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Thai Boxing

Ratchadamnoen Stadium
Nov. 25, 2008

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We hadn't brought enough cash. We knew they would charge more for tourists, but hadn't counted on this much -- something like $60 for good seats, compared to a few bucks that Thais would pay. A very helpful Thai attendant explained politely but frankly that we would need to buy the much more expensive tourist ticket, or the gate tenders wouldn't let us in. I gently protested, saying that if she came to the U.S., we would never imagine charging her more to attend a sporting event. "No, in fact," she agreed, "you'd give me a discount since I'm a student."

We had enough to sit up in the cage, behind the cyclone fence, and still a few baht left for some satay on the street out front and a couple sodas. Shortly after settling in, a man approached us and held a scrawled note in English a few inches before our faces: "Please move. You are in the betting section." He was showing the same note to all the tourists, and we moved as a group to the periphery of the betting section -- where, it turned out, the real action was.

The betting steals the show. Before matches and in between rounds, men flash hand signals at each other and bound up and down the concrete bleachers exchanging 1,000-baht notes. An apprentice system is at work: older men sit, taking in the action, while a younger man -- their runner -- handles the bidding, the trotting, the money-changing, all within earshot of the senior guy.

It looks like a lot of fun. And here's a nice touch: every time someone cleaned up and collected a wad of 1,000-baht notes from someone else, they would immediately peel off a few and hand those back to the loser. Pleasure doing business with you. Then they'd hop back to the boss and hand the cash over. Well, most of it, anyway.

The other interesting thing, apart from the kick boxing itself, is the ceremonial dance the boxers perform before each bout. It's a blessing of some kind, I'm sure. But to Western eyes, it's a bit unusual to see such a light little dance at the same point where, in an American wrestling match or football game, the contenders would be roaring and beating their chests.