Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is the national sport of Thailand, with about 60,000 full time boxers in the country. Most fights consist of three to five rounds of boxing, depending on the skill level. Any part of the body is a legal target, and you can use any part of your body to strike your opponent except your head. Punches are considered the weakest attack, and kicks to the legs are used to soften up your opponent. Most knockouts are achieved with an elbow strike, or pulling down your opponents head and kneeing him (or her. Yes, there are female boxers) in the face.
We had the good fortune to wander our way into the Amateur/Pro-Am World Championships 2013 while we were in Bangkok. In these fights, the competitors wore protective shinguards and elbow pads to protect themselves and the competition was over several days. While it was fun to watch, these weren't the Thai fights I had heard about. All that changed when we got to Chiang Mai.
While looking through tours at a travel desk, I noticed a flyer tucked among the pamphlets. The flyer advertised real Muay Thai at a "Stadium" in the old city. Something about it called to me, and I told Courtney we absolutely had to go. Being the trooper she is, she agreed and we bought tickets for 400 Baht (About $13). In comparison, the tickets to the stadiums in Bangkok are around 2,000 Baht.
Courtney was craving a taste of home, so we wandered around the Night Bazaar until we found a restaurant with western and Thai food. After a dinner of tasty burger and pineapple fried rice (served directly out of a pineapple), we hopped on a Tuk-tuk (A three wheeled taxi that's half rickshaw, half scooter) and headed to the old city.
Welcome to Thaphae Boxing Stadium! We walked down a long corridor between two buildings filled with motorbikes and sleeping dogs, which eventually opened up into a small covered courtyard. The ring was in the middle surrounded by plastic lawn chairs and tables, which were in turn surrounded by multiple bars, all serving the same drinks for the same price. Yay Chang beer! The local lager weighing in at 6.4% can be had at any restaurant or bar for 100 Baht ($3) for a 600ml bottle and has become a personal favorite of mine. We were seated at we called "Farang (foreigner) Row" with a woman from England and two Canadians. They were great rowmates, shared their travel stories, and gave us great recommendations for things to do along the way.
Muay Thai fights have a unique ceremony that accompanies them. Each fighter is announced by name and gym, and enters the ring wearing a personalized headband, usually sporting their gym's colors. Each of them then wanders around the ring for a while, doing a unique mix of stretching and dance moves which is meant as a tribute to their trainer. The bell rings and the musicians start playing their music. The drums and funky looking clarinet play during the fight, and they rise and fall with the excitement in the ring.
The fights are super exciting to watch. Some fights are five long rounds of kicks so fast and strong that the sound echoes throughout the stadium. Others are very short. In the third fight we watched, the boxer in the blue gloves landed a swift kick to the head which stumbled his opponent, and followed it up with another kick which knocked him out cold. The fight lasted maybe ten seconds. It took them longer to wake the unconscious fighter up than the fight lasted.
As I mentioned before, there are also women competitors, and they are just as exciting as the men.
There was also a section of the night only labeled as "Special Fight" on our program. This turned out to be three fighters in the ring at the same time WHO WERE ALL BLINDFOLDED! They wandered around the ring swinging at the air until they eventually found someone and kept swinging until one of them fell over. Then the other one would hear the sound and try to run over to them, only to trip over the fallen guy. There was also a "ref" in the ring who would try to guide the fighters towards each other, but was by no means immune from the blind punches of the fighters. The entire spectacle lasted as long as it took to listen to "Gangnum Style" and was one of the most entertaining parts of the night.
After that was the main event, with two well experienced Thai fighters, followed by the "International Fight" which features a Thai guy fighting someone who has come to Thailand to train. This night featured Brian from the USA! He had been training with Taiger Muay Thai from Bangkok, and had come to Chiang Mai for this fight.
We decided to join in the illegal betting that accompanies all Muay Thai fights, and placed our bet on the American against the other people at our table. Sure enough, Brian came through for us with a KO in the second round and we were 30 Baht ($1) richer! We got our picture with Brian, and hopped on a tuk-tuk for a open air ride home through the city.
The night was incredible, and was filled with sights and sounds that would be impossible to find anywhere near home. It's nights like this that are the reason we took this trip.