Southern Thailand is one tropical paradise after another. Some are touristy. Some are overrun with partiers. But some are low-key and filled with nature, beauty, and adventure.
I could tell you how nice it was to hang out in such a paradise, to hike in the jungle, to bike through the rainforest mountains, or for a swim in the beautiful water before relaxing and reading a book and sipping $3 cocktails in the warm tropical sun when at home it’s the dead of winter. I could tell you all about how awesome that is. But I’m sure you already know that.
On the same island as the above rainforest, I saw one kid beat another kid until he could no longer stand. Neither kid looked to me to be older than 12. A crowd of onlookers cheered as one child pounded another to the ground, where he lay for quite some time.
But that’s Muay Thai, Thailand’s national combat sport, in which children suffering head trauma is an exciting way to start an event night before the grown-ups come out and repeat the exercise.
Muay Thai, like other forms of fighting in Southeast Asia, is designed primarily to be real-world useful in, for example, a street fight.
Excluding ground wrestling, almost anything you’d do in a fair fight is legal. This includes elbows, kicks, shin strikes, knee strikes, some types of throws, and upright grappling. However, unlike mixed martial arts, Muay Thai is expressly a combat sport–so there is no ground game, because whereas ground fighting is effective one on one, it’s too vulnerable in combat or street fighting. Nevertheless, Muay Thai is overall the preferred striking art of mixed martial arts fighters. It’s realistic, unrestrained, brutal, and effective.
The right way to watch Muay Thai is to go to the locals’ favorite stadium in Bangkok, and sit in the stands. I didn’t do this so I had to settle for a more touristy fight in the gulf coast island of Ko Samui. There were plenty of locals there, also, and the atmosphere had a rowdy, low-budget feel.
I first learned of the match from a promotional show at the local market. A giant-headed mascot wandered around handing out pamphlets while the boxers demonstrated their fighting prowess. The mascot was popular with kids.
These fights on Ko Samui are still of a high-quality, attracting many locals, and tend to pit local champions against top foreign fighters. The foreign challenger comes out first to loud music with a flag-waving herald. The Thai native follows.
Unlike in, say, Japanese sumo, the Thai seem open and enthusiastic about fighting foreigners.
Each fight is proceeded by a ritual. The boxers must pay respect to the corners of the ring, then spend a few minutes doing a little dance to stretch and limber up. The dances are quite strange. They remind me of a Tae Bo instructor with a hangover.
These dance rituals allegedly are full of meaning, conveying information about the dancer’s attitude, fighting style, origin, gym, trainer, &c. Like any good Buddhist ritual, going through the motions helps the fighter recall his life and his training, and helps him focus on the match ahead. Likewise, the dances (which are several minutes long) also helped me focus on a purpose–to go get a beer before the fighting starts.
The halftime show was a performer who called himself the “Son of Rambo”. (It turns out Rambo is highly admired in Southeast Asia.) The Son of Rambo stood on a tightrope and juggled things. Sometimes he would drop something, whereupon he would dismount with a flourish, conveying the message, ‘I meant to do that.’ Whether or not he did, I don’t think the Son of Rambo will be following in his father’s footsteps anytime soon.
The fighting itself is in five rounds of three minutes, and can end in a knockout or a decision. Traditional musicians play while they fight. The music speeds up and becomes more urgent as the fight draws to a close, like in a video game.
Muay Thai is a careful sport, with boxers throwing jabs and light kicks testing the other boxers. There are many ways to strike or be struck and you do not want to be vulnerable. But if the boxers end up in close quarters, or one of them smells blood, the fighting becomes frantic and vicious.
If you’re further interested, here’s a Reddit-recommended fight on Youtube: Link