For the better part of the 1990's (and even today to a large extent) I'd get blank stares if/when I tell people that I train muay thai. Top three typical responses are "What's that?", "Mai tai?", or "Is that like kickboxing?". The system has been on the outside of the stable of popular martial arts until MMA came along and has made the name muay thai more common (I would largely disagree with the application of muay thai being used in MMA as an accurate representation of muay thai). K-1 popularized muay thai in Europe and Asia in the early part of the twenty-first century, but the USA has football and the NBA, oh well, call us late adopters.
Outside of the occasional episode of Human Weapon on the History Channel, or the occasional documentary about the exploitation of children through muay thai in Thailand (which I agree and yet, disagree with), mainstream media never covers the Thai national sport, and its official martial art.
This is beginning to change, however. CNN recently did a little spot on the growth in popularity of muay thai on the international stage. It's good to see this kind of exposure for the sport version of muay thai. Watch the short segment below.
The History Channel produced the series, Human Weapon where the two hosts traveled around the world receiving crash courses in martial arts from various masters or well known practitioners.What I did like about this episode is that they touched on a few of the various branches of muay thai. They trained for modern ring style muay thai, the covered lerd rit, the militarized application of muay thai, and they also went up north and got some exposure to one of the older system, Muay Chaiya.
Here's the full episode, but the commercials can get annoying.
I'd still like to see more exposure of the older systems such as muay chao cherk, lerd rit, and chaiya - which BTW, are lumped under the umbrella of muay boran. If someone opens up a muay boran school in your area and markets it as a single martial art, they're simply marketing it to you. Tony Jaa has done a great job of including the various subsets of muay thai in his Ong Bak and The Protector movies.
If you're lucky enough to find and train at a school that covers one of the older systems, be prepared to have others in the outside world (retail thai boxing gyms) say that your techniques are wrong. Not to worry, I've been training and teaching muay chao cherk, lerd rit and a subset of the Burmese system (boar bando) for 18 years (half my life, ugh I'm old). Just know that what's taught at the typical modern muay thai gym is a watered down version of what only scratches the surface of what a muay thai practitioner would have learned over a hundred years ago. You are among the lucky few burdened with the responsibility of continuing a dying tradition.
Hopefully the continued growth in muay thai's popularity will bring about a renaissance for the older systems used for the purposes of combat instead of sport.