Boxing it up in Bangkok’s backstreets

By Chris McBeath

The backstreets of Bangkok aren’t the most salubrious, but for the traveler who relishes ‘the inside track’, navigating the winding back alleys will deliver some of the most authentic experiences. And you can’t get more real than the local boxing ring where contenders in Muay Thai duke it out with fist, heel, knee and elbow.

Better known in the West as Thai boxing, fights are frenzied affairs where an ear-piercing mix of drum, cymbals and Javanese oboe, keeps the pace. Starting at a slow rhythm, the music quickens as the minutes of each bout pass. By the 5-minute mark, the instruments and crowd are in an agitated harmony; by the 8-minute mark they crescendo to a synchronized fervor that climaxes at the bell. Both appear to collapse for a moment of exhausted reality before the cycle begins again. In that brief respite, however, there is frantic negotiation at the sidelines. Gambling may be illegal in Thailand, but judging from all the sleight-of-hand activity between spectators, you can bet your Baht that Muay Thai makes its own rules.

It also has a distinct heritage than spans some 2,000 years. Once called the martial art of the kings – princes have been known to fight until death for the throne – Muay Thai is often regarded as the most potent martial art in the world. It enables the slender, nimble Thai frame to impart lethal force, and while the Thai Army still favors the sport as part of its training, commercialized Thai boxing has evolved into a multi-layered discipline that combines brute physicality with balletic grace, ancient ritual with fierce competition and sometimes, celebrity status to rival Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

Events are a big part of Thai social life, and as Thailand’s national sport, there are Muay Thai fighters and champions in all 76 provinces. Fights are staged almost every day of the year with March 17 – National Muay Thai Day, set aside for special celebrations. In Bangkok alone, there are over 1,000 gyms where nak muays (prospective boxers) dream of fighting in one of the city’s two venerated stadia: the modern Lumphini Stadium and the time-honored Ratchadamnoen Stadium. The latter is akin to a battle-weary, cylindrical bunker lined with steeply raked concrete benches that ascend the circular, concrete wall. These are the 500-Baht/US$17, third class seats. VIPs pay a shade more for a freestanding blue plastic chair, and high-flying devotees shell out about 2,000-Bhat/US$17 to float around the ringside, catching the action up close and personal.

As might be expected from such an ancient art, there are many taboos that dictate the ceremonial side of Muay Thai. For example, each boxer enters the arena crowned with the mongkhon headdress and garlands, as well as prajiad armlets on each bicep which sometimes secret away protective Buddhist tablets. Some boxers even brandish a magical tattoo. Before fighting commences, boxers will offer a wai (prayer-like salutation) to all four sides of the ring and then warm up with devotional movements of the wai khru rum muay.

Once garlands and mongkhon are removed, the scene transforms into exhilarating hand-to-hand combat with poetic names like Star Gatherer, Crocodile Tail Thrash or Coiled Dragon’s Tail. Fighters jab with their elbows. Thud with their knees. Hammer with foot-thrusts, and punch with their fists. Some moves involve acrobatic pirouettes, 180 degree turns, flying jumps or curling backward leg-swings. A gra-dode sork launches both feet off the ground to chop an elbow onto the top of the opponent’s head. The khao loy requires a running jump up to chest height so the lead knee can clobber an unwitting chin. The yiep dhi sees one fighter stepping into the bent leg of his rival and swinging the other leg to wallop an undefended ear. And all the while, traditional music ricochets off the walls; ever faster and ever louder through each progressive minute of every round.

And now that a kinder version has become the latest fat-burning regime among Hollywood circles, Muay Thai is mainstreaming around the world. The sport is now Thailand’s most internationally recognized export after Thai food and Thai massage — though nothing beats experiencing all three in Thailand itself.

Photos (in the order they appear):

  1. Header image: by Eric Langley under CC 2.0 license
  2. Muay Thai image by WorldSeriesBoxing under CC 2.0 license
  3. Muay Thai image by Nathan Meijer under CC 2.0 license
  4. Muay Thai image: Dave Ho under CC 2.0 license