Buddhas and Boxing: A Street Fighter Tour of Bangkok

Some of the elements in Street Fighter's depiction of Bangkok are real-- and you could see them for yourself, if you ever visit.

Thailand: a country of temples and hand wraps, reclining Buddhas and high kicks. Home to series favorites Sagat and Adon -- and the birthplace of Muai Thai kickboxing -- Thailand’s character remains etched into the collective imagination of Street Fighter fans worldwide.

As is fairly common in games, Street Fighter’s vision of Thailand lies between caricature and stereotype. Yet hit the streets in Bangkok and you’ll discover monuments that exceed even these in-game exaggerations, and a martial arts culture that would make Sagat proud.

If you know where to look in Bangkok, you can find the sights, sounds, garments, and even the punches of Street Fighter -- all within a single day. From lounging Buddhas to Muay Thai shops, you can see it all in a single day. By night, you can even catch some fighting.

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho

The Buddha of Wat Pho. Image by Phillip Maiwald The Buddha of Wat Pho. Image by Phillip Maiwald

When you think of Thailand in Street Fighter, it’s impossible not to picture a great stone Buddha, propped up on one elbow and smiling at the action below. The background first appeared as Sagat’s stage in Super Street Fighter II, and made reappearances in all three installments of the Street Fighter Alpha series, with the statue ballooning in each installment.

Though it’s not well known in the west, these languid Buddhas are part of a long Asian iconographic tradition known as the “reclining Buddha.” Certain reclining Buddha statues depict the teacher’s death, but in Thailand, a Buddha with an arm under his head is reenacting a different story. In it, a giant came for a meeting with Buddha, but doubted his greatness and refused to bow upon meeting him. Buddha agreed to meet the giant anyway, but when the huge man came to the teacher, he was shocked -- he found that Buddha had grown so large that, even though the philosopher was lying on the ground, his huge, serene eyes looked down at him. Sufficiently humbled, the giant bowed and Buddha showed him the vastness of the universe -- proving the giant was not very large in the grand scheme.

Reclining Buddha statues exist from Tajikistan to Japan, but the image proved particularly popular in Southeast Asia. And because Bangkok is a city that loves excess, it gives you not one, but two options to see a giant reclining Buddha.

Your first option is to visit Wat Lokayasutharam in Ayutthaya, which served as the capital of Siam until the Burmese razed it in 1767. This Buddha most directly inspired the original Super Street Fighter II background, and it’s gorgeous. You can contemplate the stone face in the open air, and if you’re lucky, the monks will have draped an orange robe over its 42-meter (138 foot) length, which makes for a striking photo. It’s worth the 70-minute car ride if you want to see the network of temple ruins around the old capital, but if you’re short on time and like your Buddha sightings on the more convenient side, it’s best to stick with Wat Pho.

Located in Bangkok, just south of the Grand Palace, Wat Pho is a massive 80,000 square meter temple complex filled with halls, temples, schools and royal burial chedis (a kind of stupa, or spire monument). A temple existed at the site since the 1500s, but the current Wat Pho is mostly a late 18th century reconstruction. The temple itself looks a great deal like a Street Fighter background, with golden spires, sweeping staircases and guardian figures similar to the ones in Sagat’s original Street Fighter stage.

But star attraction remains the 60-meter (150 foot) reclining Buddha, shining with gold gilding and set with colored glass. Built in 1832, it’s still one of the largest in the world.

Because the Wat Pho Buddha sits inside a pillared temple, it’s impossible to see it end-to-end unless you stand at the head and look along its length. So rather than whipping out your iPhone’s panoramic setting, walk shoeless around the Buddha -- you must remove your shoes -- and soak up its smooth, golden contours. The crowning glory here is not Buddha’s head, but the bottom of his feet, where mother of pearl inlays depict the 108 auspicious signs that heralded the great teacher’s birth. Dan’s stage in Street Fighter Alpha, incidentally, showed these traditional carvings. While you stroll, you’ll hear a serene chiming as pilgrims walk the length of the statue, dropping a single coin into each of the 108 bronze bowls that ring the temple’s interior.

This Buddha is actually larger than those depicted in the early Street Fighter games, but more opulent in every way. Indeed, it’s probably that Capcom artists combined the two -- the outdoor setting of the Ayutthaya statue, and golden adornment of Wat Pho -- into a single composite. Both invoke a breathtaking majesty.

The Real Sagat

The real Sagat Petchyindee The real Sagat Petchyindee

Capcom has never confirmed it, but it’s likely Sagat was either inspired by -- or named after -- Muay Thai legend Sagat Petchyindee. If not, it’s a hell of a coincidence.

Physically the two have little in common -- Petchyindee was a small, stocky fighter who lacked both an eye patch and chest scar -- but their fighting styles did share a certain philosophy. Petchyindee was unusual in that he was a “pure” boxer, combining powerful, western-style boxing punches with the whirlwind of holds, kicks, elbow, and knee strikes we traditionally associate with Muay Thai. Legend has it a Capcom employee saw Petchyindee fight in Japan and suggested the name.

Despite his fame, you won’t find much devoted to Sagat Petchyindee in Bangkok apart from “Petchyindee Kingdom,” a Muay Thai training gym that carries on the fighter’s name. A visit isn’t necessary, but if you want to stick your head in and see some champions practicing (several train at the gym) it’s unlikely anyone would stop you. Contact them ahead and you might be able to snag a spot in a class.

If you’re really into Muay Thai, foreigners can sign up for month-long Muay Thai courses at the gym. Prices are on the steep side at around $1,000 a month, but that includes housing, a weight room, sauna, and breakfast. I can’t speak for the instructional quality, but the pedigree’s hard to top -- and you can always just use it as your hotel.

Learn to Dress Like Adon

Now that you’ve got Sagat’s moves, it’s time to pair them with Adon’s style.

While Sagat clearly goes his own way sartorially, Adon has more traditional Muay Thai gear. Both wear boxing trunks, and hand wraps, but only Adon wears the traditional braided mongkol headband and pra jiad cords on his biceps. Unpacking the meaning in these symbols isn’t simple, but broadly these items act as good luck charms, a statement about the fighter’s ability, and also carry blessings from Buddhist priests.

Whether you’re looking for souvenirs, cosplay supplies, or real, no-BS martial arts gear, there are several stores in Bangkok that will be only too happy to outfit you.

For sheer density of boxing supply stores, it’s hard to beat the collection of shops around Lumpinee Stadium. However, more reasonably-prices shops are a few blocks off the beaten track, such as Boon Sport and Action Zone. However, it’s ok to pay more if you’re short on time or aren’t comfortable wandering a foreign city -- after all, given the cost of goods in Thailand, price-gouging doesn’t sting much for foreigners.

Any of these shops will have hand wraps, gloves, trunks, pads, mongkol and pra jiad cords. They won’t be dirt cheap, but most of what you want will be in the $10-30 range. A few shops even offer custom-made boxing trunks, though it may take a day or two before they’re ready. The good news is that these boxing shops are a favorite with both locals and tourists, so they also have small items like key chains and shirts for those unwilling to lay out Big Baht for gear. And of course, since this is Thailand, big purchases may earn you an overall discount or bonus item.

A fight at Lumpinee Staduim. Image by Peerapong Prasutr A fight at Lumpinee Staduim. Image by Peerapong Prasutr

See a Real Street Fight at Lumpinee Stadium

Even if you have no interest in Street Fighter or martial arts, a visit to Bangkok is incomplete without attending Muay Thai match. More than sports arenas, Bangkok’s two national stadiums -- Lumpinee and Rajadamnern -- are centers for celebrating traditional Thai boxing. And traditional is the operative term here, because a real Thai boxing match looks like nothing you’ve ever seen. In Thailand, a night at the arena involves music, cultural dance, and a window into Thai etiquette.

Tickets are pricy and hard to buy on your own, but the experience is well worth the expense. Ask your hotel desk (make sure it’s the desk, not a hotel doorman) to book it for you, and expect to pay around $60-75 to sit in a folding chair at ringside. You may hear about cheaper tickets, but those are for Thais, not farang (foreigners). That’s the downside. The upside? You’ll have the best seats in the house, close enough to see punches throw sweat and hear boards rattle when a boxer gets thrown. The VIP section also has designated waitresses that’ll deliver Cup of Noodles and Chang beer for $1 a pop. It’s possible (though highly inadvisable) to get drunk before the first fighters enter the arena.

If you’ve seen a boxing match before -- or hell, if you’ve played Street Fighter -- the ritual progression of a Muay Thai match will be familiar. The crowd gets antsy. An announcer heralds the fighters one by one as they approach the ring. Fighters make declarations to each other and the crowd.

But there the similarities end. Western boxers enter the stadium alone, but Thais come with an entourage. Though only one man fights at a time, Muay Thai is a team sport. Fighters compete not only to honor themselves, but their gym or training academy. It’s an entirely upside-down concept to the west, where one-man sports are all about individual recognition.

And instead of exchanging words before a match, the boxers dance. Beside the ring sits an observation box packed with traditional musicians, playing percussion instruments and a local type of oboe. They pipe up a tune that weaves back and forth like a serpent, and the fighter’s body moves in response. He places his right hand on the rope and tours the four corners of the ring, praying to seal the space off as sacred. Then, he dances. This is a wai kru ram muay, a choreographed kata that honors the fighters’ teacher and school while challenging their opponent. Each school has their own wai kru, and it is sacrosanct. The fighter raises his gloves in the air and steps to the side, rolling his hips. He kisses his glove and touches the mat. Straightening, he spools his gloves one over the other, higher and higher until he punches the sky. He pedals and backpedals around the ring, drawing an invisible bow and shooting arrows into his opponent’s corner. These graceful, reverent movements are free from aggression. The steps bear a striking similarity to Hawaiian hula, which was incidentally also used for martial arts training.

Thais consider pre-fight dances their own art form -- there are even contests solely for wai kru dances. As the performance ends, the fighter returns to his corner where his trainer removes the mongkol from his head. Blessed by Buddhist priests, the headband will lose its potency if the fighter handles it himself or lets it touch the ground.

Pre-match dances complete, the fighters take position -- and when they throw the first punch, the musicians pipe up again. At first, the tune is slow and tentative. The boxers circle each other, testing. A high jab here, a low spin-kick there. Then someone commits to a lunge. Gloves flash across each other. Bony shins -- calcified by boxers rolling beer bottles along their shins -- collide with a smack. The pipes grow louder and faster. Fighters knit into each other in a grapple, staggering as they knee each other’s ribs. Shouts from the bleachers crash over you, and you can feel as much as see the money changing hands in up in the back rows.

The referee separates the fighters but the music rages on, screaming like typhoon winds. A kick. A grab. For a moment the boxers stand frozen, one holding the other tight in an interrupted high kick, like a pair of scissors spread too wide. The grappler throws his opponent to the mat and the stands erupt, drowning out even the musicians.

Leaping up, the thrown fighter presses the attack, but the bell rings and they separate. The music dies down, its task accomplished. Far more than a mood-setter, the musicians’ tempo tells the fighters how much time remains in the round. It’s a live, adaptive soundtrack, swelling when victory seems at hand or the fight clock’s running low. In other words, it’s the same trick Street Fighter games have pulled since the 1990s.

And like that game, it’s more often friends who are fighting than rivals. After the judge calls a match, the fighters always embrace each other. Muay Thai is a tight community -- these men know each other and train together. They’re all smiles afterward, even when bruised. One of the key virtues in Thai culture is jai yen, or having a “cool heart.” Patience, forgiveness, and acceptance are signs of maturity, and a way to preserve personal relationships. In every culture, no one likes a rage quitter. Muay Thai, like Street Fighter matches, are often conducted amongst friends.

When the friends depart, two more men enter the ring and prepare to battle. The cycle starts anew.

And as you see the friendly rivals face off amid camera flashes, cheering fans, and stooping waitresses, it’s easy to imagine yourself as part of a pixelated background crowd, egging the fighters on. It’s the closest to Street Fighter that most of us will get.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp

Buddha image by Phillip Maiwald. Lumpinee Stadium fight images by Peerapong Prasutr.