Getting Work In at O. Meekhun
It is a serious pleasure coming from Petchrungruang in the afternoons, over to O. Meekhun. As the motorbike climbs the dirt road and a vista of land opens up with a strong breeze blowing over a picturesque field, I can see PhetJee Jaa hitting a bag and smiling her big, often hidden smile, welcoming us. Her brother Mawin always greets us with a polite wai (palms pressed together and held in front of the mouth) and one or both children will often call out to our adopted street dog, “Jai Dee!” The way they emphasize the second syllable sounds almost like a chastisement, but his ears perk up and he jumps off the bike to join the pack of puppies that live at the O. Meekhun gym.
This place is perhaps the most pure expression of traditional Thai pedagogy for Muay Thai that I’ve ever come across in person. It’s a family gym that is also their home, which isn’t uncommon, but the location and structure of it is new and being carved out of the field and built up out of the ground before my eyes. Prior to this location I had met Phetjee Jaa and her family at their former lot, which is literally a 5 minute drive away. The gym was cinderblocks and a tin roof, the ring – which was donated by Phetjee Jaa’s sponsor, Pinsinchai who runs the Aswindum Stadium fights where she used to be broadcast on TV – took up the majority of the space. In fact, the family slept underneath the ring. They were essentially booted from this location by the landlord not renewing their lease in order to develop the property into a more lucrative condo or apartment building, so the family had to find somewhere else to start their gym over again. With the help of an Australian fighter and carpenter named Daniel Smyrk, money has been donated to help the family build up a bigger, more permanent home and livelihood.
The space feels open in every way. When you’re standing in the ring looking out you see a field of tall grass, jungle trees and over the top of that the tall buildings and towers of Pattaya City in the distance. A moderate, cool ocean wind breathes salty air through the long grasses, rustles the trees and refreshes sweaty nakmuay as we hit pads or clinch in the ring. There are a few little Thai boys who have been taken on as students, Phetjee Jaa and Mawin being their primary instructors, holding pads and catching kicks to manipulate the hip this way and that for the right form. A very tall, lanky teenager hits the bags with his father calling out time for each round – he’s a sweet kid and a good fighter; we were on the same card together about a month ago and he won by KO with a knee that reached his opponent’s solar plexus without him even reaching for it. Parents and neighbors are always around, chatting next to the ring, laughing at the dogs doing their own clinch training as they race around. The family has moved out from under the ring into a nice room off to the side that was built over the last few weeks but you still feel that the gym is as much a part of their home and life as a living-room in the west.
All this is to say that there is life in the gym and community around and throughout it. Phetjee Jaa and Mawin are champions, instructors, students, children and neighbors, all at the same time. It’s seamless. And while I have to be careful to remember to crawl under the bottom rope of the ring every time I enter or exit – it is still a very old-school kind of custom in that space – the way in which Phetjee Jaa and Mawin have grown up within the ropes, playing with each other every day for years has infused everything with a sense of incredible ease. Phetchrungruang, my primary gym, is also a family space – it’s a home and run by a family in its third generation, and like O. Meekhun the students/fighters are comprised almost entirely of kids. But whereas I don’t have to crawl under the bottom rope at Petchrungruang, an act that is a very clear mark of holding female fighters at a distance to the “sacred” space of male Muay Thai, there is nonetheless a guardianship of the masculinity at Phetrungruang – one that permeates everything – that holds me at an unmistakeable distance, simply for the fact of being a woman. So when I spar or clinch with the boys in that space there remains a degree of consequence to whether I’m performing well or not. I’ve written about it before, but even though playing is an incredibly important element in learning Muay Thai and developing as a fighter, no matter how light-hearted the play of sparring or clinching is the dominance is very real. The boys at Petchrungruang spend most of the afternoon playing, hollering out their points scored as they kick each other with padded shins or throw each other down in clinch. It’s hard for me to enter into this kind of play because I’m female, so getting a point, even if it’s just a game and there’s no “winning” involved, the dominance is real and the point must be recovered for the sake of the natural order. When I start besting the 12 year old Italian boy Alex the other men and boys are called into service to a gender event, and the same goes for any moments of superiority I may have against the Thai boys. Something feels at risk for them, even though I outweigh my partners there. This doesn’t happen in the same way at O. Meekhun. Not because there is no treasuring of masculinity – that’s absolutely present – but because Phetjee Jaa has already grown up inside that gate. Perhaps it’s because Jee Jaa and Mawin are siblings or because for so long it has only been the two of them, but it takes nothing from Mawin to be dominated by his sister and it is no great mark against her when Phetjee Jaa is dominated by him. The ball just keeps being volleyed into the air and points are collected and the game goes on… it’s not a game of “keep away” as it is in so many gyms.
And so it’s easier for me to really play in this space, which is incredibly good for me. It’s the only way to learn to relax, to be at ease and at the ready all in the same moment. In my first clinch days there they only let me clinch with Mawin, keeping Phetjee Jaa away from me with her brother as the “man in the middle” and the two of us taking turns clinching with him but never each other. Then one day they put Jee Jaa and me together. It was a strange and important moment for the both of us: she’s always been told that no female can stand up to her power and she’s experienced that in her fight career as well. She’s never felt what it is to train with another woman who is strong the way she is strong – I outweigh her, obviously, in fact by probably 12 kg, but I think I also pose a promise to what lies ahead for her if she is to continue fighting women. And for me, going against the best female fighter in the world, who at 12-years-old has unbelievable experience, technique, strength and style… there’s nothing that compares to that. She’s my hero because she, too, holds such promise for all women. And now I feel difference in our exchanges every time I arrive at the gym, cheering when Jee Jaa throws her bigger brother in clinching, laughing along with the group of neighbors and parents and on-lookers who gather around the ring when I (very rarely) get either of those kids on the ground. It’s a feeling of being allowed a space that is undefined, one that I am consistently developing through my continued participation and one that can grow. I’m still an outsider in many ways, but somehow at O. Meekhun that’s not a limitation.
Every day I train at Petchrungruang Gym in the morning doing my full bagwork, shadow, conditioning, and get amazing padwork from Kru Nu who is bringing me along in my technique and rhythm with a very careful eye. Then in the afternoons I return there for again my full bagwork, shadow and conditioning, and then clinch with either Alex or some Thai boys, and sometimes spar. Then at 6:00 I head over to my Muay Thai refreshment at O. Meekhun, with 5 rounds of padwork with Sangwan, PhetJee Jaa’s father, tons of joyful clinch with both PhetJee Jaa and Mawin, and even a few rounds of sparring. By the time I leave I am filled to the brim with Muay Thai from the day, it’s dark, and I’m ready for my nighttime run.
Where O. Meekhun Gym Can Be Found