The Thai people are predominately Buddhist, and through much of their country Siddhartha’s spirit is palpable. Even in the noisy and overcrowded capital city, hard-faced nationals will soften their features and treat visitors with a respect given all living creatures. The exception that proves the rule is the brutal national sport of muay thai or Thai boxing – where knees batter ribs while gamblers wager their salaries on who will fall, and when.
Vendors surround Bangkok’s Lumphini Stadium three nights out of seven, peddling wares and heated snacks to patrons streaming into a theatre of controlled violence. Past the ticket booth is a mere hint of a lobby, its walls pierced with numbered archways too small for the seating areas behind them. A rhythmic thudding from deeper inside triggers a bottleneck at the edges of the arena, the narrow entryways imparting a final suggestion of order before releasing spectators into the clamour beyond. In the ring the pre-fight display has already begun. Like many of the martial arts, muay thai has its roots in national defence, and the fighters perform awkward dances before the bell in honour of a kingdom which was never at any point conquered by foreign invaders.
Drums pulse behind tense woodwind sounds as the early rounds get under way, each fighter cautiously feeling for weakness in his opponent’s defence. The crowd is equally patient, watching carefully for an advantage they can use against the bookmakers. At the end of the second round all hell breaks loose. In the stands men are waving and shouting, signalling with contorted hands the amounts they’re willing to lose. Within two minutes the fighters must retake the ring, and when they meet there are no more feints or dodges. Each attack is without pause. The music quickens. Blows are harder now, exchanged at a furious rate. The crowd raises its voice at every strike. Against the shin, into the ribs. Ferociously. Relentlessly. And then a step backward and to the left reveals enough space to slip an instep up to the loser’s jaw. Patrons make good on their markers while a stretcher carries away the unconscious also-ran. With ten fights a night, there’s simply no time for compassion.
Lumphini Stadium, on Thanon Rama IV, stages fights on Tues, Fri and Sat eves. Take the subway to Lumphini station or the Skytrain to Sala Daeng and then a taxi.