Stickman Readers' Submissions November 4th, 2002

Watching The Fights At Lumpini Stadium

It had been in the back of my mind of a few months now to go and see some top level Muay Thai in Bangkok. I have been to Pattaya a few times and often would spend an hour or two in the evening at the boxing rings in the middle of the beer bars. It was interesting enough, but I was aware these were strictly low-level matches, mainly for the benefit of the tourists. I don't know too much about the sport, basically just what I read in the Lonely Planet Guidebook about it.

Last Saturday, I finally got my ass in gear and went to see some real Muay Thai. A local friend agreed to come with me; she made a couple of phone calls to the stadiums, got the information and prices, and we decided to attend a Saturday afternoon session at Lumpini Stadium. By the way, the time and price information on the Internet and in the guidebooks was not exactly correct, perhaps it is obsolete. It is better to call the stadiums (Lumpini or Ratchadamnoen) directly or have a Thai friend do so on your behalf.

To get to Lumpini stadium, you can take the skytrain to Sala Daeng station, and from there it is a 20 minute walk or 40 Baht taxi ride – just go south-east along Rama IV road, past the park and the night market; the stadium will be on your left.

So, my friend and I arrive at the stadium about 20 minutes before the two o'clock starting time. This being an area where tourists are likely to appear and spend money, and me being a farang, I was expecting to get ambushed by a tout, and I wasn't disappointed. Just at the entrance of the walkway towards the stadium, a young lady with very good English intercepted us, showed us a brochure (English and Thai), and starts explaining to me the various tickets available. She recommended that I buy the most expensive seats. I politely thanked her for her assistance and suggested to my friend that we proceed to the ticket window. The tout then started talking to my friend rapidly in Thai, giving her the same pitch, I suppose. I interrupted her, and again in very polite language thanked her, then told her we did not need her assistance this day. My friend and I walked over to the ticket window. The tout followed us, telling me that she is an official representative of the Lumpini stadium, and she had a card around her neck to prove it (and I have documents made in Khao San Road proving that I am a brain surgeon, a nobel prize winner and the Romanian ambassador to Thailand). At the ticket window, my friend started to order the tickets, but her attention was divided between this and the tout who was giving her a rapid fire sale pitch in Thai. I stepped between the two, and once again politely thanked the tout for her assistance. I bow my head slightly and hold my arm out, asking her if she would please leave us. I repeated this 4 or 5 times. The touts started to lose control of her temper; she shouted at me: "This is Thailand, I am Thai, I can stay here if I like!". My friend finished buying the tickets and off we went inside the stadium. She had heard this last remark and thought it was quite funny that one of her fellow countrymen would blow her stack and say something like this to a foreigner.

I am not sure what this tout was up to exactly. She could have been legitimate, but the whole situation (tourist venue, 'official' badge, me being a farang, her near fluent English, her lurking just outside the entrance, her VERY un-Thai-like aggressiveness) set off all kinds of warning bells in my head. My best guess is that it was her goal to sell the most expensive tickets to foreigners, for which she would get a cut of the obscene profit realized therein. Just to let you know, you probably don't need any assistance to buy fight tickets at Lumpini, and certainly don't need help if you speak Thai or have a Thai friend with you.

A word about ticket prices: I know this will come as a shock to those expats or frequent visitors of the Kingdom <insert sarcastic tone of voice here>, but there is a dual pricing structure in place at the stadium. There are 3 classes of tickets – ringside, regular class and the cheap seats. We bought regular class – 800 baht for me, 200 baht for my friend. Well, a 4-to-1 ratio of foreign to Thai price; I have seen higher than this, and lower also. It sucks, but what can you do? It's really not an issue for a one-time-only visit to the fights, but for a foreigner aficionado of Muay Thai working in Thailand on a local salary, it could be a rather expensive hobby. I am not sure what the cheap seats cost, but the ringside seats were 1,500 baht. I think there are free refreshments included, probably a lukewarm Beer Chang and 10 baht worth of locally grown fruit.

So, we walked into the stadium itself. In stark contrast to the tout, the stadium staff were very polite and helpful in guiding us. The stadium is roughly circular with the boxing ring, of course, being in the centre. There is a roof overhead and a low wall around the arena. It is well ventilated and there are many ceiling fans overhead, but nonetheless it was quite hot inside; be prepared to sweat a fair bit as it gets crowded. The ringside seats are plastic chairs on the floor beside the ring. Farther away are the regular seats where we sat – they were just several rows of wooden benches. The cheap seats are wooden benches further away from the centre.

Getting there early, we were able to get decent seats, about 20 meters from the ring and with an unobstructed view of the action. As the starting time approached, our section rapidly filled up with other spectators. It became quite crowded, and I know this is not to everyone's taste, but it really added to the atmosphere – there is nothing quite like a sports arena in a developing country filled with enthusiastic fans.

At 2:00 PM, the announcer came on to introduce the afternoon fight card. It was an elimination tournament: 8 fighters pair off in a quarter-final, the 4 winners advance to a semi-final, and from there the 2 remaining fighters meet in the final bout. This is prize fighting (professional boxing) and the winning purse was 300,000 Baht. I think the loser of the final received 20,000 Baht.

There was a fair bit of ceremony before the fighting: the song to honour HM the King, introducing the fighters, introducing the sponsors (a farang among them). There is also a short ritualized dance where the fighters pay their respects to their trainers.

So, the fights begin. A regular Muay Thai fight is 5 rounds, but was only 3 rounds per bout for this tournament since the winners will need to fight more than once. As I mentioned above, I have seen Muay Thai in Pattaya, but this was totally different; truly the real thing. They start fighting at such a high intensity, and maintain it as best they can throughout. Naturally it slows down towards the end of the fight as they fatigue, and I could see the men were quite exhausted at the end.

My friend and I were in the middle of a cheering section for one of the contestants. When it was his turn to fight, they went wild! Every time their boy got a decent blow in, they cheered. I hadn't the slightest preference myself who to root for, but I figured for the sake of diplomacy, I would cheer for him too. He won his quarter-final match, but lost in the semi. After this loss, I expected to see his fan club down in the dumps, but they seems to take it all in stride.

During the fighting, there is a band that plays some sort of traditional music. This serves the same purpose as the soundtrack of a movie or television show in that it cues the audience about the emotional intensity of the events. As the fighting becomes more active or violent, the music increases its tempo and the audience gets louder. The whole thing creates an atmosphere that is unique in a sporting event – it is why fans pay money to see sports live rather than watch in on television.

As that annoying, mouthy little b*tch of a tout outside the stadium reminded me, this IS Thailand, so there quite a bit of wagering in the stands. My friend indicated a particular area in the stands where punters could go looking for some serious action. But even around me I could see some men with money in their hands; just small sums – I saw what appeared to be a 40 baht bet between 2 gentlemen just in front of me. There were quite a few policemen in the stadium, but I suppose there is an understanding that they will turn a blind eye to this (illegal) activity.

The final bout was between a fighter from Ubon and one for Surin. I was looking forward to something special. However, about one minute into the first round, the Ubon fighter nailed his opponent in the thigh with a tremendous kick. This dropped him right to the canvas and he sure looked to be in a lot of pain. The referee came over, and started to count him out, but after 2 or 3 seconds he gave up on this, declaring it a knockout. The Surin fighter had to be taken out of the ring on a stretcher.

Afterwards, there was some more ceremony as they awarded the winner his belt, prize money and a few other things. The loser of the final came back into the ring, badly limping, to collect his consolation award. There was the usual photo ops with the sponsors, etc.

About half the audience left at this point. I waited around with my friend to see what would come next. They put on another fight, this one between 2 adolescents. Coming after the top-level tournaments fights, these boys seemed quite slow and clumsy (although they could certainly kick my ass). We watched for a few minutes then left the arena.

A few additional remarks:

– I think the elimination tournament format for this session was atypical; from what I have read, a normal Muay Thai boxing card at Bangkok's major stadiums is 8 fights of 5 rounds each. Again, it is best to contact the stadium to confirm events and schedules.

– All the fighters in the tournament appeared to be in their early 20s. Muay Thai is a violent sports and I wonder about the damage they do to their bodies. I don't think they have very long careers, probably not as long as a Western style boxer can expect.

– I feel a bit guilty about enjoying the spectacle of two men trying to hurt each other, but I confess that I do enjoy it. I don't know what philosophers would say about this – a dark side of the human soul perhaps? I can rationalize it is by saying it is a part of Thai culture, an ancient, honourable and manly sport, the participants are consenting adults, no effort is spared to ensure the safety of the fighters, etc. Well, there are much uglier things that happen in human society than martial arts combat.

– I would recommend you buy tickets to the 'regular' seats section (i.e. not the cheapest nor the most expensive seats). The vast majority of the audience was sitting here and only here will you get an authentic "Thai fight night" experience. Moreover, the view is perfectly satisfactory – Lumpini stadium is not really that large a place and the price difference between regular and ringside seats is not worth the better view it will afford you.

– Be advised that this is not a night at the opera, and the audience is not a representative cross section of middle-class, white-collar Bangkok. Expect to be sitting beside working class fight fans, mostly from Isaan I think, and mostly men. Expect crowded conditions, smoking and very loud (and perhaps coarse) talk. I do not mean this at all to be derogatory or condescending – I had a wonderful time myself – I say this because it may not be wise to take a refined Bangkok Thai lady with delicate sensibilities to a Muay Thai fight. If you do, consider getting ringside seats. The friend who went to Lumpini stadium with me works as a nurse in Bangkok, but is from a farming family in Isaan. This worked to my advantage in 2 ways – she doesn't mind at all being crowded in with the regular Isaan folks, and she can explain to me what they are saying to each other (as they are speaking in Isaan dialect). If you don't speak Thai well, there is a lot you will miss unless you go with a Thai friend who can interpret for you. Hey, you are going to get gouged on the ticket price as a foreigner anyway, so bringing a Thai friend won't be very much more extra money to pay for her ticket as well.

To conclude, I strongly recommend you see at least one Muay Thai fight card at Lumpini or Ratchadamnoen stadiums if you live in Bangkok or stay come here for a holiday. If you want to keep the nights free for sanuk, then go for an afternoon session. It is one of the most interesting experiences I have had in Thailand. Hey, it's a chance to get away from the snooty, emotionally reserved, prissy Bangkok Thais and hang with some down-to-earth upcountry folks who aren't embarrassed to yell at the top of their lungs when they are pumped up.

Stickman says:

I've been to the muay Thai a few times but to be honest, enjoy the spectacle, but don't really know quite what is going on in the fights. When I have been there, in the el cheapo seats at least, it sees as though everyone is betting.