A visit to Thailand wouldn’t be complete without some Muay Thai. We waited until Chiang Mai to get ourselves on the ringside, mostly because of the costs (THB 600 in Chiang Mai vs THB 2000 in Bangkok for a ringside seat). We headed to Thapae Boxing Stadium just inside the east gate of old city. Thapae Boxing Stadium was the most popular stadium in Chiang Mai for tourists, hosting Muay Thai matches six days a week. The experience did not disappoint!
By the time we arrived at 8:30pm, we could already see the crowds gathering. We purchased our tickets and were directed to our seats in the VIP section, as close to the ring as we could possibly be. Both Julie and I were pretty excited and pumped by the atmosphere. There were bars all around us and people were already gambling and taking bets on the fighters. On one side of the corner we saw a few fighters warming up with punch bags. After a 30 minute delay, the fun began!
For the night, seven fights awaited us, each with five three-minute rounds. The fights were organized in increasing weight categories, including both males and female pairings. Looking at the program, I was surprised by the weight of the first two fighters – only 100 lb (45kg)! Asian people are usually smaller, sure, but come on, 45kg is a little bit too low for a fully grown adult. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they were kids, probably in their early teens. My suspicions were confirmed when the two kids came out with a man playing traditional Muay Thai music on a Javanese flute. While the man played introductory Muay Thai ceremonial music, the two kids performed the Wai Khru – a Thai ritual to pay respect to man, god and his opponent. The Wai Khru consisted of each fighter circling the ring 3 times and then bowing, on their knees, three times.
After the salutations were done, the gong sounded and the first fight began. A bit shy at first, both kids started exchanging some punches and kicks, which were pretty strong considering their size. Julie thought they looked hesitant and scared. As the fight went on, they settled into it and put up a decent fight, which ended in a nice Tae Tad (round kick) to the knee knockout.
The thing with watching Muay Thai, we began to notice, was that you could really feel the impact of every single hit. Everyone has seen fights on TV or in movies, but it’s nothing like sitting right beside a real fight. We heard every collision, saw each fighters’ expressions, and anticipated the next hit almost as if we were in the fight ourselves. It was a thrilling, if not a bit alarming, experience.
Next in the ring were two young girls (again probably in their early teens), who showed that they were not there to kid around. The thing with girls fighting is that it can get pretty nasty and vicious, as they take it more personally. By the 4th round it was evident that they wanted blood and both of them almost fell from the ring into the crowd. Fortunately, the fight ended without any serious injuries or knockouts.
Just before the end of the second fight, another fight started, but this time involving two gambling staff and a spectator outside the ring. We were not sure why it started, but we saw a few punches being exchanged, culminating in the two gambling staff guys carrying the spectator out of the stadium. At one point, more people were watching this fight than the actual one in the ring. Once the spectator in the fight was taken out, the crowd calmed down and the focus shifted back to the ring, where a third, special, fight was about to start.
The special fight, where five fighters were all blindfolded, took place as an intermission to the main one-on-one events. It was funny to watch the fighters run around and punch the air, or even hit the referee. They often tripped and fell on top of each other, forming a pile of disoriented people. Some of them would just spin with their hands extended, trying to punch everyone who stood in their path. It was a comic relief from the seriousness and intensity of the usual Muay Thai fights.
Even though the first three fights were good, it was clear that the fighters weren’t professional. There was plenty of room for improvement in their stances, guards and combos. They were also not very smooth as fights got messy, with random moves lacking technique being thrown in the air from time to time. We wanted to see the real deal; we wanted real Muay Thai. Thankfully, the rest of the fights delivered.
For the remaining fights, the contestants were older and more experienced. They knew what they were doing and their blows had way more technique, speed and power. I was really immersed in the fights, tracking every movement with my eyes, not wanting to miss anything as I knew that the fight could end at any point with a one hit KO. And it did. A round kick to the chin brought one of the fighters down in the 6th fight. The crowd went crazy. That move alone made the entire night worth it.
The 7th and last fight was an international fight, a local Thai fighter vs. a fighter from France. No offense, but I wanted to see some French ass kicked. What I mean is that I didn’t come all the way to Thailand to see an international fighter defeat a local in their national sport. What worried me was that the Thai fighter was in the blue corner and so far, every single match of the night had gone to the red corner, which made me very suspicious that the fights were being fixed. He was also a lot shorter than the French fighter. Regardless, the French fighter did show some skills and seemed superior at times. But by the last round, he couldn’t handle the Muay Thai clinches and subsequent knee blows that the Thai fighter frequently gave him. In a particularly dominant moment, both Julie and I were standing and screaming, cheering for the Thai fighter to finish him off. It was pretty exciting! The fight didn’t end up in a knockout, but the Thai fighter did win, which made us pretty happy.
While other venues catered more to locals, Thapae Boxing Stadium was a good choice for us. The fights walked a fine line between a great fight and a good show. I can imagine that Muay Thai fights could easily become very bloody and gruesome. We had a fun night and left with a newfound appreciation of Muay Thai.