This is about the story that helps explain why Thais believe women should not enter (or even touch) the famed rings of Bangkok. There are actually two stories, one of which I had never heard and which may be an older version. Both stories are about how a female presence weakened the protective magic that surrounds the ring, and that is worn by male fighters, resulting in a night of bloody TKOs. It is part of the lore of modern Muay Thai, as traditional Thai beliefs have come in contact with contemporary views of womanhood.
In the west the story that many of us have heard is that a female reporter entered the Rajadamnern ring, while preparing for a televised broadcast. What follows is the most documented, and earliest version of this much repeated story I could find.
From Peter Vail’s 1998 dissertation Violence and Control: Social and Cultural Dimensions of Muay Thai Boxing (Ithaca, Cornell University):
When muai thai was first being aired on television, a female reporter got into the ring at Ratchadomnoen stadium to broadcast a story. That night, apparently, nearly every bout ended in a bloody technical knockout. People after the fights blamed it on the woman, saying that she had weakened the men and destroyed the efficacy of the pha praciat (a magical device worn on the upper arm) and mongkol headpiece. Since then the major stadiums [Rajadamnern, Lumpinee] do not allow women to enter the ring.
It should be noted, they not only cannot enter the ring, at Lumpinee they are now forbidden to even touch the ring. Unfortunately the citation Dr. Vail gives: Tawan Chuaprasit, 1972 “Sankhadi omlüat tae omyim muai thai”. Fa Muang Thai 4(174). July 20, does not appear to be accurate. When I looked at the cited source I could not find the story. It is probably just a typographical error, but it’s a little disappointing because I really hoped to track down the printed origin of this story, a story which is purported to have appeared in this weekly magazine column on Muay Thai. I’m guessing that Dr.Vail’s dissertation may very well be the origin for this tale as it spread through the western, English speaking internet world. What is really interesting is that none of the Thais in Muay Thai I’ve spoken to have ever heard of this offending reporter story, though many do recall one that is similar. This is not to say that the reporter event didn’t happen, but only that a very similar story is told by Thais, a version which may indeed be older: The story of a nurse, perhaps part of an oral lore that prepared the interpretation of any events that may have happened in 1972. In any case, anecdotally it appears that it is not the story of a reporter that lingers in Thai minds, but that of a nurse.
In my interview with Suwanna Srisongkram, the editor-in-chief of Muay Champ magazine for over 20 years, she relates the story of the nurse, one she says is quite well-known by everyone. Video of her telling the story to me is below. It is part of a longer interview conducted at the 13 Coins restaurant in Bangkok, with the help of Timo Ruge of Muay Ties, and his wife Supawadee Ruge, who acted as translator for me. Supawadee is Suwanna’s daughter, and herself is involved in the Muay Thai promotional world. In the interview there is much Thai spoken, so be patient – the English translation follows. If you have a love f0r the Muay Thai of Thailand you’ll enjoy this. Suwanna is a major figure in Muay Thai journalism, and has a real joy and light about her. And she’s very charismatic. You can read more about her life here in this Fightland article.
Synopsis of the Nurse Story –
The general tale is this:
A nurse who has never worked at a Muay Thai show before is at Rajadamnern and the show starts, but the doctor to whom she acts as assistant isn’t there yet. He’s running late or something. The first fight has a nasty cut TKO and, without thinking, this nurse rushes into the ring to help the fighter. After transgressing the space in this way, the spirits of the ring are angered and every fight ends in a nasty, bloody TKO.
I ask Suwanna why, if it was already known that women can’t go into the ring – if it’s a culturally acknowledged taboo – did this nurse go in the ring? The answer is that she didn’t think, she just wanted to help the fighter. But, it is added, she’d never been working at a Muay Thai fight either, so she didn’t know the way people more familiar with the atmosphere might know. I try to suss out how this can be the origin of the “women can’t go in the ring” prohibition if it’s also something people already knew not to do; but it seems that this is the body of evidence, not the origin of the rule. It’s the lore proof and perhaps it led to the writing of the rule on a sign at Lumpinee. Note though, both stories are said to have occurred at Rajadamnern, though the prohibition is most strongly expressed at Lumpinee:
For those who are unaware, the Lumpinee and Rajadamnern rules against females entering (or even touching) the ring are related to the much more widespread rule that women must enter most other rings in Thailand, even many practice rings in gyms, by going under the bottom rope. It is the same logic of keeping feminine negating powers, linked to the idea of polluting menstruation, away from the protections of a ring. In other rings, including all that I have fought in, women enter below the bottom rope, keeping their heads and other parts low. In Lumpinee and Rajadamnern their mere presence can be taken to be disruptive, in part thought to be the case because of these stories (the nurse, the reporter).
What was really interesting to me was that Suwanna added a bit to the story after thinking about it a little. She wanted to add that this nurse had either an actual western boyfriend, or a western-educated boyfriend, who told her that the bad luck in the ring that night couldn’t possibly be because of her. He was an unbeliever. But the nurse, despite her boyfriend, went and “said sorry” to the spirits anyway, leaving offerings the next day making amends for her transgression. This addition is interesting because it simultaneously brings up this woman’s own possible western influence, which might by association have made her seem more susceptible to violating this supposedly commonly understood Thai custom (a custom which not every person knows even now), and at the same time paints her as a “good Thai woman” who doubles down on her Thainess and makes amends rather than listening to her western/ized boyfriend. She acknowledged the fault and took pains to placate the spirits at the ring. It is not said whether the ring had to be re-blessed to renew the protections which she accidentally nullified – instead, her contrition seems to have been the powerful result. The nurse stands in for traditional Thainess, ironically a woman, balanced between the past and westernization, who despite being trained in medicine as a nurse adheres to the continuity of the old ways.
Another interesting aspect here is Supawadee’s translation of the blessing of the ring to begin with. She struggles to find the words and titles for the holy men who come to conduct the ceremony, but she says that there are monks (a standard practice now), as well as men in white. These are likely men from a Brahmanic tradition. There’s a long history of Thailand’s royalty bringing in magi from the Brahmanic tradition to the court, something like high priests knowledgeable in the occult. I don’t know enough about it to make an academic claim here, but I strongly suspect this is what Supawadee is referencing. The ring has been blessed by Brahman sages. Why this is interesting is that the powerful anti-magic effect of women due to menstruation is posited to be a Brahmanic influence, as it’s not to be found in the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, which is the religion of the vast majority in Thailand. The sensitivity to female menstruation falls in line with the animistic/Brahmin magical beliefs that run parallel and are often intertwined with Thai Buddhist practices.
In any case, the event which grounds the official stand that women should not enter the rings of the biggest stadia in Thailand is really a piece of lore, something that “everyone” knows, but to which details may be added or forgotten. It could be that the 1972 reporter story is an elaboration of an earlier story told about the nurse, or even perhaps that the reporter story morphed into the story of the “good” nurse – in both cases it’s a professional woman, a woman of modernity, affecting occult protections. I asked Suwanna when this all happened, and she says that was before her time, which is quite a while ago. She’s been broadcasting or writing on Muay Thai since the 1960s. The event of the nurse is thought to have happened in a kind of pre-time. Whether the lore is about a western-like Thai TV reporter in the beginning of televised broadcasts, or a kind-hearted nurse who respects the old beliefs despite the influence of her western boyfriend, we see the feminine balanced here, between the past and the modern.
In terms of stadia which hold that no women should enter the ring, military-owned Kawila Stadium in Chiang Mai, which took pride in being called “The Lumpinee of the North” burned down some years ago. When it was rebuilt this last year there was some question as to whether it would maintain the prohibition against female fighters. And for a while it seemed like they would, as only males fought on the cards for months. But, now there are promotions there which include female fights in its ring, a trend that with newly acquired investors looks like it may expand. Suranaree Stadium, also military owned and the main stadium of Khorat city in the heartland of Muay Thai in the North East (Isaan) has allowed female fights for sometime – in fact I’ve fought there twice. Rangsit Stadium outside of Bangkok, the first permanent stadium to allow female fighting, still keeps two rings: one for men, one for women. Suwanna’s daughter Supawadee, who translated for me in this interview, and who is active in Muay Thai promotions, herself has been in the men’s ring there (photo below). While there was a time when NO permanent ring would allow women, including the stadia of the more socially conservative North and North East, the only remaining stadia that still bar female fighters are Omnoi, Channel 7, Rajadamnern and Lumpinee as far as I know.
A special thanks to Timo Ruge who does great work bringing the living world of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern right to your computer through his YouTube channel Muay Ties, and to his wife Supawadee, and his mother-in-law and Supawadee’s mother Suwanna, one of the great figures in Muay Thai journalism and history. There is more to my interview which I hope and plan to share.
If you enjoyed or were informed by this article you may like my report on Rangsit History:
or my earlier thoughts:
You may also find interest in this:
Any western male can fight at Lumpinee in the filler shows now, even men having their first fight.