Coincidence and Purpose
When we first came down to Pattaya to train with Sakmongkol we knew that I’d need a second gym in order to fill out the rest of my training, since WKO only has Muay Thai once per day. We looked online at some gyms but were drawn – Kevin and I both independently from one another – to Petchrungruang Gym, which conveniently was just up the road and takes about 10 minutes on a bike to go door-to-door at each gym. It just so happened that the training at Petchrungruang is amazing, the owners and trainers are remarkable and generous, and it’s filled with little kids who are about my size that I can practice clinch with. It’s really a very happy turn of events and I hope to spend more time here.
About a week into training at Petchrungruang we were chatting with Kru Nu, the instructor, and he started talking about a little girl who used to train with the boys. Turns out it was Phetjee Jaa O. Meekhun, who just so happens to be my absolute favorite fighter and the best female Muay Thai fighter in the world. She’s about 12 years old, has over 200 fights already (!) and many, if not most, are against boys. And she knocks them out. She’s just amazingly strong, skilled, and like no other female fighter I’ve ever seen. Kru Nu said she trained at their gym for about two years, but now she’s sponsored by Pinsinchai, who runs Aswindum Stadium, and he built a ring for her at the family home for her and her brother. And that family residence is just down the street, basically a 10 minute walk.
So, today I’m the only one training at the gym in the morning. Kru Nu holds pads for me and watches me kicking on the bag, kind of working hard to keep myself going because I’m sick and can’t really breathe too well. Maybe 10 minutes into my bagwork I look over as Kru Nu is walking with a very little girl across the far end of the ring. He’s smiling and looking very affectionate and sweet with her, but he doesn’t have a daughter so I’m wondering what this is all about. Within about 10 seconds it hits me – that’s Phetjee Jaa!!
I freaked out a little bit. I actually got starstruck and geeked out, barely being able to say hello in Thai through my dopy grin and stuttering as I tell Kevin to pay attention because it’s Phetjee Jaa! She’s much tinier than I imagined from watching her fight on TV – I thought she was closer to my size but she’s probably only 34 kg; and very pretty.
Kru Nu had called her on the phone and asked her to come by and take a picture with me. Because he’s an incredibly nice man. So by coincidence we found and decided on a gym that is quite possibly the best place for my growth as a female fighter, despite not really having any other girls training there seriously, and it just so happened to be the gym where Phetjee Jaa had those exact same advantages because of being able to train with the boys and with such generous persons as Kru Nu and his father. And by coincidence she still lives right down the street and through generosity and kindness and purpose Kru Nu understood my fanaticism and invited Phetjee Jaa over to let me meet my hero.
Our meeting was brief. Phetjee Jaa disappeared behind the gym to another lot that is owned by “the Chicken Man” as Kru Nu calls him, which is because he raises chickens and roosters, which you can hear constantly when at the gym. She must have been friends with him when she was living at/near the gym a few years ago when she trained with them. But we kept talking about her with Kru Nu, who upped the ante on almost everything I knew about her already – she has twice as many fights as I’d thought and I was very depressed to see her last fight on TV cancelled – on air – with an announcement that she would no longer be permitted to fight boys. “In Bangkok” is the caveat that Kru Nu always adds, but that’s really where the money is. Happily, I learned that she’s fighting tomorrow in Korat, so she is still fighting just not as she was before. It was implied that her opponent is a girl but bigger than Phetjee Jaa; generally nobody wants to fight her – she’s just too good. When she doesn’t have fights she and her brother do fight demos at bars around Pattaya for tourists and make pretty good money that way. I would never have learned that without Kru Nu.
When I saw her fight get cancelled on broadcast TV with the additional “no more coed fights” announcement, I had assumed that she had maybe started menstruating (she’s about 12 years old), because the cancellation felt very sudden and that would make her no longer a “child” in Thai culture, which was pretty much what permitted the mixing of boys and girls in the ring to begin with. I checked with several Thais and they seemed to think it was the reason as well. It’s menstruation that keeps women from entering temples or rings or hanging our undergarments at certain heights to dry; that and a lot of sexism. But meeting her today, seeing how tiny she still is, I questioned if changes in her body were the catalyst for the shift. Maybe it was preemptive. Kru Nu suggested that it was part of a long running struggle on the issue between her manager/promoter Pinsinchai and others legislative Muay Thai powers that be.
What’s a Hero?
Regardless, I was crushed to see the “end” of my favorite fighter on TV. I got so excited every time she had a fight and I tried to track her and share what I could of her awesomeness on my blog. (PhetJee Jaa – The Girl Who Fights with Boys) She’s pretty much my hero because she is a nexus point for so many aspects of Muay Thai: female Muay Thai, child fighters, family pedagogy, big city and big purse versus rural travel and tourist business income. She’s limited by some of these things, but she’s also somehow untouched by it – she slips between things and occupies spaces and exceptions that nobody else does. That’s what a hero is to me: someone who defies limitations, or whose limitations are alien to your own in such a way that they do things that you wish you could do. By moving beyond and between limitations, they are somewhat outside of what your own understanding and in that “outer space” they become somewhat pure expressions of ideals like morality, valor, bravery, strength, etc. That’s what Phetjee Jaa is for me: a female who in her in-between-ness defies so many of the limitations that weigh on me – she’s too young to be affected by the limitations of the world I’ve already learned to believe in. And through her strength and hard work she’s surpassed many of them; she feels gravity differently and so gravity seems to let her fly a little bit. Like a superhero. And she, simply by being exceptional, changes what I – what we – see as possible.
If we are able to return to Pattaya and stay for a longer time, I’d love to be able to bring more of Phetjee Jaa, her story and what she’s doing now, to readers around the world. She’s just awesome.