THE BLOG

Fast Food and Even Faster Fighting: the Bangkok Connection

13/08/2015 13:58 BST | Updated 12/08/2016 10:59 BST

Gastronomy and pugilism. One, it seems, begets the other when you're standing outside the Rajadamnern Stadium in modern Bangkok, the beating heart of old Siam. You drink a glass of pennywort and hand over your baht. You sidestep to the next stall and buy some glutinous rice and pork cooked in banana leaves. Then your mind begins to drift.

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You came here by tuk tuk to enjoy the genuine article: the ancient art of Thai boxing, but now you can't stop thinking about how hungry you are. You scarf down the rice and glance around at what else there is to eat before fight night begins. But you buy some more because it's delicious. You do some quick mental arithmetic and realise that this has set you back by pennies.

That's the thing about Bangkok's weather. Unlike the summer scorch of Rome or Miami which puts paid to any lingering appetite, the Bangkok humidity makes you hungry. And all about, mercifully, lie stalls selling food that is both cheap and delicious, its aroma coming at you at each bend in the road, winning the battle for your senses and defeating Bangkok's canal miasmas with ease. Here, you realise, you will not starve. You're eating of the lotus.

So, sated, you enter the cool dark of the Rajadamnern Stadium, known locally as 'the Ultimate Muay Thai Arena'. You purchase your ticket from a counter hole that's only big enough for a bandicoot through which fast hands take your money and proffer your tickets before you climb the wide steps, giddy with the heat and a full belly, the concrete steps bearing you upwards into the arena's gloaming.

One side of the arena is fenced off from the spotlit ring. This is where, later on the nine-fight bill, the all-male contingent of boxing aficionados will gather to place frenzied mid-fight bets and generally scream the place down while, ringside, sunburnt tourists, quietly stifling yawns, occupy the expensive seats which only afford them a view up the fighters' nostrils and not much else. The savvy are perched above the ring where massive air conditioners shout the air gelid. The view up here is sweeping and uninterrupted.

The beer's 150 baht a plastic glass, the popcorn 50. You succumb to the temptation. You're eating again. Then at 6.30pm sharp the music begins. By this time the atmosphere is a combination of beery shouts and wailing village pipes laced with cymbal clashes as across the ring the fighters perform their pre-fight ritualistic dances, saluting the points of the compass and the direction of their birthplaces, performing balletically, somewhat coyly, before the bell sounds and the first fight begins. There has been no need for an American-style ring announcer to inject excitement.

You watch. You eat. By the third fight of the bill the Thai fans have arrived en masse. The referee, towering above the boxers, watches them perform more preliminary dances with patience. To the casual observer the dances are arcane, but you pay closer attention because of this.

The ref looks at his watch and glances at the shadowed faces in the crowd. The fight begins. Then, before it has barely begun, one fighter collapses on his back from a knee to the jaw. He's flung onto a gurney, slid under the ropes and borne away like a stunned fish.

The music gets louder. The ropes of the ring thrum and another fight begins, the movements of the feet of each combatant enough to keep the whole structure vibrating as the ringside tourists are roused from the gentle torpor into which they have momentarily sunk. The half light, the cooling air, the betters' hiss: all have served to cast the arena as a place unreal.

Fight number 7 is the main attraction. The cries of the gamblers grow fierce. Semaphore takes and makes a hundred bets in under a minute as Phet Mueang Chon and Ngao Phayak [programme spellings] climb through the ropes.

The Marquess of Queensbury rules are in evidence. A sedate opening round sees each pugilist size the other up with kicks coming not so much as blows of intent, but rather as a means by which distances can be measured.

Crisp punches are thrown in flurries and Ngao Phayak backs his man into the ropes, but just as Phayak is about to floor him, he steps away and resumes his attack with kicks. The crowd bays for blood but it does not come and as far as the tourists are concerned - who are more familiar with, say, the lethality of a Tyson - they appear baffled.

It's a performance or mini-drama, one could argue, and for a performance to be enjoyed it must be drawn out and savoured by participants and spectators, in equal measure. The fighters seem to vacillate, by round four more intent upon exercise than vanquishing one another. And the music carries them.

The bout goes the distance and Phayak's arm is raised. The winner bows humbly and climbs out and away. This Muay Thai winner is a stoic, receiving the cheers with a bow as the crowd disperses, sated in their own way, the blood lust honoured.

The main event over, torn betting slips flutter into the dank eaves as tourists gaze on at the empty ring while a stray bird, stirred by curiosity, swoops beneath the lights before flapping up into the skylight where the evening sun drips its final colour. A Thai woman, her sandals removed, lies prone on the highest tier, fast asleep. The gamblers vanish into thin air, their voices still ringing inside the concrete pit when, finally, you hear a familiar Bangkok sound. It's yours stomach, grumbling. It's tough being a British tourist.

Photograph by @JasonAHolmes