Where the Girls Are

this article originally appeared in Traveldish.com

Co-ed martial arts training in Bangkok's Muay Thai Institute

In October we got you ready to rumble at the Lanna Muay Thai camp in Chiang Mai. This month we take you to another place where foreigners can train, learn a martial art and soak up Thai culture. Only this time, the girls and boys are on separate - but equal - ground.

On Saturday nights the scene at Rangsit Stadium is like any other respectable fight club in Bangkok. As King Rama IX and Queen Sirikit solemnly survey the crowd from a portait hung high above the ring, a small flute and percussion ensemble churns out a trance-inducing soundtrack.

To this, Thai boxing's signature battle hymn, two fighters decked out in flowered leis and flashy silk robes strut their stuff from corner to corner, taking time occasionally to pray to the guardian spirit of Muay Thai.

Up in the bleachers, the standing-room only crowd looks like the trading pit on Wall Street, as frantic hand-signals are thrown around. Everyone in the swarming crowd is in on the action. Huge sums of money change hands after each five-round bout.

But unlike most Bangkok stadiums, there are two rings here - one for men, and one for women; gender-separated, according to Buddhist custom.

By Monday afternoon the stands are empty, and the gym is teeming with foreign and local trainees. Rangsit Stadium is home of the Muay Thai Institute, which is run by the prestigious World Muay Thai Council (WMTC).

On one side of the stadium, English and Japanese fighters pound a row of 12 large punching bags. Some of the foreign trainees are curious tourists who have come to learn the basics, while others are on their way to becoming professional fighters. The institute hosts programs for fighters from abroad varying from a single day to three months.

The Thai Who Tagged Me

For local boxers, the commitment is measured in terms of years - and championships. In the women's ring, international flyweight champ Soidown Soi Jamsai works out with Headmaster Chali Kultharee. She kicks his hand-held padded targets furiously for a few minutes, then pounds them with her fists.

When it seems she's had enough, Chali climbs out of the ring and wipes his face with a towel. "We have only had female boxing in this country for three years," he says, "and already we have 400 female fighters in Thailand. But not so many boxing camps train them. We are one of the few, and we have two female international champions."

Among the Thai fighters at Rangsit, the atmosphere is decidedly studious. After all, fighting is their chosen career. Today several fighters are preparing for big fights, and there seems to be very little humor going around.

Interaction between trainees from abroad tends to be more easygoing. An Iranian fighter saunters downstairs from one of several guestrooms for rent in the stadium's upper level. He immediately comes up to me and asks where I'm from. When I say I'm American, he teases me about his country's recent victory over the U.S. Soccer team. Then he laughs, throws his arms around me and squeezes me like a brother. We've never met before.

"I'm here for a month," he explains, "so I have time to enjoy."

WMTC careers, on the other hand, are big business, and age 30 is considered to be retirement age for Muay Thai. The managerial office is flooded with championship photos, trophies and belts.

In one of the photos, a WMTC officer poses with big-wig American boxing titan Don King. In the lobby, Institute owner Amnuay Kesbumrung is being interviewed on Bangkok television about his volunteer work with children.

Chali switches into PR mode too. Having coached the Thai national team at the 1998 Sports Festival of Asia, Chali has gold on his mind. "We hope that Thai boxing will become an Olympic sport. We push our female athletes to compete internationally." Chali is no stranger to world competition. Quite famous in Thailand as a boxer, he has a resumé several pages long. Under the fighting name Pharuhaslek, he held numerous title belts in his glory days, including Bantamweight World Champion, which he won in England. For a guy who fought hundreds of times professionally, Chali is remarkably alert.

The WMTC also lavishes Chali's profile with several more dubious-seeming credits in addition to his hard-earned titles. This includes the alias "Gentleman of the ring," because he never "took advantag of a disadvantaged opponent." This must mean that he didn't kill them, because he certainly knocked a lot of them out.

The WMTC also claims Chali, "always received applause from the audience." If this is true, it would be a miracle; Muay Thai audiences almost never applaud - they're too wrapped up in their own betting.

After her workout, Soidown appears in cutoff shorts and a tank top. Even without the gloves on, her muscled 112 pound frame is intimidating, and I find myself flinching as she walks up to me. Using broken bits of English and Japanese, she presents me with some souvenirs - photos of her wearing WTBC title belts. Even in such a sweaty, serious place, it's still possible to get small, genuine tastes of Thai hospitality.

Training for the Rest of Us

Clearly, the Institute is most proud of its international programs. Their brochures display foreign trainees as prominently as their Thai champs, and there are several WMTC-affiliated training facilities in the U.S., Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Japan and the U.K, though making a pilgrimage to the Bangkok home facility is recommended.

Official programs for foreigner boxers are well-organized,ranging from beginning to professional skill levels. Programs last from 10 to 90 days. For those wishing to become instructors, referees or judges, there are three 15-day courses available. And if you just want to work out, it's okay to swing by for an afternoon.

The Dish

Bangkok is a huge city of six million with plenty to do and see. Overall, it's not particularly pretty, however, and the Rangsit area is no exception. For those who want to soak up the authentic world of Muay Thai in all its gritty splendor, staying in the stadium guest rooms is a great idea. If it's more cosmopolitan lodging that you're looking for, Bangkok has plenty of charming guesthouses as well as its share of lavish hotels.

© 2001 A Callaghan / Collins Peak Limited