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



ANOTHER YEAR IN PARADISE

Sorry to use a cliché, but the past 12 months have continued to be spent in tropical Thailand, and while Bangkok lacks the beaches and tranquility that most would associate with an earthly Eden, it has, for the most part, been a year that was good to me.

What a shame that the country’s political scene is once again threatening to spoil 2014 almost as soon as it starts, but for now my focus is on what did happen, rather than what might, as I sum up 2013.

FAMILY

Grandma taking a break from one of our treks

Grandma taking a break from one of our treks

Thankfully, all my loved ones remained fit and well last year, including my three 80-something grandparents. Most importantly, my Scottish Grandma, who has always been full of vigour, has remained so since the death of Grandpa in 2012. If anything, she has thrived, having now been freed from the duties of caring for him virtually full time in the decade or so before he passed away. She has travelled, met her great-grandchildren and been busier than ever in her community. On top of this, when I visited her in June, we enjoyed some brisk walks amid the glorious Highland scenery and she set a pace that would put many people half her age to shame. Long may this continue!

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MOMENTS, EVENTS AND PEOPLE THAT DEFINED 2012

As the end of last year approached and people started talking resolutions and fresh starts, and so on, I thought I didn’t really have much to report from 2012. My work had remained much the same, I had no new love interests, I continued to live in the same place, I had only one visitor and I’d only taken one foreign holiday. However, I had a browse through my Facebook friends list and phone contacts to jog my memory and it turns out 2012 was actually pretty packed, albeit mostly with small moments, but perhaps a long list of different – and mostly happy – moments is a good year after all. On that note, in no particular order, I present the people, places and things that shaped the past year for me. Continue reading



TRAVEL WRITING: BUTARITARI ISLAND, KIRIBATI

Butaritari, Kiribati

As far as desirable jobs go, travel writer must be up there with sports reporter, beer taster or porn star – in other words, what could be better than to be paid for doing something you love?

So you can imagine how pleased I am to finally get published as a travel writer, in yesterday’s South China Morning Post. The piece covers a wonderful adventure I had on the remote island of Butaritari in the Republic of Kiribati.

It was a real buzz when I got the message that they had bought my article, and even more so when it was printed yesterday. While I have never (not yet?) been a porn star, and while my beer-tasting experience is extensive but never recompensed, I have done my fair share of sports reporting, namely in boxing, which is a sport I love. There was a big buzz when I made my paid-for boxing writing debut, too, but travel writing is an even bigger deal.

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CATCHING UP: BOXING
trainer_jitti

Jitti Damriram

I had a handful of amateur boxing matches when I was teenager and the sport has remained a passion for me ever since, even though I have not competed since I was 19 – 13 long years ago! But with boxing a national obsession in Thailand, I decided to start training again last year – not with the intention of actually fighting again, but as a means to keep fit while enjoying my favourite sport.

I started attending Jitti’s Gym on Ratchadaphisek Road last October. It offers both muay Thai and western boxing tuition and boasts a number of pro fighters. The coaches are all ex-pros, most in both codes, who can speak enough English to guide the foreigners who attend. There are sessions in the mornings and afternoons, the latter of which I attend, and the workout area is in the open-air. Now, boxing training is among the most physical of sports workouts at the best of times, and the intensity increases dramatically when conducted under the blazing tropical afternoon sun – for three hours!

If anyone else is interested, I do recommend Jitti’s. It’s easy to find, very close to Ratchadaphisek subway station, and more details can be found at the gym’s website.




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