THE LIFE, WORK AND CHRONICLES OF JEFF KOYEN: REFORMED ITINERANT, OCCASIONAL WRITER AND FRIEND TO ALMOST ALL DOGS

Ring Fling

By the time I met up with Lydia the Brit, she and her friend, Nick the Scot, had nearly polished off a fifth of Sam Seng, Thailand's cheap rotgut that's boldly described as rum. To make matters worse, Lydia hadn't eaten; as a vegetarian, she'd politely declined Nick's offer to share his roasted chicken. I did my best to catch up with bottles of strong, cheap Chang beer.
When Lydia, who I met at an after-hours club, invited me to the Sunday night muay Thai fights at Bangkok's Rajadamnern Stadium, I had few expectations for our date. One of the biggest challenges facing the single traveling man is women tend to travel in pairs and, true to form, she was bringing a tag-along buddy.
Though initially apprehensive that the third party's name was Nick, I was soon calmed. Gay wingmen, it seems, are common the world over. Maybe this date wouldn't be futile, after all.
Muay Thai ("Thai boxing"), a hand-to-hand martial art, is Thailand's national sport, and Bangkok boasts the country's two most important muay Thai indoor rings. The lesser venue, Lumpinee Stadium ("Lumpini"), is the smaller of the two. Operated by the Thai army, it's also scrappier. There, the second- and third-class seats are nothing more than patches of concrete bathed in the warm smell of tiger balm and sweat pushed around by lazy fans spinning overhead. Locals pay $5 and $10 for these seats; foreigners must cough up $25 and $37.50.
Rajadamnern Stadium (also "Ratchadamnoen"), convenient to Khao San Road, the neighborhood where most tourists stay, is larger and cleaner, but it ain't the MGM Grand. Sure, there's a proper round clock and advertisements on the ring's corner cushions, but third-class seats are still concrete risers behind a fence. (At both venues, ringside seats are $50 for locals and foreigners alike.)
Lydia, Nick and I were drinking just down the block from Rajadamnern. By the time we stumbled into the stadium and found our way to the second-class risers, more than half of the card was finished. We made it for the seventh-slot headliner, though - a nasty bout between two 105-pound teenagers. To the uninitiated, these lightweight fights can resemble playground brawls. That is, until the young combatants begin drawing blood and breaking bones.
Muay Thai is arguably the world's most violent hand-to-hand combat tradition. Or, more accurately, foot-to-head combat. In addition to fists and elbows, feet are permissible weapons in this sport that, some say, arrived from China 2,000 years ago.
The sport has softened over the centuries. Participants, for instance, no longer dip their hands in a sticky resin then coat them with sand and glass. (Even without the lethal hands, sweat, spit and blood still shower down on ringside seats.) Also, while previously there were no rounds and no breaks, under rules set during the 1930s bouts now last between three and five three-minute rounds, interspersed with 60-second breaks. Now, as then, however, combatants don't wear headgear.
That Sunday night, our seats were actually better than those on the floor. Down there, spectators look up at a steep angle and may miss some of the action at the ring's far side. Despite costing $12.50 less, a second-class ticket at Rajadamnern offers an eye-level view, only a few feet further away than the worst ringside row.
Within seconds of settling in with an overpriced cup of beer, I was hypnotized by the violence. Or maybe it was the traditional Thai music supplied by the live band, or the crowd roaring "hoey!" with each kick landed. Even watching the men place bets was entrancing; their system of hand gestures would shame a broker on a trading floor.
After an 11th-fight knockout - the unconscious fighter was taken out on a stretcher - we hopped a motorized rickshaw back to my neighborhood.
Invigorated and sobered, we drank more Sam Seng at a local bar, then went to my room for a nightcap of cheap wine coolers and beer. Lydia was soon vomiting in my bathroom; I was fading away in an armchair.