It’s really early in the morning in Pattaya. I’m in a boxing ring, and I’m whacking a human being holding a pad. Whack. I throw some straight jabs, right crosses and some roundhouse kicks. Hard. The human target keeps feinting and moving, encouraging me to hit him even harder. He’s about half my size, but can absorb an amazing amount of punishment — and he wants more. What in God’s name am I doing out here? I must be crazy — I thought it was just massage parlours all the way down.
Welcome to Thailand, a passive-aggressive’s paradise, where Muay Thai is their Yoga — exported to the world, practised hard at home. Here in Pattaya, we are practising at the Fairfax Muay Thai Center, a very posh hotel, run by a very handsome and very popular TV star, completely dedicated to training tourists. Apparently, Muay Thai tourism is huge business, but who in India knew? Muay Thai is practised everywhere. It’s the ticket out of poverty for the seriously poor. You can find fights on almost any street corner, it seems. And if you’re sportingly inclined, there’s plenty of betting action to keep your interest alive — and kicking, hard.
Muay Thai is an amazing, brutal martial art, from what seems like an amazing, pacifist country. Short of headbutts and hits to the groin (and no eye-gouging or hair pulling), almost anything goes. Elbows, knees and spectacular kicks, casually executed, are the general order of the day. Muay Thai fighters start young, but the brutal nature of the sport rapidly ages them. Twenty-five is considered old, for a fighter. At 30, he simply retires and then becomes part of the cultural machine, either teaching at somebody’s gym, or opening his own.
That’s another great thing about Muay Thai — its amazing cultural tradition of aggression and respect. Prior to any competitive bouts, fighters pay their respects to their seniors, their schools and to the cultural underpinnings of the sport. Each fighter goes through an elaborate pre-fight ritual that serves multiple purposes — a warm up, an homage to the gods, gurus and seniors. This also doubles up as a signal of martial intent to the opponent. Depending on the intensity of the pre-fight ritual, the fighter signals his reserves of strength, power, agility and stamina to the other fighter. The other guy, meanwhile, is doing the same thing.
It’s a ritual that is taken very seriously indeed. In fact, in the World Championship match, the Thai champion’s pre-fight ritual was of such a high intensity that his Chinese challenger was psychologically destroyed. You could see it in the challenger’s eyes and body language. Although he fought gamely and with great courage, he was simply out of his depth. The champ knocked him out with a spectacular flying, spinning, back kick that was amazing to behold.
I was lucky — I stood right in the champion’s corner, so I got a ring-side view, but I had to precariously hang off a rope just to be able to see the match. The intensity of the crowd had to be seen and felt to be believed. In Muay Thai, each spectator believes that he has a special relationship with his favourite fighter, and most fans and friends take it upon themselves to offer all kinds of encouragement and advice to the fighter. Smelling salts seem to be the favoured method of getting the fighter to recuperate between rounds. He is bathed in cold water and vigourously massaged, while all kinds of strategy rains down upon him, from everybody, everywhere.
In addition to fornicating and feeding, then, it’s a great idea to visit Thailand for the fighting. People are coming to Thailand to train in Muay Thai from across the world, because they want to learn it from the source, direct from the gurus. Since Muay Thai is so much about the culture, it is clearly optimal to come to Thailand for training, because Thai culture cannot be taught in a school in Mumbai, although Muay Thai possibly can — it’s somewhat similar to learning Zen in Japan. Besides, what have you got to lose? Thailand has great people, great culture, great cuisine, great beaches, great shopping — and a great martial art tradition. Just do it. Go.