At the conclusion of each bout there was very little ceremony. The referee raised the arm of the winner for about half a second, and everyone skedaddled to make way for the next fight. This custom has its roots in self-preservation; it is not unheard of for unpopular decisions to be greeted with a flight of beer bottles launched from the 70-baht seats. As a result, in certain boxing stadiums in Thailand the crowd is cordoned off from the ring by ceiling-high cyclone fences. In some stadiums beer and soda are sold in plastic Baggies and swilled with a straw.
The next morning we flew to Chiang Mai, the second-largest city in Thailand, with a population of 260,000—a virtual hamlet compared to Bangkok, which is a noisy, crowded metropolis of nearly 5.5 million. Situated in the north of the country at the foot of the Tanen Taunggyi mountains. Chiang Mai has a human scale to it. You can walk around the city with ease, something one would not dream of doing in Bangkok with its size and congestion.
Sanuk, which means "having fun," was a word we had heard often in Bangkok. Now we learned another word, sabai, which means "happiness, being loose, having no set schedule."
" Bangkok has more sanuk than Chiang Mai," explained Narunart Prapanya, a Thai correspondent for TIME, who accompanied us during our stay in Chiang Mai. "But in Chiang Mai, there is more sabai."
Chiang Mai's citizens are more reserved and less used to farangs, who only recently have begun to make their city a regular stop on the Thailand tour. Artisans from neighboring hill tribes sell their wares at Chiang Mai's fabulous night market, and fishermen quietly sit on the banks of the ancient city's moat and bob freshwater shrimp for a fish that resembles a bluegill. Some fishermen, carrying bamboo crossbows made by a local craftsman, hide behind trees and scour the moat for an eellike fish called a serpent head.
Strolling along a side street late that first day we saw a group of young men who had just gotten off work, kicking a woven rattan ball into the air on a school playground. We had heard about this game, called takraw, but had not seen it in Bangkok. Now we began to notice it in every playground and school yard we passed.
Takraw is, essentially, volleyball with the feet. Three players stand on each side of a 5'2" high net. Games are played to 15. The only time the hands are used is during the serve, when one player is allowed to pitch the ball back to a teammate, who kicks it over the net to start the point. Often these pitches are aimed up by the ear, an angle from which the server can, by properly timing his leap, kick the ball over the net in a line.
The agility of the takraw players we saw was amazing. Every player could spike the ball with his feet, sometimes doing a full flip afterward to land upright. The best players were so skilled that they could fake a spike with a foot, and then bunt the ball over with their heads.
There are other versions of the game. In basket takraw, three baskets, or nets, are hung some 20 feet off the ground, and players try to kick, head, knee or elbow the ball through. In the simplest form of takraw, a group of players simply tried to keep the ball aloft, showing off trick shots, and not keeping score. Thais are individualists, with a loose, cheerful approach to team sports. Thai, in the Thai language, means "free," and that is very much the spirit that prevails.
The Thais also favor diversity, not specialization, in their sports programs. At Chiang Mai's Hoa Phra Secondary School, we were told that seventh-graders learn table tennis and gymnastics. In eighth grade, students are taught takraw, soccer and kabri—an ancient sword-fighting technique. The swords for these 13-year-old boys and girls are made of bamboo. In the ninth grade the children learn basketball, volleyball and track and field. The sessions we attended were organized but not too disciplined. Giggling was a perfectly acceptable way to react to a missed layup or a bamboo sword to the belly.