Get your Kicks in Bangkok – Bangkok, Thailand

Get your Kicks in Bangkok
Bangkok, Thailand

“We want to go see Thai Boxing,” I said to the Tuk-Tuk driver as we hopped aboard the run down three-wheeled machine. “We want to go to the stadium here,” I added, pointing at the map I had unfolded. “OK, no problem,” he responded. After about 10 minutes of barreling through traffic, inhaling thick, heavy, exhaust-filled air, the driver pulled over to the sidewalk. I quickly scanned around looking for something that resembled a stadium. No such luck.

We appeared to be in front of a market of some sort. Our driver then turned around and said something about needing gasoline and that we should shop here for awhile. I indicated that we had no interest in shopping right now. “Just take us to the stadium, please,” I said. At first we were a bit nervous but after several minutes of discussion we headed back into the streaming traffic. We discovered later that it is common practice here for these drivers to divert their tourist passengers to local shops and markets in exchange for gasoline and other favours.

As we weaved in and out of motorcycles, old rusty trucks, and fearless pedestrians, I took in the true gritty feel of street-level Bangkok. I realized how different it looked from this vantage point versus from the heights of the many skyscraper hotels in the city. Again our driver pulled over. This time he had stopped in front of a Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) office. He said, “you buy tickets here.” We had intended on buying our tickets at the stadium, as advised by our hotel concierge, but thought it couldn’t hurt to check it out.

The lady behind the desk was very helpful but she seemed dumbfounded by the fact that we did not want ringside seats. We were previously told that the best seats were higher up where you could better experience the ambiance. A moment later we hopped back into the tuk-tuk and were off. After turning left what seemed like eight times we finally arrived at Ratchadamnoen Stadium. We paid our driver and he sped off in search of his next fare.

The stadium wasn’t much to look at, but I took a picture of it anyway. I’m not really sure why. Now it was time, finally, to buy tickets. It took all of about five seconds to see the ticket window with the sign above it that read, “Foreigner”. “I guess that’s us,” I joked with my girlfriend, and stepped up to the window to pay 500 Bhat each for ‘cheap seats’.

Muay Thai Fighters
Muay Thai Fighters
Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing, the national sport of Thailand and ancient martial art, is both devastatingly violent and mystical at the same time. The pre-bout rituals are worth the price of admission alone with each fighter moving about the ring loosening and gesticulating in what is called a wai khru dance. During this warm-up each man kneels and pays homage to his teachers.

Muay Thai was developed hundreds of years ago by generations of Thai peoples who were forced into hand-to-hand defense of their country. Around the late 16th century it was made a part of military training by King Naresuan the Great. It has changed more recently, primarily for safety reasons, into what we see today, including the use of boxing gloves and a roped-off ring, added in the 1920s. Each bout consists of five rounds of three minutes, with a two-minute break in between each round.

The energy inside the circular Ratchadamnoen Stadium is palpable. The stands are not even half full on this night but the noise is deafening at times. A chain link cage encircles the entire arena halfway up the stands and separates the cheap seats, where I sit on the edge of a hard slab of concrete, from the more expensive ones. It’s as if I am a visitor at a zoo, observing two swift and muscular animals rain blows upon each other, hoping to catch the other at a weak moment and claim victory.

As a reminder that I am a stranger here I notice Thai soldiers poised at each exit with machine guns at the ready. From these exits billows thick cigarette smoke, emanating from the concourse area. Tourists are few and far between and the ones that are have paid extra to sit ringside, as if this were Caesar’s Palace or the MGM Grand. There are just a smattering of women amongst the hundreds who ebb and flow during each match.

I find myself engrossed in each battle, almost feeling each strike that lands on the fighters’ legs, shoulders, and ribs. As I watch these incredible athletes fire punches and kicks at each other I wonder how they are able to remain vertical let alone continue to fight. Throughout the match a hypnotic tune consisting of drums, cymbals, and clarinets is played over the sound system. The pace of each match picks up in the later rounds as the throng of gamblers, congregating off to one side, start to shout and place bets with one another. As the fighters wail away at each other this throng cheers at the top of their lungs upon each successfully landed blow. It becomes obvious who the favorite is.

During one match I notice at ringside what I can only assume is the manager of one of the fighters. At first he appears to be supportive of his man but as the bout continues he begins an animated tirade of pointing, fist pumping, and yelling. Is this how to motivate a Thai boxer? I haven’t a clue.

After several hours we leave the arena and I feel drained. This was a truly unique cultural and sporting experience. You may like Muay Thai for its athleticism, intensity, or even its violence but you certainly leave having gained an appreciation for it. I certainly did. Bangkok may be better known for its spectacular wats, palaces, and pulsating nightlife but an evening of Muay Thai should not be missed. It is, however, not for the faint of heart.

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