I go to a Thai Kickboxing stadium to see a Muay Thai match.
Muay Thai. A fast paced, dangerous form of mixed martial arts that has captivated millions across the globe.
The sport is definitely an important cultural facet of Chiang Mai, as well as the rest of Thailand in general. After all, it’s officially the national sport of Thailand. A Sawng-Thaew driver that we spoke to told us about a notable local hero who would fight in a professional match, take a shower, put on makeup, and immediately perform in a ladyboy cabaret show the very same night.
Muay Thai may be seen to outsiders as a hobby, but it actually originated during ancient battles of Siam, and involves impressive amounts of training and skill. Masters of the art usually start their training from when they are children and continue to practice well into adulthood (which sounded impressive to me at first until I realized that most sports have a little league).
I normally am bored by the idea of sports, but I was pretty excited to see a boxing event live for the first time.
A group of us went to the Night Bazaar to try and find a show. In the past, people had forcibly shoved scores of flyers in our faces about the events, so we were pretty confident about finding one. We had to ask around a bit, but eventually got to what we were looking for. After spending barely more than 35 baht on a full meal, 400 baht for a sporting event seemed excessive. Nevertheless, we emptied our pockets and entered into the arena. We traveled down a dimly lit row of various bars, each one hosting a trickle of foreigners and boasting scantily clad bargirls. Neon lights shone down on us from above, and a cacophony of clashing dance music blared from unseen speakers.
Soon we approached the ring itself, which had a large sign that said, “Loikroh Boxing Indoor Stadium Chiang Mai.” The scent of cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air, and the drink menu that we were handed also gave us the option of ordering cigarettes, something I had never seen before. We noticed that the date on the flyer said “Junly” instead of July or June.
Odd music blasted from speakers around the arena, a sound I can only describe as Thai clarinet punctured by an offbeat triangle. At first, the music felt exciting and exotic, but after listening to the same non-melodic song for 20 minutes, the novelty wore off.
A tall Australian Farang (Thai derogatory term for white tourist) sat behind us, loud and obnoxious as he gulped down overpriced Changs (Popular Thai beer brand). In front of us were four Thai men, stoically sitting in white plastic chairs as they waited for the first fight to begin. On the other side of the ring, two old white men sat with three young Thai women (presumably bargirls) hanging on their laps. We gawked at the wrinkly men unapologetically, disgusted at their groping. I felt a lot of respect at the Thai women’s endurance at putting up with this type of thing every night.
Since we got to the match a bit early, I decided to walk around the ring to see whether or not the strange clarinet music was live. On my way around, I had the good fortune to see the boxers preparing for their fight. A huge number of people crowded around each boxer, rubbing Tiger-Balm into their limbs and giving them pep-talks in Thai. The entire room soon filled with the scent of menthol from the Tiger-Balm, which mixed in with the cigarette scent already pungent in the air.
A stand-by medic took his place near the ring, and I laughed at his nonsensical-english T-shirt: “War come and go, But soldiers stay eternal with Your.” An MC fiddled with the electronic box. He hit something incorrect, and a screech blared through the stadium, making the tourists and locals both clutch hands over their ears.
Finally, he made an announcement in Thai over the speakers, and the first two fighters stepped onto the ring. Even though American sport culture puts a lot of strain on young athletes, I was still shocked at how young these two boys seemed. They began to perform the wai kru ram muay, a sacred dance paying homage to coaches and ancestors, as well as granting the boxers good luck. Rope laurels called “mongkol” and armbands called “prajioud” were worn by both of the fighters. Both the mongkol and prajioud are blessed by Buddhist monks and are believed to bestow the wearer with victory and protection in the ring. The wai kru performed by the young fighters involved them slowly stepping around the ring in opposite directions, dragging their gloves along the rope. They then took turns dancing rhythmically, stretching out their limbs and waving their boxing gloves in circles. They bowed down to the floor in every direction. Expressionless, the boys then stepped to the corners of the ring as their teammates removed the mongkol. A bell “dinged,” the clarinet music resumed, and the fight began.
Round one was slow and steady, as the boys revolved around each other, trying to pinpoint their opponent’s method. Round two was much faster, with kicks being thrown impossibly high. Each fighters’ team hung on the edges of the ring, mouths gaping and breath held. One of the boys cornered the other, and punches were thrown wildly at close range. After each round, the boys would be picked up by the armpits by their teammates and put into a chair, where they were given water and additional Tiger-Balm.
Finally, enough rounds had been won, and the victor’s hand was flung up by the referee. I noticed that the winner was the boxer who was more reserved with his punches, and waited patiently before striking. Next round was pretty similar, but with two young women fighting. Third round was men, and the skill level was very obviously higher. Kicks and punches were thrown in a wild fury as the crowds cheering grew louder and louder.
This fight lasted the least amount of time, as one of the fighters kicked so hard that his opponent was down and out. It was scary, but exciting.
Next, two boys with bleached hair and red shorts came out and performed another Wai Kru. This one seemed much more interpretive-dance based, as the boys were dancing around each other in a choreographed manner, even miming acts of pulling a bowstring or putting on makeup. They then fought, but in a very rehearsed manner. We joked that this was similar to the “professional” wrestling shows in America. The two boys did flips around each other, and kicked at the air so that it looked as if they were close to hitting.
By this point, it was very late, and we needed to get back to the hostel to get homework done. I would have loved to stay longer, but 9am class is a cruel mistress. I’m so glad that I got the experience of seeing Thailand’s national sport up close and personal. Bucket list item: CHECK!