I’m not really the world’s biggest sports fan. And by that I mean I will generally do anything to avoid viewing, celebrating, or God forbid participating in, sports. There are some exceptions. Handmade coordinating t-shirts have been known to get me excited about a baseball game, and I recently got pretty swept up in watching my niece kicking butt at basketball. And there’s Muay Thai.
I don’t know what it is, but I am totally captivated by Thailand’s national sport. However, aside from one fight so fake I walked out of it in Chiang Mai, up until this trip I’d only ever been to Koh Tao’s small Island Muay Thai stadium. Which I truly do love — especially since the owner Pi Toon always ushers me into front row seats. Years of training at the gym has earned me some perks — and isn’t it a great looking little ring?
But high on my Bangkok bucket list has always been seeing a fight at one of the city’s two national stadiums, Ratchadamnoen or Lumpini. However, I’m often in Bangkok solo and going to a Muay Thai match is definitely one of those things that’s more fun with a crew. So when I realized that Heather, myself, and six friends from Koh Tao were all going to be in Bangkok on the same night, I knew it was finally time to go see that fight.
Rather than try to coordinate cabs, tickets, and logistics for eight people, we went the easy route (hey, we were on vacation!) and booked Viator’s package.
Our guide and driver showed up at around 6pm and seemed officially startled by how rowdy our group of expats was compared to what I assume are her more normally sedate tourist charges. But she recovered quickly and we spent the next hour in the van — Bangkok traffic is killer — alternating between our guide telling us interesting facts about Muay Thai in Thailand and us shocking our guide with increasingly ridiculous antics. Like when Chris decided he needed a cigarette and walked next to the van in five lane bumper to bumper traffic, leaping dramatically back into the car when a light changed, or when we offered her shots of Fireball because we didn’t want to be rude. She was an incredibly good sport, though I’m sure she was pretty pleased to unleash us once we arrived at the stadium.
Technically the event started at 6:30, but considering how long the nine fights dragged on (they wrapped up around 10pm) we were perfectly happy sliding into our seats about an hour late. And what seats they were! While not in the very front row, we certainly were ringside. My favorite detail? A sign not so much warning us, but begging us, not to go up in the ring. It’s like they knew we were coming.
While flipping through the program for the night’s fights, I was extremely dismayed to realized that I outweighed every single boxer who was going to grace the ring last night. Way to make me feel guilty about the previous night’s McDonald’s run, Ratchadamnoen!
The rules are the same at both national stadiums in Bangkok — boxers must be older than 15, they must weight 100lb, and they must be male. While there are several incredibly popular and successful female Muay Thai boxers in the public eye in Thailand, the wave of gender equality has yet to hit these two locations. And that’s a shame — the promoters at the stadium in Koh Tao have told me that attendance swells whenever there’s a female face on a fight night poster.
Beer, hot dogs, and little bags of popcorn in hand (our guide brought us all a free drink, an unexpected perk) we settled in to watch the fights. The beer was 150 baht — about $5 — pretty pricey for Thailand, but everything else on the limited menu, from sodas to the two aforementioned snacks, was the equivalent of $1-1.50. Can you imagine getting such a deal at a major sporting event in the US?
Great as our ringside digs were, I couldn’t help but pop out of my seat for a bit to check out some different views and photography angles. When we first walked into the stadium, I was shocked by how small it felt. A little research revealed Ratchadamnoen has a capacity of about 5,000 people whereas Lumpini has a capacity of 8-9,500 people depending on the source. The main differences between the two are size and age — Ratchadamnoen is the original stadium, having opened in 1945 after the conclusion of World War II (construction was delayed by the war’s material shortages.) Lumpini was constructed more than a decade later, and in 2014 was demolished and completely relocated to a different part of the city.
spying on my peeps
While the ringside seats were a mix of foreigners and wealthy Thais, the sparsely populated middle section was mostly Thai and the upper level area behind “the cage” — literally, it’s a cage — was exclusively so. I’ve actually heard that the ticket booths will refuse to sell tickets in area to farangs. Anywhere above ringside, betting is legal and done via hand signals. Just like in the US the lottery goes to support public schools, in Thailand the proceeds from the national stadiums goes to support the army. During really high energy moments, you could hear the chain link rattling as the betters on the upper level roared. I have mixed feelings about caging humans (please note my sarcasm) but was utterly fascinated by the enthusiasm contained in this one.
For me, the best part of the evening was getting swept up in the enthusiasm of the other spectators, placing cutthroat bets with my friends, and observing the more ritualistic and cultural aspects of the fights. But based on the cheers from the crowds, for many the highlight was when one fighter drew blood.
That’s when I got a little squeamish.
Luckily for my more nauseous side, the night was winding down. And soon, we’d discover my favorite perk of our ringside seating arrangement — getting to go behind the scenes with the evening’s champion! As soon as the last fight was called we were ushered into a staging area where we saw the very young victor (note to fight coordinators: we’d love to see the fighter’s ages and hometowns in the program!) doing interviews with local news outlets. And then we were able to jump in for a shot.
For those trying to decide which stadium to attend, your schedule may make the decision for you. The stadiums alternate fight nights — Lumpini does fights on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays while Ratchadamnoen Stadium hosts Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. I absolutely loved Ratchadamnoen and am now eager to check out Lumpini on a future trip to Bangkok so I can compare and contrast.
While it is perfectly feasible to attend a fight on your own, I give two thumbs way up to for large groups who want to travel together, for those new to the city, for those looking for a lux night out, and for those who would like a bit of background on the sport. Our time in transit wouldn’t have been nearly as fun had we not all been bunched into a big van, and I appreciated the tidbits our guide gave us en route — not to mention the free drink and the seamless ticketing, the victor photo op and the fact that they happily dropped us at our bar of choice afterwards rather than returning us to our hotel. The only issue we had was when the company first showed up at our hotel for pick up, there were actually two vans and two guides, and we had to somewhat firmly and uncomfortably insist we wanted to ride together (they were twelve person vans, after all!) So if you go with a large group be sure to specify you want to travel together.
I can’t more highly recommend this experience — to sports fans, to those looking for a high energy evening outing in Bangkok, and to those looking for an alternative peek into Thai culture.
Do you try to attend local sporting events when you travel?
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I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.