Thailand: Bangkok fighting

By Kelly Lynch

An inspired Kelly Lynch finds tension and excitement ringside in Bangkok

Buakaw Por Pramuk poised to deliver a punch. Photo / Kelly Lynch
Buakaw Por Pramuk poised to deliver a punch. Photo / Kelly Lynch

We're on our own. We've just finished a week-long photography workshop in Bangkok, and its tutors, legendary National Geographic photographers Steve McCurry and Mike Yamashita, known for their travel photography, are heading home. After a week of their imagery firing our imaginations, transporting us to empty, lonely lands, we're ignited by a desire to capture our own winning shots.

Steve McCurry specialises in Afghanistan and south-east Asia and is most noted for his haunting portrait in the 80s of a teenage Afghan girl, a ragged maroon shawl draped over her head, her wild, wide, sea-green eyes fixated on the viewer. Mike Yamashita covers stories in Asia for National Geographic, and produces his own documentaries. Both renowned, award-winning photographers, they've published numerous books, and exhibit their work around the world.

Those of us remaining from the workshop, left in Steve and Mike's wake, head to Thailand's hottest action, the Muay Thai K1 world champs taking place in Bangkok. A mixture of martial arts and boxing, its razor-sharp movements are derived from techniques developed over centuries by Siamese soldiers who fought combats hand to hand.

Today it is Thailand's number one sport.

We arrive at the venue early and join a long line in front of a bronze monument of King Chulalongkorn riding horseback. There are guys on motorbikes and a few trike bikes, wearing leathers and bandanas. Simultaneously, they start their bikes and roar away, leaving balloon sellers and disinterested police in a dark cloud of their fumes. Nearby, enormous photographs of Thailand's current King Bhumibol Adulyadej remind all that this fight has been arranged to coincide with his 84th birthday. One photo of him holding a camera to his eye spells a good omen.

A sea of white plastic chairs surrounds a boxing ring. In front of them photographers standing two deep hold steadfast to their spots. To our right there is a stage and giant screen. In the distance a regal two-storey marble palace, crowned by an ornate dome; this is Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, part of the King's garden residence.

Thinking of Mike Yamashita's words, "find a point of difference", I break from my group to weave among the press photographers ringside. The sun beats intensely from a solid blue sky. Soon my head starts to feel like a baked potato, beads of sweat trickle down my back and I start to wonder who in my pack will faint first. Finally, after an hour, someone cracks, there's a shuffling of feet, swaying of shoulders, some sideways movement and I'm that much closer to the ring.

The longer I stand the more determined I become. I inch forward and eventually it is only the shoulders of two men in front of me that keep me from resting my elbows on the thick fighting mat. Behind me the white plastic chairs fill with neatly dressed Thais.

Just as the music begins, rough pushing comes from behind as a man shoves past me and squeezes between the two men in front filling the narrow gap. The two men part for him, then turn around to kindly smile at me - this man is their friend and they've been saving his spot. I would smile back if it wasn't for their friend's height; unfortunately for me he's one of Thailand's taller specimens and my primo position is now blocked by a watermelon-sized head of black hair. Soon I, along with others in the pack, sway and shuffle, shooting whatever action we can.

Fast, pumping music builds tension and excitement before the first fight between a Thai and a Frenchman. Each fighter crosses the stage, bows to a large, gilt-framed portrait of the King and enters the ring. They begin theatrical stretching like snakes winding out of a basket. They prance into a corner, their arms stretched above their heads in a yoga posture and raise and lower each knee, slowly and deliberately. One taunts the crowd by flexing his muscles while holding onto a side rope and leaning back so it takes his weight. The crowd purrs. They finish together, on the matt, side-by-side, crouched over in prayer. The air is electric.

The music stops, the fighters' bow to each other and another drama begins. They circle about the ring, staring into each other's eyes like cats ready to attack. The first whack sounds as the Thai's glove strikes the French fighter's face. The crowd roars. As if in a fast dance they move together, in quick succession around the ring, taking jabs and striking the odd kick. Muay Thai's point of difference from conventional boxing is its allowance of kicks, punches, elbow, knee, shin and even head strikes.

A bell sounds, three minutes has passed, round one is over. The fighters' friends and family leap into the ring and vigorously rub their fighter down, offer them water and encourage them into the next round.

Fights are comprised of three bouts and once the Thai is pronounced the winner, it is the turn of another set of competitors, this time a Thai and an Englishman. Two classes, welter-weight and junior middle-weight compete over eight fights. Each consists of a Thai fighter versus a world competitor from France, England or Canada. The foreigners' height and numerous tattoos are no help against the Thais' sharp, winning kicks which send the crowd into a frenzy.

After seven fights, the sun truly sunk, and attention turned to a stage where sleek acrobats climb onto each other and flip and twist. They're followed by an act where two large puppets, worked by six puppeteers, fight Muay Thai style. Their performance is almost as fast and dramatic as the real fights. Afterwards, spectators stand solemnly and sing their national anthem.

The finale fight is between Buakaw Por. Pramuk of Thailand and Australian champ Franki Giorgi. They enter the ring to the commentator's rapid and rolling build up.

The Australian fights defiantly, but ultimately it's the Thai's arm that is punched toward the dark sky by the referee, pronouncing him world champion. Booming erupts around us as fireworks explode and showers of red and yellow light fall to blasting victory music.

The winner proudly parades a larger than life photograph of the King around the ring.

Later, when I rejoin the rest of my group, my arms limp, neck strained, I scale through my dozens of images. I'm elated, there are a few good shots. Are they good enough for National Geographic? Probably not.

But I've learned a thing or two about what goes in to taking those winning photos, as well as what makes a winning Thai fighter.


More info

Getting there: Thai Airways flies from Auckland to Bangkok.

Where to stay: In Bangkok's central area Sukhumvit, the Grand Millennium Hotel is a very comfortable option.

Where to see Muay Thai: Fights are scheduled for Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, an indoor arena at Rama 4 Rd, Bangkok. Tickets can be purchased at the window.

Getting around: The cheapest way around Bangkok is by its efficient trains. Taxis are pricier, while tuk-tuk and motorbike rides more costly due to their ability to weave through traffic.

Further info: The National Geographic photographers' workshop was run by f8 workshops, which run photography courses in exotic locations. See michaelyamashita.com, stevemccurry.com


Kelly Lynch paid her own way to Bangkok.

- Herald on Sunday

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