My pulse is hammering in my ears. I’m breathing hard, soaked in sweat, pushing myself to my very limit. But it never ends, and eventually, I simply can’t lift my body off the ground one more time. I’m just gonna lie here and catch my breath for a minute.
Whack! Suddenly a leather pad hits me in the stomach. The instructor is standing over me, shouting at me. Whack! Here comes that pad again full force. It stings like hell. I can’t understand a word he is shouting at me. But I get his meaning, and it works, somehow I find the strength to push out a few more reps.
I’m in a Muay Thai gym in Bangkok. This morning this seemed like a really good idea. Now I am wondering if I will get out of here alive. For more than two hours, in blistering heat, the instructors have pushed us relentlessly through the hardest workout I have ever done. An old school workout, consisting of jumping rope, pushups, sit-ups, kicks, punches, and combos. Then into the ring for boxing and grappling. Only occasionally interrupted by short water breaks, where we drink while ice water is poured over us from gigantic barrels.
Looking around, I know I don’t belong here. I am out of my element. There are other foreigners here, but they are experienced fighters, and they are all really fit. I am not. My friend is a kickboxer, and even he is having a hard time. This is the world of tough men and a few even tougher women.
Here you can drop in for a single workout, or you can stay for a week, month or more. There are no fancy workout machines in this gym, only puddles of sweat, and the grunts and smells of bodies being worked hard.
Finally, the lesson is over, and somehow I made it through. The instructor smiles at me. Good job, he says. The same guy that hit me in the stomach an hour ago is now my best friend. He used to be a champion Thai boxer. He is a little older now, but he still looks formidable. Not an inch of fat on him, muscular, and tall for a Thai. He is missing a couple of teeth, and it gives him a slightly menacing look.
We all line up for a photo that will go on the wall alongside hundreds of other photos. Right there and then I feel a kinship with my fellow fighters and all the faces that stare back at me from that wall. We all went through the same grueling workout, and I’m a little proud of myself for not giving up.
Today I wish I had a copy of that photo. I like to think that perhaps it is still hanging on that wall staring back at someone else.
See you tomorrow, he says as we leave. Yes, see you tomorrow, my friend and me both say, and we mean it. The next day, I’m so sore I can’t even get out of bed. Maybe I’ll be back some day. Maybe…
What is Muay Thai
Thai Boxing or Muay Thai, also know as the art of eight limbs, is the national sport of Thailand, and the Thais themselves are immensely proud of it. Unlike boxing with its two points of contact, the fists, the fighters use their elbows, legs, shins and feet just as much as their fists.
It has a long history, dating back hundreds of years. While its origin is much debated, there are many legends and stories that depict it. In the early kingdom of Sukhothai, 1238-1583, Muay Thai is said to have been one of eight disciplines that the men of the country needed to master. It was used in the Army, as well as for the entertainment of the King. Exceptionally skilled Muay Thai fighters would often be invited into the Kings bodyguard.
There are at least eight different forms of Muy Thai in Thailand. Each coming from different areas, and having developed different techniques and fighting styles.
As modern western weapons appeared and made hand-to-hand fighting skills less necessary, Muay Thai became more of a spectator sport for entertainment. Fights were often held at festivities, and especially at temple gatherings.
Muay Thai became internationally know when Thai soldiers served abroad during the second world war. They used to practice among themselves, and the western soldiers that saw this was fascinated and wanted to learn. As the sport’s popularity grew in the west, it gradually changed into its modern form. Rules were established and boxing gloves replaced the twined ropes the fighters used to wear on their fists.
Today, Muay Thai may be on its way to becoming an Olympic sport.
Where to see Thai Boxing in Bangkok
While there are Thai Boxing events held in many places in Thailand, including exhibition matches put on for tourists in bars, the best place to see real Thai Boxing is in Bangkok. Bangkok has two major Thai Boxing stadiums, Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium and Lumpinee Stadium.
Of the two, Lumpinee is considered the sacred heart of Muay Thai, and the place all professional fighters aspire to one day fight. For decades, Lumpinee Stadium was located right next to the Lumpinee Park in the center of Bangkok. Then in 2014, they built a brand new and much larger stadium, next to Ram Intra Road on the outskirts of town, but they kept the same name.
The two stadiums operate on alternating days. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday there are contests at Rajademnern Stadium while Tuesday and Thursday fights are held at Lumpinee Stadium. Both stadiums have fights on Saturday.
Lumpinee Thai Boxing Stadium
Having been to the old Lumpinee Stadium a few years ago, we wanted to check out the brand new stadium. Word of warning, it is located quite far from the center in the direction of the old Don Muang Airport.
There are currently no Skytrain or MRT stations in this area. The closest MRT station is Pahonypthin MRT about 9km away. So your best bet is to either take a taxi directly from the city center or save some money by taking the MRT to Pahonypthin and a taxi from there.
On arriving you will be met by eager ticket scouts that will try very, very hard to sell you the most expensive 2000THB VIP tickets. There are three ticket classes – VIP, second and third class. The VIP ticket will get you a ringside seat and is almost exclusively bought by tourists. The second and third class tickets are a little further away, but with their higher vantage point they still offer an excellent view of the ring. You also get to experience the fight along with the real fans.
Do not be fooled by claims that only the VIP section is air-conditioned. The entire arena is air-conditioned to the point of being almost too cool. It’s actually a good idea to bring a sweater.
The first fights usually start at about 6:00 p.m, with the main fights later in the evening. Before each fight, the fighters make their way to the ring wearing the traditional Mongkon headband. The Monkton is a sacred headband given to the fighter by their trainer once he feels they have distinguished themselves. They are usually made of rope, thread, and silk material that are woven together, and it is common practice to have them blessed by monks.
Some fighters also wear armbands, known as Prajioud. Traditionally made from a mother’s dress, and given to a son when off to war. The armbands are worn for good luck and protection. Sometimes they contain little fragments of bone from the fighters respected elders.
Once in the ring, the fighters go through their pre-fight ritual called the Wai Kru Ram Muay. This is done to show respect to Muay Thai, their school, and teachers. It also clears the ring of any bad spirits and shows off the fighters skill.
The Wai Kru Ram Muay will vary for each fighter. Some will make very elaborate showings while others will be short.
Once the Wai Kru Ram Muay is over the fight begins. A fighter can win either by points that are scored by the judges, or by knock-out. The fights can sometimes be pretty brutal, but serious injuries are rare.
This is also one of the few places where gambling is allowed. The betting takes place in the stands and is done by elaborate hand signals. I personally wouldn’t try it unless you are in the company of someone who is familiar with the system.
Any Other Places to See Thai Boxing?
In Bangkok, there are exhibition fights outside of the MBK shopping center every Wednesday at 6:00 p.m – 8:30 p.m. It is free to watch and usually draws quite a sizable crowd.
Women have no place in traditional Muay Thai and are not allowed to fight in the big stadiums like the Lumpinee Stadium. MBK, however, allows women to fight at their stage.
You can also see Muay Thai fights at Channel 7 stadium, located right next to Chatuchak park. Fights start at about half past noon every weekend and standing entry is free. If you want a seat it is 300 THB. The atmosphere is amazing and since this stadium is often overlooked in the guide books there is less risk of running into touts and others trying to overcharge you. (Thanks to Karsten Aichholz for providing this tip in the comments below!)
If you’re interested in learning more about Muay Thai culture then Asiatique has a spectacular Muay Thai performance show every evening highlighting the history of Thai boxing.
Thai Boxing in Popular Culture
We wouldn’t be the Nerd Nomads if we didn’t look a little at how Thai boxing have been portrayed in popular culture. While there have been some movies featuring Muay Thai, it has never become a huge movie martial art, such as for instance Kung Fu is.
Personally, I think I first became aware of it watching Jean Claude Van Dames film “Kickboxer”. In the movie Jean Claude Van Dames character and his brother, a kickboxing champion, travels to Bangkok to challenge the reigning national Muay Thai champion. Needless to say, it does not go well. At least not until Van Dame finds an old master to teach him the art of Muay Thai.
More recently the rather excellent Ong Bak movie series has really shown that Muay Thai can hold its own as a cinematic fighting style:
Whether you decide to go watch a fight or even sign up for a Muay Thai class or not, Muay Thai is an important part of Thai culture. Knowing a little bit about its history gives you an insight into the Thai culture and their way of life.
By the way, if you do sign up for a class and happen to see the old photo of me in my Muay Thai shorts hanging on the wall, let me know will you. 🙂
Have you ever seen Thai boxing, where? Have you tried it yourself? Did you enjoy it? Please leave a comment in the comment area below. Thank you! 🙂
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