Kelantan: Blood and sweat


Right after completing the piece on Orang Asli land rights, writer Pat Fama had roped me in for a piece he had been writing for Esquire Malaysia. The ancient art of kickboxing – better known as Muay Thai, is popularly practiced in Kelantan. Here, the locals call it Tomoi.

What made this assignment exciting was that it is a bit of an underground sport as it was banned by the Islamic state government, Kelantan, from early 90s till 2006 on the grounds of being “un-Islamic”.

Now I’ve lost count of how many 6-hours (or more) drive trips I’ve made to Kelantan in the last year, but it was another trip I looked forward to because with each trip I fall more and more infatuated with the people and culture.

It was my first boxing match and it was in a knock-out style format. What surprised me the most was how quick those boys got knocked out, certainly something which Karate Kid (1, 2 and 3), Ong Bak and all those Chuck Norris movies did not prepare me well for. Many a time I suppressed the urge to yell, “WAIT, I’ve not gotten my shot yet!” when some of the matches ended within the first round or two with one of the poor boys, reeling on the ground from a blow to the head.


Though I’m not a fan of WWE, I could certainly appreciate Tomoi as a non-mainstream sport. Having rock climbed for a few years during my undergraduate days and now actively Crossfitting, I related to the tight-knit sense of community I felt in the arena (which was very basic to say the least) and the passion from the fighters and everyone involved in the process; organizers of the event, spectators, the time keeper – everyone wanted to be there for the love of the sport.


A fighter receiving an oiled massage right before his fight.


A mix crowd watching the match which lasted till 11pm.


Mat Kudin performs a graceful wai khru ceremonial dance, in show of respect to his trainer(s), opponent and audience.


Fighters don a pre-fight ritual headgear, which is known as Mongkhon to Muay Thai practitioners.


Jasuri stared at his opponent performing the wai khru ceremonial dance impassively before taking him out within the first few minutes with a strong blow to his head.


An intense second match where the confident fighter overpowered his opponent in a series of blows.

At the end of Day 1 of the tournament, I was caught up in the showmanship, the intensity of the matches and the many different emotions each fighter brought to the ring. Most of all, I was impressed by the dedication, discipline and bravery. As I met back with Pat, my feet all caked in mud from circling the arena busily trying to capture every aspect of the event, I spat out, “Wow, did you see that?!”

Tomoi is certainly something I would say is uniquely Malaysian and beautiful, while at the same time sharing many similarities with our beloved South East Asian neighbors; much like our culture, terrain and facial features. Or as the slogan on the Thai street market t-shirts aptly puts it – Same Same But Different!

Pat Fama wrote an excellent piece on it; detailing the historical and cultural significance, the ban in the early 90s and current growing scene. A great read, so grab a copy of Esquire Malaysia from newsstands before the end of March!


In the trainings ground of The Malaysian Police Training Centre (PULAPOL), current champ Tengku Shahrizal aka Pokku Kuda Merah, building his jaw muscles so that he can take more blows to the head without being knocked out.

5 thoughts on “Kelantan: Blood and sweat

  1. I thhink this is oone of the most vital information for me.
    And i’m glad reading ylur article. But want to remaek on some genwral things,
    The site styl is perfect, the articles is really nice : D.
    Goodd job, cheers

  2. Brilliant, Sze Ning! I like the intensity of emotion, motion and ferocity implied in the stills. I particularly like the lighting and angle of the Fight poster image. It is sad and beautiful….Best, Rohini

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