The School of Hard Knocks: Prison Fights and Ladyboys in Chiang Mai

The Thai people have always had a thirst for the violence of Muay Thai.

This martial art, the national sport of Thailand, sees participants use elbows, shins, knees and hands to down opponents. It’s a brutal sport, and is often questioned for the low age at which children participate in the fights — some step into the ring at just five years old.

Despite, or perhaps because of the brutality of these matches, thousands of Thai people come to see these matches and bet their Baht on the outcomes.

But it’s not just regular Muay Thai fights taking place in Thailand. Something far more sinister is also going on. Because for a small minority of Thai people there is far more at stake than just money and respect. Winning or losing a match is almost equal to life and death for these people, and so they train every hour they can spare. And these people can spare an awful lot of time. Why? Because they are imprisoned.

Petty thieves, drug dealers and even murderers – everyone will be given a second chance.

Fighting for freedom

According to Thai law any inmate with a superb achievement in sports may be granted a chance for amnesty, and this entry in the law is cleverly used by charity organization World Prison Fight Association (WPFA) in co-operation with the Thai Department of Corrections.

It’s not a new idea though; Thai prisoners have been fighting for freedom since 1767, when a prisoner of war called Nai Khanomtom was granted his freedom by the Burmese for beating some of the best Burmese fighters.

The WPFA provides a prison with a gym and fresh equipment, and then it’s on. Any inmate willing to participate in the fights for a shot at freedom and some money will join the rehabilitation program — officially aimed at reducing drug use — and a suitable foreign opponent will be brought to the gym by the WPFA. And those foreign opponents come in their droves, because it’s an experience of a lifetime!

Should a prisoner show a proper attitude and win a few fights he can look forward to a meeting with the prison warden and a chance at sentence reduction. Petty thieves, drug dealers and even murderers – everyone will be given a second chance.

The experience was magical but shady

This strange situation demonstrates just how important Muay Thai is in Thai society — in most other countries organizing prison fights would be frowned upon if not actually breaking the law. But Thailand’s Muay Thay fascination is one of hundreds of years of tradition, and many of the Thai people are skilled in the arts of this sport.

I once had the chance to visit a Muay Thai match in the northern city of Chiang Mai and I have to say the experience was magical yet still felt in some ways shady. Finding a match to watch isn’t hard — the streets are filled with advertisements for fights and most tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) drivers can point you to the nearest arena.

I visited the Taphae boxing stadium, which was a small local place, and after paying the entrance fee I was guided to my seat by a waitress. I noticed she was wearing a rather tight dress which wasn’t fully zipped. Can happen right? But the real reason for the tight dress revealed itself when she asked me which drink I preferred in a heavy male voice. She was a ladyboy.

These people are very common and respected in Thailand. They are especially loved by their parents, who get the chance to raise both a girl and a boy simultaneously.

One of the children was knocked out

But I did not visit the Taphae stadium to observe the people gathered around the ring but rather to watch the folks inside the ring. These matches turned out to be pretty entertaining and they were accompanied by a fitting traditional tune.

I watched a few bouts, the first being two children pitted against each other. I expected a rather soft fight (these were kids after all) but was surprised when one of the children was knocked out and hit the floor hard due to a high kick. Gasps, screams and cheers filled the stadium. I felt that kick was a little too much, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind.

The next fight was a fight between two women. It turned out to be the best fight that night and the woman who won was carried by the crowd while she flexed her scary muscles.

The last regular fight was a fight between a Thai male fighter and a male fighter from France. The French visitor lost, but the Thai people cheered for him anyway.

The last couple of matches were strange, to say the least, and could be compared to show wrestling. A few blindfolded fighters entered the ring with the referee and chaos ensued. This was certainly the most entertaining fight of that evening, although the other fights will definitely be remembered too.

It turned out to be really easy to get carried away in the enthusiasm for a martial arts sport that has captured the imagination of the Thai people for all those years.

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