Stop: Bangkok, Thailand by Elliott Hester
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my first trip to Bangkok in 1989, I was terrorized at a Go Go bar
by a trio of Thai boxers. Ex-boxers, to be exact. They worked as
bouncers at "Cinderella," near Patpong Road's Red Light district,
and had decided to use me as sparring fodder.
had been lured into the club by a pre-pubescent kid whose job, unbeknown
to me at the time, was to pluck unsuspecting farangs (foreigners)
from the street. The club manager welcomed me with a suspicious
grin, insisting that no cover charge was necessary. Therein lay
the scam. I ambled toward the bar and ordered a bottle of Singha.
When a bizarre strip show commenced, I paid for my unfinished beer
and attempted to leave. Instead, the manager presented me with a
bill for $16 "cover charge" he said, despite his earlier claim to
then I traveled on a precariously low budget. I owned no credit
cards and had, in my pocket at the time, about $10 in cash. Unable
to produce the required exit fee, I was confronted by 3 tough-looking
than engage in a 3-to-1 bar brawl and end up in intensive care,
I did the smart thing. I ran. Before the would-be assailants could
even think about throwing a punch, I bolted past them and burst
through the exit. I didn't look back for 14 years.
I'm back in Bangkok and far, far away from Patpong Road, Thai boxers
continue to pose a threat. But this time the threat is vicarious.
1,000 baht (US$23.00), I purchased a ringside seat at Ratchadamnoen
stadium, one of two prominent Bangkok venues (Lumphini is the other)
for professional Thai boxing. Muay Thai, as it is called, employs
some 60,000 full-time fighters nationwide. Upon retirement, a few
end up as bouncers who terrorize farangs at unscrupulous Go Go bars.
But on this day at Ratchadamnoen, each of the 7 scheduled 5-round
bouts matched one top-ranked fighter against a worthy opponent.
watched eagerly as the first two combatants entered the ring. Thin
and yet ripped with muscle, both men performed the 5-minute Ram
Muay boxing dance which precedes every match. Accompanied by the
melodic sound of a ringside oboe and drum, the balletic ritual pays
homage to each boxer's spiritual leader, or khruu.
the ceremony, the two boxers (the fight program listed one as 18
years old, the other, 19), removed the sacred woven headbands which
offer divine protection. The ceremonial arm bands remained, however,
as spiritual safeguards during the fight. The boxers then retreated
to their respective corners, prayed, and came out swinging.
is allowable under Muay Thai rules, the boxers unleashed lightning-quick
strikes using feet, knees, elbows, fists any body part except the
head. The 18-year-old delivered a vicious knee to his opponents
ribs. The 19-year-old staggered backward, collected himself, then
responded with a powerful kick to the shin.
my ringside seat I could almost feel the force of contact. The men
traded blows, showering me and other spectators with sweat. The
haunting oboe melody continued throughout the fight, quickening
and growing louder, in tune with the rhythm of the action.
each passing round, the pace accelerated. Punches flew in dizzying
flurries. Kicks came out of nowhere to hammer away at the ribs.
Suddenly, in the 4th round, the 18-year-old unleashed an explosive
kick to his opponent's head. The 19-year-old fell to the canvas.
the fighter went down, the audience roared. I turned toward the
crowd and saw hundreds of men in the cheap seats, their hands waving
eagerly while attempting to place bets. That's when I noticed the
barrier of chicken wire behind which they stood (this prevents rowdies
from throwing of objects into the ring).
the fallen boxer staggered to his feet and was immediately rewarded
with an uppercut. The crowd responded with a vociferous "Oooooh!"
as if it had been hit in the collective gut.In
retaliation for the punch, the boxer unloaded three rapid knee-jabs
to the ribs. The crowd reacted, "Oooooh! Oooooh! Oooooh!" seeming
to feel the recipient's pain.
a display of last-minute betting more intense than that of floor
traders at the New York Stock Exchange, men screamed into cellular
phones and into the faces of fellow spectators. Then suddenly, the
19-year-old fell to the canvas. I never saw what hit him. Apparently,
neither did he.
men came out with a stretcher and removed the unconscious victim.
The crowd exhaled. The next fight began. The loser left via a stretcher.
the emcee announced the 5th fight, the crowd yelled farang, farang!
I looked at my fight program. A white guy by the name of Swartoski
had been scheduled to face a Thai prodigy. Judging by the laughing,
the heckling, and the maniacal waving of betting slips, the farang
didnít stand a chance.
stepped into the ring and performed the Ram Muay. Afterward, he
stood in one corner, receiving final instructions from his Thai-speaking
manager. Swartoski then banged his gloves together and swaggered
toward his foe at the center of the ring.
two boxers traded getting-to-know-you jabs. With exactly 1 minute
and 28 seconds remaining in the first round, however, Swartoski
let loose a devastating round-house kick that knocked out his opponent.
stadium fell silent.
other farangs who find themselves threatened by ex-boxers in Bangkok's
Go Go bars, Swartoski would have nothing to worry about.
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