The sound of a bell feels like a jolt to my ears. As the clock continues to tick, I could feel the tension rising in the air. My limbs feel numb as I freeze witnessing these moments with wonder. I can see the blood oozing from the jaws, the gasp of breath at every blow and the body soaked in sweat. I am at Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok witnessing Thailand’s national sport “Muay Thai” also known as the Science of Eight Limbs.
On this night I witnessed some unforgettable knockouts and punches, that I had only seen on screen till date. Muay Thai uses the body to mimic the weapons of war. The hands become the sword and dagger, shins and forearms act as armor to protect the blows, elbows act as a hammer to topple the opponents, legs and knees act as an axe.
During my visit to Bangkok, I got an opportunity to watch Muay Thai. Bangkok today has two major Thai Boxing Stadiums – Rajadamnern and Lumpinee Stadium. I chose to witness the match in Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium which is the oldest in Thailand. The first boxing match was held here in 1945. It was the first official stadium built in the history of Thailand and was originally constructed as an open-air Roman Amphitheatre. Later in 1951, a concrete roof was added making it more convenient. Even today the stadium layout reminded me of the Ephesus amphitheater in Turkey.
On that night, they had nine matches scheduled with the first match starting at around 6.30 pm. The best fight of the night is usually placed in slot 7. A huge board was placed at the entrance displaying the teams and their weight divisions. Usually, each match has two rounds lasting 3 minutes each with a break of 2 minutes between the bouts where the fighters rest and listen to the pep talk from the coach. Before the start of the first match, locals place their bets on these fighters on the second level of the stadium. Gambling is legal in Rajadamnern Stadium. I could see heated discussions, gestures and hand signals by the locals to place their bets. I was told that often these hand signals are misinterpreted and it results in violence and fights between the gamblers.
Before the match, everyone faced the photo of the king as the national anthem played accompanied by a short video of the king. Thai’s worship their king and you will find giant billboards of the king almost everywhere. I wonder if they ever ran out of pictures of the king! The national anthem is played twice a day in public.
As the first match began, I could see the fighters entering the ring with a traditional headpiece called Mongkon. Mongkon represents the fighter’s respect and loyalty to his trainer, gym, and family. Usually, each gym will have only one Mongkon for all its fighters and it is believed to safeguard and bring good luck to the fighters. It is removed from the head of the fighter once the ritual dance (Wai Kru) is performed.
The other sacred piece worn by the fighters is Prajiads (armbands). These are more personal to the fighters and not shared among the gym members.
During few of the matches, I also saw players entering the ring with floral garlands worn as a symbol of luck.
As the fighters enter the ring, they first perform the ceremonial dances “Wai Kru” and “Ram Muay”. As the Wai Kru is performed, Thai Music “Sarama” is played which is continued until the end of the match. The Sarama music irks your senses. Listening to the music which is like a snake charmer’s tune, the dancers moved their body almost in a trance relaxing their muscles and easing their tension. The first part of this ritual dance begins with Wai Kru where the fighter removes the robe and enters the ring. By bowing and praying to each corner in an anticlockwise direction, the fighter is believed to seal all four corners of the ring. Once the corners are sealed, the fighter circles the ring three times before choosing the spot to perform the dance “Ram Muay”. They kneel down and bow to pay respect to their trainer and also pray for luck. Ram Muay is a more personalized dance and each of the fighters has a different style representing the gym or the region they belong to. There were instances where the fighter enjoyed maximum attention just by performing elaborate dance movements before getting knocked out in a few seconds by his contender!
The first match was a surprise for me. As I sat back and witnessed my first Muay Thai boxing match, soaking in the details of the kicks and punches – the first knockout happened! It was so sudden that it took me some time to realize that the guy has fallen breathless on the floor. I wished for a replay option to relive the knockout moment. I realized the level of intensity, alertness, and strategy that this sport demanded. The trainers and ground staff surrounded the guy and moved him out of the ring in a stretcher. The initial matches had junior contenders who fought with nothing held back. I could hear the locals raise their voices to cheer their contenders during the blows. It reminded me of the chant “Deshi Basara” in the movie “The Dark Knight Rises” during the climb. The synchronized sound pumps up your adrenaline levels. Seeing the gambling and betting, I felt that humans are the only species that will look to profit from a fellow human’s misery or defeat.
Muay Thai origins are lost in time. Historians argue that its history was lost when Burmese ransacked Ayutthaya (Siam’s capital city of Thailand) and looted all the temples which used to store the historical records. The records state that to defend the city, wars were fought between the neighboring kingdoms and soldiers were taught to use the body as a weapon during their hand to hand combat fights. This eventually evolved into Muay Thai.
Legend has it that the Burmese army captured King Naresuan. He was offered a chance of freedom if he defeated the best Burmese soldiers. When Naresuan defeated all his contenders, he was granted freedom to return home and thus he became the legend of Muay Thai.
A similar story is of Nai Khanom Tom, who was taken prisoner by the Burmese army. In the victory of celebration over Thai, the Burmese king hosted a festival where the prisoners were ordered to fight against the best of the Burmese warriors. Nai Khanom Tom performed the ritual dance before the fight and defeated all the Burmese warriors. The Burmese thought that they lost due to the spell cast on them because of Wai Kru (ceremonial dance). Nai Khanom Tom was granted freedom. He symbolized hope for the Thai people and was called “Father of Muay Thai”. Boxer’s night festival is held on 17th March every year to honor the bravery and valor of Nai Khanom Tom.
Muay Thai also witnessed the “Tiger King Era”. King Prachao Sua loved Muay Thai so much that he disguised himself as a commoner and entered the tournament in smaller cities and villages. As the Thai hold a high regard for their king, they would never fight their king out of respect – hence the need for disguise.
Muay Thai gained its popularity during the reign of King Rama V when he promoted the tournaments throughout the kingdom and also introduced it as part of Military cadet teachers’ curriculum.
The West experienced the first taste of Muay Thai when they witnessed the Siam warriors practicing the techniques during World War I under the reign of King Rama VI. It further gained international popularity during World War II, when the West famously called it “Siam Boxing”.
There were few matches where I captured the expression of the referee where he looked tired and expressed his disappointment when the fights were leading nowhere. He looked more agitated and frustrated than the fighters!
I was surprised to notice references of Muay Thai in few of the famous international movies like The Man with the Golden Gun (James Bond movie), Ong-Bak and Kickboxer. The video shows few glimpses of the matches that took place that night.
After the first knockout, I was thrilled and fired up hoping to see more of the action. There were few gripping moments when I thought that the match has almost ended till the fighter stood and fought like a true survivor. As the match continued to progress with various other fighters, I also observed that knockout is not the only option for a fighter to win. In one of the matches, the fighter clearly knew that he was winning by a huge margin and he simply chose to play around and not go for the kill. It was a revealing moment as I understood that this sport was much more than the violence and fighting. Beneath the fighter’s aggression and craft, there was still respect and love among fighters and gym masters of rival gyms. Back home, I dug up more on Muay Thai and saw the best Muay Thai fighter Saenchai’s fights. I was in complete awe of the speed, agility and flashy techniques he used to tackle his opponents. I hope to see his match live one day! I walked out of Rajadamnern stadium with memories of some of the defining moments of the match and the charged atmosphere there. Watching a live Muay Thai was indeed the best part of my Thailand tour and would remain ingrained in my memories forever.
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