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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pong Malai—Shall We Fight?

No coin toss or slap on the rump, please—Thai boxing matches begin beautifully,  with ceremonial dance and floral garlands. 

imageThai boxer wearing a pong malai

Photo: Twins

Muay Thai is known as “The Art of Eight Limbs”—a fighting sport that allows punching with shins, knees and elbows as well as “yer dukes.” The national sport of Thailand evolved from a martial art and is gaining popularity across the world. We can understand why, without ever having seen a Thai boxing match. Combining grace, violence, drama, tradition, and honor, this sport has it all—even flowers.

Plenty of athletic competitions deck the victor with blooms—the Kentucky Derby winner’s blanket of roses, Olympic bouquets, and the old Greek poets’ laurels. But Muay Thai is the only sport we know of that gives competitors flowers before the match. And what flowers they are—bright garlands of orchids, carnations and marigolds called Pong Malai. Friends and fans present their favorite boxers with these leis before the fight starts, and the pong malai are displayed optimally, against bare chests.

imageTwo boys do the pre-fight dance, Bangkok

Photo: Yosemite, via wiki

The leis are a feature of Muay Thai’s opening ritual called Wai Kru, a combination warm-up, bow-down, scare-off. Historically, the Wai Kru was each fighter’s moment to pay respects to his (and now her) trainer, but it’s more than that. “The Wai Kru usually starts with the fighter walking around the ring, counter-clockwise. This is called ‘sealing the ring,’ showing that it’s just yourself and the (other) fighter now.”  Fighters then begin a series of stretchy dances that mime various people and creatures: ” a swallow, a hunter, a soldier or an executioner. After this dance, the fighter walks over to his coach” who removes the pong malai. Wouldn’t want anybody tangling a knee up in pink orchids, now, would we? Let sixteen limbs fly.

U.S. spectators have tended to groove on Muay Thai’s brutality (we’re weird that way). But there’s another view of Thai boxing, as the dramatization of beauty—and pong malai points right to it.  Brian Hu offers this interesting assessment of the sport as seen through the lenses of two Thai filmmakers. We’ll be looking for Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Beautiful Boxer at our local video store.

Posted by Julie on 08/29 at 04:52 PM
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