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Packing a punch with Muay Thai
Going to see a Muay Thai (Thai boxing) match is a must in Thailand. Although Bangkok is famous for its spectacular show fights, Chiang Mai is apparantly the place to go for real, no frills Muay Thai. When we arrived, we were at first a little disappointed – the stadium was only one quarter full, and farangs (tourists) by far outnumbered Thais. With fights on every night of the week, the local crowd must save their support for the big hitters. We’d opted for ringside seats, although we avoided the front row for fear of teeth or pieces of ear that might come flying our way.
Our worries that the small crowd might make the atmosphere a bit flat were unfounded. During each fight, a three man band, sounding like hyperactive snake charmers, whines in the background, the tempo seeming to grow faster with each round.
Each fighter’s supporters gather in each corner, and every punch or kick is greeted with a chorus of cheers of groans, depending on who delivered it. In between rounds, the fighter’s team – usually dressed in something outrageously camp, like matching sparkly silver waistcoats – rush into the ring to douse their hero with water, rub him down and set him on his feet ready to go again.
There don’t seem to be many rules in Thai boxing, except no kicks to the groin and no hits to the back of the head – pretty much anything else is fair game. In the ring, fists, knees and elbows exchange blows, whilst outside of the ring sweaty hands exchange handfuls of crumpled notes, as bets are placed.
Before each match, the two opponents perform a dance-like ritual, skitting about the ring stretching their muscles and showing their opponent – and the crowd – what’s in store. Some strut like peacocks, whilst others display more of an awkward shuffle; but don’t hedge your bets – sometimes the quieter one is simply saving his energy for the fight. Some of the fighters are barely out of puberty, and the youngsters can be the most vicious of all.
By the time the third or fourth fight is underway, you find yourself standing on your chair screaming, “Go blue! Show him what yer made of!” at the top of your voice. To experience the atmosphere at a big fight, for example when Thailand’s most famous ladyboy Muay Thai champion Nong Tum is taking to the ring, would be amazing – as even in this low key fight, it was hard not to caught up in the atmosphere.
So much so, in fact, that before I realised what I was doing, I’d booked us a 3 hour lesson with former boxing champion Lex Phet. When the alarm went off at 7am the next morning, I started to wonder exactly what we were doing – but there was no getting out of it now. Within the hour we were being whisked across the city on motorbikes to a small open air boxing gym on the outskirts of town.
Now, as with first attempts at most things, success tends to be limited. I’d like to say that within 3 hours I was packing an almighty punch, but the reality is very far removed. After jumping up and down on a huge tyre for 10 minutes I felt like a 60 year old with a heavy B&H habit, rather than a reasonably fit and healthy (or so I thought) 29 year old. My skipping warm-up was more in the style of a school girl than a boxer; hopping from foot to foot in the boxing stance just made me look like a chicken on a hot plate; my punch looked like the lunge of a drunken 3am brawl; and as for my high kicks, well, I’m afraid I looked more like a clumsy ballerina than a boxer.
Still, the instructor had a great deal of patience, and muttered occasional words of encouragement to humour me, before turning his attention to my other half, who makes a far more convincing boxer. At the end of the lesson we both smelt like 2 week old gym bags, had faces like beetroots and legs like jelly. A career in Muay Thai certainly doesn’t beckon, but hey… we gave it our best (if rather pathetic) shot.