BANGKOK — Apart from eating Tom Yum and Pad Thai, visiting Wat Arun and the Grand Palace and indulging in that authentic body massage, the one activity I did not dare miss was this: watching Muay Thai.
It happened two days ago inside the Channel 7 Stadium. The venue was inside a TV studio. Every Sunday here, Muay Thai is broadcasted live on television. The venue is open to the public for free and while the room looks to sit only a few hundred, it must have crammed over a thousand bodies. If you’re claustrophobic, this isn’t an open space garden; it’s a side-by-side, no-inch-to-give, windowless room that’s mostly standing room only.
I arrived at 1 p.m. It was early, I thought, because the fights start at two. But, no; I was ushered in to one of the last few bleacher seats available. Overhead, a sign was hung: SEATING FOR FOREIGNERS. One wall lined up with bleachers was jampacked with tourists.
If you didn’t know, Bangkok is the world’s most visited city. Last year, it recorded 21.5 million overnight visitors, edging London’s 19.9m and Paris’ 18m. By comparison, the Philippines last year registered only 5.9 million tourist arrivals. Our whole country generated about one-fourth the number of visitors compared to the city of Bangkok.
Back to Muay Thai: While the band played music, people danced. Finally, after an agonizing wait of 80 minutes, with dozens of new spectators shoving and stuffing their way inside, the fight started at 2:20 p.m. The two fighters were young; they must have been younger than 19. One donned blue and the other wore red. They wore socks bearing the same colors. Each wore a headband (the mongkon) and white armbands. Before the battle started, they knelt facing their corners and bowed. As the fight started, dozens of people were yelling and signaling their bets, much like Cebu Coliseum.
According to the Thailand-muaythai.com: “Muay Thai is a combat sport that finds its origin in a noble art with antique traditions, it is also the Thai national sport. In Muay Thai, competitors fight standing like in Western Boxing, but elbows, knees and kicks strikes are allowed, with the only protection being the gloves; an important part of this fighting style is the clinch (standing wrestle).
“MUAY literally means ‘combat’ and it derives from the Sanskrit word ‘Mavya’ which literally means ‘unite together.’ While the word THAI is an adjective of the thai nation, it’s meaning is ‘free people.’ Therefore, the word Muay Thai is translatable as ‘Thai boxing/combat.’”
I watched two of the five scheduled bouts last Sunday. Each consisted of five rounds of three minutes each and the rest period was two minutes. What’s different is what happens in this 120-second rest period. Two trainers per fighter come up the ring and they massage their warrior. They intensely massage the arms, legs and shoulders; finally, just moments before they’re back fighting, they fully stretch each leg. Thai massage is incorporated in Thai boxing!
The combatants elbow one another. They kick the legs and they kick straight to the face. They punch and grapple. And, the most painful, they use the knee to strike the abdomen or a lowered head. That’s why this sport is called the “Art of Eight Limbs” because it involves using kicks, elbows, punches and knee strikes.. utilizing the eight “points of contact.” Muay Thai originated several hundred years ago and was developed as a type of close-combat that used the whole body as a weapon.
All-sweating from the “close-combat” of the hundreds crammed inside the TV studio, I left the building and, just as I exited, I met the winner of the first bout and was able to congratulate him. After, I joined Jasmin and Jana for their own riot: shopping at Chatuchak.