Before I kick your ass, may we dance?
What you want, Chiang Mai‘s got, whether it’s mini-skirted, fake-boobed, pool-hustling hookers; the lulling kneading of a three dollar foot massage; a new wardrobe of cheap designer knock offs; a gluttonous street cart meal of guoy jub, pad see ew, and papaya salad; or the sad familiarity of a Big Mac.
Right now, I’m in the mood for violence.
Todd and I leave the calm, historic back alleys of old Chiang Mai and head through the ancient city walls and over the moat to a part of the city where the vibe ramps up a notch. Loi Kroh Road is a nightlife zone teeming with people busily indulging their vices, exuding the same desperate nonchalance as high school kids sneaking a smoke between classes.
As we near Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium – the location of tonight’s professional Muay Thai kickboxing bouts – we’re approached by a smiling ladyboy who’s anxiously double fisting wads of fight fliers. Tickets for Westerners don’t come cheap, so when she offers us VIP seats for the general admission price of 400 baht each (about $10 US), we readily follow her into the stadium.
Gender illusionists entertain at the Muay Thai match (apologies for the terrible photo quality) | Photo by Lauren Girardin
Despite her constrictive short-shorts and absurdly high stilettos, she speedwalks us over to the ringside VIP area, letting us choose our seats from the thrift store worthy variety of couches, chairs, tables, and padded benches. The crowd is as lacking as the VIP décor, with the house at only half capacity.
Though the word “stadium” is a stretch, the surroundings and people-watching make up for these shortcomings. The ring sits beneath bad lighting in the middle of the building’s courtyard. The VIP area that circles the ring is divided into sections, each run by one of the bars that line the stadium. The bars themselves are strange attempts to recreate every bar stereotype imaginable, including a British pub (or at least I assume that’s what they’re going for since they’re blasting the Beatles), your average Joe sports bar, and a trans-tended bar where gender illusionists lip sync a few numbers in between matches. A couple hundred Thais – mostly men, but plenty of families with young kids – stand just beyond the VIP seats, bunched around the kickboxers who, with no locker room facilities, have no choice but to limber up for all to gawk.
Since the VIP seating is run by the bars, part of the deal is you’re expected to drink, and our ladyboy ticket tout converts to a bartender once the fights start. Chiang Mai is steamy hot even well after dark, so we’re happy to comply with the minimum.
Despite growing up with a brother that spent most of his pubescent angst-fueled energy kicking and punching things, I’m not sure what to expect of a kickboxing fight. So I’m unsurprisingly confused when each match starts with a period of prayer that reads a lot like a ritual dance (I look this up afterward, it’s called Ram Muay).
Each fighter does the dance a bit differently, but it seems to almost always involve circling the ring while touching the rope, with a pause to pray at each corner, and a special genuflection at their home corner. Then, the opponents circle the ring again in opposite directions, spiraling slowly toward the center. Taking to one knee, each fighter bounces the foot of the leg on which they’re kneeling, while simultaneously spinning their gloved hands exactly like one of John Travolta’s signature “You Should Be Dancing” moves. At the end of the dance, each fighter returns to their corner, removes a headband they’ve worn throughout the ritual, and receives an ablution and pep talk from their coach.
The first match is between two kids, not long out of their pre-teens. According to our fight sheet, they both weighed in at 100 pounds, but there’s no way that’s true unless you include their gloves, shorts, and their hair gel. The bout is doubly awkward: it’s awkward to watch two kids who have both six packs and baby fat bat at each other; and their fighting style is awkward as they alternate between trading blows and hitching up their overlarge boxing shorts, which are thickly rolled at the waist just so they stay up. Hit. Hitch. Kick. Hitch.
Throughout the night, Todd bets with another tourist to keep things interesting and to avoid wagering with our eager ladyboy waitress, who doubtless has insider information. Over the next six matches, the age, weight, and skill of the fighters steadily increase, including an impressive “LADY FIGHT !!” (all caps, bolding, and exclamation points original to the fight flier), which is the most graceful and aggressive performance of the night.
The night’s contrived climax is an “INTERNATIONAL FIGHT !!” between a Thai named Morakotdum and a Canadian named Julian. Here’s the thing. If you were going to bet on an fighter, would it be a pale, skinny farang named Julian or a wiry guy named Morakotdum, which sounds like it could be the name of Clash of the Titan‘s Kraken’s best friend? Todd wins the bet easily when Julian collapses to the mat after a swift kick to the head.
After the scheduled fights, as the ladyboys reveal their latent strength by quickly clearing away the VIP furniture, a pair of scruffy men rush into the ring. With the most minimal of Ram Muay rituals, and only a guy in street clothes standing in for the referee, the men start pounding each other. Even though our seats are taken from under us and the ladyboys are trying to hustle us out of the courtyard, Todd and I are riveted by the raw fighting.
A few minutes is all these street fighters get in the ring. Soon after, they limp through the spare audience, still dripping sweat and blood, holding out buckets for donations. You gotta start somewhere.