially the position of the hands and head imply degrees of respect and the relative ranks of the individuals involved. Generally speaking, the higher the hands and the greater the degree to which the body and head are inclined, the more respect or obligation is being tacitly expressed in the wai. The ultimate wai is that offered to the Lord Buddha in any of the country’s glittering temples. After adopting the “mermaid” pose with the holy symbols of candle, incense-sticks and lotus flower pressed between their hands, the person paying homage to Buddha will proceed to total prostration (grarb), leaning the trunk, arms and face forwards down to the floor. The hands are then slid out to the side and brought together again three times, in an action known as bae mue. It is no coincidence that Muay Thai fighters also bae mue three times and that the candle, incense-sticks and lotus are also the symbols of respect which they offer to their teacher.

Another important factor in the wai is which person initiates the wai and which person receives and responds to the wai. This depends almost totally on seniority and rank. Generally, the younger must wai the elder, the subordinate must wai the senior. Two virtual equals in terms of age and rank will rush to wai, neither of them wishing to appear to be pulling rank or asserting their superiority by letting the other wai first.

There are occasions on which it is optional or entirely inappropriate to return a wai, a smile or spoken comment being sufficient. An adult will not return the wai of child and persons of high rank or professional / social status may choose not to return the wais of their subordinates. The wais proffered by those in service industries are never returned in kind, a smile or word of thanks for their attention being sufficient.

Sometimes neither party will wai. Casual acquaintances, close friends, adult relatives of a similar age who meet frequently and people who have not yet been introduced to each other will not wai.

All this forms part of the inherent traditional and religious ramifications when Muay Thai fighters raise their hands in the wai to respect their teacher or during the pre-fight rituals. It is clear proof that Muay Thai is an art as much as it is a fighting form, carrying a rich cultural legacy from its roots in Thailand as it becomes increasingly popular in the international arena.