Fighting Muay Thai in the Motherland
“You cannot imagine one,” Chocolate replied when I asked her how fighting in Muay Thai in Thailand was like. She had quite a number of fights in Thailand already, so Chiangmai was like an old friend to her.
I queried her further on how the stadium that I'll be fighting be like.
“It looks like any other shop, like that,” she pointed at the low-rise buildings along the streets as we whizzed by in a mini-van.“It’s not a proper-proper stadium.”
I was mystified, but figured that I would find out soon enough. The Chiangmai roads were broad and clean, even in the dark. It was 10pm and we had just landed after a brief transit in Bangkok. The ruins of Thapae Gate were underlit by lamps and glowed orange while hotel sign-boards blinked in different colours. It was fascinating to see modernity existing next to crumbling history so nonchalantly. The city lights glimmered on the glossy water of the moat. It was calm and quiet, unlike my nerves, which were brewing up a storm.
The next day was Fight Day. After settling our breakfasts and groceries, we popped by Thapae Boxing Stadium for a quick look. Chocolate was right. The entrance to the stadium was a small alley, with the remaining space taken up by a ticket-box and barbershop. A green signboard with “Thapae Boxing Stadium” written in lowercase was mounted above and hidden behind a tangle of electricity lines.
After passing through the alley, which was shared by scooters and bikes, we entered the stadium proper. It was a large, open space, filled with rows of tables and chairs. In the centre, was the boxing ring on an elevated platform. Further behind, there were mats laid down in front of mirrors, probably the prep area for fighters. The walls were plastered with fight posters and banners, some of which were peeling off, but the faces peered back stoically, battle-hardened. We had watched so many fight videos in stadiums, the famous ones, Lumpinee, Rajadamnern, and now was our time to be in one. Seeing Thapae empty and in bright daylight, the stadium seemed imposing and impersonal.
It was a different story when we returned at night. The bouts were supposed to begin at 9.15pm, so we got our hands wrapped at the hotel and headed over at 9pm. The stadium was a hive of activity already, with fighters walking between the promoter’s room, the prep area, the toilets, the seating, where their friends were. Tourists filed in with a tall glass of beer in hand. At 9.25pm, the lights dimmed, leaving only the ring illuminated in the centre. The announcer’s voice boomed and musicians began, setting the rhythm for the night. The Pi Java (Javanese clarinet) soared and drew us in with its haunting tune while the Klong Kaak (drums) thumped out our heartbeats.
It was go-time, but vastly different from what we had been used to. We were used to pomp and fanfare: at local events, the fighters/gyms would be given tickets to sell; friends and families would clamour for details to support; gym-mates would make a ruckus at the event while side-eyeing people from other gyms. There would be a lot of tension compressed at the venue, a lot of pride and pressure riding on each bout. Fighters would be skipping, or shadow-boxing intensely, some doing last-minute padwork (??) with their trainers, some pacing up and down the walkways and breaking into jumping jacks suddenly. A lot of fury and flurry, before the cathartic release in the ring.
But the vibe at Thapae Boxing Stadium was relaxed. It was cosy and intimate. The spicy sweet smell of Thai oil lingered. Junior fighters did the oil massage for their seniors, and they later applied Vaseline on their own faces in front of the mirror. They supervised themselves, no need for instructions from grown adults. Shoes were left about in a haphazard manner. There were oil marks on the rubber tarp, along with school-bags in cutesy prints and bright colours. A group of youngsters next to us reclined on pillows and picnic straw-mats that they had brought from home. There was an air of mundaneness. It was another day in another week for them, and there just happened to have a fight on that day.
December meant a slight wintry chill, so some of the Thai fighters wore puffy jackets. They wore old Muay Thai shorts, the designs faded from frequent washing, and sat around on plastic chairs, waiting for their bouts to come up. Some scrolled through their phones, some talked to friends and braided each other’s hair leisurely, while others stared into space with their feet slightly twitching to the wai khru music, the sole indication of their inner state of mind. It was very matter-of-fact. Not unimportant or uncaring, but quotidian. Level-headed. It was a place that felt like home to them. They had gone through these rhythms many times before and it was something knowable to them. It was an eye-opening experience. To witness the unflappable manner in which Thais approached fights is to also see how ingrained the martial art is in their daily lives. There was no excess, no hint of remarkableness, because Muay Thai has always been a constant in their lives, The fighters who had won their bouts went back to where their friends were sitting, packed their bags, watched their friends’ bouts and left together for home, their job done for the day. The ones who had lost their bouts did the same, maybe after shedding a tear or two or sitting in the corner for a while. But in any case, there were no hysterics, no euphoria, no parading of or over-attachment to ego. It was just another night for them, part of their lives, but not dominating it.
Watching the flashing lights at the stadium, the fighters going in and out of the ring like dancers in music boxes, helped me realise the integrality (and hence, unremarkable nature) of Muay Thai to the Thais, especially to the ones involved in the scene. They take their time in the ring, unhurried and languid. They have all the time in the world because it is the bedrock, their inheritance and their lifestyle. It is how they can perform and practice their culture, which is as essential and as easy as breathing.
I was thankful to be given a peek of this, the behind-the-scenes machinations at a fight night in Thailand (which is 6 out of 7 nights). It is only the tip of a very large iceberg, but it was fascinating to see the different approaches to the martial art. Muay Thai itself is an ecosystem, and we are microscopic organisms, swaying or flailing to our own tunes to the same beat.
Moral of the story: always listen to Chocolate. I really couldn’t have imagined it.