Muay Thai night

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First published 22nd September, 2009

Somehow I found myself on a street corner, eating some sort of ground-meat pseudo-sushi on-a-stick. At well past midnight, with the neon glow of 7-Eleven glaring over me, another glorious Thai day was coming to a close. But before all that can be explained, perhaps the day should be put in proper perspective.

I awoke first, a man on a Muay Thai mission. It was almost time for a Friday night of fights at Kawila Boxing Stadium, and we wanted to get tickets before returning our motorbikes. I hoped mine would start, as it had absorbed a lot of water the day before cruising through the rainy hills outside Doi Suthep.

A few extra hand cranks and I was on my way, awkwardly cutting through the Chiang Mai streets as only a foreigner can: sluggish yet unrestrained. The frustrating grid of one-way streets, combined with thick traffic, makes any journey longer than intended. Amazingly enough, only one wrong turn and a stop for directions lay between me and my destination.

Ten hours before the fights, the arena was almost empty. Soon enough I'd found the ticket seller, and he'd found the stack of tickets. The price, at 400 baht each for the cheap seats, hopefully meant a decent prize purse for each of tonight's fighters. However, given that the tickets didn't even have the correct stadium name printed on them, my main concern was just not getting ripped off.

I'm not really a fight fan, but I do enjoy satisfying my traveller's curiosity. Muay Thai seemed a bit of a toss up -- while I enjoy watching live sporting events, I'm generally not so interested in people kicking and hitting each other for fun. But since it is the Thai national pastime, and I'm a firm believer of "when in Chiang Mai," it seemed pretty foolish not to go investigate.

Zipping back to the hotel, sweat started dripping, something it wouldn't stop doing until I went to bed sometime near dawn. The next motorbike I rent needs to have an air-conditioner installed on the handlebars.

Due to an epic Thursday, involving us riding down steep hills in torrential rain -- and that after temple-ing ourselves right out -- the plan was to do nothing on Friday besides Muay Thai. That involved time-passing: the usual slothful amble through parts of the tourist ghetto, the devouring of some pad thai and khao soi, and of course a few big bottles of Beer Chang.

So perhaps it was some sort of irony that our songthaew driver had apparently also drank a few; he seemed unable to even focus well enough to count all six of us, but his excitement at driving us to the boxing match was irresistible. Our tip on arrival was mostly a thank you for sparing our lives.

The night's fightlist

Our transition from sparing to sparring was delayed, the fights being on 8:30 Thai time while clocks were reading 8:30 real time. So we grabbed a copy of the card, and headed to yet another 7-Eleven for beverages. There's something oddly comforting about the familiar sign, though it's the equally familiar low prices that are the real draw. Thailand embraces Asia's public drinking policy, so we were effectively able to have a muay Thai tailgating party in the stadium parking lot. Then a most unexpected thing occurred: music blasted through the antiquated loudspeaker system and everyone froze. Suddenly we were the only people moving, nevermind talking: the Thai national anthem is taken a touch more seriously than my own. Good to know.

The music stopped and the energy instantly returned. It was clearly time for the festivities to begin so we headed inside and took our seats high atop the large wooden bleachers that comprised the cheap seats. The crowd was predominately foreign, roped in like us by the English-language handbills plastered to poles all over town. Thankfully, while lacking in numbers, the Thai fans were certainly enthusiastic, cheering and betting with glee from the first fight on.

Muay Thai seems to be a brutal sport, but other than knockouts (there were none) and bleeding (only twice, and rather minor), it is often just the trading of jabs while the competitors dance about awaiting opportunity. The hypnotic music, performed by drum and oud, helps the combatants hone in on a rhythm, while also drawing the audience into the tempo of the match. Music and men pulsate, feet and fists fly, and in a moment a conqueror can find glory. The sport is one of toughness and preparation; endurance is as important as power; passion and technique are both needed to succeed. Clearly training is the most important factor with a fighter expected to absorb an immense amount of bodily damage without sacrificing form or tenacity.

blood and sweat

Fights last three to five rounds each, depending on weight class. This was certainly not high-level competition: the first match was between boys weighing 30kg. Despite their diminutive size, they pulled no punches (as it were), and their ability to assault each other relentlessly was evidently an advantage of age. The first four matches were billed as 'Red Vs. Blue,' though it might as well have been 'And White' for all the cans of Singha that everyone was drinking, myself included. The colours split, 2-2, making way for the main event, 'Heavyweight Fight II' between two 90kg warriors.

Relocating to ringside gave us a perfect view of the Blue corner, from which Kongthup Por Fah Uthai -- or Kongtap, depending on which flier was more reliable -- would be fighting from. Earlier we'd received a tip from the stadium's boxing-shorts salesman that his Red opponent, Yordkeng Sor Viengjedi -- or Yodkang -- was the favourite, but something about the gleaming, muscular, tattooed body closer to us won my support. They both came out swinging, though knees from close range seemed to be the mutual weapon of choice. Blood was eventually drawn, from our chosen warrior's stomach, but it didn't seem to slow him up. A full five rounds ended -- Red triumphed over Blue, so apparently the judges viewed the match through more knowledgeable eyes than my own. The fight was good, yet long, and it also marked the pinnacle of the evening as fans started departing almost immediately.

I was approached, I'm pretty sure, by the ticket seller I'd seen that morning and solicited for a bet on the next match, though the initial offer of 100 baht was a bit out of my price range. Somehow, 50 baht seemed much more reasonable. Tragically my initial enthusiasm was quickly dampened as "my guy" was literally pounded into the ground over the next few minutes. The money was quickly collected, another foreigner taken advantage of by a savvy local. And just like that the muay Thai was over, the arena completely cleared out, and we were on the street, following Tha Phae Road back to our hotel.

As badly as my guy had been pummelled, it was nowhere near as shocking as what we witnessed next. We were walking briskly, traffic whizzing by, when suddenly a tuk-tuk pulled over in front of us. Ah, an offer of a ride -- tempting.


The noise was loud and sudden, the awful metal-on-metal crunch of automotive carnage filling the street. A woman on a motorbike literally plowed into the tuk-tuk from behind; the devastating direct hit left her and her scooter silent on the road. Thankfully instinct took over, the bleeding woman was extracted from beneath her mangled moto, and besides her bleeding leg and glazed-over eyes, she seemed in remarkably good shape -- for someone who just drove right into a stationary object at around 40km/hr, with no helmet or braking involved. Knowing our role as outsiders, we quickly cleared out once our assistance was no longer acquired.

And the band played on

Hard to say what else could have so suddenly dampened our spirits, given that we'd spent several hours watching grown (and not-so-grown) men pounding each other for fun, but something about nearly witnessing death is remarkably sobering. Aside from a brief chat with a Burmese t-shirt salesman on a street corner, we avoided the initial plan of wandering down to the main strip of tourist-fantasy-land --where the prostitutes hang out -- but at least 7-Eleven reliably came through, albeit with some strange fusion food that shouldn't have been allowed to exist. But at least I wasn't injured, arrested, or dead, plus we'd all enjoyed some authentic Thai culture -- what more can a brave adventurer ask for?

We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every Wednesday for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.

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