The Ring of Siam : In Thailand, Muay Thai Can Provide a Way Out of Poverty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The outdoor boxing ring sits under an expressway, in the shadows of Bangkok's worst slum, but Artit Ubocauiratana and other teenage warriors come each day to fight--and dream and plot their escapes from poverty.

The afternoon, blistering hot, is laced with gas fumes and the roar of overhead traffic. In the ring, two young boxers flail with fists, feet, knees and elbows, their taut bodies glistening under a sheen of sweat and palm oil.

"You there, Artit, kick higher! Get that foot across into the chin," the pot-bellied, tattooed trainer, Chatri Ruangklai, shouts above the din. He pauses to suck on a Marlboro, then motions Artit over to the ropes to explain. Artit nods. Soon the grunts are heard again as the fighters resume what distinctly resembles a barroom brawl.

Their sport is Thai boxing, or Muay Thai, and throughout Thailand tens of thousands of boys, some as young as 7 or 8, spend five hours a day honing their skills in training camps like the one under the expressway, hoping to elude a lifetime of labor in the fields and factories.

For those who succeed, there is the promised reward--before their battered bodies burn out around 25--of modest wealth and seeing their names on the marquees of Bangkok or Chiang Mai. In a country that loves the ancient sport of Muay Thai as Americans do baseball, this is the road to redemption and glory.

Artit, 18, exhausted, barefoot and clad only in trunks, plops onto a broken chair outside the ropes and pours a bottle of water over his head. He has been fighting professionally since he was 12. He cried when he first started trading blows in the ring but says he is no longer afraid. He has won 32 of 36 fights and is working toward a 100,000-baht ($2,600) purse.

"My dream is to be rich and famous," he says.

And where would he go if he were? "Oh, I'd stay here," he says, pointing to the sprawling collection of makeshift shanties with tin roofs and walls of old car tires. "This has always been my home."

Modern Muay Thai dates about 70 years, but its origin as a martial art is derived from the hand-to-hand combat skills of 16th century soldiers in what was then the kingdom of Siam. It remains the ultimate symbol of Thai masculinity, a sport whose rituals are drawn from Buddhism and superstition and whose custodianship is in the hands of the Royal Thai Army.

"For my boys, this is a good way to get away from drugs and learn the discipline of clean living," says Watchara, 36, a Buddhist monk who runs another training camp. The scars on his brow bear testimony to the 100 fights he had as a young man, and the arms that emerge from his orange robes are still as solid as small tree trunks.

"I've got 20 boxers living here," he continues, mixing a bag of lemon grass and water to make a liniment for massaging. "They train every day, hard training. They go to school in the morning.

"Yes, sometimes they get bloodied and bruised, but Muay Thai is part of our culture, and these boys are protecting that tradition and getting opportunity at the same time."

Westerners would find much of Muay Thai familiar: padded gloves, a ring, a referee, three-minute rounds and cheering crowds that delight in seeing an athlete stagger and fall.

But some critics say putting pubescent boys into the ring to beat each other silly represents an exploitation of children, a dark side to a gentle, tolerant country that refers to itself as the Land of Smiles. Others say Muay Thai is merely part of an ancient tradition in a country where less fortunate youths--an estimated 300,000 of them--are forced into virtual servitude in brothels and factories.

"I don't want to hurt people, but it's kind of fun punching someone, and getting punched," says one of Thailand's most popular and promising boxers, Parinya Kiatusaba, 17, who has fought in Japan and already earned $5,000 purses--nearly twice what the average Thai makes in a year.

Parinya, a cross-dresser, has startled opponents by showing up for fights wearing lipstick, rouge and nail polish--and showing his appreciation for a good fight by planting a big kiss on the loser's cheek. At 5 feet 7 and 140 pounds, he is a big-boned heavyweight by local standards, and his slashing kicks have enabled him to win 22 of 25 fights and keep his face unscarred.

Although Thais are relaxed about cross-dressing and tolerant of transvestites, Parinya acknowledges he took some teasing in the rural community where he grew up.

"I may have the heart of a woman, but I have the strength of a man," he said, giggling, in the gritty industrial city of Chonburi where he now trains. "No one ever teased me more than once."

Back in Bangkok, a two-hour drive from Chonburi, fans arrive early at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, snapping up most of the 12,000 tickets--at a hefty $24, $12 and $6--by 7 p.m. A sign outside says in English, "Any cans and bottle does not allow to bring."

Inside the dark, steamy arena, in a dressing room shared by a score of fighters, Sunchai Nratkeeful, 20, the son of a rubber-plantation worker, sits on a stool, waiting.

He wraps a Sanskrit scroll around his biceps to ward off bad luck. A monk blesses him. His trainer tapes his fists and coats his 106-pound body with palm oil to soothe his muscles and ward off punches. Then, a garland of purple orchids encircling his neck, he enters the ring, offering a prayer in each corner and performing the wai kroo dance in honor of his teacher.

Sunchai and his opponent tear at each other, feet and fists churning. The crowd cheers and gamblers press close to the ring, flashing odds with their fingers and exchanging wads of baht.

"Do not yield, Sunchai! Go forward!" his trainer yells.

Sunchai leans back and shoots blow after lightning blow with his bare foot to the other fighter's head, thwack, thwack, thwack.

After 15 minutes of combat, the referee raises Sunchai's hand in victory and the young boxer staggers back to the dressing room, $131 richer with his 26th triumph. He has, he says, no plans to celebrate, other than eating a bowl of noodles tonight and resting tomorrow before he begins training for another fight, in two weeks.

"I do not know if I can ever be champion but I will keep fighting as long as I can," he says. "If you have ever worked a rubber plantation, you know fighting is better."

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