While sweating away in the gym yesterday I was listening to Sheryl Crow on my Spotify playlist when “Leaving Las Vegas” came on. There’s a line in the song that goes “Used to be I could I could go up to Barstow for the night; Find some crossroad trucker to demonstrate his might”. Having recently attended our first live Muay Thai match in Bangkok, it struck me that maybe the line “crossroad trucker” would be more realistic by substituting “Little Thai guy”. Thailand’s national sport is a martial arts version of kick boxing unlike any traditional boxing match you’d see in western culture. Needing to be seen live to be appreciated, we considered attending a match in Chiang Mai but the general consensus on most internet circles was that it’s scripted for tourists and Bangkok is the only place to see the real thing. Too busy with major tourist attractions to attend a match way back on our first trip to Thailand, we made sure not to miss it this time around.
Based on the idea that hand to hand combat substitutes for weapons, Muay Thai was a mandatory part of Thai military training during the long period when they were mortal enemies with neighboring kingdoms in Cambodia and Burma. During World War II, westerners got their first look at the sport and dubbed it “Siam Boxing” as soldiers would practice their sport while Europeans and Americans looked on curiously. After the war, they added formal rules including five round matches and time limits. Unique to Southeast Asia, many Muay Thai fighters spend years practicing and start training as young as age six. Using the sport’s paltry payouts to support their families. prizes of only 4000 Baht ($150 USD) are common and their careers are usually short because this sport ain’t for the weak. Lacerations, concussions and heavy bruising are common and when seen up close, it’s obvious what a toll the sport takes on the body. Becoming popular around the world, Muay Thai is now practiced in many countries and professional martial arts fighters agree that it’s an essential part of learning how to be a skilled fighter. And best of all, it’s exciting to watch.
Recently opened, Lumpinee Boxing Stadium is Bangkok’s sparkling new boxing arena. Seating 5,000 spectators, they feature professional bouts several nights per week. Although there’s a more convenient arena that’s closer to the city center (Rajadamnern Stadium), we opted for the shiny new digs to witness our first Muay Thai match and think its worth the extra effort. Matches begin at 6:30 PM and like almost everything in Thailand, they start right on time. While it’s possible to show up and buy tickets, it’s easier to ask your hotel concierge ahead of time and buy them beforehand. Unfortunately, pricing isn’t cheap, especially by Thai standards. Coming in at 2,000 Baht each for ringside seats (about $60 USD), it’s one of the most expensive attractions in the city and the hotels only sell the expensive seats.
Apparently it’s hypothetically possible to buy less expensive general admission grandstand seats but once the arena fills, you’ll notice that section is wall to wall with locals that spend the bulk of the evening engaging in some bizarre betting that we couldn’t really figure out even after ten matches. Since they all stand and scream while engaging in finger waving that somehow tells a few guys standing below what they’re all betting on, it’s raucous and noisy and watching them becomes almost as interesting as the matches themselves. So don’t worry about the extra cash because it’s more fun sitting ringside and best of all you get to meet and greet the winner of each match as well as have your picture taken with them while the sweat drips off them.
Located nowhere near anything, we heard there’s not much to eat at the arena and it’s in the middle of a working class neighborhood on an industrial street so it’s best to have a late lunch before you go. While taxis are a travel option, you’ll get nowhere fast on a Friday afternoon Bangkok rush hour so we chose a combination public transit and shorter taxi ride. Taking the BTS skytrain to Mo Chit, we exited at the system’s northern terminus and looked for a cab on the nightmarish but large five lane main street that parallels the BTS and has the less crowded elevated toll highway above its noisy perimeter. Easily finding a cab driver, we love Thailand’s cabs because they’re the opposite of Malaysia’s. Clean and comfortable, most drivers speak little English but chat with you in Thai anyway and somehow you get the gist of their conversation. Telling the driver we wanted a ride to the arena, he lit up and started telling us how much he loved boxing in limited English and that we’d have a great time. Rarely ripping people off, we arrived at the arena and he started to escort us to the ticket window but when we showed him the tickets, he helped us find a friendly employee who stamped our hand, escorted us past the mostly local crowds outside and brought us right to the ringside area where we got our first glimpse of the arena.
Looking shiny and new, Lumpinee is an attractive and well-lit modern stadium on par with any modern western arena. Friday nights always sell out and this is serious business for locals. Some boxers bring a cheering section that’s allowed to stand ringside just behind the fighter’s corner and the first guy seems like he brought his entire village. Setting up a few rows of ringside seats, the seats are comfortable enough and there’s a small concession area selling beer, soft drinks and a few snacks so we enjoyed a few Chang beers while checking out the arena.
At 6:30 on the dot, they sang the national anthem and made announcements that we assume detailed the evening’s card. Showing a live volleyball match on the big screen, the grandstands filled up quickly and only a few other curious foreigners sat on our side initially including a solo Japanese girl, a German guy with his father who clearly followed the sport and a white guy with a local that both looked fit enough to jump in the ring. When the first match began, we marveled at how small and young-looking the fighters were but as they began exchanging kicks, the crowd grew louder. Increasing the intensity level as the matches wire on, the next few fighters looked more experienced and as an avid lover of cardio with strong legs, the strength and dexterity of the kicking motions fascinated me.
Fighters all use a movement where they lift one foot repeatedly as the fight starts and they gauge their opponent’s skill. Possibly used to gain footing or exert maximum thrust, the kicks are harder and longer than punches and occasionally the fighters get knocked down to the floor from the sheer force. Ascertaining that they bet on rounds and not the entire fight, it seems that round three is always the most exciting and intense (and occasionally round four if the fighters have a lot of energy) but by the last round, they seem run down and the crowd quiets a bit. Apologizing for not getting the best pictures and video, I found myself so engaged in the matches i almost forgot to film but this short video does give you a sense of the intensity level.
Oddly enough, the most interesting bout of the night appeared to be a major upset when a white guy defeated a local Thai boxer. With media coverage high, we cheered and screamed as they pounded on each other and the white guy emerged victorious but bloodied and bruised. Unsure if a loss to a foreigner ends the career of the other guy, the white guy garnered so much attention afterward that a local TV station even interviewed him but Diane and I still managed to get a picture with him. In fact, the locals even let the foreigners pose before everyone else.
Having read stories about Muay Thai matches in smoke-filled arenas with seedy characters that create an uncomfortable atmosphere for foreigners, this event is a far cry from that and everyone from the staff to the locals went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Surprised at seeing such a successful non Thai score a victory on a Friday night with a packed stadium of locals who love their national sport, we noticed several places near Kho San Road offering classes for foreigners ranging from as little as single 30 minute sessions to weekly classes lasting three months. Another interesting tidbit is the referees. Changing each match, they’re experienced and keep the match moving when the fighters seem to be tired. Each round lasts three minutes and there’s three judges that I assume are scoring points for kicks and punches that connect, At the conclusion of round five they hand their scorecards to the ref and he raises the hands of the winner.
After generating such excitement from the amazing white guy’s fight, match five seemed almost anti-climatic so we turned our attention to the betting. Realizing that the bets are more important than the bouts themselves, we tried to see how it worked. Down at ringside just in front of us, there was a prestigious looking older gentleman sitting next to a guy best described as the betting leader. In between each round, several guys stand at the base of the grandstand and look up to the crowds as the finger waving and shouting begins. Others look towards a few betting gurus seated in each location and they’re somehow indicating whose kicks will draw screams in the next round. Meanwhile, just before the round begins, the big cheese in the ringside seats whips out a wad of cash that makes a drug cartel look like small potatoes and enters information into his cell phone. Even after three hours, it intrigued me because i still had no clue what’s really going on but it sure makes it fun when the sellout crowd yells at every kick. Below is a short video of the betting action
Wanting to see the featured bout but hoping to leave early enough to make the last BTS skytrain, we waited anxiously for the eight match and it didn’t start until almost three hours after the action began. Possibly the strangest occurrence of the night, one of the fighters knocked out his opponent about ten seconds into the second round. Highly unusual in Muay Thai, most boxers are so well conditioned they fight through almost anything and matches ending due to knockout are the exception,. Clearly stunned by the turn of events, the sellout crowd went silent as if the visiting team just scored a Hail Mary touchdown and defeated the home team for the championship. Figuring this is a good time to beat the crowds, we headed out and caught a taxi just as the stadium began to empty out.
All in all, it’s a highly entertaining evening and we’d certainly recommend it to anyone visiting Bangkok. They sell small sandwiches in the upper grandstands but they won’t fill you up so a trip to a late night food court is probably a good idea after the matches. But since I’m an early sleeper, we passed on this option and grabbed some snacks at the train station. Although the ride back to the train station was quick, the main streets are no better at 11 PM and Bangkok’s traffic these days is akin to Times Square or Midtown Manhattan so we recommend taking a taxi to the Mo Chit station and saving time and money. Also be aware that the hotel probably won’t let you charge tickets to your room so bring cash to the concierge and have fun !!
Cheers from Penang.