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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
an 11th-fight knockout - the unconscious fighter was taken
out on a stretcher - we hopped a motorized rickshaw back
to my neighborhood.
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.