Sometimes you get a moment when you’re traveling when you think–this is it. This is why I got on a plane, a bus, a boat and went somewhere unfamiliar. This is why you travel. You’re a stranger in a new place, but that place feels familiar. Everything is new to you, but it also feels like a page from your childhood. You get a connection from the place. It’s almost like magic.
When my sister and I went on our Bangkok trip last June, we both knew we wanted to see a muay Thai match. It wasn’t because we were big fans of kick boxing. We liked boxing in general. We grew up watching my dad watch boxing. Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya type of boxing . They were the names we got to know on Sundays whenever there was a big boxing match in Las Vegas. You couldn’t talk to my dad during those Sundays. He would be parked in front of the television, his eyes never leaving the screen. He watched intently, though never quietly. He would shout, groan, whoop, and curse at the TV. All the while, my siblings and I would sit beside him, watching the match and watching him. Enamored of both.
When we booked our tickets to Thailand, I knew I wanted to watch a muay Thai match. Seeing a kick boxing match live was going to be be a different way of experiencing a part of Thailand’s culture and it was my chance to watching a boxing match ringside. Kick boxing but still boxing, I thought. Of course, we didn’t know ringside seats for tourists would cost 2,000 Baht (65USD), an amount, which after spending a couple of days in the budget paradise of Bangkok, was relatively pricey.
But all thoughts of “I can spend that in shopping” vanished the minute one of the ticket ladies of Ratchadamnoen Stadium opened the door and led us down to boxing ring “just to take a look.” My sister was right. We were goners the minute we saw it. That ring, harshly lit and all, that stadium, which has obviously seen better days, was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. My sister said it best when she wrote that it felt “both church and home.” I felt like I was back in the living room of our old place in Manila, beside my dad, just watching.
We got settled behind the judges. Most of the audience (not surprisingly) were men, locals and groups of Americans, Japanese, Australians, etc. My sister and I pretty much kept to ourselves, watching intently, every strike and kick, being our father’s daughters.
If you’re thinking of seeing a muay Thai match live, here are a few things to take note of to help you appreciate the match (below is an excerpt from the muay Thai story I ended up writing for Smile magazine):• In the old days. Before muay Thai became the internationally-recognized sport that it is now, the centuries-old tradition was originally a form of hand-to-hand combat used by Siamese soldiers to fend off invading enemies. (It was quite effective too if you consider that Thailand is the only South East Asian state never to have been colonized.) It played a significant role throughout the country’s history, with the victory of national hero and muay Thai warrior Nai Khanom Tom over Burmese opponents the most legendary, that it’s yearly celebrated as “National Muay Thai Day.”
• Combat sport. Even when muay Thai evolved into a competitive sport, it was formerly practiced with no safety gear of any kind. But with the punches, kicks, elbow and knee strikes that characterize it, muay Thai was never really for the faint-hearted. When it went from the battlefield to the ring, rules along the lines of boxing regulations were enforced. This didn’t in any way diminish the brutality in the ring. But one of the fascinating things about muay Thai is that as much as there is violence like in any boxing match, there’s also a homage to the respectful nature of Thais and their faith.
• A prayer and a dance. Before a fight begins, the two fighters perform a ritual called Wai Kru. According to Kru (master) Billy Alumno, a muay Thai instructor in Manila, this ceremony is unique to the sport. “They pray and ask Buddha to bless and protect them.” It’s also a way for the fighters to pay respect to their masters or teachers. Aside from kneeling in respect and prayer (we are after all used to seeing our Pinoy boxers kneel and pray in every corner of the ring like Manny Pacquiao), Wai Kru also involves dancing. Wearing a headband called a mongkhol (blessed by a monk or the fighter’s master and worn for luck), the fighters put their hands on their chest, and do a long sequence of dance moves that they have to learn by heart before they can even step into a ring.
• Where to watch. As boxing rings go, the ones in the stadiums in Bangkok are considered the ultimate dream for any muay Thai fighter. Lumpinee and Ratchadamnoen Boxing Stadiums are the biggest and most popular in Thailand, holding professional bouts alternately almost every night. Lumpinee is open on Tuesday and Friday evenings, from 6:30 to 11 pm; and Saturday afternoons and evenings, from 4:30 to 8 pm and 8pm to 12 mn. Ratchadamnoen has bouts on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 6:30 to 11 pm; and every Sunday, from 5 to 8 pm and 8:30 pm to midnight. Each bout has around 8 to 10 matches and a main match.
If you want to catch a muay Thai fight in all its harshly-lit and gritty glory, it’s best to catch it in one of these stadiums. But yes, you have to sit ringside and for foreigners this means a whopping 2,000 Baht (around PHP2,800). In return, you’ll get to watch an exciting and quality match as muay Thai fighters who compete in these stadiums are considered the cream of the crop.
• When to watch—for free. If you refuse to part with a good deal of your shopping money to watch men beat each other to a pulp, but remain curious at seeing the spectacle of a muay Thai fight without the admission fee, find Channel 7 Stadium at Chatuchak Park. It becomes a muay Thai venue every Sunday, starting at around 1 pm.
For a grander scale, wait until December for the King’s Cup Supreme Muay Thai Tournament (or August next year for the Queen’s Cup). Kru Billy, who’s gone to these events to participate, shares that amateur fights are held for a week. The King’s Cup is typically held in Sanam Luang Park in front of the Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Some of the best foreign fighters compete in these tournaments. (Best to check online before December when the exact dates are posted)
• Time for some kicks. After Wai Kru’s few somber minutes, the fight begins. In professional bouts, expect to see five three-minute rounds, and four two-minute rounds for amateur fights. The first round or two is usually uneventful with both fighters assessing each other’s techniques. Then the action bursts in the middle rounds with the fighters aggressively throwing kicks, punches and strikes. By the last round, the intensity dwindles with neither fighter engaging the other. Muay Thai experts will tell you it’s because both fighters don’t want to give the impression that they think they’re losing. Those used to the western-style of boxing might find it odd, but considering that the concept of ‘saving face’ is strong in Thailand, this final-round behavior makes sense.
• Live soundtrack. To keep up with all the raucous action—both inside the ring and outside—a live musical ensemble provides a live soundtrack. For a boxing fan like myself, watching a fight accompanied by live music that keeps up with the action in the ring is like being in a concert. The band of drums, clarinet and cymbals provides the music that carries you throughout the fighters’ entire performance.