As a chef wandering the world in search of inspiration, there’s an obvious pattern to my travel: eat, explore, eat, repeat. And while learning about a country’s culture through tasting its cuisine is usually the goal of my trip, Bangkok was a different story.
I had been in Thailand for five days, seeking out the best street food and floating markets, when I decided it was time to experience another element of Thai culture before I left. This endeavor led me to Lumpinee Stadium, where I witnessed Muay Thai — the most intense fighting I have ever seen.
Muay Thai is to Thailand as football is to the U.S., except that Muay Thai is even more deeply imbedded in the culture. For starters, the history of Muay Thai dates back to an 18th-century warrior and prisoner of war, Nai Khanom Tom, who defeated 12 Burmese gladiators in unarmed combat. An image of Nai Khanom Tom now hangs in every Thai gym, and fighters say a prayer to him before every fight.
In Thailand, Muay Thai fighters begin training at a very young age, and it’s common to see 7-year-olds delivering fierce blows in the ring. Young fighters who come from poor families and show an aptitude for the sport have the opportunity to earn money and support their families through Muay Thai, although it is money hard-won.
Due to the punishing training regimen and frequent fights, most professional fighters have relatively short careers. Their training includes running, shadow boxing, resistance training, and intense bag practice that hardens the bone.
The entire country obsesses over who is the toughest fighter and which gym has housed the most champions, while gamblers and other spectators look into how much money can be made off each fighter.
So, on one steamy night in Bangkok, I headed for the most famous Thai boxing stadium in the world, which has hosted dozens of world-class Muay Thai fighters. I’d been advised to attend a fight there, rather than at Bangkok’s other stadium, because it was less touristy. The tradeoff was the brutal 95-degree heat and 80 percent humidity engulfing the authentic outdoor stadium.
I sat ringside on the advice of the concierge, who said he didn’t want me “to take the chance of getting stabbed.” Gamblers and Muay Thai enthusiasts sat above me, beckoning and shouting like stock traders. Money flew back and forth throughout the fights, and tensions ran high as gamblers bet on everything from a fight’s outcome to its hit count.
There were eight fights scheduled that night, with the first beginning at 9 p.m. I was immediately amazed at the discipline and respect each fighter showed the other when entering the ring. Some of these fighters had been chosen at the age of 7 to train for this very fight, and they were now being looked upon with prestige and the respect of their entire country.
As the bell rang, the fighters began to circle each other, shooting out quick knees, feet, elbows, and fists, catching each other in the face, chest, stomach, thighs, shins, and head. Muay Thai makes regular boxing look almost tame. The hits were so fast and so hard that you almost couldn’t see them, yet the fighters barely flinched as the sound of rock-hard shins making contact cracked across the stadium.
I sat glued to my seat, entranced by the extreme strength of their display. I tried — with limited success — to guess the winners of each match. Points in Muay Thai depend on the intensity of the contact, not just the number of hits.
Toward the end of the evening, two fighters entered the ring in red and blue shorts with obvious animosity. They were teenagers, but their bodies were hardened like adults’. Another patron told me they came from two of the best fight clubs in town — a real grudge match and the most highly anticipated fight of the night.
The teen in red shorts dominated the first three rounds, expertly delivering blows to blue’s head and shins. But in the fourth round, red let his guard down for just a moment, and blue took his chance to land a direct kick to red’s stomach. The kick was so hard that the sound echoed throughout the stadium. Red bent over and vomited suddenly before collapsing. The fight was over. Blue had won. The crowd went crazy, and a long-fueled rivalry ended with the home team winning.
I was stunned. I’d never seen such brutality combined with such endurance and raw strength. The fighters’ commitment to the sport was validated by the hundreds of fans around them. Simply bearing witness to the event, I felt a sudden, deep admiration for this country and its people, for their strength, pride, and endurance.
At the end of the fight, I followed the crowd out of the stadium into the hot Bangkok night. The bustle of Bangkok’s downtown traffic whirred around us, and we were enveloped again by the pungent smells of incense, mouth-watering food, sewers, and smog. I knew I’d remember this night for the rest of my life.
Blake Beshore is the co-founder of Tatroux, LLC, a growing fine arts publishing company that focuses on the obsessive nature of those working in diverse fields of the creative arts. Beshore’s most recent book, “Notes From A Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession,” received the James Beard Award, the highest honor for food and beverage professionals in North America.
Image credit: Shutterstock/chevanon