“I can take him dude! I know I can. You got my back?”
“Uh, no. You can’t even beat Somsong at Connect Four. Have another beer.”
My running partner Dave and I were hanging out in Patpong and as usual he was getting all testosteroned up over the fake Muay Thai bout at the bar. Usually, he was content to cheer the boxers on. This time he wanted in on the action. Fortunately Dave loved to drink so the lure of another beer was enough to dissuade him from the idea of getting in the ring; one more shot enough to keep him in his seat. Offering to go one-on-one with a Thai boxer may have been safe at a fake Muay Thai venue, but you never know. Thailand has a mind of its own, touri proceed at their own risk.
Tall, dark, and handsome doesn’t begin to describe Dave. Though he easily hits all three of those marks. Dave is 6’ 4”, 200+ sculptured lbs., with dark-honey skin, black hair, molasses eyes, and a smile that lights a spark deep within his soul. A former Marine Honor Guard at the White House, part of his beauty is that he hasn’t a clue to how hot he really is. Upon meeting Dave for the first time, an older straight male friend of mine summed him up perfectly: Impressive. And Dave oozes masculinity. The chance for a five foot 99 pound Thai to take down a Goliath, especially a gorgeous one – a drunk one to boot – may have been too tempting. Not exactly a recipe for a fun filled SE Asian holiday. At least not on the touri side of the equation.
We were perched on barstools at our favorite bar in Bangkok’s red light district, an area that shimmers like the crown jewel in a vacationland of sin, seething with action, spotlit by neon blaring garishly from the enticements along the city’s most notorious soi. It was a popular bar, a popular choice among male visitors who’d made the pilgrimage to Bangkok’s neighborhood of flesh merchants, travellers yearning to escape the boredom of their drab homeland. They’d made the trip on zephyrs of dream to experience the sleazy magic of a world of the forbidden, the exotic, the unbelievable; a place beyond taboo, a place of flesh and nakedness where loose, ripe women reign and money is all. Content to ignore the squalid reality of the actual place, the bar was packed nightly with visitors willing to swallow the illusion wholeheartedly, and that artifice encompassed not only the women – many of whom were men – but the fake Thai kick boxing bouts as well.
That bar is now a distant memory. It used to squat on the corner of Patpong 1 and Suriwong, replaced by a McDonalds that in turn was replaced by a British drug store pushing Viagra that was replaced by a bank offering the some of the worst exchange rates in the city. The corner moved from an illusion of sin to an illusion of food to an illusion of virility to an illusion of cheap riches, a micro-climate of what Bangkok has to offer its visitors. But in the early ‘90s, that bar was a great place to call home.
On our first trip to The Big Mango, we quickly settled into the bar, making fast friends with Somsong, one of the bartenders who for a steady round of tips kept the ladyboys away. That Dave would lose game after game of Connect Four with her was but an added bonus. And added baht to her pocket. It was an open-air hostess bar, it’s tables spilling out both onto the sin-laden soi and traffic-laden Suriwong, a haven for bar girls and ladyboys, and a magnet for those on the prowl for cheap booze and cheaper women. Oh. Guess I should mention Dave is straight. Or at least thinks he is.
Under no such illusions myself, I was content to drink the night away in his company because that usually resulted in sleeping the early morning away snuggled up in bed together too. Yup, because that’s what straight buddies do. Illusions have always played an important role in Dave’s life, reality in mine. So it was no surprise that he was attracted to the Thai kickboxing bouts the bar offered to lure punters in.
Muay Thai is a national obsession in Thailand. That gambling is involved has a lot to do with the sport’s popularity. Real Muay Thai fights are part of Thailand’s cultural heritage. But that’s not what most touri see. Many visitors get their Muay Thai fix from staged bouts held in bars more interested in pushing drinks than in promoting the sport. That’s not to say the fighters are not real, they just don’t really fight. It’s the Thai version of professional wrestling. The outcome is determined before the fight begins. Unless a drunk touri steps into the ring. Though that outcome is predictable too.
In Bangkok, the real matches are held both at Lumpini and Ratchdamnoen Stadiums, where the fighting is fierce. The arenas are always packed, and as a touri you are guaranteed the best seats in the house. That’s because they cost twice as much as other seats and the locals are not foolish enough to pay that kind of cash. But then, a ringside seat for less than twenty bucks is a good deal. Those seats also give you a good view of the upper two tiers where the locals battle their own brand of the good fight.
Inside the stadium, the action is quite aggressive and bloody. Lots of angry shouting, furious screaming, with elbows, hands and fingers flying all about the place. That’s the spectators, busy placing their bets. Thais, like most Asians, love to gamble; Lumpini is one of the few legal venues for gambling in the Kingdom. Most bets are not large but they are placed with much passion. Fights among spectators are frequent and often more violent than what is happening on the mat. As a touri, hopping into the ring is a safer bet than wagering with the local crowd. At least with the former you may survive your night out.
Inside the ring, a bit more decorum is shown. At least at first. Each bout starts with a pre-fight ceremony. During the first part, the Wai Khru, both boxers kneel and wai to pay respect to the King, then turn in three more directions with each representing honor to his parents, teachers and Buddhism. A headband, called a Mongkol, is tied around their heads; it is considered sacred and when worn nothing can touch the boxer’s head. That’s why you’ll see the fighters enter the Muay Thai Boxing ring over the ropes, rather than ducking between them like classic boxers do.
After the kneeling and bowing the fighters get up and start the second part of the pre-fight ritual, the Ram Muay, a slow dance like movement that derives from their school of fighting technique. Sometimes the dance is brief, other times it’s an eloquent performances that draws applause from the crowd.
Each school of Muay Thai has its own style of Ram Muay, each dances to its own tune. If for some reason the fighters start doing the same movements, they’ll cancel the fight because it means they’ve been trained in the same school of boxing; two fighters from the same school aren’t supposed to fight each other because they are spiritual brothers. Occasionally you’ll see one of the boxers stamp his feet in his opponent’s corner. This is a signal that he intends to kill his opponent. The crowd goes wild. You should quietly slip out of the stadium and go watch the safer exhibition matches in Patpong.
During the pre-fight ceremony and the actual bout, a Muay Thai Orchestra plays tunes based on a musical scale unknown to Western ears, to match the pace and intensity of the fighters. Fortunately, the noise made by the spectators drowns out the noise made by the Thai musicians. If not, carefully study the fighters’ drop kick techniques and then try the move out on the most annoying musician. Don’t forget to place a bet before doing so.
Like most competitive full contact fighting sports, Muay Thai requires a heavy focus on body conditioning. The result is a homoerotic wet dream: a pair of buff, near naked youths, their biceps rippling, thigh muscles bulging, ass cheeks clenched tight under red or blue shorts that become almost transparent as they are soaked with sweat as the bout goes on. The spectators go berserk, gay guys in the crowd get hard, and the boxers exchange blow after blow using their knees and feet, fists and elbows; almost any part of the body is considered a target and any part of the body, except the head, can be used to strike an opponent.
Head-butts, chokes, gouges, and bites – in other words bitch fighting – are no longer allowed. Kneeing your opponent in the balls is no longer legal either. Originally, Muay Thai fighters wore cotton cloth wrapped around their hands which was dipped in glue and rolled in sand and broken glass. Today, they wear boxing gloves. Pussies.
Muay Thai fights consist of five three minute rounds with a two minute break between rounds. In professional fights, matches are judged as a whole, not by the round, and it’s important that a boxer finishes strongly; the later rounds are the most important. Like Olympic Ice Skating, the judges’ decision is often faulty, controversial, and provides the spark that ignites blows being thrown outside of the ring. But then with maybe 100 baht at stake, you can’t blame fight fans for their outrage when their boxer loses.
The matches put on at the bars in Patpong are a bit different. Opening ceremonies are brief or nonexistent. The music played during the fight is disco tunes from the ‘70s. There are no judges, the outcome was determined before the fight began. But the fighters are often true Nak Muay, trying to earn a few baht between real fights. Because money rules both inside and outside of the ring, scoring a Thai boxer from a bar for a battle between the sheets is not impossible. Getting your nose bloodied by trying to is not impossible either.
If you want to see Muay Thai in Patpong these days, the Pink Panther Club puts on exhibition matches every night between 10pm and midnight, while the club’s gogo girls sit around in their skimpy outfits waiting for the boxing ring to be dismantled and their poles to once again take center stage. On special nights, the bar opens the ring to touri to try their hand in case you have a sudden urge to prove your masculinity. If you want to try out your Thai boxing skills but the thought of naked women turns your stomach, for an exceptionally aggressive and brutal fight, just run up to any ladyboy and give her a good noogie. Your fight will be on.
If you want to see real Muay Thai in Bangkok, fights are held at Ratchadamnoen Stadium every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday night, and at Lumpini Stadium every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night. Both stadiums have afternoons fights too. You can also catch the action at the Channel 7, Rangsit, Omnoy, and Samrong stadiums.
Two trips with Dave to Bangkok later, with him getting more vocal about entering the ring during each, I’d finally had enough, slapped a $100 bill on the bar top, and said, “If you can take him, it’s yours.” It was a win-win situation for me: getting to watch Dave’s bod rippling in motion dressed in a skimpy pair of boxing trunks, and at worst having to shower him with attention back in the room to mend his broken ego and battered body. But Somsong had her eye on that bill too. Her favorite customers were obviously flush; some of those riches could be headed her way as long as the two weren’t instead headed for the hospital.
She pulled out her Connect Four set-up and quickly challenged Dave to a game before he could psych himself up enough to hop into the ring. And big surprise: for once, Dave won. Somsong poured him a shot, and gave him a big hug while cooing onto his ear, “You big winner handsome man!” No punches were thrown, but a farang lost to a Thai once again.
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