My Muay Thai Lesson

The smartest thing I did in Bangkok was to move from the Buddy Lodge on Khao San Road to the Oriental, which I selected because it has an author’s wing with Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, and Noël Coward suites. I feel you should patronize any institution that still pretends to believe writers are more important cultural figures than directors, musicians, or actors. A century from now, it will have Steven Spielberg, Mick Jagger, and Robert De Niro suites.

Service at the Oriental is impeccable. The concierge will continue to ring your room and send up a bellhop to knock on your door for more than 15 minutes to remind you that it is 1 p.m. and the car is waiting to take you to your Muay Thai lesson. And as you stand on the curb waiting for the car to pull around, another bellhop will look at your pale, sweaty face and say, with only the slightest bit of amusement, “You really want to make Muay Thai today?”

“No,” I said.

Bangkok has the feel of São Paolo and the traffic of Los Angeles. When stuck in one of its legendary start-stop traffic jams, it is hard not to feel that the worst thing that ever happened to the city is that technology allowed it to grow beyond the Chao Praya River, which is still Bangkok’s beating heart and its main thoroughfare.

“You like Muay Thai?” my driver, a pleasant middle-aged woman, asked me.

“Yes,” I said. “Do you?”

“Not so much.”

Windy Sport Boxing Gym, located in the shadow of Lumphini Stadium, was a converted open-air garage with all the sweat, dedication, and poor-boy desperation of classic boxing gyms of yore. It had a ring, punching bags, and padded equipment strewn across the floor. As I was changing in the back, I noticed three students taking a siesta in a side room. It was 2 p.m. Given the muscle-sapping heat of Thailand, Muay Thai boxers practice early in the morning and late in the afternoon, sleeping the humid midday hours away.

My instructor was Peter, a 22-year-old from the north. He would rather have been napping but was up for me to help pay the rent. I didn’t mind. I was there to help pay mine.

We started with the basics, which are always the hardest to learn. Muay Thai fighters start with their hands high and their elbows out to create a cage around their head. When elbow strikes are an option, you’d much rather create an impenetrable defense around your skull and leave your rib cage open than the other way around.

It took all of 10 minutes—OK, it was five—before I was gasping for breath and Peter was sitting me down and handing me a bottle of water.

“Bangkok is hot,” he said, trying to be sympathetic.

The key to Muay Thai is shin kicks, delivered in roundhouses to the legs, ribs, and head. Muay Thai fighters start training in year-round camps at the age of 10 or 11. Many start their professional careers at 13. If they are lucky, they will make it to 25. To turn their shins into weapons, they spend hours beating them with wooden staffs to calcify the bone. Peter’s shins looked like they had barnacles beneath the skin.

“Muay Thai is not karate. Drive through the body,” Peter said, as we practiced the full commitment of a Muay Thai roundhouse.

When I was a boy, we used to have a game where two of us would exchange punches to the arm until one of us quit. This is Muay Thai, only with kicks, punches, knees, and elbows.

The previous night, at the fights at Rajadamnoen Stadium, I’d seen the most amazing thing. In the third round of the fifth fight, each fighter had locked his arms around the other’s head, and they exchanged brutal knees to each other’s chests. Back and forth it went until the bell rang, ending the round. I assumed that was it, and they would return to fighting strategically, looking for advantages to win decisively. But when the bell for Round 4 rang, they ran toward each other, locked up, and spent the next three minutes exchanging knees, one-for-one. In Round 5, they did the same. I’ve never seen anything like it. Their chests were pulped like raw meat, but neither seemed to care. It was a test of fortitude to see who could remain standing.

There is a ritualistic dance before each fight that many foreign writers have seized upon to indicate that Muay Thai is more than a gladiatorial sport. But the truth is, human sacrifice has always been a religious spectacle. Boxing gloves weren’t added until the 20th century. In the past, Muay Thai fighters would wrap their hands in cloth, dip the cloth into resin, and then roll their resin-wrapped hands into a pile of broken glass (as in the movie Kickboxer). * Death was the common end result.

As John Keegan explains in A History of Warfare, in many cases, these fights were used to settle disputes between tribes, especially with the Burmese. It was the single-combat model, like Achilles vs. Hector or David vs. Goliath. It was brutal, but it was better than the alternative—total war.

When we reached the light-sparring phase of the lesson at the end of class, I led with my best technique. I tapped him in the chest with a sidekick and then put the same kick onto the tip of his nose. My eyes lit up with surprise at his lack of defensive skills, until it dawned on me (much later and after much pain) that he wasn’t worried about defense, because there was no way I could hurt him. His eyes lit up because he realized I was just barely good enough that he could play with me. He ducked his head behind his arms and entered with a roundhouse kick to the thigh, a jab to the face, a knee to the chest, and an elbow to the temple.

Fortunately, he held back on all those attacks, which is why I am still on this earth and able to write this piece. I bowed, and he bowed back. The sacrificial act pantomimed but not completed.

As the rest of his students gathered, and I rehydrated and counted my blessings, I tried for a moment of cross-cultural exchange.

Tony Jaa,” I said, referring to the Muay Thai actor who has, in the last few years, become Thailand’s answer to Jet Lee.

Not understanding the Anglicized version of the actor’s name, they looked at me with confusion.

Ong-bak,” I said, referring to the movie that made Tony Jaa famous in martial-arts-movie circles.

“Ah, Ong-bak!” they all cried.

Peter then proceeded to teach me all the wild moves that Tony Jaa uses in his movies: flying knees, double elbows, spinning shin kicks.

It was sweet.

Later that day, I limped over to take a course at the Oriental Hotel’s famous Thai Cooking School, where I learned that the key to Thai food is fresh ingredients and that farang foodies are a fanatical bunch. But the specific lesson that stuck with me is that Thai cooking seeks the right blend of sugar, salt, and chili—sweet, sharp, and hot.

One of the major pitfalls of travel writing is taking one example and making it a metaphor for an entire culture. But I believe that the search for the right blend of flavors is why tiny little Thailand a) has avoided the fate of its luckless, dysfunctional neighbors Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam; and b) has arguably the world’s best food, fighting, and fucking.

Sweet, sharp, and hot.

Correction, April 12, 2007: Matthew Polly originally misidentified the movie in which Muay Thai fighters rolled their resin-wrapped hands in broken glass. It was Kickboxer, not Blood Sport. (Return to the corrected sentence.)