Seri's great hope is a 30,000-baht fighter named Gengkla. At only 14, he is the pinweight (104 pounds and under) champion of the central provinces. Gengkla's goal is to become a 1,000-baht fighter so that he can get his family out of Klong Toei. Seri hungers for a champion, not because his fighters often make donations toward the upkeep of the camp when they win, but because having a champion will raise the profile of his camp and allow him to help more boys. "This isn't about money," Seri says. "This is about honor and glory. We have our dreams too."
The setting for many of those dreams lies just a mile west. Lumpini Stadium, a two-story, circular building tucked behind some noodle shops, is the Caesars Palace of Muay Thai, though it's hardly opulent. Named after the birthplace of the Buddha, the 41-year-old arena, which seats 10,000, is a patchwork of concrete, wood and metal with a corrugated tin roof. Inside there are plank bleachers. Green chain-link fences separate the cheap seats from ringside.
The smell of liniment wafts from a tunnel where, in two large alcoves 50 feet apart, fighters are getting rubdowns on wooden tables. "I'm still a little scared fighting here," says 18-year-old Apidej Sitkruod as his hands are being taped by a trainer. He is the eighth-ranked bantamweight (118 pounds or less), according to the rankings of the World Muay Thai Council, the sport's governing body, but he's the underdog in this evening's main event, in which he will face second-ranked Sakchai Hongaharnbua. Apidej rode by bus for five hours from his hometown of Khon Kaen, in northeast Thailand. The son of rice farmers, Apidej will earn 40,000 baht for this fight, good money in a nation where the average per capita income is 74,825 baht (about $3,000) a year.
With his No. 2 ranking, Sakchai must beat back the boxers beneath him at least once a month if he expects a crack at Kompaya Sipkruawt, the bantamweight champ. "It won't be long," says Sakchai, a 16-year-old veteran of more than 100 fights, including 30-plus at Lumpini. He's now a 60,000-baht fighter, meaning that in one night he'll earn three times more than his rice-farming parents make in a year.
As the time to enter the ring approaches, the trainers follow a time-honored tradition by draping their young warriors with garlands of purple orchids, white jasmine and marigolds. The fighters are crowned with mongkons, ropelike headpieces made from sacred Sanskrit scrolls. Other scrolls are rolled up and tied around the fighters' biceps to curry favor with the spirits. Lastly, Apidej and Sakchai are smeared with a pungent, yellow oil that makes their taut, dark flesh glisten under the lights, heats their blood and helps make the blows slide off them.
The fighters begin their march toward the ring before a crowd of about 6,000, most of whom are still placing bets on the outcome of the bout. With odds changing constantly, bettors shout and wave fingers at the sian panan, the bookmakers, in an intricate system of hand signals. Military police are on hand mainly to keep order, but soldiers also chase down gamblers who don't pay their bets, photograph them and toss them from the premises. Permanently.
The high rollers make their way to orange plastic chairs at ringside, the penned-in masses surge against the fences. In the ring Apidej and Sakchai each run a glove along the top rope to draw a sacred circle at the edge of the darkness that they believe will protect them from the denizens of the spiritual and criminal underworlds.
When the fight starts, Apidej shows Sakchai no respect, leaning forward and exposing his chin, answering crackling left kicks to the shins and thighs with his own stinging right kicks to the stomach. Throughout the bout the fighters grapple in the clinches, trying to wedge in an elbow or an uppercut. Heads jerk and sweat flies. One jumps forward and digs a knee into the other's gut. Near the end of the fifth round Apidej is wilting, winded but unhurt. Sakchai delivers five sharp kicks to Apidej's ribs just before the final bell.
The panting boys smile and pat each other on the head. After collecting the scorecards from the judges, the referee raises a hand of each of the boxers. The fight is a draw and all the bets are off. A murmur runs through the crowd, which seems bewildered by the result, though many fans suspect that Apidej's fearlessness helped sway the judges.
Back in the tunnel, Apidej's trainer cuts the tape from his fighter's fists. Apidej is pleased that he held his own, but there will be no party in Bangkok tonight. If they eat fast and traffic isn't heavy, Apidej and the trainer can catch a bus in time to reach their camp, 270 miles away in Khon Kaen, before dawn. There will be more training and more fights. When the rains end in November, the boys will return to the classrooms, factories and rice paddies—the hard life of the poor that is fertile ground for Muay Thai fighters.