Destinations editor Eric Moya was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, last week attending the Asean Tourism Forum.
I'm not much of a sports fan, but I'll occasionally watch boxing or mixed martial arts (MMA) on TV. At some point, commentators usually will note that one of the fighters is dictating the match's pace or tempo and thus holding the advantage.
I don't recall the commentator at Thapae Stadium saying anything along those lines, but maybe that's because it wasn't the fighters who were setting the pace during the seven-bout card I caught during my first night in Chiang Mai. Instead, a band playing traditional Thai instruments produced a droning, pulsing soundtrack that helped the combatants find their rhythm.
Thanks to the UFC and other MMA organizations, fight fans around the world have become familiar with muay thai, which shares similarities with Western-style boxing but allows opponents to use their legs to strike.
It was certainly an international audience at the weeknight card I attended: I overheard English (in a variety of accents), Mandarin and a smattering of other languages at the venue, set back in an alley off Mun Mueang Road.
I'd purchased my ticket online. Because I planned on taking photos, I opted for VIP seating for 800 baht (about $25); general admission seating runs 500 baht. Truth be told, there weren't any bad seats at the venue, which appeared able to accommodate a few hundred spectators along the ring's four corners, each seating section only about 10 rows deep.
I was seated in the first row and ordered a large bottle of Leo beer from one of several bars around the venue. Food stands line the stadium walls, offering pizza, burgers and sandwiches.
Before fight time, a video titled "The Noble Art of Muay Thai" played on the stadium's screens. Set to the sort of dated rock soundtrack characteristic of '80s action-movie montages, or perhaps a traffic school instructional tape, the video shared some of the sport's history and explained its core techniques, such as the clinch, in which fighters wrap their hands around the back of their opponent's neck, leaving the opponent vulnerable to knee strikes to the body and head.
At about 9 p.m., lights flashed and Europe's "The Final Countdown" played over the PA, letting the audience know the matches were about to begin.
Matches are short: A couple went the distance, which was five rounds max. The rest ended in KOs or TKOs, and most in the first round. It's unsettling being at ringside in front of a downed fighter, and their time laying prone on the canvas felt longer than it does when watching on TV.
Despite that, and the sometimes brutal techniques for which the sport is known, it all felt fairly safe for a combat sport, and not anywhere near as gruesome as some muay thai matches I've seen on TV. The fighters appeared to be well cared for by the corner men, and combatants seemed to show a great deal of respect for each other (no taunting or cheap shots). I concluded that matches at this venue were staged more in the spirit of tourism promotion than athletic competition, and I had no problem with that.
© TW photo by Eric Moya
One of those first-round KOs was the seventh and final bout of the night, between fighters from China and Thailand. A group of Chinese fans cheered their countryman, who stood in a neutral corner as the referee tended to his downed opponent. Perhaps it would have been nice if the hometown boy had prevailed -- or at least gone the distance, capping the night with a feel-good, Rocky-style ending. Then again, this wasn't exactly a hometown crowd.