The official letters went out on Friday, September 29. It was 4 p.m. on the last working day of the month. The Thai government was revoking all gambling permits for the month of October in preparation for the Royal Cremation. It was approaching the one year anniversary of the death of H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch. As part of Thai tradition, the country entered a state of mourning for a period of one year. Once that had been completed, it was time to bid a final farewell: a $90 million funeral spanning over five days that took a year to plan.
The Muay Thai community knew it was approaching, but were still surprised by the swiftness of the gambling ban. They had thought that gambling, along with entertainment, would be permitted until October 8. Unfortunately, they thought wrong. Fights that had been booked for that week were subsequently cancelled last minute and then haphazardly re-booked for November. It wasn't so much that fighting was banned, more specifically it was gambling. But in Thailand, there is no Muay Thai without gambling.
Still, some promotions pushed on—not wanting fighters who had trained hard to miss out. Channel 7 Stadium went ahead with their fights scheduled for October 1 for the first time ever without gambling. There was a weird vibe in the stadium as many came prepared to place bets, not knowing of the official document that had been released just 36 hours prior. Thai people however, are known for not complaining, and when it comes to the Royal Family, complaining is forbidden anyway. Thailand has some of the strictest lèse majesté laws in the world.
Despite incomes lost and deposits forgone, the Muay Thai community took the ban in stride. Fast forward a week, and the country became even quieter as all entertainment was cancelled. No parties, temple festivals, or concerts. Even certain TV dramas were postponed in preparation for the lavish funeral. All over the country, temples, local businesses, government offices and affluent households spent the month planting yellow marigolds in front of their entrances. The idea was to blanket the entire country in their golden glow in time for the Royal Cremation.
Tourist areas managed to get around the bans. Max Muay Thai went forward with it's non-televised daily show, set up mainly for Chinese tour companies. The night bazaar and stadiums in Chiang Mai also managed to keep their doors open for the mass influx of travelers but they were greatly toned down and fights happened far less frequently. On the fight friendly island of Phuket, a few stadiums closed and a few stayed open. All however, complied with the strict no gambling policy. For the Thais competing however, a fight without gambling isn't even considered a real fight. While the athletes are professionals and know how to entertain a crowd, there is no incentive for them to win. With no money riding on the fights, losses are not taken seriously here.
While the overall national economy seemed to flourish with Thais flocking to get the latest mourning fashions (strict dress codes were in place at the Grand Palace and Thais across the nation were encouraged—and sometimes forced—to wear black for an entire year) and heading to Bangkok to pay their final respects, those in the Muay Thai community suffered in silence.
Referees, stadium owners, fighters, and even the traveling vendors had to shut down their businesses with no other means to support themselves. Even tourist friendly gyms like Sitmonchai felt the burn, "We had a few people cancel because of the ban," said foreign liaison of the gym, Abigail McCullough. "They were really looking for the full Muay Thai experience of going to the stadiums like Lumpini and Rajadamnern. Just like last year, the atmosphere changed at the gym, the fighters kept training but weren't as motivated."
No act of mourning was too over the top for the beloved King. In addition to the actual ceremony in Bangkok, micro ceremonies were held all over the country, built from scratch in even the smallest and most underdeveloped areas. Many from the Muay Thai community even ordained as novice monks to honor their late King, including superstar and active fighter Buakaw Banchamek. Buakaw ordained for a total of nine days during the Royal Cremation.
And now the late King's ashes have been interred at various temples reserved for royalty across the country's capital; dividing up the remains is a common Thai practice. On his daily television address, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced the official end of the mourning period. Technicolor returned to Thailand and Thai were once again free to don colored clothing in their normal routines. TV, entertainment, and fighting have returned full force but the first week back will be slightly chaotic to say the least. The end of the ban also coincides with the Thai festival of Loi Krathong, which will only adds to chaos.
For the Muay Thai community, the explosion of temple fights and promotions is more than welcome. After a month without activity, fighters, promoters, gamblers, etc. are looking to start earning again. With lots of fights booked by fighters to both capitalize on the frequency of fights and to appease promoters they don't wish to upset, Muay Thai is back in full swing.