This is an excerpt from “Muay Thai Boxing and Beer in a Bag at Bangkok’s Lumpini Stadium”, which I originally published at Empty the Bench on February 10, 2009, during the heart of my residency in Bangkok. To read this piece in its entirety, head on over to ETB.
Two personal firsts from a Friday night at Bangkok’s Lumpini Stadium for muay thai boxing. One, as you might imagine, was watching two wiry fighters without an ounce of body fat on their 102-pound frames pound away at each other’s midsections, calves, and faces in carefully delivered flurries of kicks, punches, and knees while I sat just a few feet away. The second was slightly less violent but no less jarring: sipping lukewarm Chang beer not from a cool, frosty mug, or even a thin plastic cup, but rather through a straw from a plastic bag with little handles.
Honestly, with the humidity rising with each successive bout and bloodthirsty mosquitos nipping at my ankles as we watched from our almost-ringside seats, that beer-in-a-bag couldn’t have been any more refreshing. Chang Draught is, actually, served at Lumpini in plastic cups, and you aren’t allowed to bring beer cans or bottles into the stadium. But beer in a plastic bag? Mai pen rai (“no problem”).
Lumpini Stadium is located in the Pathumwan section of Bangkok on busy Rama IV Road, where old, overheating buses dumping plumes of thick black smoke in their wake compete with taxis, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes for a prime spot in traffic gridlock hell. Though we could have walked to the stadium from our apartment on Petchaburi Road, that night we rode the BTS Skytrain from Siam Square to Sala Daeng station; from there it’s a brisk 30-minute or so trek down Rama IV, past the sidewalk restaurants-come-beer gardens bordering Lumpini Park and the sprawling, touristy Suan Lum Night Market.
As of January 2009, tickets for farang (a general Thai term for foreigners of Western descent) run 1,000 Baht for third-class, 1,500 for second, and 2,000 for ringside; Thais will pay significantly less. Most foreigners opt for the priciest tier, but we went with the second-class, where we enjoyed stellar vantage points from our seats on the long, rickety wooden benches that circle Lumpini Stadium.
Inside Lumpini Stadium
The three classes of seating are separated by see-thru fences and wrap around the entirety of the hexagonal-shaped stadium. A light-blue shirted “usher” sat us one row up from the front on one of the aforementioned benches, directly facing the center of the ring; picture 50-yard line seats at an American football game. Discarded peanut shells, candy wrappers, and empty beer cans (and beer bags) litter the cement floor a few feet below the thin wooden planks at foot level; the in-house family of cats slinking through the stands have no doubt had their share of battles with the in-house families of rats for the top pickings of leftovers down there.
Ceiling fans sufficiently diminish the heat trapped inside by the corrugated tin ceiling, though during the hot season I imagine most patrons leave drenched in sweat. Lumpini is one of a select few establishments where gambling is technically allowed; most every Thai in the mostly male audience seemed to be getting in on the action, which is spearheaded by guys running back and forth shouting out the odds and taking bets like stockbrokers on the Wall Street trading floor.
You probably imagine muay thai matches as bloody affairs which leave one or both combatants in a heap of sweat and broken bones. It does get brutal at times and the potential for serious injury lurks with every unblocked kick to the chest or jab to the nose, but the battles, at least on that night, were much more measured affairs that involved a lot more close-quarters fighting than twirling, Double Dragon-style kicks. That’s not to say the action was passive or that those blows didn’t look exceedingly painful to absorb; it is, indeed, by all means a vicious sport.
Looking back on the evening, it’s not the actual fighting that sticks out as much as the whole experience: the street vendors outside the stadium, the stadium itself, the pre-fight rituals, the bagged-beer runs, the roars of the crowd, the hypnotic trance of the ringside muay thai music. Inside, it felt like we could have been anywhere in Thailand, be it a heaving metropolis like Bangkok or a modest-sized city like Phitsanlouk.