A tourist’s guide to watching Muay Thai in Thailand
By James Goyder
MUAY THAI is the national sport of Thailand and a trip to a stadium to witness the ‘science of the two limbs’ is an essential part of many tourist’s experience.
Unfortunately the reputation of Muay Thai shows here have been slightly soured in recent years for two reasons; the first is the propensity of promoters to charge foreigners around 10 times what the cost of a ticket to a local person would be, the second is the proliferation of Muay Thai tourism which has resulted in numerous foreigners, many of them beginners, wanting to take part in a professional Muay Thai fight.
It is difficult finding suitable opponents for tourists who have trained for a month and are looking to find a fight at the end of it. Thai people don’t tend to dip their toes into the water when it comes to Muay Thai, they will generally start fighting professionally at the age of six or seven and will have accumulated several hundred fights by the time they have reached their twenties.
Muay Thai is generally a full time job and the vast majority of fighters will train full time for around 30 hours a week. This makes it difficult to find suitable opponents for foreigners, particularly those that are over 75 kgs, which is about the maximum a reasonably fit Thai man is likely to weigh.
Promoters tend to take one of two approaches to this problem, they will either find a Thai person with minimal experience who is happy to get in the ring for a small sum of money but has little to no interest in winning or they will find an experienced Thai fighter who is substantially smaller than their foreign opponent.
The former will generally go down at the earliest available opportunity, which is probably why you hear people suggesting that a lot of fights here are fixed, but the latter will almost always put up a good fight and more often than not will emerge victorious.
These can actually be some of the most entertaining fights and the sight of a skilled Thai fighter giving a Western opponent with a 20 kg+ weight advantage the run around inside the ring is a joy to behold.
If you go to a Muay Thai show in any of the traditional tourist areas such as Phuket or Koh Samui expect to see at least a couple of these type of fights. You can generally judge how close or competitive any contest will be by the activity amongst the Thai gamblers who always stand in a group. If they are all standing still with their arms folded it means the fight is a foregone conclusion, if there is frantic gambling activity with fingers being waved and animated gesticulation then the fight is close.
Be aware when deciding to bet that as a foreigner you will not generally get offered odds, just a straight choice between red and blue with the ‘bookmaker’ always betting on the favourite. This means that the odds are heavily stacked against you, by all means have a bet for fun, but be aware that you are probably betting with someone who has an in insider’s knowledge of the fighters in question.
The ‘tourist’ style Muay Thai shows can actually be a lot of fun and have a certain entertainment value which the more elite promotions sometimes lack. However if you want to see real Muay Thai, some of the best fighters the country has to offer going head to head, your best bet is Bangkok.
There are two main stadiums in Bangkok, Rajadamnern and Lumpini, and the stadium champions at each are generally considered to be the best in their weight class in Thailand. The fights at both venues will almost always be well matched and feature two highly skilled fighters of a similar weight. Like most stadiums in Thailand Rajadamnern allows women to fight but for superstitious reasons Lumpini still does not.
It is important to try and understand the scoring system in order to properly enjoy a Muay Thai match because the vast majority of fights are decided on points and this dictates almost every aspect of the fighter’s behaviour.
The first two rounds are typically used as a feeling out process as both fighters look for holes in the other’s defence that they can exploit in the later rounds. Rounds three and four are where the action is as both fighters pick up the pace, and, most importantly of all, attempt to catch the eye of the watching judges.
If one fighter has already established an unassailable lead on the scorecards then round five can be a bit of a non event, with both unwilling to engage. Likewise if the fight is extremely close the two fighters will also be reluctant to be too aggressive in the final round for fear of giving the impression that they believe they are losing.
If you don’t have a basic understanding of the scoring system then some of this behaviour can seem a little bizarre. In terms of fighting etiquette Muay Thai is very different from boxing , MMA, K-1 or any of the fight sports which are popular in the Western world.
Expect to pay anything from 1,000 to 2,000 Baht to attend a Muay Thai show as a foreigner. In return for this you will normally get to witness around 10 fights although be warned that the first couple and possibly the last one might feature fairly young children.
It is a little known fact among visitors to Thailand that it is actually possible to watch some top Muay Thai fighters in action for free. Every Sunday the Channel 7 Stadium at Chatuchak Park hosts a show which is also broadcast on live TV and admission is free. The fights usually start soon after 1pm.
There is also the Queen’s Cup, in August, and the King’s Cup, in December, which are held every year in Sanam Luang Park, very close to the Koh San Road. It is worth checking on the internet for the exact date if you are in Bangkok in either of these months as these shows tend to feature some of the best foreign fighters in Thailand.
You can see a detailed schedule for shows at all the main stadiums here.