Gathering my thoughts on the way to the airport, to catch the flight back to Delhi, I was selecting the sensations for which I will remember Thailand. In the rush of sights and tastes and smells stood out one loud sound: ‘hoye’. A call that rose quickly to a crescendo and then tapered off. A quick spike of excitement, levelling into gentle appreciation. It is the sound of a crowd appreciating a fine punch or a kick.
The Thai Martial Arts Festival, an annual event since 1994, now draws people from well over 100 countries. Muay Thai (literally: boxing Thai-style) has become one of Thailand’s signature exports. Its popularity initially had to do with the international success of the K-1 kickboxing circuit. Outside this high-octane subculture (check out the Youtube videos, if you have the stomach for it), Muay Thai has grown in two other directions: as a form of self defence, and as a culture of fitness.
The annual festival combines the three worlds into the kind of tourism event only the Thai can conjure up. It features song and dance, history and commerce, monuments and sightseeing, quiet contemplation and pyrotechnics. Oh, and Thai food, for I’m travelling with Setaphan Buddhani, who knows a thing or dozen about everything Thai. Currently the director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) Mumbai office, Buddhani has held several positions in Thai tourism, and knows restaurants that don’t exist on any tourism map. Now in his mid-60s, Budhani’s lean and agile frame is an advertisement for Thai food and kickboxing.
“It’s common for boys in Thailand to learn the basic kickboxing moves at an early age. If you get bullied by another boy and complain to your father about it, chances are he’ll push you to go back and fight it out,” Buddhani told me. As we sat watching rounds of the professional kickboxers in the historical city of Ayutthaya, Buddhani explained the finer points of the discipline. So, if a fight ended on an even keel, he could predict a winner by the number of clean hits he got. Each clean hit drew a loud ‘hoye’ from the crowd, which had a taste for skill more than violence.
There was a large contingent from Brazil, wearing their national football shirts. They weren’t there to cheer for a Brazilian fighter. They had flown across the world to watch the world welterweight champion and Thailand’s storied fighter Sombat ‘Buakaw’ Banchamek. At 31, he is past his prime; his Chinese challenger looked young, fresh and cocky. Standing right next to the ring, I saw from five feet away his flashing left kick that caught the Chinese fighter on the right side of his head in the second round. Knock out.
Later that evening, scores of kickboxers from across the world lined up in front of psychedelically-lit Buddhist monuments to thank the masters who had trained them. Gratitude to the masters is woven deep into the Muay Thai culture, and each fight begins with an elaborate dance ritual, called Wai Khru. Each major school of kickboxing (now called gym) has its own dance steps. Fighters do not take on exponents of their own school. Before he began throwing those lightning punches, Buakaw danced those slow steps, which can look almost silly to the uninitiated.
My introduction to Wai Khru had happened the previous evening in Bangkok, watching the Siam Niramit show, an 80-minute crash course in Thai history. Exquisitely choreographed, the epic stage production can grip even a person with no interest in history. From the costumes to the music to the lighting, the show is full of little surprises and twists — some way into the act, it suddenly hits you that one part of the stage has water, into which actors actually dive. It is one of those spectacles that can leave you emotionally exhausted by the scale of things.
Its song-and-dance routines touch on the role of Muay Thai as part of military training in the past kingdoms of Thailand. Back in Ayutthaya, the fights and the ceremony of the Wai Khru Festival were followed by a series of sound-and-light, song-and-dance performances. There were white elephants running about in a staged war, expositions of traditional percussion, kickboxing routines made into dance-dramas, and a fireworks show in which the artists produced kaleidoscopic effects with sulphur and bodily contortions.
Thailand’s success story in tourism is spectacular in more ways that one; it has a lot to do with the effort and preparation that goes into putting up spectacle after spectacle that makes you reach for your wallet. Safari World outside Bangkok is another day-long series of dazzling shows with tightrope-walking elephants, sea lions who demand Thai massages after performing tricks, birds that grab currency notes from customers, and kickboxing orangutans.
Pattaya has its share of the spectacular in Tiffany’s Transvestite Cabaret Show. The garish performance is imitation-Broadway and may not suit everybody’s taste. Yet there is something remarkable about the permissive and open culture of Thailand, especially the acceptance of transgender people, which gets belittled in the stories of sex tourism. There is much to Thailand beyond the well publicised delights. So, while Pattaya is best known for its beach and the night life of its Walking Street, the city also has Thailand’s biggest kickboxing gym.
The Fairtex Muay Thai Camp has been training champions for over four decades. It is a favourite training ground for K-1 fighters as well as casual tourists from across the world. A short walk from the Pattaya beach, the camp has four Olympic-sized rings, apart from a well-appointed gym and training area. This is where I had signed up for some Muay Thai training. I used the gym to warm up properly before showing up for my first session. It was also a way to keep away the heebie-jeebies. For I have no experience in any martial art. The closest I have come to a contact sport was some football in the school playground.
I found myself in terribly unfamiliar territory inside the Olympic-sized ring. I put on boxing gloves for the first time and immediately had an all-out attack of the imposter syndrome. In the ring next to mine a Dutch K-1 fighter was training, all muscle and tattoos from neck to feet. He was hitting into the trainer’s pads with vehemence, the impact creating an echoing thump. Training right besides me in the ring was a tattooed Russian version of Lara Croft. While she was warming up alongside me, I had noticed that she didn’t seem to care too much for gravity. I considered the layers of flab on me and told myself: “Concentrate or get humiliated.”
I was introduced to my trainer, Samart (meaning ‘capable’ in Thai and Hindi). Buddhani told me he was once a reputed prize fighter who had won million-baht fights. He was stockier than the other trainers and had a mischievous manner. He knew no English, and I was still struggling to get my greetings and thank yous right in Thai. Buddhani realised my quandary and engaged Samart before me, showing me the basic moves. It seemed simple enough, so I took over.
My first few punches landed amicably on Samart’s punch pads. The first kicks barely got up to his waist and hurt me more than him. I was hitting with the wrong part of my leg, Samart explained. He kicked me without hitting to show how to hit with the instep and the inside of the ankle. Now he had started pushing me, explaining how to get the weight behind the punch or the kick. When I struggled to understand his instructions, he showed me how others were doing it. In about 20 minutes, I was moving faster, feeling lighter, and not caring about making a joke of myself.
Each time a kick landed on the pad with the right amount of force, it made a gratifying sound. And each time I managed to create that sound, Samart grunted a ‘hoye’ to complement it. At the first kick I managed to land at a good height and with some force, Samart dropped down, exaggerating the impact. After I had cut my teeth on punches and kicks, it was time to use elbows and knees. The elbows landed in the pads, but the knee had to go into his belly, where he wore a padded belt. I was terribly nervous about this. I’ve had a kind of sheltered life and have hardly had to stand up and fight for myself. I learnt early on in school that having friends is a more efficient way to protect myself. I’ve never kicked anybody in the stomach, so the protective pad did not take away my fear of hurting him.
This is when Samart came into his own. With bodily gestures, he showed me what was wrong with my moves. In a few baby steps, he demonstrated how the pelvis has to move to put weight into the knee. The arms are required to hold the opponent’s head, to bring him closer to the hit and to prevent a response. By now, I was letting go of myself in each move,grunting and screaming with effort, the testosterone driving me harder. (Later, at Safari World, I saw that the Thai have trained orangutans to kick better than me.) I hadn’t felt my heart beat so fast in years. So Samart showed me breathing exercises to quickly regain breath. In one session, I had got the hang of it.
After I had exhausted my time inside the ring, I leaned on the ropes and watched the other trainers. Each trainer had his own style. There was Ched who had helped us warm up that day; his frame was small but he was the most elegant. There was an economy in his movement and a no-fuss expression on his face. Another trainer hopped and skipped, exaggerating his moves, making them look like a dance routine, and squawked out loud hoyes. Yet another coach, the brawniest of the lot, trained the heavyweight K-1 fighters.
Samart wasn’t just the man to train overweight tourists like me. Clearly a great technician, he is much sought after by young boys who had committed themselves to Muay Thai at the age that champions begin to train: 6-8 years. I saw him make an 11-year-old kick repeatedly, 15-20 times without a break. Just watching such athleticism was wearying. The next day I took both the morning and afternoon sessions, coming down from the excitement only in the evening. I ate and slept like I hadn’t in a long time. I wouldn’t have tried my hand at such a discipline in any place other than Thailand. I wouldn’t have tried it out with any people other than the instructors there. Hoye.
IndiGo, Thai Airways and Air India fly daily from many Indian metros to Bangkok for about Rs 10,700 one way.
What to see & do
The Muay Thai Festival is held each year in March, but there are events round the year (muaythai festival.com). Apart from Bangkok and Pattaya, most major cities have several gyms specialising in Muay Thai, since this has become a regular tourist draw. If you need help locating a gym in the vicinity of where you are visiting, contact the office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (022- 22042727/28; [email protected]) and they will send you a list.
The Fairtex Muay Thai Camp is the largest gym in Thailand and is part of the Fairtex Hotel and Sports Club (fairtex-muaythai. com) in the Chonburi locality of Pattaya. Its other facilities include tennis, badminton, squash and rock climbing. It offers several accommodation and training packages. People can just walk in and book themselves a training session for 800 baht; 1,200 baht gets you two training sessions in the day; a 10-day training package costs 6,000 baht.
Bangkok and Phuket both offer the Siam Niramit Show(siam niramit.com). Tickets cost between 1,500 baht and 2,350 baht, depending on where you want your seat and whether you want to buy the dinner that comes with the package.