February 10, 2009
Two personal firsts from a recent Friday night at Bangkok’s Lumpini Stadium for muay thai boxing. One, as you might imagine, was watching two wiry fighters without a trace of body fat stretched across their 102-pound frames pound away at each other’s midsections, calves, and faces in carefully delivered flurries of kicks, punches, and knees while I sat just a few feet away. The second was slightly less violent but no less jarring–sipping lukewarm Chang beer not from a cool, frosty mug, or even a thin plastic cup, but rather through a straw from a plastic bag with little handles.
Hey, with the humidity rising with each successive bout and bloodthirsty mosquitos nipping at my ankles as we watched from our almost-ringside seats, that beer-in-a-bag couldn’t have been any more refreshing. Chang Draught is, actually, served at Lumpini in plastic cups, but we instead took turns ducking back out into the street and buying our brews from a vendor at more than half the price. That’s where the bags came into play: you aren’t allowed to bring beer cans or bottles into the stadium, but beer in a plastic bag? Mai pen rai (“no problem”).
Lumpini Stadium is located in the Pathumwan section of Bangkok on busy Rama IV Road, where old, overheating buses dumping plumes of thick black smoke in their wake compete with taxis, tuk-tuks, and fearless (read: no helmets) men and women on motorbikes for a spot in traffic gridlock hell. The stadium is about an hour walk from our apartment on Petchaburi Road, but on that night we decided to pay the 25 Baht fare to ride the BTS Skytrain from Siam Square to Sala Daeng station, then walked it from there. From Sala Daeng it’s a brisk 30-minute or so trek down Rama IV, past the sidewalk restaurants-come-beer gardens bordering Lumpini Park and the sprawling, touristy Suan Lum Night Market.
We scoped out the scene one week earlier and were prepared for the smiling, English-speaking touts positioned out front offering to help purchase your admission tickets. They’re absolutely harmless, but there’s simply no need to risk paying more than you should or of perhaps being sold a counterfeit ticket that won’t be accepted at the door by the ragtag security team. As of January 2009, tickets for farang (a general Thai term for foreigners of Western descent) run 1,000 Baht for third-class, 1,500 for second, and 2,000 for ringside; Thais will pay significantly less. Most foreigners opt for the priciest tier, but we went with the second-class, where we enjoyed stellar vantage points from our seats on the long, rickety wooden benches that circle Lumpini Stadium.
And what an atmospheric setting this old Bangkokian gem provides for fight night.
Much more from Muay Thai fight night at Bangkok’s Lumpini Stadium after the break…
Lumpini opened in December of 1956, and it doesn’t look like much has changed since. The three classes of seating are separated by see-thru fences and wrap around the entirety of the hexagonal-shaped stadium. A light-blue shirted “usher” sat us one row up from the front on one of the aforementioned benches, directly facing the center of the ring; picture 50-yard line seats at an American football game. Discarded peanut shells, candy wrappers, and empty beer cans (and beer bags) litter the cement floor a few feet below the thin wooden planks at foot level; the in-house family of cats slinking through the stands have no doubt had their share of battles with the in-house families of rats for the prime pickings of leftovers down there.
Ceiling fans sufficiently diminish the heat trapped inside by the corrugated tin ceiling, though during the hot season I imagine most patrons leave wearing sweat-soaked clothes. Lumpini is one of a select few establishments where gambling is technically allowed; most every Thai in the mostly male audience seemed to be getting in on the action, which is spearheaded by guys running back and forth shouting out the odds and taking bets like stockbrokers on the Wall Street trading floor.
The section south of the ring gradually filled up as the evening went on and was clearly the gambling hub; we arrived during the second preliminary match, which pitted “Yadfa” in the red corner versus “Extra” in the blue corner, both weighing in at 102-pounds. Four matches would follow before the main event between “Jenrob” of the Sakhomseen boxing camp and “Munjanoi” of Kiatnapachai, but for whatever reason there seemed to be a lot riding on this prelim match.
You probably imagine muay thai matches as bloody affairs which leave one or both combatants in a heap of sweat and broken bones. It does get brutal at times and the potential for serious injury lurks with every unblocked kick to the chest or jab to the nose, but the battles, at least on this night, were much more measured, skillful affairs that involved a lot more close-quarters fighting than twirling, Double Dragon-style kicks. That’s not to say the action was passive or that these blows didn’t look exceedingly painful to absorb; it is, indeed, by all means a vicious sport.
Knees to the ribcage got the most rise out of the crowd. I assume this isn’t what the Thai-speaking crowd was shouting at the top of their lungs, but the roar that echoed throughout the stadium every time a fighter, well, kneed his opponent in the ribcage sounded like “Knee! Knee! Knee! Knee!”
The fighters approach the ring from opposite sides of the stadium, always entering the ring by hopping over the top rope as opposed to between them, like in boxing. Once they’re in, both of them go through elaborate, pre-fight rituals (called Wai Khru) that have been performed since ancient times and usually last for about 10 minutes or so; there’s a lot of bowing, kneeling, stretching, air kicks, air punches, and what I’d call “half-dance moves,” almost like a muted cha-cha or disco two-step. The whole sequence is often divided up into three parts–the Royal Homage, the Kneeling, and the Standing–and is really quite mesmerizing.
Each match is scheduled for five, three-minute long rounds; of the the six bouts we saw only one failed to go the distance, when “Chadchainoi” countered a series of kicks to his legs from “Payakdetch” with a swift knockout punch of his own.
The match begins and four musicians seated in a booth near the ring launch into a trance-like cacophony that seemed to vary in tempo and pitch based on the round. This traditional muay thai music is usually created with the following four instruments: the Pi Kaek, which originated in India and can best be described as a member of the clarinet family; the Klong Kaak, which is two conjoined drums; the Ching, which are brass cymbals; and the Kong Mong, a Thai drum. I’d never heard anything like it, and you probably haven’t either–click here to get a general sense of what it sounds like.
Once the bell rings to end the round, one or both of the fighters often raised their hands in victory and nimbly pranced over to their corner in a transparent attempt to garner the judges’ favor. The only odd thing about the between-round break is that the fighter sits on a chair, or just stands, in a round, metal (?) container of sorts that I’m guessing is there to catch sweat and keep the ring as dry as possible. After their pep talk is over and the bell sounds again, the referee closely inspects each one to make sure neither’s body is too slippery from any sort of substance rubbed on during the break; he wipes it off if he deems it excessive.
There are many, many more rules, regulations, and customs associated with muay thai, and you can read about all of them here. Looking back on the evening, it’s not the actual fighting that sticks out as much as the whole experience: the street vendors outside the stadium, certainly the stadium itself, the pre-fight rituals, the bagged-beer runs, the roars of “knee! knee! knee!,” the hypnotic trance of the ringside muay thai music. Once inside, it felt like we could have been anywhere in Thailand, be it a heaving metropolis like Bangkok or a modest-sized city like Phitsanlouk.
And we’ve already made plans to return in a few weeks.
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