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SPORT in the land of SANUK
E.M. Swift
February 15, 1988
In Thailand nearly everyone—boxers, kite flyers gamblers even fish—gets in on the fun and games
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February 15, 1988

Sport In The Land Of Sanuk

In Thailand nearly everyone—boxers, kite flyers gamblers even fish—gets in on the fun and games

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During recess we noticed one final activity of interest: the kids were playing tag with their feet. One lad stood in the middle of a circle of his classmates, while the others jumped in and out teasingly. When the boy in the middle managed to swipe one of the others with a kick, the two exchanged places and the game began anew. For a society that considers the foot an extremity of exceedingly low esteem, the Thais certainly employ it a lot for amusement.

From Chiang Mai we flew down to the island of Phuket in the Andaman Sea. Phuket (pronounced Poo-KET) is a newly developed resort island off Thailand's southwest coast. Only a few years ago this was considered an undiscovered paradise, but paradise has been found and taken over by sun-hungry Europeans, particularly West Germans, who have changed the ambience just a little. For sports there are golf and tennis and various water activities. In Phuket the only Thais one sees are in bow ties carrying mai-tais.

Old pal James found us a bullfight in the mainland town of Chiang Di, however, a three-hour drive from Phuket to the eastern side of the peninsula. Bullfighting in Thailand, he told us, was not at all like bullfighting in Spain. The bulls fought each other; no one died; much money was bet. The action was spellbinding. James assured us we would be the only farangs in attendance.

We rose at dawn and, taking leave of our beachfront hotel, crossed the bridge to the mainland. In the distance we could see the lights of the squid boats plying the Andaman Sea. On the coastal highway we passed sheer and bizarre limestone formations jutting up from the sea. These, too, had been featured in The Man with the Golden Gun, and one formation, called James Bond Island, is now one of Thailand's most popular tourist attractions. Heading inland, we drove through miles of rubber plantations, watching workers as they gathered the buckets of sap. The sap was poured into bath-mat-sized sheets of raw latex that were then hung from rails by the roadway to cure in the sun like great slabs of mozzarella cheese.

At the bullfight we were greeted by a striking billboard depicting a white bull and a black bull squaring off before a sack of 200,000 baht ($8,000). This was to be the featured event. A full day's admission (15 fights) costs a hefty 650 baht ($26), so the rambutan trees overlooking the back fence of the bullring sagged with spectators sitting shoulder to shoulder. Midway through a particularly exciting contest, 15 of them plummeted ingloriously to the ground when one of the branches snapped.

The fighting bulls, a Brahman strain, were matched by size. Before each fight the referee thoroughly washed both bulls, particularly the horns, to discourage the sort of hanky-panky that seems inevitable anytime men gamble on animals. Some trainers, we were told, used the trick of rubbing essence of tiger on the shoulders of their bull, so that the opposing bull would smell the tiger, become afraid and run away.

After the bulls were washed, their faces and shoulders were smeared with bananas, the natural oil in the fruit protecting the bull's skin against chafing. And a powerful lot of chafing was to follow, for the bulls fought not by making long, fearsome charges at each other, like rams, but by butting their heads together and pushing like football linemen. The struggle was primordial. As the animals braced and heaved in the center of the dusty ring, their muscles gathered like waves. And each step forward, each step back, changed the odds in the fight. A fight ended when one bull, sensing his opponent was stronger, backed off and ran away.

The longest fight we saw lasted 45 minutes. The shortest ended in a matter of seconds. Afterward, the handlers pounded the bulls' muscles to relax them, and doctored their scrapes and gouges by spitting soda water into the open wounds. Judging by the bulls' reactions, this was their least favorite part of the day. The handlers, who literally had to take the bulls by the horns and press their lips into the raw, sore flesh of the still-sweating behemoths, seemed none too fond of it, either.

As James had promised, we had been the only foreigners there, and the experience was exhilarating. People had moved to offer us their seats and shared their chili-covered grapefruit with us. They had explained, through interpretation and sign language, the betting procedures, the ebb and flow of the fights and which bull was doing better and why. Fathers were there with their sons, as fathers and sons in the U.S. spend Sundays together watching football.

Two days later we left touristy Phuket, and returned to Bangkok. We were staying at the Regent Bangkok, a fabulous hotel a few blocks from Lumpini Park, and early one morning I got up for a jog. The park, to my surprise, was packed with thousands of people at 6 a.m. Joggers crowded the track. An aerobics class was being held in the shadow of the statue of King Rama VI. A group of elderly people practiced the balletic martial art of t'ai chi ch'uan, moving so deliberately that they looked like flowers opening with the dawn. Another large group of older people was spread out on a knoll in semi-disarray, a sort of human Stonehenge, hands on hips, bending at the waist, wailing like banshees. Sweaty joggers, into a more contemporary form of exercise, would trot past. The old folks on the knoll would let out a howl and 50 tired runners would burst out laughing.

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