Muay Thai in Bangkok

April, 2006 [photos courtesy of Clay Chandler]

I just found a keychain in my desk drawer.

It’s imprinted:

amazing MUAYTHAI LUMPINEE STADIUM BANGKOK THAILAND

What a night that was. 11 of us in the first two rows of folding chairs next to the ring. Clay with his camera right up under the ropes getting some amazing snaps and 13 Thai Boxing matches.

Thai Boxing – Muay Thai. Not Tai bo — take that, Billy Blanks!

Four men in lime-green, shiny silk shirts play music – two with drums, two with reed flutes. It’s the constant whine that ties the entire evening together. The sound is as if someone taped a snake charmer’s flute and put it on replay for four hours.

The crowd? Mainly a rough-looking group of farmers from outside the city. Family and friends of the fighters. With the most loyal standing right behind their friend’s corner of the ring.

The first two contenders enter the ring. Teenagers. 115 – 120 compact pounds of solid muscle. Turns out the oldest fighter of the evening will be a 16-year-old and the heaviest will tip the scales at 160. Turns out that this is an oft-dreamed-of way for a kid to get off the farm and into the city.

Kneeling in the direction of the flute and drum players, the fighters bow, then rise to do a dance in honor of their masters. On their heads, a decorative item that looks much like a racquetball racket, around their necks, fresh flowers.

Then the fight begins. Punches are thrown. A knee thrown in an effort to bring the knee up into the stomach and incapacitate the opponent. I hear, more than see the first kick. It makes a loud smack as the foot comes from the front, under the opponent’s arm and lands just behind the shoulder blade. The kicked fighter wheels to avoid another kick and the clear image of a bright red foot print shows on his back.

The fight continues, round after round. These are some tough kids, and they’re playing for keeps. This one ends in a decision. The blue trunks win. A smile on the tough young face as his hand is held high. His family and friends proudly smiling in his corner.

Match after match proceeds, with three ending in knock-outs. The sound of contact that leads to a knock-out very distinct. It’s best explained as a thud that ends in a popping noise, usually from a fist rather than a foot. With each loss, a family and friends section reacting as if they’ve just won the lottery. With each loss, bitter disappointment behind the other corner.

All the while, Clay under the ropes, next to the ring, on a chair, with the families in the corner, snapping photo after photo. The room is dark except for the floodlit ring. The floor is cement, the chairs are of the metal folding type. The whining music of the reed flute and rhythm of the drums penetrating the air, mixed with shouts in the Thai tongue from the crowd.

The building is of metal, heated and cooled by the air from outside. This was a hot humid night. So the room was heated, not cooled.

Last match. It ends with a particularly violent knock out. The fighter does not immediately come to. He’s loaded onto a stretcher and carried off, face covered with spit and blood from his lip. His mother looks worried, standing over the stretcher as they carry him off. It’s hard to tell whether she’s worried for his physical condition or whether she’s worried about his chances of making a better life off of the farm.

The evening is over and we head for the exit. Where we’re giving a keychain as a parting gift.

I saw live Muay Thai in Bangkok.

And all I got was this lousy keychain.