These images were shot 11/03/14 at Bangkok’s Ratchadamnoen Stadium and were originally published on Instagram 11/07/14.
One of the coolest things you can experience in Thailand is going to a live Muaythai fight, more commonly known in the west as Thai Kickboxing. It is Thailand's national sport and is wildly popular everywhere. On any night of the week you can see live fights in any town or city but the best are those held in Bangkok at either national stadium, Lumpini or Ratchadamnoen.
Muaythai is the cultural martial art of Thailand; richly entrenched in Buddhist beliefs and tracing its history over the past 500 years. Thailand I’ve come to find, is a country of extreme contrasts. Yes it’s true every culture isn't without its contradictions but I’ve found many things in opposition here to be uniquely Thai. They have a belief known as “sabai,” that’s rooted in the Theravada Buddhism that 95% of the people follow. It values being calmly detached and non-confrontational and is often used to mean happy and easy going. “Sabai, sabai,” is an expression you’ll hear being used everywhere in Thailand.
Gentle and peaceful “sabai” on one hand and the massively popular and brutal Muaythai on the other, where a match often ends with someone carried out on a stretcher.
Muaythai, which began as the form of close-quarter combat for soldiers in the ancient Siamese kingdoms, uses the whole body to mimic the weapons of war. It is known as the "Art of 8 Limbs,” 2 fists, 2 feet, 2 knees, and 2 elbows. Hands function as swords; shins and forearms become shields; elbows are used like hammers; legs and knees like staffs. Watching a Thai fight you can see this as fists and knees search for an opening with disciplined control and powerful blows are absorbed with little indication of pain.
A match begins with hypnotizing traditional Thai Sarama music, which starts slow during the "Wai Krhu Ram Muay” ritual dance to honor its seriousness. Here the fighters pay respect to their trainers, their ancestors, and to each other but also to warm up, show their skills, and excite the crowd. It’s completed by each circling the ring three times, touching each corner and saying a prayer to seal and consecrate the space. During the fight the Sarama music gets more frenetic, increasing in tempo to encourage them to fight harder. The music combined with the intensity of the crowd and the brutality of the fight creates an atmosphere here that is electrifying in a way unlike anything else.
Though codified over 500 years ago, much of the history of Muaythai was lost in the Burmese destruction of the then Siamese capital at Atthutaya. Today the sport’s cultural heritage is recognized by the Thai Royal Government and regulated by its World Muaythai Council. This modern incarnation is governed by rules, judges, and a point system and is far more civilized than the original version that was fought in courtyards with fists wrapped in hemp, dipped in hot wax, and then ash and broken glass (just like in Blood Sport!)
Security in the Bangkok stadiums is provided by the Royal Thai Army. The Thai army has basically been in charge since the first coup in 1932 when the constitution was established and the monarchy ceased to be absolute. Though Thailand has always been considered to be politically stable this is only in comparison to its neighbors. Every now and again the Thai army finds it necessary to remind everyone who is in charge with a coup d’etat, the most recent one happening earlier this year! However after spending a month here, as an outsider I’ve found little indicating this country is under martial law.
Thailand is a place quite unlike any other. If Southeast Asia aka “Indochina" is the axis between India and China and countries here are more culturally aligned with either one or the other, then Thailand definitely leans towards India. This is apparent in their language and religious and cultural practices however Thailand has evolved an extremely unique identity. Part of this comes from the fact that they are the only Southeast Asian country to resist colonization. This allowed them continue to develop their culture indecently without an occupier intent on destroying it as was happening in every country around them. This is widely attributed to the effective and stable leadership of the Chakri kings who have been in power since 1782, the current being the 9th in the line. The fact the the Thai monarchy has been so effective in holding the country together and keeping foreign powers out is part of why the Thai people hold their king in such reverence. More on this some other time!
One of the aspects of Muaythai I find most intriguing is the great respect the fighters have for one another. They are usually quick to apologize if an illegal move has mistakenly been made or if excessive damage has been done. To watch the victor bow deeply in honor of the defeated takes you back for a second and then fills you with awe and respect for this ancient and still thriving fighting art. It’s things like this that make you fall in love with Thailand. Like many a “farang” before me, I’ve become a bit smitten with the place and would like to stay for longer than my visa says I can!