Elephant’s Leg


FINAL BELL TOLLS FOR LUMPINEE BOXING STADIUM
The infamous "bear pit" inside Lumpinee Stadium

The infamous “bear pit” atmosphere inside Lumpinee Stadium

One of the world’s most iconic sports venues closed last Friday, with the ringing of the final bell for Bangkok’s Lumpinee Boxing Stadium.

It was to muay Thai what Madison Square Garden is to boxing and wrestling – a venue steeped in history that fans would make pilgrimages to and competitors would dream of fighting in.

Opened in 1956, Lumpinee would go on to rival the older Rajadamnern Stadium in terms of prestige, both as a venue and a championship (the championships of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums are among the most respected in the sport).  However, I always preferred Lumpinee. My first visit there remains one of the most vivid cultural memories I have had.

Back in 2005, while backpacking with my step-brother Andy, we attended a Lumpinee fight card just days into our two-month stint in Thailand. On a budget, we opted for the cheapest tickets, the so-called third-class section, and we were so glad we did.

A year prior, I had made my inaugural visit to Thailand, a more traditional two-week, city-then-beach affair, with my friend Liam. We watched muay Thai at Rajadamnern and splashed out on the comfort of ringside seats. It was fine, but the difference between ringside and the upper tier experience is as stark as that between the First World and Third World.

Down at ringside, you sit on comfy chairs, have beer brought to you (at three times the price) and watch the action up close mostly in the company of fellow tourists, who are mostly there to watch out of curiosity or to tick one of the to-do boxes on a Thailand itinerary. Few of them actually follow the sport, so have no emotional investment in it, and apart from the occasional gasp at particularly hard blows or flamboyant manouevres, it’s a rather tame crowd.

As in many places in Thailand, though, it’s upstairs where the truly eye-opening stuff goes on.

Upstairs held the best crowd action

Upstairs held the best crowd action

In Lumpinee, the third-class “seats” were either haphazardly arranged wooden planks or unforgiving concrete blocks. The plank seats had to clambered over and along to get where you wanted to go, and negotiating them was precarious, sometimes with precipitous drops. If you sat right at the back of the tier, chances are that the gaps beneath your feet would look down into the boxers’ dressing room, so you could watch the pre-fight routines or have the aroma of tiger balm waft up from post-match massages.

Above you, ceiling fans would oscillate dizzily, seemingly hanging by a thread, their breeze being insufficient to deter the mosquitoes. Stray cats, having made a comfortable home in the nooks and crannies of the dilapidated building, would occasionally come out for a stroll, and housed in the ceiling were even a few bats, which now and then would set off on their trademark giddy flight patterns towards the ring lights.

On the night Andy and I went, this same ceiling was leaking as a tropical monsoon thundered down on the rusty iron roof. We had to reposition ourselves several times to avoid the dripping rainwater, and the noise was tremendous. The storm lasted a good two hours, and several times we remarked “it’s actually raining harder!” as the elements thrashed the stadium with such force that even the crowd and the screeching drum and flute fight music was at times drowned out.

Come main event time, though, and nothing would exceed the noise levels of the crowd. Away from the sterile ringside section, the locals yelled bets at each other as the action tipped one way, then the other, the prices changing by the minute. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, but you wouldn’t think it when seeing men with fistfuls of 1,000-baht bills and waving raised digits openly and vociferously placing stakes with one another. Even those without money riding on the outcome made a racket, chanting names, yelling along with the impacts of the blows, stamping their feet and banging on the steel cage material that separated the ticket classes and added to the bear-pit feel of the place.

I returned to Lumpinee several times since I moved here, especially when I had visitors, and always impressed on them why it was better to opt for the cheap seats. Some of them were initially discomfited at the ramshackle sight presented to them upon ascending the stairs to the upper tier, but by the end of the night they had invariably been excited, fascinated and absorbed by the authentic cultural experience they had witnessed.

Saenchai

Saenchai

It was a must that I attended the last-ever show at Lumpinee. On top of the unfolding history, it was a cracker of a card. Modern legend Saenchai  PK Saenchaimuaythaigym (formerly, and best, known as Saenchai Sor Kingstar) was a fitting main-event star, even if he is starting to show the wear and tear of more than 300 contests and dropped a close decision to WBC top-ranked lightweight Petchboonchu Porplaboonchu. Saenchai was nevertheless a consummate showman and naturally the crowd favourite.

Speaking of crowd favourites, the audience got firmly behind huge underdog Singtongnoi Por Telakul as he pulled out of a big upset against Petmorakot Vor Sangprapai. There was barely a pundit in the land predicting a win for Singhtongnoi, but he built momentum as the fight wore on and, with chants of “Singtong! Singtong” shaking the building and the weight of history pushing him on, he charged to a famous decision win.

In the walk-out bout of the 12-fight showcase, Chanachai Nuantongsnooker scored a third-round TKO over Yod ET PTT Tongtavee. Lumpinee nights usually end with a contest between young, relatively unknown novices that normally would be of relatively little significance, but what a feather in the cap of young Chanachai to be able to say that not only did he fight and win in the last ever bout held in Lumpinee Stadium, but that he scored a stoppage.

While the nearly 58-year-old stadium is to be demolished, the name and the championship lineage will continue at the new Lumpinee Boxing Stadium Ram Intra, in suburban Bang Khen district.

The new venue looks clean, modern and orderly, which will be welcomed by some. For me, though, I will always associate the Lumpinee name with wild nights of leaking ceilings, haphazard seating, cats, bats and cages. A wonderfully atmospheric part of “old Thailand” is gone, but I’m glad I was there at the final bell.

NB: The Bangkok Post has further coverage, and a poignant video, at http://www.bangkokpost.com/lifestyle/interview/394516/farewell-fights



PIMPS, PROXIES AND PREPPIES – THE MOTLEY CREW VYING TO LEAD A NATION

Thailand’s general election takes place this Sunday. As a non-citizen, I can’t vote. When the election was announced, I thought that was a shame, since for the first time in my life I have an interest in politics. Back home in Britain, I did vote, but was fairly apathetic about it.But as the election and its major players started to take shape, I started to think that even if I could vote, I would no longer be able to do so with conviction. That’s not because the campaigning has been so strong that it would be hard to pick which candidate would be best. Far from it. Now, it would be more a case of choosing the lesser evil.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the major contenders – with “con” being the operative syllable. Continue reading



THE THAI SMILE: LOST IN BANGKOK, FOUND IN KO SICHANG

Ko Sichang offers Thai countryside atmosphere and attitudes by the sea

Thailand’s image needs all the help it can get right now. Last month’s dramatic footage of bomb sites and gun fights across Bangkok played out internationally and many countries have yet to lift their travel warnings to the erstwhile Land of Smiles.

For sure, confidence has been rocked, and even beyond the photos of war on the streets, the reputation of Thai people as gentle, benevolent Buddhists has been tarnished by displays of downright ugly behaviour during such fractious times.

Whether the protesters promising – and almost succeeding – to turn Bangkok into a “sea of fire”, or their opponents cheering and swearing as the death toll neared a hundred, there was precious little positive humanity on display.

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THE AFTERMATH OF ANARCHY
Downtown Bangkok goes up in flames, May 19. (Photo by http://www.benowenbrowne.com)

As Bangkok burned, I made good my escape. Evacuated from my workplace as Red Shirts descended on the road to my office, with their brothers bombing and torching dozens of important and iconic buildings around the city, I met my girlfriend Waew and together we headed for Hua Hin, a seaside retreat a couple of hours’ drive south.

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BANGKOK ON THE BRINK OF CIVIL WAR?

Red Shirts on Silom Road

War zone. The brink of anarchy. Bangkok burning.

Front-page headlines from the past few days in the Bangkok Post which are in no way an exaggeration.

The anti-government protests by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or “Red Shirts”, have been going on for two months now, and friends and family back home who’ve seen dramatic news footage have enquired about my safety, to which I had always replied that “it looks much worse than it is”, and that I was completely safe so long as I stayed away from the demonstration zones.

Not anymore. Continue reading



RIDING RICKSHAWS IN DAVID CARRADINE’S FOOTSTEPS, CHILD BRIDES IN TOW

Journalism 101: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

As I work in the press, I’m always quick to defend journalists, especially against the stereotype that they “make things up”.

It is true, though, that facts can be shaped to fit an agenda, and also that whenever there are two or more sides to a story, a journalist can take whichever side best fits his remit. But they can’t simply make things up.

For a start, it’s against the law. If a newspaper prints a story about a person or event, and cannot prove that it is true if required to do so, then it will face penalties.

Take, for example, the 2004 case of the Daily Mirror‘s publication of photos which apparently showed British soldiers abusing an Iraqi captive. Desperate for a sensational scoop, The Mirror didn’t check the authenticity of the pictures, which were later proven to be fake. The result – editor Piers Morgan was fired.

So, a publication really can’t “make things up” without risking personal, political or financial repercussions. However, that’s not to say it never happens. While I may be quick to defend the press against this stereotype, at the same time I am quick to criticise journalists who do contribute to it.

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THE LEO BEER CALENDAR CONTROVERSY: NO SEX (OR BEER) PLEASE, WE’RE THAI

It is often assumed that the people who complain loudest about something have the most to hide. That’s the prevailing logic about homophobia – that those who hate gays do so because they are seeking to deny something about themselves.
And it is certainly the case with the recent controversy over the Leo Beer 2010 calendar launched here in Thailand last week – and promptly banned from sale or distribution by the government.

The reason for the ban was two-fold. First of all, alcohol advertising laws in Thailand forbid the linking of alcohol with fun. Secondly, nudity is forbidden in the media. As this was a calendar promoting beer through the use of body-painted (so, officially nude in that they weren’t actually clothed, even though they were at least visually covered) models, it was always likely to offend someone in a position of power.

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CAKE-EATING, TOILET-SQUATTING EX-PM SAMAK SUNDARAVEJ DIES

Samak finds food and politics don’t mix

Former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej died yesterday. He succumbed to liver cancer in Bangkok’s Bumrungrad Hospital, aged 74.

Samak was PM when I moved to Thailand in April last year. He was quite a character and his presence – along with the movements of his rivals and his interactions with the press – could at times be quite comic, if not downright farcical. Before Thai politics turned sour with mob protests, airports seiges and coups, it could even be quite fun to read about Samak’s exploits.

He was the first of three PMs in my time here (three leaders in 19 months in itself is an indictment of the state of Thai politics) and by far the most memorable. He was nowhere near as photogenic as current PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, nor was he anything like as polite as his successor, Somchai Wongsawat, but that is precisely why he made his mark. He behaved aggressively, he was beligerent to the media, he sulked in public, he was unafraid to belittle people if he felt they deserved it, he was stoic in the face of political pressure – and his hardened appearance matched these, ahem, qualities.

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A TASTE OF THE UK AS CHAOS REIGNS ON THE RAILS
Half and half

Half and half

Ah, a taste of home. And no, I don’t mean a jar of Marmite or a pint of bitter. I mean a newspaper headline that will be all-too familiar to anyone who is from or has lived in Britain. “4,000 stranded in rail chaos” was splashed on the front page of today’s Bangkok Post.

Rail chaos. Words that are so familiar to the Brit, they’re almost like the lyrics from a favourite childhood song. Nostalgic, even.

The story is that strike action forced the cancellation of the majority of services in, to and from the southern province of Surat Thani, with passengers left stranded or to find alternative means of transport.

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MISS THAILAND 2009 REINFORCES PALE SKIN PREJUDICE
Thai beauty

Thai beauty

Thai people have brown skin. Well, there are different ethnic groups within Thailand, but generally speaking, the average Thai person has light to medium brown skin. I state the obvious merely because it is seemingly something the Thai media likes to avoid.

If you had never been to Thailand and only watched the majority of Thai movies, TV shows or music videos, and look at the advertising at subway stations, in magazines, and so on, you’d be forgiven for thinking Thais were a light-skinned race. Creamy, white complexions, sometimes even with rosy cheeks, represent a tiny minority in real life, but the great majority of the media’s idea of what Thais (should) look like. Pale skin is absolutely considered to be – and promoted as – attractive, and in many cases is actually a prerequisite to success. It doesn’t need me to point out how unfair this is, when skin colour is entirely a matter of birth – and something that cannot be changed, regardless of what the enormous market for sinister skin-whitening lotions will tell you.

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