I began to suspect we were in for a fairly unusual trip shortly after the visit to the snake farm. A man there had leaped into a pit with three deadly cobras, caught one in his left hand and another in his right and then, while holding those two squirming vipers aloft, put his face inches in front of the third. Serpent and man bobbed and feinted at each other—cobras apparently have poor depth perception—until with a sudden thrust the man crashed his face against the snake and, because the snake was on the cement floor, against that as well. The man wriggled there, as if stricken, gathered himself, then rose to his feet in triumph. To the relief and the disgust of the spectators—most of them tourists—he now had the third cobra in his mouth. His teeth grasped the back of the snake's hood, while its tail lashed him across the chest and shoulders. The proud man circled the pit, posing with the snakes for pictures.
Back in our river taxi, one of the ubiquitous, long-tailed motorized gondolas that navigate Bangkok's canals, I asked our guide, "Have you ever been face-to-face with a cobra?"
"I killed many cobra," James replied without bragging. James's real name is Chamnong Tongkaew. He asked that we call him James, though, because he likes James Bond. One of the Bond movies, The Man with the Golden Gun, had been filmed in Thailand.
"In rainy season, after flooding, cobra come inside my house," James explained. "Have nowhere else to live. Dogs help me. They bark and block the door. I use stick. I try to use my hand like the man in the snake farm, but is very difficult. I use stick. Cobra very good to eat. Old saying in our country: Mongoose, he eats cobra. Cobra, he eats rat. Rat, he eats rice. But Thai people—we eat al-l-l of them."
James sensed our queasiness. "Not city rat," he assured us. "Rice paddy rat. Is very good. Better than chicken. Not as good as cobra. You will have some before you leave. But you maybe will not know it." James smiled his wonderful smile as the river taxi continued its lazy tour of the filthy, fascinating klongs, the Thai word for "canals." My wife, Sally, pointed out a lovely private home tucked among the wooden huts and salt-barges-turned-houseboats. "Yes, very beautiful," agreed James. "Owner must be corrupt."
Sports in Thailand. That was the assignment. Go to Bangkok, poke around the countryside, paddle through the klongs and find out what 52 million Thais like to do for sport. Over the centuries people have come to beautiful, exotic Thailand looking for many things. Few have left disappointed. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, when Thailand was known as Siam (the name was changed in 1939 when Premier Pibun Songgram sought to expand his country's borders to include all Thai-speaking regions), the Burmese came looking for riches and slaves. In the mid-1800s the Chinese began a steady immigration, seeking opium and opportunity. At the same time European traders were arriving, hungering for rice, silk, teak and tin.
The Americans did not make their presence felt until the Vietnam era, when thousands of R & R-seeking GIs sought out a particular section of Bangkok known as Patpong looking for go-go girls and sex. More recently tourists of all nationalities have come to Thailand for its superb shopping, mouthwatering food (if this be rat, then bring me seconds), scenery, temples, festivals, royalty and—above all—charming, hospitable people. But to come in search of sports?
"This is a most unusual request," said James, upon being told of our mission. "I must make some phone calls."
James called us the next morning to say that we had missed by a week the elephant festival in Surin, a day's train ride from Bangkok. The event is a two-day rodeo held each November in which trained elephants run races, roll logs and play soccer. And 100 soldiers challenge an elephant to a tug-of-war.
It would have been an interesting spectacle, especially because elephants have played an important part in Thai history. One of the nation's most famous battles, in the town of Nong Sarai in 1593, turned in favor of the Thais when King Naresuan met and killed the Burmese crown prince in a duel on elephant back, ending 30 years of Burmese rule. Mongkut, King Rama IV, after whom the king in The King and I was modeled (because so much of it is imprecise history and derides the king, the movie is officially banned in Thailand), once offered to send Abraham Lincoln a herd of elephants to help stem the Confederate tide during the Civil War. Honest Abe declined.
We had asked James to check into kite fighting, but here, too, we were out of luck. During the windy season, between February and April, the Thais fly brightly colored kites of all shapes and sizes, playing a game with them that amounts to an aerial battle of the sexes. There are teams, referees, national championships and heavy wagering on each fight's outcome. Of course, the Thais would bet on raindrops running down a windowpane; they, like the Chinese, are gambling devotees. The idea is for the large male kite, the chula, to clasp the smaller female kite, the pak pao, in its bamboo talons. As you might imagine, this is no easy task, requiring teams of as many as 20 men to handle the massive (up to 25 feet) chulas. The pak pao, meanwhile, flits and dances gaily beneath its suitor, endeavoring to fly up and loop its line around the chula's head, causing the larger kite to plummet to earth.
James did assure us that we could see as much Thai boxing as we wanted, and we arranged to do so that night. Thai boxing, the most famous of the indigenous Thai sports, is not just kick boxing: Elbows, fists and knees are part of the arsenal, although biting, spitting, hair pulling, and head butting are penalized. Muay Thai, the proper name for the sport, was originally taught to Siamese soldiers for use in hand-to-hand combat—which explains the anything-goes nature of the rules.
There are two permanent boxing stadiums in Bangkok, the Rajadamnern and the Lumpini, which generally hold fight programs on alternate evenings. Tickets range from 70 baht ($2.80) to 1,200 baht ($48) for ringside seats, which are primarily filled with farangs—Thai for "foreigners." The true fight fans are back a few rows, standing, waving fistfuls of baht while shouting out odds that change with each solid blow. "Four to five! Four to five!" (Thud! Whack!) "Eeeee! Three to one!"
The fights we saw were, for the most part, bloodless affairs. In 16 bouts over two nights, only two ended in knockouts. Muay Thai fighters are small—70% of them are either flyweight (112 pounds) or bantamweight (118)—and many are barely in their teens. "We call ourselves the small chilis," James said, referring to Thai boxers. "The smaller, the hotter."
Legally, muay Thai contestants are not supposed to fight in the stadiums until they are 17, but obtaining a fake birth certificate is easy, and trainers routinely match 14- and 15-year-olds against one another. We talked to one 17-year-old who claimed to have a 40-10 record—Thai boxers fight once a month—and says he has been fighting since he was 12, by which time he had fulfilled Thailand's six years of compulsory education. The young man was paid 5,000 baht ($200) for his win that night, 2,000 of which went to his training camp. The boy he beat was paid 4,000 baht. If the two had staged an especially crowd-pleasing slug-kick-elbow-knee fest, the owner of the stadium would have given them more.
The evening was a wonderful spectacle. Before each bout the boxers performed an elaborate warm-up dance called the wai kru, which served the dual purpose of loosening the muscles and getting the muay Thai spirits on one's side. Each fighter, in his own highly specialized way, would pay homage to the elders of muay Thai, men like Nai Khanom Tom, the most famous Thai boxer in history, who in 1774, as a prisoner of war, defeated 10 Burmese boxers in a row to earn his freedom. Often a boxer would encircle the ring with his glove on the top rope to ward off evil spirits. Some wore amulets around their arms; others wore headbands to hex their opponents.
While all this went on, a three-man band played the eeriest music ever heard at a sporting event. There were three instruments: the pi Chawa, or Java pipe, which sounds like a bagpipe; the glawng khaek, a pair of bongolike drums that lie across the lap; and the ching, cymbals the size of teacups.
Each fight was scheduled for five three-minute rounds, with two minutes between rounds. The music played throughout, and the boxers hopped up and down to the rhythm of the glawng khaek waiting for openings in their opponents' defenses. When the action picked up, so did the tempo of the music and the frenzy of the baht-wielding bettors. The boxers fought barefoot and wore gloves. Until the 1930s they fought with their hands bound in hemp, which, if both fighters agreed (and they frequently did), had bits of glass ground in. Bloody business, that. The prevailing strategy nowadays seems to be to kick the opponent repeatedly in the leg muscles or the kidneys, wearing him down as an American boxer does by working the body. Very few kicks were landed to the face, though many were launched. Elbows and knees were thrown primarily from clinches.
The crowd much preferred the kicks to the punches, in part because the Thais hold the feet in very low esteem. For instance, in the chapel of the Emerald Buddha, the most important object of worship in Bangkok, there is a sign that says: PLEASE DO NOT STRETCH YOUR FEET IN THE DIRECTION OF THE EMERALD BUDDHA. In Thailand it is considered impolite to point one's foot at anyone, even accidentally, as might happen when crossing your legs. Thus, to kick another human is akin to a declaration of war.
Between rounds, scores of spectators would often run up to a fighter's corner and shout out advice. What's more, the fighters listened raptly, often nodding at the suggestions. Later we learned that many of these meddlers were high rollers who had wagered on the fight, some of whom were offering a portion of their winnings to the boxer if he would knock out his opponent.
At the conclusion of each bout there was very little ceremony. The referee raised the arm of the winner for about half a second, and everyone skedaddled to make way for the next fight. This custom has its roots in self-preservation; it is not unheard of for unpopular decisions to be greeted with a flight of beer bottles launched from the 70-baht seats. As a result, in certain boxing stadiums in Thailand the crowd is cordoned off from the ring by ceiling-high cyclone fences. In some stadiums beer and soda are sold in plastic Baggies and swilled with a straw.
The next morning we flew to Chiang Mai, the second-largest city in Thailand, with a population of 260,000—a virtual hamlet compared to Bangkok, which is a noisy, crowded metropolis of nearly 5.5 million. Situated in the north of the country at the foot of the Tanen Taunggyi mountains. Chiang Mai has a human scale to it. You can walk around the city with ease, something one would not dream of doing in Bangkok with its size and congestion.
Sanuk, which means "having fun," was a word we had heard often in Bangkok. Now we learned another word, sabai, which means "happiness, being loose, having no set schedule."
"Bangkok has more sanuk than Chiang Mai," explained Narunart Prapanya, a Thai correspondent for TIME, who accompanied us during our stay in Chiang Mai. "But in Chiang Mai, there is more sabai."
Chiang Mai's citizens are more reserved and less used to farangs, who only recently have begun to make their city a regular stop on the Thailand tour. Artisans from neighboring hill tribes sell their wares at Chiang Mai's fabulous night market, and fishermen quietly sit on the banks of the ancient city's moat and bob freshwater shrimp for a fish that resembles a bluegill. Some fishermen, carrying bamboo crossbows made by a local craftsman, hide behind trees and scour the moat for an eellike fish called a serpent head.
Strolling along a side street late that first day we saw a group of young men who had just gotten off work, kicking a woven rattan ball into the air on a school playground. We had heard about this game, called takraw, but had not seen it in Bangkok. Now we began to notice it in every playground and school yard we passed.
Takraw is, essentially, volleyball with the feet. Three players stand on each side of a 5'2" high net. Games are played to 15. The only time the hands are used is during the serve, when one player is allowed to pitch the ball back to a teammate, who kicks it over the net to start the point. Often these pitches are aimed up by the ear, an angle from which the server can, by properly timing his leap, kick the ball over the net in a line.
The agility of the takraw players we saw was amazing. Every player could spike the ball with his feet, sometimes doing a full flip afterward to land upright. The best players were so skilled that they could fake a spike with a foot, and then bunt the ball over with their heads.
There are other versions of the game. In basket takraw, three baskets, or nets, are hung some 20 feet off the ground, and players try to kick, head, knee or elbow the ball through. In the simplest form of takraw, a group of players simply tried to keep the ball aloft, showing off trick shots, and not keeping score. Thais are individualists, with a loose, cheerful approach to team sports. Thai, in the Thai language, means "free," and that is very much the spirit that prevails.
The Thais also favor diversity, not specialization, in their sports programs. At Chiang Mai's Hoa Phra Secondary School, we were told that seventh-graders learn table tennis and gymnastics. In eighth grade, students are taught takraw, soccer and kabri—an ancient sword-fighting technique. The swords for these 13-year-old boys and girls are made of bamboo. In the ninth grade the children learn basketball, volleyball and track and field. The sessions we attended were organized but not too disciplined. Giggling was a perfectly acceptable way to react to a missed layup or a bamboo sword to the belly.
During recess we noticed one final activity of interest: the kids were playing tag with their feet. One lad stood in the middle of a circle of his classmates, while the others jumped in and out teasingly. When the boy in the middle managed to swipe one of the others with a kick, the two exchanged places and the game began anew. For a society that considers the foot an extremity of exceedingly low esteem, the Thais certainly employ it a lot for amusement.
From Chiang Mai we flew down to the island of Phuket in the Andaman Sea. Phuket (pronounced Poo-KET) is a newly developed resort island off Thailand's southwest coast. Only a few years ago this was considered an undiscovered paradise, but paradise has been found and taken over by sun-hungry Europeans, particularly West Germans, who have changed the ambience just a little. For sports there are golf and tennis and various water activities. In Phuket the only Thais one sees are in bow ties carrying mai-tais.
Old pal James found us a bullfight in the mainland town of Chiang Di, however, a three-hour drive from Phuket to the eastern side of the peninsula. Bullfighting in Thailand, he told us, was not at all like bullfighting in Spain. The bulls fought each other; no one died; much money was bet. The action was spellbinding. James assured us we would be the only farangs in attendance.
We rose at dawn and, taking leave of our beachfront hotel, crossed the bridge to the mainland. In the distance we could see the lights of the squid boats plying the Andaman Sea. On the coastal highway we passed sheer and bizarre limestone formations jutting up from the sea. These, too, had been featured in The Man with the Golden Gun, and one formation, called James Bond Island, is now one of Thailand's most popular tourist attractions. Heading inland, we drove through miles of rubber plantations, watching workers as they gathered the buckets of sap. The sap was poured into bath-mat-sized sheets of raw latex that were then hung from rails by the roadway to cure in the sun like great slabs of mozzarella cheese.
At the bullfight we were greeted by a striking billboard depicting a white bull and a black bull squaring off before a sack of 200,000 baht ($8,000). This was to be the featured event. A full day's admission (15 fights) costs a hefty 650 baht ($26), so the rambutan trees overlooking the back fence of the bullring sagged with spectators sitting shoulder to shoulder. Midway through a particularly exciting contest, 15 of them plummeted ingloriously to the ground when one of the branches snapped.
The fighting bulls, a Brahman strain, were matched by size. Before each fight the referee thoroughly washed both bulls, particularly the horns, to discourage the sort of hanky-panky that seems inevitable anytime men gamble on animals. Some trainers, we were told, used the trick of rubbing essence of tiger on the shoulders of their bull, so that the opposing bull would smell the tiger, become afraid and run away.
After the bulls were washed, their faces and shoulders were smeared with bananas, the natural oil in the fruit protecting the bull's skin against chafing. And a powerful lot of chafing was to follow, for the bulls fought not by making long, fearsome charges at each other, like rams, but by butting their heads together and pushing like football linemen. The struggle was primordial. As the animals braced and heaved in the center of the dusty ring, their muscles gathered like waves. And each step forward, each step back, changed the odds in the fight. A fight ended when one bull, sensing his opponent was stronger, backed off and ran away.
The longest fight we saw lasted 45 minutes. The shortest ended in a matter of seconds. Afterward, the handlers pounded the bulls' muscles to relax them, and doctored their scrapes and gouges by spitting soda water into the open wounds. Judging by the bulls' reactions, this was their least favorite part of the day. The handlers, who literally had to take the bulls by the horns and press their lips into the raw, sore flesh of the still-sweating behemoths, seemed none too fond of it, either.
As James had promised, we had been the only foreigners there, and the experience was exhilarating. People had moved to offer us their seats and shared their chili-covered grapefruit with us. They had explained, through interpretation and sign language, the betting procedures, the ebb and flow of the fights and which bull was doing better and why. Fathers were there with their sons, as fathers and sons in the U.S. spend Sundays together watching football.
Two days later we left touristy Phuket, and returned to Bangkok. We were staying at the Regent Bangkok, a fabulous hotel a few blocks from Lumpini Park, and early one morning I got up for a jog. The park, to my surprise, was packed with thousands of people at 6 a.m. Joggers crowded the track. An aerobics class was being held in the shadow of the statue of King Rama VI. A group of elderly people practiced the balletic martial art of t'ai chi ch'uan, moving so deliberately that they looked like flowers opening with the dawn. Another large group of older people was spread out on a knoll in semi-disarray, a sort of human Stonehenge, hands on hips, bending at the waist, wailing like banshees. Sweaty joggers, into a more contemporary form of exercise, would trot past. The old folks on the knoll would let out a howl and 50 tired runners would burst out laughing.
There were three badminton games in progress, a man was swinging a sword, a golfer was practicing chip shots, some boys were playing soccer. and a group of Thai boxers were shadow-boxing. Because of Bangkok's oppressive heat, of course, dawn is the ideal time to exercise.
James wanted us to see one final attraction, a Siamese fish fight, but it seemed they were only held on the weekends. We would be gone by then. So we decided to hold our own. When James was a boy he had found his fighting fish by going down to the rice paddies and scooping them up in his hands. The females, which he could identify by a white mark on the fin, he returned to the water. Only the males will fight. Then he and his friends would get together and bet on the outcome. Kids in Thailand also stage cricket fights and beetle fights, and in rural areas we had seen them playing pitch-penny with washers, and wagering rubber bands, which they wore on their arms by the dozens like prized jewelry.
We did not have the time or inclination to seek out a rice paddy, so we took a taxi to the local pet store, which sold fighting fish for 25 baht ($1) each. They were easy to spot. Each required its own separate plastic Baggie, filled with a little water. The Baggies floated on top of the goldfish aquarium by the score. Had the fighting fish been turned loose, the owner told us, they would have torn each other to ribbons. They seemed harmless enough to look at, about the size of a thumb and murky brown or gray in color. We purchased nine of them, plus a Baggie of mosquito larvae to sustain their strength.
The fish customarily fight in round jars, so there is no hiding in corners. We bought two of them, plus four containers of unpurified water. While setting everything up back at the hotel, James told us to be careful not to put the fish within sight of one another, or they would mash their faces against the glass in an effort to attack. The same was true if you put one in front of a mirror. He would butt himself into submission. It was difficult to believe that this innocuous-looking little creature before me was so full of anger and aggression.
And then the battle. For the next four hours we fought these game little roughnecks. When they first faced each other in the jar, the fish literally lit up. Their dull colors immediately flushed to iridescent crimson, emerald or aquamarine. Their fins flared out as they circled. Then, finally, they attacked.
It was not as vicious as we had been led to believe. No fish was torn to ribbons. Shredded a little, perhaps, at least around the fins, which was the primary focus of attack. Sometimes one would latch onto another's gill, which seemed to be an effective hold. And often the two would become clamped in a liplock, turn upside down and fight that way for a while. When one had had enough—the fights seldom lasted more than 10 minutes—it would suddenly back off, lose all color, turning almost completely white, and swim away. Then, as had happened with the bulls, the victor would follow the vanquished around the jar without attacking. Bets were paid. The fight was history.
Two fish remained undefeated. One was a favorite of James's, a pig with fins, a blue monster the size of a big toe. The other was mine, Rama I, a green tiger with a lifetime 4-0 record. I wouldn't put him in against James's pig. One thing I had learned from watching the bulls and fish was that the big guy eventually won. He would wear down the smaller, quicker opponent with the great big heart. Every time.
James took his monster home with him. I had a feeling that it would make the rounds that weekend at the local fish-fighting hangout. We flushed the losers down the toilet with enough mosquito larvae to sustain them, if they were lucky, for months. As for Rama I, I put him in a jar, took a taxi to the klong and dropped him in beside a water hyacinth. It was only fair. Like the great Thai boxer, Nai Khanom Tom, the man who had defeated 10 Burmese, that fish had earned its freedom. Thailand, after all, means "land of the free."