MY TAXI WOUND through the early evening traffic, moving like a snake through tall grass. Packed buses towered over us, lurching, belching out blue-black smoke. Lithe, colourful tuk-tuks, weighted down with passengers and goods, darted in and out, taking advantage of their size and agility, blowing their hollow squeaky horns in protest at each obstruction. Pot-bellied policemen, dressed in skin-tight khaki uniforms and wearing large, menacing revolvers and smog-soiled white face masks, waved their hands frantically, desperately trying to order the Bangkok rush-hour chaos.
It was my first trip to Thailand, and I was on my way to watch an evening of Muay Thai, the Siamese art of unarmed combat. As I left the air-conditioned taxi, I choked momentarily on the wet heat. The traffic noise, which had been muted, roared. The smell of chicken, wok-fried in soy, garlic and ginger, floated above the stench of petrol fumes. A large animated crowd milled outside the stadium, waiting to buy tickets.
‘First, second or third class?' came the query from the ticket seller.
‘What?' I hesitated.
‘I suggest second class,' advised a man standing behind me, ‘that way you're not sitting with the tourists in first class, but you won't have to stand either. They always stand in third class; it's because they're always excited. They bet, you see, and you can't sit when you're betting.'
I turned to face the man. He was old, deeply wrinkled, and smiled brilliantly through perfect plastic teeth.
‘I'll have a second-class ticket,' I answered, turning back again to the ticket seller.
The man, whose head barely reached my shoulder, introduced himself as Mr Li, owner of a small factory that produced silk pillow cases, men's shirts and ladies' blouses.
‘I employ twenty-two workers and support eight family members not counting children,' he continued proudly. ‘It's a sort of Chinese sweat shop, but I do most of the sweating. I'm Chinese – no,' he corrected himself, ‘I'm Chinese Thai.'
We were led by two floral-shirted boys through a crowd of clustering men into the arena, and after climbing a few steps, found ourselves looking down over the square boxing ring that had been set up in the centre of the stadium and lit from above by raw, white light. Our seats were located on the dirty uneven cement steps that ran around the circumference of the stadium, and climbed higher towards the third class section. A three-metre-high wire fence separated second and third class.
After squatting on the cold concrete, I took time to gaze at the ringside patrons seated on spartan fold-up chairs, restlessly waiting for their entertainment to begin. ‘See, see,' said my new friend, pointing down towards the ring, ‘mostly foreigners.'
A group of four young Asian women in the front row were giggling, turning their heads repeatedly toward the boxers' entrance. Behind them, a group of Westerners, tall, heavy, dressed in business suits, gulped down beers in plastic cups. ‘Who are the girls?' I asked, curious.
‘Japanese. They love Thai boxing boys,' Mr Li answered, grinning, his plastic teeth lathered in spit. Winking, he added, ‘If you know what I mean.'
MUSIC BEGAN. THIN haunting sounds. Bendable, stretchable notes. Four musicians – brass, flute and drums – stood playing down to the crowd from a small platform erected on the third row of steps. Two fighters came striding toward the ring from opposite directions shrouded by anxious trainers, seconds and supporters. They were small, supple, concentrated, and when they climbed through the ropes into the harsh light, you could see they were very young. Both were barefoot, one had bandaged his ankles for support.
The taller of the two wore red silk trunks and, I suppose to save confusion, fought out of the red corner. His opponent, wearing blue trunks decorated with a leaping gold flame, came out of the blue corner. Laurels of flowers hung around their necks. Both wore bands around their biceps. I learned later that they were calledkruang rang and contained pictures of the Buddha, protective charms, or sometimes both.
When I looked around for one of the boys in a floral shirt, who Mr Li had told me sold the beer, I noticed for the first time the multitude of police. Some in white helmets and brown uniforms, others in black helmets dissected with red stripes, and still more in brown uniforms and peaked caps that climbed and dipped like a learning slope ski lift. They were prepared, I knew, to control the excitement that Mr Li explained could become madness and turn into murder. By the time the boy in the floral shirt arrived to take my order, theram muay, pre-fight ritual, had begun.
Blue, clutching the top rope with one hand, moved around the ring, stopping at each corner, stamping his feet, moving on. ‘He's filling the ring with his aura,' whispered Mr Li, very solemnly.
Red was still on his knees bowing towards his handlers.
‘He is paying homage to his trainer, to his training camp, his home. Respect is demanded in Muay Thai,' Mr Li continued. ‘You are expected to remain polite, disciplined, an example – no,' he thought again, ‘a betterment to society. You must worship your teacher as you do your father and mother, and the training camp as you do your home.'
Red stood, turned and began rocking and flapping his arms slowly, like a heavy bird attempting flight. Bringing his knees up high, fighting an imaginary foe. Blue knelt in the centre of the ring beseeching a higher spirit to fight at his side. Both wore the mongkon, a crown of coloured cord shaped like a tennis racquet, on their heads.
‘Sacred,' said Mr Li, nodding slowly, when he saw me turn towards him and touch my own head to indicate the fighters' headdress.
The fighters, glistening with oil and sweat, strutting gracefully, put me in mind of the harlequin-coloured peacocks that grazed the gardens of my hotel. The musicians, by changing rhythm and tempo, kept pace with the fighters' movements, the reedy sounds of their instruments as sharp as a knife slicing paper. The Japanese girls giggled loudly and wildly.
THE THIRD-CLASS SECTION had filled to bursting. The crowd, all men and dressed for the most part in baggy shorts and sandals, were, according to Mr Li, mostly Chinese Thais. ‘Thais fight, Chinese bet,' he added as an afterthought. They sat smoking, talking, studying the programs, cooling themselves with the same programs folded into fans.
The mongkon was reverently removed from the head of each fighter by his trainer, who then blew gently on the combatant's hair. Their mouthguards set in place, the buzzer sounded, they came out to fight. Their black, eight-ounce gloves held high, their elbows locked to their sides, their knees lifting nervously, waiting to defend against a kick or deliver one. They began cautiously, pushing out side thrusts, light testing attacks, but then both exploded with high round kicks to the head. Full-powered, following through. The crowd that had been quietly sitting, waiting, began to stir, to shout. Lightly at first, but then gaining strength, mirroring the heat of the fight.
I had never seen Muay Thai and was momentarily stunned by its violence and ferocity. I thought heads would burst open or muscles tear apart. The first kick was followed by others to the thigh and kidneys. All delivered with perilous accuracy. At times they used their hands, throwing lefts and rights boxing-style, but when they managed to get in close, elbows were used against the top of the head, forearms against the face, knees were plunged again and again into the mid-section. They grappled, twisted and turned.
The crowd, standing and frenzied, went to work. Like birds using their tails to seduce worms, hands were raised and shaken to attract attention. Fingers were wiggled to indicate the amount of the bet, corners were identified to specify their champion. Mr Li explained that there were bookmakers taking bets, but that individuals also bet against each other. People were calling out from great distances, desperate to make a wager. And the boxers, accompanied by the music, thrust at each other like spurred fighting cocks, their facial expressions as neutral as English bankers sauntering towards their offices on a grey cloudy morning.
By the third round I had joined the crowd in applauding any kick, elbow, knee or punch that got through the defence, with a howl: ‘Haaiiiiiiiiii.'
I had boxed professionally, but I couldn't imagine my body taking the assaults the Thais seemed to be so casually accepting. When I mentioned this to Mr Li he shook his head wearily. ‘Mr Wayne, I am eighty-three. When I was young there were no boxing gloves used, they bound their hands with hemp rope or cotton mixed with glue. At times, when both camps agreed, they would mix crushed glass with the glue. And there were no rounds or weight divisions. Small men would often fight big men. Now that was hard.'
‘And death?' I queried.
‘Many,' he acknowledged, and then continued, ‘it still happens. They pray at the stadium shrine to the guardian spirit asking for protection, they recite incantations, but still, sometimes they die.'
Blood streamed from a wound on top of the head of the red fighter, but the fight went the distance, the fifth and last round fought at the same tempo as the first. The boxers merciless to the last.
Both fighters embraced warmly, dropped to their knees and bowed to the crowd. The red corner was given the decision.
‘It should have been a draw,' complained Mr Li.
The third-class section protested because money had been lost. Plastic cups and cigarette packets were hurled over our section towards the ring, the wire fencing came under attack, but the police restored order, first by attempting verbal pacification and finally succeeding with threats of violence.
THERE WERE TWO knockouts that night. A roundhouse kick to the head of a boxer already beaten bloody and languishing over the top rope sent him collapsing to the canvas where he lay in the foetal position for two minutes. The men in business suits stared in shock, clutching their beers tightly, crushing the plastic cups. Even the Japanese girls were momentarily quiet.
The second came from a kick that a fighter had pushed out standing side-on to his opponent. It speared into the man's solar plexus, bursting his supply of oxygen. He collapsed like a house of cards.
Mr Li and I had planned to watch all the fights that evening, but left during a bout that was plodding and messy. Both combatants were overweight, had little experience, and no willingness to test the limits of their weak skills. As we descended the steps, winding our way through the crowd, passing in front of the black-helmeted police, heading for the exit, I could hear the disjointed sounds of the band trying to keep pace and passion with two fighters who had neither.
Mr Li lamented, ‘In the old days they would have stopped such a fight, stopped it ... bad technique and lack of courage. But now we have fights every night to entertain the foreigners, the promoters don't care who they match, money has become more important. I heard,' he continued, ‘that the foreigners box at the beach resorts ... shameful spectacles, they don't even perform the ram muay.'
On the street, which was still steaming and restless, Mr Li turned towards me, grabbed both my hands, and smiled his white smile. ‘Did you know Muay Thai is taught in physical education colleges?'
‘Yes,' he answered himself excitedly, ‘it has been declared a traditional Thai sport by the ministry of education. At times the King comes to championship matches. Can you imagine ... the King! Hundreds of thousands of Thais practise Muay Thai, Mr Wayne. When a perfect kick, knee or elbow lands in a fight, the whole country lets out a collective "Haaiiiiiiiiiiii ..." That's what Muay Thai means to us.'
Mr Li then released my hands and put a fatherly arm around my shoulder, stretching a little to reach, ‘Let's eat something,' he said in a voice that had become more even, less passionate, because the mundane needs no embellishment.
A man dressed only in ripped khaki shorts and dirty joggers suddenly appeared before us. When he moved, I noticed that he limped badly as if one leg was made of cement, and that his joggers had no laces. He was paper thin, and the brows of his bloodshot eyes were tattooed with scar tissue. He shook badly. The man was a drinker.
Mr Li, without hesitation, reached into his own shorts pocket, pulled out a one hundred baht note and gave it to him. It was a small fortune for a beggar.
‘He's a former fighter. I know him, we all do,' he said to me for clarification. ‘He's here every night.'
We walked a short distance towards the restaurants, stopping before one that was brightly lit and crowded. The waiters gestured to us to enter, but Mr Li seemed not to notice.
‘Mr Wayne,' he began in a voice suddenly timid with contemplation, ‘sometimes bravery and dedication are rewarded with failure. Martial tradition is never without a price, there is always sacrifice.'
Mr Li finally took notice of the waiters who still beckoned busily with their hands, and we entered the light slowly. When we reached our table, he turned and looked back as if searching for more broken fighters who carried the burden of a heroic culture. ‘There are many like him, many.'
And then we were seated.