If you think you know Thailand because you've stayed at the Oriental or shopped for handwoven silk at Jim Thompson's, here's a swift kick in the head. It's called muay thai, and in a country that has been packaged as an elegant colonial fantasy, this martial art is one of the last remaining tastes of the real, raw Siam.
I've been a fan for 10 years, since I was first dragged to a night of fights by an expat who'd gotten to know the underbelly of Bangkok when it was a wild R&R stop during the Vietnam War. We'd spent a long, sweltering afternoon touring the ornate Grand Palace; I was ready for a quiet dinner. My friend was having none of it. He hailed the noisiest tuk-tuk on the street, and by the time it dumped us in front of old Rajadamnern Stadium 10 minutes later, the serenity of the Emerald Buddha's smile was a world away.
The shadowy entrance was jammed with the kind of crowd that seems just on the verge of a riot. Fortunately, they weren't being kept hungry. Every few feet a vendor was stirring a steaming wok of noodles or mashing spicy papaya salad with a mortar and pestle. My friend ordered a Singha beer and some cheap Mekong whiskey from an old man, who poured each into a plastic bag. "There are no bottles allowed inside," my guide explained, "for reasons that will become obvious."
We walked through the front gate and into a scene right out of Mad Max in the Thunderdome. Spotlights poured onto the center of the ring, where a furious muay thai kickboxing fight was already in progress. The boxers spun, kicked, and, in clinches, kneed each other in the ribs. With every blow, the crowd roared in lusty appreciation. Halfway up the grandstand was a chain-link fence separating the more expensive seats from the bleachers. When the action grew particularly fierce, the rowdies in back rushed down to the fence, shaking it until it seemed as if it would collapse. At the end of the night, I didn't know whether muay thai was the greatest spectacle I'd ever seen or if I should just be happy to have gotten out alive.
It took many more nights at rickety Rajadamnernand the newer Lumpini Stadium before I began to understand what I'd witnessed that evening. While muay thai may be the best pure entertainment in Thailand, it's not so much a sport as a complex cultural tradition, with layers of ritual and hundreds of years of history behind it. It is, in fact, a living relic of the bloody centuries when empires rose and fell in Siam, Angkor, and Burma, when warlords fought endless battles to protect their kingdoms.
Legend has it that all martial arts originated at the Shaolin Temple in China, where an Indian prince named Bodhidharma—who, like Buddha, had renounced his throne to devote himself to religious studies—decided to train his monks in self-defense. These teachings spread to Korea, where they evolved into tae kwon do, and to Japan, where they emerged as karate. In Siam, they became muay thai, the fighting form warriors used when their spears had all been thrown.
Between wars, these fighters practiced their kicks against the trunks of smooth banana trees. Eventually, the training sessions evolved into matches, barefisted contests against fellow soldiers that were almost as bloody as the wars themselves. The combatants later began wrapping their fists with kaad chuek, hemp rope that protected their hands and inflicted greater damage. If the stakes were especially high, the kaad chuek was soaked in sticky tree resin and embedded with broken glass.
Over the years, the rituals surrounding muay became as significant as the kicks and punches. Before entering the ring, each fighter dons an armband called a praijed and a mongkol, a colorful headband that has been blessed by a monk. A fighter might tuck tiny Buddha amulets into his praijed and mongkol, along with other venerated objects such as a strand of his father's hair or a thread from the sarong his mother was wearing when he was born.
That's all a matter of personal taste. Each boxer is required, however, to perform what comes next, a graceful, bouncing dance of homage called the wai khru ram muay; it's eyed closely by the cognoscenti, who gauge the fighters by the integrity of their rituals and bet accordingly. The series of prostrations, which honor the king, Thailand, and Buddhism, is known as "the calm before the storm."
But the calm is not silent. It is accompanied by music that is, by turns, melancholy and frenetic, played on an Indian oboe, two drums, and cymbals. The music continues throughout the match; the fighters use its rhythm to time their attacks.
The last ritual before the battle is the removal of the mongkol by the fighter's teacher. As the instructor does this he whispers an incantation and blows on his student's head three times. If the words are powerful enough, they will protect him. The incantation "Gam ban mak nuen," for instance, means "May my clenched fist weigh a thousand kilograms," granting the fighter the power to knock out his opponent with a single blow. Some boxers, taking no chances, have incantations tattooed on the backs of their hands.
One of the most famous muay thai gyms in Thailand is the Lanna/Kiat Busaba Boxing Camp in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Surprisingly, it's run by Andy Thomson, a muscular Scotsman with a crew cut and an angular face. On the afternoon of my visit to his camp, an outdoor pavilion with rows of heavy bags and two rings, there are 20 boxers sweating and grunting through their workouts. The slap of kicks against leather pads echoes through the air like gunfire.