Following the introductions, a small group of men in bright-green shirts situated beside the ring begin to play the ceremonial music unique to this sport. With pii (a small wooden flute), skin drum and finger cymbals, the band plays the trance-like tune of the ram muay or fight ceremony. Every competitor is required to perform this ritual prior to a bout. A combination show of respect and dance, each ram muay varies according to its camp’s tradition.
The ceremony begins as the fighters circle the ring counter-clock-wise with their right glove running along the top rope. This action is performed in order to “seal” the ring from outside influences or “hexes” from opposing camps. Following this larger circle, the boys circle each other near the center of the ring. After several revolutions, each young man kneels facing the direction he was born.
As the music continues, the nak muay take a brief moment to contemplate as they sit with hands in the wai position (a prayer-like pose which is a show of respect and greeting rather than a holy petition). What follows is a series of bows and symbolic gestures passed down to fighters from their teacher or khru. While varied from boxer to boxer, these moves are highly stylized and express respect for one’s teacher, one’s camp, and the spirit of the art.
The fighters then rise and begin the dance or ram component of the ceremony. Part of the purpose of the ram is to demonstrate a nak muay’s agility, balance and grace. These dances all share basic elements, including a repeated series of movements along each of the four sides of the ring, and a final wai of respect in their corner upon completion.
From here the competition proper begins. The two competitors move to the center of the ring where the referee wipes off each pair of gloves quickly along his shirt front, reaches his arm between the faced-off opponents and with a sharp gesture, cries “chok!” (“Fight”).
A bout consists of five, three-minute rounds with two minute breaks in-between. Contestants are matched according to weight, experience and record in the same fashion as international boxers. Unlike the fisticuffs of the west, however, Thai-style boxers use an array of bodily weapons.
Nak muay strategically punish each other with kicks, punches, elbows and knees. Strikes include shin kicks to all surfaces of the body, forward foot and knee thrusts, elbow strikes to the head and hooking or curved knees to ribs and tender organs. The groin is off limits as a target, as is the back of the neck, but all else is fair game. Once a good bout gets going, the entertainment enthralls. I have been to Lumpini many times and have yet to be disappointed with the quantity and quality of pugilist action.
Lumpini stadium is home to an array of drama each Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. The ring is the locus of activity, but it is by no means the only arena from which one is stimulated and entertained. By the time the officially sanctioned fights were underway, the betting section of mid-aged men had grown to encompass about one third of both the second and third tiers of seating. Many of these men were no doubt fighters themselves at one time. Now they enjoy the action of the ring as well as the intensive gambling that accompanies each event.
This section became a madhouse of wagering as the night wore on. It remained a roiling mass of waving arms and bellowing voices through to the final seconds of the main event. While the action inside the ring certainly warranted such excitement, it was difficult at times to keep my eyes ringside with all the “upstaging” going on in the stands.
In recent years the Thais have begun to market their favorite sport to western tourists, resulting in an audience comprised of westerners and locals alike. Flyers, tour services and every guidebook advertise and extol the excitement of attending a muaythai bout and guests now run the gamut: from an assembly of Thai men between the ages of 40 and 60 in short-sleeved, plaid shirts, polyester pants and plastic flip-flops, to dread-locked, pierced and fully tattooed young foreigners and gorgeous blonds from god-knows where in spaghetti-strapped tops and tight-fitting tunics looking bored alongside their well-muscled boyfriends. Polite, yellow-vested boys and girls wandered the arena serving drinks and snacks throughout the evening.
When I first attended a night of fights at Lumpini some six years ago, the cost of a ticket was half of what it is today. There were no English speaking announcers describing the basic structure of the sport, its rules and peculiarities. There was certainly no well-choreographed and precisely executed demo performed in the middle of the evening’s bouts, and there were few foreigners, (and fewer women), in the stands.
Back then, the wooden benches forming the top seating section were grubby and litter-strewn. The place is tidier these days, and while cats still roam the partially open-air stadium, (no doubt attending to their rat-control duties between beauty naps), overall, Lumpini Stadium is looking pretty good.