We had asked James to check into kite fighting, but here, too, we were out of luck. During the windy season, between February and April, the Thais fly brightly colored kites of all shapes and sizes, playing a game with them that amounts to an aerial battle of the sexes. There are teams, referees, national championships and heavy wagering on each fight's outcome. Of course, the Thais would bet on raindrops running down a windowpane; they, like the Chinese, are gambling devotees. The idea is for the large male kite, the chula, to clasp the smaller female kite, the pak pao, in its bamboo talons. As you might imagine, this is no easy task, requiring teams of as many as 20 men to handle the massive (up to 25 feet) chulas. The pak pao, meanwhile, flits and dances gaily beneath its suitor, endeavoring to fly up and loop its line around the chula's head, causing the larger kite to plummet to earth.
James did assure us that we could see as much Thai boxing as we wanted, and we arranged to do so that night. Thai boxing, the most famous of the indigenous Thai sports, is not just kick boxing: Elbows, fists and knees are part of the arsenal, although biting, spitting, hair pulling, and head butting are penalized. Muay Thai, the proper name for the sport, was originally taught to Siamese soldiers for use in hand-to-hand combat—which explains the anything-goes nature of the rules.
There are two permanent boxing stadiums in Bangkok, the Rajadamnern and the Lumpini, which generally hold fight programs on alternate evenings. Tickets range from 70 baht ($2.80) to 1,200 baht ($48) for ringside seats, which are primarily filled with farangs—Thai for "foreigners." The true fight fans are back a few rows, standing, waving fistfuls of baht while shouting out odds that change with each solid blow. "Four to five! Four to five!" (Thud! Whack!) "Eeeee! Three to one!"
The fights we saw were, for the most part, bloodless affairs. In 16 bouts over two nights, only two ended in knockouts. Muay Thai fighters are small—70% of them are either flyweight (112 pounds) or bantamweight (118)—and many are barely in their teens. "We call ourselves the small chilis," James said, referring to Thai boxers. "The smaller, the hotter."
Legally, muay Thai contestants are not supposed to fight in the stadiums until they are 17, but obtaining a fake birth certificate is easy, and trainers routinely match 14- and 15-year-olds against one another. We talked to one 17-year-old who claimed to have a 40-10 record—Thai boxers fight once a month—and says he has been fighting since he was 12, by which time he had fulfilled Thailand's six years of compulsory education. The young man was paid 5,000 baht ($200) for his win that night, 2,000 of which went to his training camp. The boy he beat was paid 4,000 baht. If the two had staged an especially crowd-pleasing slug-kick-elbow-knee fest, the owner of the stadium would have given them more.
The evening was a wonderful spectacle. Before each bout the boxers performed an elaborate warm-up dance called the wai kru, which served the dual purpose of loosening the muscles and getting the muay Thai spirits on one's side. Each fighter, in his own highly specialized way, would pay homage to the elders of muay Thai, men like Nai Khanom Tom, the most famous Thai boxer in history, who in 1774, as a prisoner of war, defeated 10 Burmese boxers in a row to earn his freedom. Often a boxer would encircle the ring with his glove on the top rope to ward off evil spirits. Some wore amulets around their arms; others wore headbands to hex their opponents.
While all this went on, a three-man band played the eeriest music ever heard at a sporting event. There were three instruments: the pi Chawa, or Java pipe, which sounds like a bagpipe; the glawng khaek, a pair of bongolike drums that lie across the lap; and the ching, cymbals the size of teacups.
Each fight was scheduled for five three-minute rounds, with two minutes between rounds. The music played throughout, and the boxers hopped up and down to the rhythm of the glawng khaek waiting for openings in their opponents' defenses. When the action picked up, so did the tempo of the music and the frenzy of the baht-wielding bettors. The boxers fought barefoot and wore gloves. Until the 1930s they fought with their hands bound in hemp, which, if both fighters agreed (and they frequently did), had bits of glass ground in. Bloody business, that. The prevailing strategy nowadays seems to be to kick the opponent repeatedly in the leg muscles or the kidneys, wearing him down as an American boxer does by working the body. Very few kicks were landed to the face, though many were launched. Elbows and knees were thrown primarily from clinches.
The crowd much preferred the kicks to the punches, in part because the Thais hold the feet in very low esteem. For instance, in the chapel of the Emerald Buddha, the most important object of worship in Bangkok, there is a sign that says: PLEASE DO NOT STRETCH YOUR FEET IN THE DIRECTION OF THE EMERALD BUDDHA. In Thailand it is considered impolite to point one's foot at anyone, even accidentally, as might happen when crossing your legs. Thus, to kick another human is akin to a declaration of war.
Between rounds, scores of spectators would often run up to a fighter's corner and shout out advice. What's more, the fighters listened raptly, often nodding at the suggestions. Later we learned that many of these meddlers were high rollers who had wagered on the fight, some of whom were offering a portion of their winnings to the boxer if he would knock out his opponent.