A Travelogue of Muay Thai, and Its Collateral Hazards
January 8, 2012 1:02 AM   Subscribe

"By the time I started fighting my personality was pretty well formed already, and what attracted me was its contrast to who I was and the life I was leading. Since then I’ve become a competent boxer and I hope to be good at Thai boxing as well, but I’m not a fighter and I never wholly will be." Warning: This story has a very sad ending.

The article's introduction:
"In January of 2010, Neil Chamberlain left Brooklyn for a three-month tour of Muay Thai boxing camps in Thailand. While abroad he kept an online chronicle of his experiences that was followed voraciously by his family and friends. Neil returned from Thailand in early April; less than two weeks later he was dead at age twenty-eight, killed by a hit-and-run driver. In light of the brute intensities he’d so recently and lovingly chronicled, the cruel and sudden randomness of his passing was impossible to comprehend. Like many others close to him I’ve re-read this often since his accident, missing my friend, lusting after his sentences, wishing desperately that I could read even one more. It’s a great cliché to describe prose as “alive” and I’d be perfectly content if this is the last time I ever do so, but it’s a privilege to say it now, and to share Neil’s words and travels here."

"Fighting + Otherwise"
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
posted by chaff (19 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Half way through the second part - this is a very good read. Thanks for posting.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 1:41 AM on January 8, 2012

Perhaps I shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but, to be honest, he comes across as a bit of a cock. He didn't even bother learning enough about Thailand that the average non-MA tourists he's deriding probably picked up from a Lonely Planet guide. He's been practising Muay Tjai but goes over there flat-out fucking ignorant of the training and fighting culture, not to mention completely ignorant of its place in Thai culture. He has a sneering contempt for the tourists who are overweight and not interested in the "right" things, but he moves from an actual school, which he frankly treats with contempt, to a McDojo and finds it a relief that he doesn't have to train properly (but finds stuff to complain about).

I feel sorry for his family, but sneering contempt for basically everyone and his wilful pig-ignorance of his own martial art and the culture and country it came from were just unbearable.
posted by rodgerd at 1:49 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I roll my eyes at the backpackers in Kho Sahn but I’m tourist here myself, obviously. When I crumple from a kick to the ribs, or decline to spar a loutish Brit with 30 pounds on me, or decline an order to kick harder when my partner’s not blocking quick enough, it’s as a tourist, who’s come to study Muay Thai. And I think these are reasonable things for a tourist to do.

But now I’m starting to understand how alien that stance must seem to a Thai fighter, and why the trainers at the gym seem so bemused and often hostile towards me. To them, Muay Thai isn’t one interest among many, but an identity; and so in their eyes my actions are perverse, a repudiation of the self.

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:55 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm still only part way through, but I was really expecting something different from your response rodgerd.
He doesn't come across as smug when I read it, and I am enjoying reading it, but I'll finishing reading before I say anything more, in case he makes a dick of himself in the next paragraph.
posted by compound eye at 3:01 AM on January 8, 2012

I really liked this. I've been and done what he is doing, traveling in Thailand, trying to find a gym that is serious enough to be worth the effort, but also one which you are tough enough to endure.

I don't see any belligerence in his ignorance, he has thrown himself into a world he knows doesn't really understand, but he is trying to push himself out of his comfort zone.
As a foreigner coming to Thailand, you hear about gyms off in the countryside that are somehow more genuine, but if you stagger around trying to figure your way around what you encounter is the world he stumbled into. It is sleazy and his descriptions are accurate to my experience.
Some of his descriptions are not flattering, but I think he has no illusions about himself:

Except there’s an essential softness to me that’s evident soon enough, and that I don’t think I could ever be totally rid of
posted by compound eye at 4:08 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nice series. Makes me miss training in Thailand. I thought he captured the experience pretty accurately. It's a shame he didn't get to a really good gym until his last when he too beat up to enjoy it.

Rogerd, I'm not sure which parts you found "pig ignorant"? Muay Thai is a great sport, but it's also full of dodgy people, organised crime, drugs, rigged matches, kids having the snot beaten out of them... I thought he was pretty honest about the good and bad. He certainly has more insight into his own weaknesses than the average farang coming back home from a stint in Thailand, covered in fake sak yant, beating his chest about his victory over an out of shape tuk tuk driver in Samui, romantacising the whole thing as a "beautiful art" as if there aren't some pretty nasty parts to it.

Also bear in mind that the guy is from the US and you are from (according to your profile) NZ. As an Australian living in the States, I think I can fairly say that people's level of knowledge about MT and Thailand here is a million miles away from in our part of the world. At my gym at home, people were constantly coming and going between Thailand -- everyone trained there at some point, everyone knew the best gyms, the best fighters, we were able to get the new stadium fights on DVD every week, and most of us spoke some Thai. It's different in the States, where Thailand is a really freaking long way away, many people don't even know the rules and it's rare to even see a FTR match in most states.

Full credit to the guy for flying all that way, especially when he didn't have any intention of fighting, and training pretty solidly for a month. I know plenty of less "ignorant" fighters who have spent more time chasing women and getting drunk on their training trips.
posted by retrograde at 4:23 AM on January 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

I don't think he had any illusions about what he was doing, and didn't see any contempt or ignorance (that he himself didn't recognise). It was a well-written account of something I knew nothing about.
posted by Huw at 4:25 AM on January 8, 2012

He's too loose lipped when it comes to his fellow nakmuay. Blogging about who may be dealing drugs back in Leeds, Jitti's porn collection, or a named trainer's supposed yabba habit etc is contemptous and ignorant.
posted by the cuban at 7:38 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I liked it.

I had a coworker who moved to Thailand to study massage, not even fighting, everyone thought he was nuts and would end up dead in some seedy hotel.Going to Thailand for any reason is pretty much considered the craziest thing you can possibly do here in the states.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:03 AM on January 8, 2012

Going to Thailand for any reason is pretty much considered the craziest thing you can possibly do here in the states.

Are you from the US? That's so far off it's kind of making me think you're not a native. No, sorry, you're wrong. As the State Department notes, Thailand's a popular tourist destination. Wiki says the US comprises the group 10th most likely to travel to Thailand as tourists (keep in mind the US is a big country and Thailand is expensive to get to for most folks).

Thailand's got a pretty good reputation as a laid back, cheap for US dollars, place where lots of people speak English or are willing to help a tourist out ("Thai smile"). Plenty of US people travel to Thailand, admittedly most often for their honeymoon or some kind of beach trip. Where I'm from (West Coast, which I think is significant to your ignorance here), if someone told me they'd be studying 'Thai massage' my first thought would be 'happy ending?' but my second thought would be 'like those backbreaking ladies in Phatthaya?'

In any case, the travelogue in question was far more entertaining and introspective than I expected and I enjoyed it.
posted by librarylis at 10:10 AM on January 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wait what? Are you from the states? Most Americans have never left the country let alone gone to Asia. Only 28 percent of the population has a passport.

Maybe this is an east coast thing but as far as exotic beach vacations people here are much more likely to go to Costa Rica, Dominican Republic or even Cuba.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:36 AM on January 8, 2012

The guy did suffer through many a "happy ending" joke. To answer your question, I am a native of Brooklyn and I might be much more provincial that the jet setters you are accustomed to.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:46 AM on January 8, 2012

I think it must just be a West Coast thing. I went to high school in San Diego, graduated in '99, and between the people I knew and the people my sister knew (she's a couple of years younger than I am) I can probably count off about 20 people that went to Thailand for their post graduation "I'm going to see the world!" trips after high school. It's a really popular destination for groups of post high school girls especially, at least in my experience. I actually just made an offhand comment the other day about how someone was one of those "socal girls who loves yoga and went to thailand after highschool."

Southeast Asia definitely seems to be the area where Californians go for "exotic" beach locations: Bali if you have money, Thailand if you're doing it on the cheap, Vietnam if you don't want to be "touristy." I think Latin America is seen as too mundane and won't give you enough "I've traveled the world" points to the kind of people who seem to care about that. The only other countries I've been to are Mexico, where my family is from, and Costa Rica, where I now live, so *I* certainly don't think that, but I know people who do.
posted by primalux at 11:38 AM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Alak’s maybe five foot one and of deeply indeterminate age, with a frosted mullet and abdominals out of a comic book; he rolls up the bottoms of his shorts, which makes the shorts look like a diaper and Alak in turn like a muscular golden baby.

Into the second part now, and it's a fine read. He was a gifted writer.
posted by jokeefe at 11:39 AM on January 8, 2012

He's too loose lipped when it comes to his fellow nakmuay. Blogging about who may be dealing drugs back in Leeds, Jitti's porn collection, or a named trainer's supposed yabba habit etc is contemptous and ignorant.

I guess you might argue that as a human it's not nice to say mean things about other people on the internet (though in fairness, these guys are running a business that is advertised online, so it's hardly without precedent to report back) but as a nak Muay? Is there some special code of conduct I wasn't told about?

Look, it's a fight sport where poor children knee each other in the ribs for the enjoyment of gamblers. I love it to death, but it's better to be honest with yourself about these things. Plenty of the trainers you'll meet in Thailand are good coaches and generally nice people, but they're dirt poor and trying to make a few bucks off some rich foreigners -- many of whom are in fact total dicks. I didn't get the impression the writer was judging, just being blunt about the realities of that world.
posted by retrograde at 12:11 PM on January 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Of course there's a loyalty to your trainer and fellow fighters. What do you think the Wai Kru is all about?
posted by the cuban at 12:53 PM on January 8, 2012

The wai kru is a pre-fight ritual (which, incidentally, as a non-fighter, the guy likely never performed) expressing respect to Buddha/your parents/your trainer. It's not a blood oath.

Look this guy paid about US$250 to train at a gym for a week. I doubt either side saw it as much more than a business transaction.
posted by retrograde at 4:18 PM on January 8, 2012

There is definitely an east coast /west coast thing here. West coasters don't start their world adventures, as east coasters often do by backpacking europe, they head to viet nam, bali, indonesia, thailand or australia.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:27 PM on January 8, 2012

Half way through now. Interesting read. I've trained at Jitti Gym before, a grand total of 2 times. Left my favorite pair of shorts there. (Khakis, not fancy muay thai shorts.) I was lucky enough to get the nice trainer. Old bald thai guy with a big smile. Didn't hit me too hard when I made a mistake. Every gym has a nice trainer and The Asshole and a few in between.

I think he nails a lot of big truths about Thailand even if some of his specific observations are a bit off. (Ratchadapisek is right by the subway, and hosts at least 2 luxury lifestyle malls. It's hardly an obscure little neighborhood. There are plenty of $600.00 dollar a month western apartments in the area.)

I found I have gone through several stages in understanding Thailand:
1. Believe every rumor, myth and stereotype you hear about Thailand.
2. Read enough travel books to learn that not all stereotypes are true.
3. Spend enough time in country to actually believe all the stereotypes you discarded in step 2.
4. Realize that you'll never really understand 50% what goes on in Thailand, but that won't stop you from explaining your grand theories to slightly less seasoned expats.

He definitely picks up on the odd oneupmanship that saturates expat culture in Asian countries. Everyone is willing to share their armchair anthropological explanations with you, whether or not you want to hear them.

Why are there so many transgendered people in Thailand? Everyone has an elaborate theory.

What's up with all the prostitution? Are Thais really happy? Why do Thai people walk so slow? What's up with the plastic bags for everything? Do tuk tuk drivers always rip off farang? What about you know who? That's a least 6 hours and two bottles of Sangsom worth of conversation right there.

People above nailed it. Your fairly well to do Bangkok Thai is happy to make 15-18,000 baht a month. (Less than $600.00 US) This is after graduating with a bachelors and possibly a masters degree. That's the upper middle class. A ubiquitous 7-11 employee is pulling less than a dollar an hour.

A foreigner will pay $10-$20 dollars an hour to learn muay thai. Of course it's a business. Foreigners probably keep most muay thai gyms afloat nowadays. Muay thai is a sport fueled and and consumed by poor Thais. It's largely ignored by the Bangkok elite. Many gyms are more than happy to baby sit foreigners for 1-2 hours a day. They subsidize the real fighters.

I think foreigners used to Western strip mall dojos are put off by muay thai gyms. There's very little in the way of instruction. Walk in, pay your dues, get your hands wrapped, spar with pads and get hit a bit for 10 minutes, leave the ring for the next farang, shadow box or do some bag work for the rest of the hour. Repeat. Put in the time a get some special attention, get better, continue to pay and be satisfied with the experience.

It's a fun way to spend some time and stay in good shape. Don't wear your body down too much.
posted by Telf at 5:28 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

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