I arrive on foot alone, covered in sweat, an hour into the event. Approaching the arena, a woman quotes a series of cringe-inducing ticket prices for the various levels of access, most probably reserved for farang. For a split second, I wonder how much I am willing to pay to see grown men abuse each other for my entertainment.
The woman senses my hesitation, quickly offering ringside seats for the "low" price of ฿1200 baht ($40 USD). Try as I might to bargain, pointing out the fact that the fights are well underway, she stands firm. So, while kicking myself for mixing up the starting time, I shell out the hefty sum. In exchange, she slaps a sticker into my hand, and motions for me to follow.
As the woman leads me through a series of concrete hallways, the sound of shouting and sarama in the distance escalates from a barely audible mumble, to a full-out roar. As we turn the final corner, a circular stadium opens before me – it is an intimate arena, little more than a lit ring surrounded by a series of wooden bleachers and folding chairs.
I've never been to a boxing match, let alone a Muay Thai bout, where they allow the throwing of kicks, elbows, knees, and more. Moments after I've taken my seat, a bell sounds the start of the second round—my eyes are now inexorably glued to the ring.
Watching these two ruthlessly pummel one another, my adrenaline is pumping madly, and the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. My fight-or-flight response is predominately fight, and my muscles are perpetually tensed as I watch this spectacle. It is no wonder the Colosseum was so popular.
After two violent bouts, my rapt attention is shaken by the arrival of what appears to be a pair of ten year old kids. Knowing nothing about Muay Thai culture in Thailand, I am half-expecting this will be a cute intermission. In a moment, I will learn just how wrong I am. The bell sounds. On cue, the friendly looking children transform into fierce, determined warriors.
The boys are incredibly fit. Alarmingly so, actually. Like most kids, they seem to be unaware of their own mortality. The fight is riveting, and the energy in the ring is explosive. The pair are attacking one another with a fierce rage the likes of which I have rarely witnessed firsthand.
It is, in a word, brutal.
After two short bouts between children who can't be older than 12, a pair of teenagers enter the ring. It is only now that a bit of perspective bubbles through the adrenaline coursing in my veins. I begin to wonder how these children wound up here. Did they choose to fight of their own volition? Were they coerced by their parents?
A teaming crowd of wildly screaming adults, who have undoubtedly placed bets on the fight, continue their cheering unabated. Whereas moments before I was caught up in the spectacle with them, I now feel detached and conflicted about this experience. I am a strong supporter of martial arts for kids, but this seems exploitative and extreme.
After the next match, I go home to do some research. Not long after, I've read half a book on a subject whose existence I wasn't even aware of just a few hours earlier. This 2009 thesis by Phunyanuch Pattanotai, entitled Children and boxing in Thailand: Preserving national heritage vs. exploiting national future was particularly interesting. Some excerpts:
To Thai people, Muaythai or Thai boxing is not only one kind of martial arts or combat sport but also a defining essence of being a Thai national (April. M, 2007). It is Thailand’s 700-year old martial art, seen at one time as the best means for the country to defend itself against foreign invasion. It was a way for Thai warriors to pay respect to the kings, his faith to religion, his teachers as well as his parents. As it has developed throughout time, Muaythai became a popular sport as well as a career path for many young children, especially for those who lived in remote and poor areas.
Today, there are approximately 20,000 children under 15 years old practicing Muaythai, especially in rural areas (Ministry of Education Thailand, 2007). More than 47% of the child boxers from 50 boxing camps around Thailand are found younger than 12 years old (National Youth Bureau, 1999). Children involved in Thai boxing become a subject of controversy on the line of whether or not boxing do more harm than good for the children.
Poverty is believed to be a main interrelated factor driving children into the boxing profession. Child watch project revealed that most children in the boxing business came from poor families. By sending these children to the boxing business, many parents were hoping that they would receive basic cares, education, and be able to earn money to help themselves and families as the victor of most fights would make more money in an hour than a famer or factory worker earned in a month (Lyon, 2007).
Perhaps easier to digest, is a film about this very subject, entitled Raised in the Ring. It tells the story of two 8-year-old-girls, both professional Muay Thai prizefighters. Set in two small villages in rural Thailand, the film chronicles the girls' emotional, sometimes heartbreaking journey, as they struggle to help provide for their families.
This trip continues to be a learning experience – more often than not, in ways I'd never considered before we left. I have a growing sense that getting involved with (or starting) some sort of aid organization needs to become a part of our lives. Though I'm not sure what form it will take yet, Tara and I are discussing it with increasing regularity.