Kickboxing with The Buddha in Chiang Mai


Thai Kickboxing, more properly called “Muay Thai,” is a popular spectator sport in Thailand. This writer recently visited Chiang Mai, and planned on seeing a kickboxing competition.

   In Chiang Mai, there is a traditional group promoting what might be called “purist” Muay Thai competitions and there are also what might be called “kick-for-pay” shows that mix fun and blood, not to mention alcohol and food, to put on a good show for the tourists and anybody else that likes to have a good time.

   I located a kick-for-pay joint with its entrance on Loi Kroh Road, the street of bars and women. “Thai Kickboxing” signs directed me to turn south and walk down a narrow lane full of gift shops, bars and restaurants. At the end of it was a large open area with the boxing ring surrounded by tables and chairs belonging to the twenty or so different bars that served the kickboxing spectators.

     Don’t have a photo of this entertainment complex on Loi Kroh Road because I felt inhibited by a dwarf who came from a dressing room to adjust his gear. I had read in blogs about kickboxing dwarves. This one looked formidable, his body chiseled out of hard muscle. After he saw me, he ignored me, as I was a farang, meaning “foreigner,” and a tourist. I was too self-conscious to raise my camera.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Planned to end my day seeing traditional kickboxing in my own district. The purists’ Muay Thai in Chiang Mai was on the north end of the Night Market, near Chang Klan Road where it intersected with a lane in a Moslem neighborhood. A big mosque was on the other side of the lane.

   The handbill said 9:00pm. My time in Chiang Mai was coming to an end, so in the blazing hot afternoon, I walked to the Thapae Gate to enter the Old City for a walking tour.

   The Buddha was well-represented in the Old City with many famous, old temples. The Buddha himself was probably around somewhere, but he was staying out of the sun. Many of his saffron-robed monks were visible doing chores in the courtyards and walking, in pairs, on the sidewalks of the Old City.

   Found a sidewalk cafe offering smoothies for 30 Baht, about one dollar, cheaper than I was used to paying. I was overheated and thirsty from my long, sweaty walk from the Rattana Guesthouse and, therefore, joyous with the prospect of an ice-cold drink. A middle-aged Thai woman served me the mango smoothie where I sat back with an electric fan aimed at me in the shady recess of her open air cafe. Refreshed by this smoothie, that was the best smoothie in my life, I ordered a falafel from the chalkboard menu.

  Had a second smoothie and a second falafel. Enjoyed a delicious, satisfying, wonderful, great value experience of happiness there at her café in the Old City of Chiang Mai that afternoon. However, the journalist inside me must report that as a result of either her smoothies or her falafels, or both, the following day, I experienced my only bout of tourist’s intestinal regret that I had for the whole trip. She may have used city water, which is not usually safe to consume, to wash the mangoes or the leafy greens in my falafel. Fortunately, I had only the one little bout of regret.

   Asked the woman to show me where we were on my tourist map. We were north of Loi Kroh Road, so I headed south to the next unmarked intersection, which was likely to be Loi Kroh, and headed east toward my more familiar stomping grounds. Passed back through the Old City Wall via a different gate and came to the Eastern Moat stretched out in the middle of a busy boulevard. Saw an old tuktuk driver eating berries from a tree and, after having a few friendly words with him about it, sampled a berry or two myself. He smiled and tried to make me understand that they would taste better in the right season.

   There were plenty of available ladies sitting on benches in front of the bars on Loi Kroh Road. Most of them were not my tea cup, but there were a couple that turned my head to make sure I had a good look to make my report. They ignored me for the most part, though one did smile at me in a way that made me think about the exact words that I was going to use in that report. There was another curvaceous offering sitting at a table on the other side of the street who gave me a long, seductive look, but I noticed she had a bit of an adam’s apple, and she was much taller than the other girls. Probably a ladyboy.

   There were certain places in Chiang Mai, particularly on Loi Kroh Road, where the smell of raw sewage came up through vents in the concrete sidewalk. Now, I understood the Asian custom of leaving one’s shoes outside the front door.

   Later, I enjoyed my customary open air dinner at Galare Guesthouse restaurant on the banks of the Ping River, then as the sun was sliding down over the Old City, I strolled into the Night Market as it was beginning to come to life. I was killing time until the Muay Thai bouts at 9pm.

   The Night Market is comprised of several large, rambling, open air buildings with hundreds of stalls offering souvenir treasures for tourists. There are also a couple of hundred portable stalls on wheels lining both sides of Chang Klan Road and spilling into some of the side streets.

   Happened upon the preparations for a ladyboy show at an open stage “theater” within the shelter of the Kalare Night Market, which was one of the anchor buildings that formed this amorphous retail extravaganza known as the Night Market. The ladyboys were unpacking showy costumes of feathers and rhinestones.

   While I was prowling around among the teak Buddhas in the Kalare Night Market, the air was suddenly vibrant with electric guitar blues, played with the sweetest, most sensual, tear-jerking touch, the likes of which I haven’t heard since I left the blues bands playing on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Tears spilled out of my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I wished those soulful notes would go on for another hour or two at least, and I tried to walk in the direction of the music, but couldn’t find the guitarist before he stopped.

   Walked to the Burger King on Chang Klan Road for a snack before Muay Thai. Paid about $5 for a double cheeseburger and a bottle of cold water, much higher than I usually pay at home.

   The Muay Thai bouts were put on under a green tarp, big enough to shelter maybe two or three hundred people. The best seats next to the ring cost 600 Baht and bleacher seats, which is what I bought, were 400 Baht ($13.79). I didn’t want to sit a long time, so I asked the man supervising the ticket sales when the fights would really start.

   “Nine-thirty,” he said, so I walked around a little bit, which was a mistake, and came back.

   Put my money on the table in front of the girl selling tickets and asked her if it would be all right if I take pictures during the bouts. Didn’t want to be a crass tourist.

   She didn’t understand my question, though I gestured with the camera in my hand. It turned into an impasse between us.

   Finally the man supervising saw the situation and blurted to me, “Yes, of course, you use camera inside!”

   Maybe two hundred farang spectators were there, seated in the bleachers on three sides and in the prime 600 Baht plastic lawn chairs close to the ring on four sides. On the south side was a waist-high cyclone steel fence, behind which stood maybe a hundred Thai.

   My little walk had cost me one of the better bleacher seats up high where people had a better view. The only seat I could find was at the bottom of one of the bleachers and my view was impeded somewhat by the ropes of the ring.

   In came the first two fighters, climbing into the ring while their trainers set up in their corners.

   I heard the conversation of two Australian men right behind me, whom I eventually learned were father and son. They were knowledgeable about the proceedings and I eavesdropped on their running commentary. The son was training in Muay Thai, and wanted to schedule a bout some time in the near future. Apparently, his father was his trainer.

   “You’re not ready yet,” his father said.

   In the ring, the first pair of fighters performed a ceremony which included praying on their knees and kowtowing on the deck of the ring.

   The two young fighters, then, at opposite ends of the ring,  danced separately with high, prancing steps, turning round and round, touching their foreheads to each of the four corners, paying homage to the Muay Thai tradition.  These ceremonies preceded each contest, although some of the fighters finished with them more quickly.

   The referee called the fighters to the center of the ring and said a few words. The fighters bowed a little and smiled at each other, then touched gloves. The bell rang and the fight began.

   Thai kickboxing traditionally is accompanied by indigenous Thai music, a reedy, clarinet-sounding instrument wailing and trilling rapidly in Asian scales with the accompaniment of hand drums which have a bit of a melodic range. The wild exotic music provides a good soundtrack for watching the fighters maneuvering and striking and kicking. The music stops when the rounds end, then resumes when the next round begins.

   In the first fight, the fighters were young, perhaps in their late teens. They were clearly not seasoned fighters, but they mixed it up well enough with punches and kicks to open the show. Their faces were red from punches, but neither of them was hurt much. After the referee raised the winner’s arm, the boxers hugged each other, and appeared to be friends.

   “You know, if I sign up for a fight, the officials won’t want me to be overmatched,” the son behind me said to his father. “They’ll try to put me with someone who’s at the same level as me.”

   The father chuckled. “You hope they do.”

   “Well, I have to get some time in the ring, eventually.”

   “Get a few more weeks of training under your belt,” the father said, “and we’ll take it from there.”

   The second fight featured a handsome young, Thai man who climbed into the ring laughing and trading quips with friends, several of whom were in the audience. His heavily tattooed opponent, another Thai, was much shorter, but stocky, with broad shoulders and beefy, muscular arms. They completed the rituals and met with the referee in the center of the ring. They seemed friendly toward each other.

   When the starting bell rang, the shorter man seemed to favor no strategy or fancy footwork. Instead, he quickly stepped in close to his taller opponent and hammered him with rapid combinations of fast, hard punches. We could hear his fists connecting with the handsome guy’s face and the side of his head, and handsome soon had a dazed look on his face and looked a little wobbly in the legs. During the second round, the father behind me yelled repeatedly, “He doesn’t even know where he is.” The short man was clearly winning every round with his relentless, aggressive style.

   But handsome didn’t go down, which was an impressive feat, considering the beating he took, and he managed to get a few kicks and punches in. The short fighter tried to catch handsome’s feet with his gloved hands.

   The kicks are usually aimed at the opponents legs, mostly the thighs, and the tops of the kicker’s bare feet connect with a loud “smack!” Higher kicks run the risk of a foot getting caught by the opponent, who will then unbalance the high-kicker and throw him to the deck. The fight continues even when the boxers are down on the deck, but before long, the referee gets them up on their feet to start again.

   The short man was clearly the winner. After the decision, he and handsome hugged each other with what appeared to be genuine affection and respect.

   Before the next bout, I stood up and turned to the father and son behind me. “You guys seem to know a lot about this,” I said with a friendly tone. “Is it against the rules for the fighters to try to catch each other’s feet?”

   “Oh, no!” the father said. “They can do that. They’re allowed to catch their opponent’s feet if they can.”

   The next bout was an Australian versus a Spaniard. The entire left side of the Spaniard’s face was a solid, dark purple of severe bruises.

   “He just fought at (Thapae?) last night,” the son said to his father. “Me and Kevin were in his corner with his back up.”

   At the starting bell, the Spaniard came out bobbing and weaving to feel out his opponent, but, without a blink of hesitation, the Aussie literally leaped on the Spaniard and pummeled him and kicked him like an out of control superman gone berserk. The Spaniard often caught the Aussie in a clinch, too close for effective punching and kicking, although there was still some punching and kicking. After the referee separated them, the Aussie would sail right in again, his fists connecting with the Spaniard’s face and head while both fighters shot occasional kicks at each other. I, myself, grimaced imagining the pain the Spaniard had to feel with those hard punches hitting his bruised face. The Aussie attacked again and again without seeming to tire.

   Lightning fast, the Spaniard aimed a kick at the Aussie’s head, but the Aussie deflected it with a high block.

   I figured the Aussie would win because he dominated the fight and did most of the punching and kicking. My surprise when the Spaniard was pronounced the winner was obviously shared by most of the audience, because the decision was loudly, roundly booed.

   When they exited, the fighters walked past me. The crowd liked the Aussie and he smiled at fans while he heard their encouragement. The father behind me shouted, “You won it! They should have given it to you. You won!”

   “Thanks!” the Aussie yelled with a big, happy smile on his face, revealing a couple of gaps where teeth should be.

   The next two fighters came in and began the ceremony of preparing for the bout.

   “I could get a fight in Lampang,” the son said. Lampang was a small town about 70 miles away.

   “But that wouldn’t do anything for you,” his father said. “It wouldn’t get you any recognition.”

   “I have to start somewhere.”

   “Just keep training for now. You need more conditioning.”

   There were three more fights, each with heavier, more seasoned fighters delivering heavy blows and fast, powerful kicks. Two fights ended with knockouts. I worried about the unconscious fighters because it took the trainers a few minutes to bring them around enough to sit up, then, still dazed, to get to their feet to receive the applause of the crowd. Then the fighters hugged. I felt strong emotions—empathy, compassion, and admiration.

   At 11:30, the last fight ended and the audience quickly left. I had expected there might be dawdling and talking, but that kind of after-the-show society probably found its way into nearby bars and restaurants.

   As I strolled down the Moslem lane back to my room, I pondered what The Buddha would think of Muay Thai. He probably would not have approved, teaching, as he did, that one should not hurt others, especially as a way of earning a living.

   Nonetheless, the development of unarmed martial arts is traditionally credited to one of the Buddha’s disciples, Bodhidharma, who taught young monks the path to enlightenment. He discovered that students get sleepy listening to lectures, so he got them up on their feet occasionally to do rousing exercises. It was from those exercises that Bodhidharma and his followers developed systematic moves for self-defense.

   Later, those monks took the teachings of the Buddha from India into China, possibly even passing through Chiang Mai along the way, to places where the people were quick to notice that the monks were able to deftly defend themselves from bullies and bandits with their disciplined fighting style. The people wanted to learn to fight like that, also, and accepted Buddhist teachings along with martial arts training.

   When I tried to imagine The Buddha at tonight’s exhibition, the scenario showed him smiling compassionately at the fighters, but gently shaking his head and rejecting organized violence served up as entertainment with a dismissive wave of his hand. But I see him walking away, not making a big deal out of it, as he continued on his way to the next task he would complete in his crusade to enlighten human beings.

    I don’t mean to sound critical, but The Buddha left quite a bit of that work undone.


2908 words

23 November 2013



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