The air smelled of sweat and blood, and I could barely hear my friends talking to me over the screaming crowd. With each blow, bookmakers were shifting odds and taking bets with such a frenzy that the arena may as well have been the New York Stock Exchange on Black Monday.
This was the scene tonight at a local Muay Thai match here in Pattaya… and aside from being a much needed break for me to soak in some raw carnage, it was also a compelling episode of quintessential Thailand.
To give you a bit of background, Muay Thai is the country’s national sport and famous martial art– it is a cross between a Buddhist ritual and a fantasy death match. Referred to as the ‘art of eight limbs,’ Muay Thai is essentially a clash of knees, shins, elbows, and chins, all without protection, in front of howling spectators and bookmakers.
Tonight’s event was a bit unusual because the local fight promoters imported a rival gang of fighters from Europe. The gimmick worked; European tourists packed the house to see their countrymen duke it out with the locals, even though the $36 ticket price is considered quite expensive for Thai entertainment.
I saw boys as young as 8-years old fighting it out in the ring. One of the kids was knocked out cold, much to the delight of the cheering locals who were in attendance. The Europeans in the crowd were rather shocked to see such a young boy being pummeled comatose, though to be honest, there’s far more violent sports out there.
In Afghanistan, for example, the locals play a version of polo/rugby/suicide/bestiality called Buzkashi (pronounced “BOOZE-ka-shee”)… you might be familiar with it– it’s the one where the Afghan horseman wrestle each other at top speed for a dead animal carcass. Buzkashi has to be one of the most violent sports on the face of the earth, and people die regularly from participating (and watching).
And even the very-civilized French have a rather strange ritual called Toro Piscine , which means “bull, swimming pool.” As the name suggests, the event involves a small ring, an inflatable swimming pool, and an angry bull who attempts to impale spectators. Occasionally children get caught in the line of fire, which is usually a big crowd pleaser.
Given other countries’ penchant for ritualistic violence, tonight’s Muay Thai event seemed right on the money, notwithstanding the concussions, broken arms, and shattered ribs. What was so uniquely Thai about the event, however wasn’t the violence, or even the fact that pre-pubescent boys were pitted against each other.
It was the chaos… the commotion. Bleachers lined with prostitutes scouting for old men, frenzied spectators throwing money at the bookies, ritualistic fight music being played continually by the band, the free flowing booze, the smoke, the stench, the homeless kids, the nasty seats and floors, the angry lunatics fighting outside of the ring, etc.
It’s a little something like you would imagine Deadwood City in the Old West. If this event were in Singapore, for example, it would take place in a spotless venue next to a 12-story shopping mall and have a legion of security guards and ushers to ensure that everyone was enjoying themselves in the most orderly way possible.
Thailand is chaos. It’s fun and has a lot of great potential, but it’s chaos. I hope you enjoy the videos.