I was very excited and shocked to learn that my Muay Thai hero, the 12-year-old phenomenon Phetjeejaa O. Meekhun, trains at her family gym just a 30 second walk through a chicken farm from where I’ve been training every day for the last month here in Pattaya. I got to visit their gym and meet PJJ and her family a few days ago and got to actually go and train with the kids this past Monday.
While en route on the big highway that runs through Pattaya and connects my two gyms, I was weaving between cars to sneak up to the front of the line to make a U-Turn and a motorbike pulled up beside me. When I casually looked over I was very surprised to see Phetjee Jaa sandwiched on the motorbike between her father (driving) and her older brother Mawin, both in their school clothes of a pale purple shirt and navy blue skirt and shorts, respectively. PJJ and Mawin gave me huge, toothy grins – PJJ’s was through some snack cake she was enjoying, her ear-lobe length hair (as is regulation for schoolgirls) falling like a closing curtain over her face as the motorbike started forward again.
We arrived at the O. Meekhun gym a little bit after the family as we had to swing by Petchrungruang – one street away – to collect my gloves and wraps I’d forgotten there in the morning. When we walked through the door of the O. Meekhun gym Mawin and PJJ were changed and putting on their running shoes. Sangwian, the kids’ father, asked me twice whether or not I was going to run with them. I’m not sure if he didn’t believe me or if he thought I had misunderstood him, but it turned out there were two men joining our group as well. I must say, I was pretty excited to go out running with Phetjee Jaa. For years Master K told me I had to go to Por Pramuk gym and run with Buakaw (when he was still there) and take lots of pictures. Buakaw is Master K’s Phetjee Jaa, I think. So, I’m fulfilling Master K’s dream of running with the top fighter in his eyes, but instead I’m fulfilling that dream by running with the top fighter in my eyes.
She was much warmer to me this time. When I first met her she was a trooper and took a photo with me even though she didn’t know or care who I was. And when we first stopped by her gym she definitely recognized me from that first meeting with the photo but was very reserved, not knowing what I’m about. But by the time we’d stopped over to make the appointment for today she was smiling at me and today, getting ready for the run, she seemed even a little curious. I can’t say enough how reserved Phetjee Jaa is upon a surface experience of her. She’s very serious in her face – something I noted in her television interviews (she rarely answers questions verbally on TV and just kind of nods and offers a “kaa” (polite affirmation) and at her fights on TV she looks off and away even as her hand is being raised in victory. I was a really serious kid, all throughout my childhood. Well, I’m pretty serious now – especially when I’m working, which is kind of what Phetjee Jaa is doing. What was really amazing to see was how the very moment she’s doing Muay Thai, like even just throwing a play kick at her brother, her face erupts into a beautiful and joyous smile, vocalizing with “ooooy!” when she gets a knee or trip in and just simply laughing and grinning if her brother happens to land something on her.
The love and strength of relationship between her and Mawin as siblings is amazing. They’re only one year apart in age and as a family they’ve experienced a pretty nomadic lifestyle, traveling all around Thailand for the kids to fight in countless provinces (racking up over 200 fights for Mawin and somewhere near 160 for Phetjee Jaa), so the strength of their bond as a family and especially as siblings is truly beautiful to see. I come from a family of brothers and am the youngest, so I definitely identify with their relationship. I’m closest in age to my brother Shane, although we’re close to 3 years apart rather than the 1 year between PJJ and Mawin. But I can see my relationship with Shane at that age in the bond that PJJ and Mawin have, not only right there in front of me as 12- and 13-year-olds, but in the photos of them as little kids that their parents showed us.
Mawin and Phetjee Jaa – maybe at 4 and 5 years old?
Me and Shane at about ages 8 and 10, rockin’ that 90’s style.
Under the Rope
Sangwian had me get into the ring with Mawin for clinching before anything else. Phetjee Jaa got in also and I thought maybe I’d clinch with her as well, but she has been sick and so we played “last man” with Mawin, so every time someone gets thrown a new opponent jumps in, but Mawin was always “in” as the last man (20 minute video of that below). I noted that PJJ crawls under the bottom rope of their ring, so I did too. It’s not easy, that bottom rope is very low and is also the tightest of the four. But it was interesting to note and the father demonstrated his conservative stance by asking a neighbor girl who had just handed her baby sibling over the ropes into the ring, “chai roo ying” (“boy or girl?”), basically making it clear that even an infant – if female – should not go over the top rope. I wrote about this tradition in my blog post on the “Lumpinee Meme” which explores some of the reasons women go under the bottom rope and are barred from the top-prestige rings in Bangkok. The reason this is interesting to me is because the apparent adherence to the tradition that demands females only enter a ring (if at all) under the bottom rope is by all reasoning the exact same tradition that is currently keeping Phetjee Jaa from fighting boys anymore. Sangwian is practicing a conservative version (babies, toddlers and even girls up to 6-8 years old are tolerated in the “men’s ring” at Lanna Muay Thai) and yet the family is contesting the Sport Authority’s ban of boy/girl fights in court as the ban on Phetjee Jaa has effectively dammed the family income.
the video of our clinch session
I was actually very nervous to train at O. Meekhun, partially because I’m like a cat and any change kind of freaks me out, but also because I didn’t know what the O. Meekhun family’s expectations of me would be. Not that I had to live up to anything, but when your 12-year-old daughter is probably the best female fighter in the world… well, who knows what they might anticipate from me. The funny thing is that I am never, ever what anyone expects. That was once again the case when I started my padwork with Sangwian. He asked me how many rounds I usually do and was surprised when I answered five, even more so when I told him they’re four or five minutes long. Phetjee Jaa crawled into the ring with us to keep time and her focus, as well as a small crew of Thai men who had just arrived at the gym, was steadily on me as I threw my first few punches and a kick in to the pads. Sangwian smiled wide and let out an “ooooyy!”, surprised by my unanticipated power. Phetjee Jaa grinned and positioned herself in the corner of the ring to call out time, which she did quite enthusiastically, yelling the passing of each minute, “song paan!” (“two have passed!”) and then the final 30 seconds of each round, as well as a near-draconian diligence toward the one minute allotted to the break between. She called out the start of a round, loud and clear, while her dad was still talking to one of the Thai fellows at the far end of the ring. She’s got a very cool confidence when she’s in her element of training and playing and fighting Muay Thai. (She also handed me my bottle of water between rounds, screwing and unscrewing the cap so I didn’t have to take off my gloves.)
Phetjee Jaa letting us know this break is over.
video of our pad work:
Before we left we’d asked if the parents had any footage of Phetjee Jaa’s fights that maybe aren’t yet on Youtube. They handed us three memory cards from their camera and we took those home to upload them. The camera the O. Meekhun family use is good but it’s been through some days on the road and it requires some improvised “fixes” to get it to work sometimes (picture a rubberband holding the battery in place), so it was a mutual interest to have the fights put somewhere accessible. Today we went back to the gym after training in order to show a round from each fight to the family, on a tablet, to have them identify where, when and with whom each of the five fights were. That process led to some very cool moments, some of my favorite in Thailand. First, the pride and excitement from the parents as they saw the fights, Sangwian asking us to turn the sound on so he could hear them (you can imagine how seeing and hearing the fight takes you back to it) and getting so into it that he wanted to watch all the rounds, showing them off to his friend. You can hear Tawan, the mom, screaming from behind the camera during some of the fights. It’s pretty awesome.
Recollecting where the fights were was pretty quick but dates were a harder ask. When I requested the names of the boys in the fights the parents couldn’t remember at all but when they called to Phetjee Jaa, who was clinching with Mawin in the ring, she could remember her opponents’ names immediately just from the location of the fight. Tawan said she had the “program” of fights that she could check the dates and had someone go get it from somewhere outside the gym, which is also their home. So I’m not sure where it was being kept. But I thought it would be the actual fight programs, like those the sheets of paper you get at the actual fights. I keep many – though not all – of the programs from my fights and figure I’ll scrapbook it at some point. But what turned up was so much more amazing than I’d expected: it was a hardcover ledger book that from the front is a list of opponents, location and result of Mawin’s fights and working from the back is the same for Phetjee Jaa.
Looking over her fight record.
video of us looking at the record ledger
Neither list is complete; Mawin’s only has 97 entries and Phetjee Jaa has to the high-70’s. She also lists whether it was a fight against a boy or a girl and her mom pointed out that most of the fights against girls are wins by KO in Phetjee Jaa’s favor. We got some names that way, no dates were listed, but it actually became far more interesting to watch PJJ start flipping through the book. It seemed like she’d forgotten about the book for a while now, but after a few minutes of looking over it she grabbed a pen and started filling in more names – I think about 8 more, just from memory, finishing with her most recent KO win in Korat. You could see that she was remembering the fights as she looked at the names and just with her filling out the next slots it was very clear how clever – how mentally sharp – she is. I asked her which fight is her favorite and she at first just looked at me like maybe I’d phrased the question wrong, but then her eyes lit up and she smiled, flipping back over the pages like a computer searching through its files. She landed on one that was listed in the 50’s, although the number of the fight is not the same as the entry. (She also noted that she only gives one entry for a fighter, even if she faces them as an opponent several times.) She pointed to a name and told me she’d won on points. Her mom looked over and saw the name, then turned on her phone and flipped through her photos to show me a picture of Phetjee Jaa after that fight – it had been a bout between two champions and PJJ walked away with both belts.
Phetjee Jaa taking both belts after her champion vs. champion fight.
After showing me this picture Tawan went and grabbed a box full of old photos and news clippings from all the times PJJ had been featured in Muay Siam (the national Muay Thai publication), Muay Dee (a Muay Thai magazine), and a few other sports news articles. It was very cool to see and feel the pride from the parents (Sangwian was still over to the side watching all the fights we’d uploaded on the tablet with his buddy) and the interest from Phetjee Jaa as she checked over everything.
Looking through the news clippings.
While I’m still very much at the surface of meeting the O. Meekhun family I do feel that the impressions I have from each member of the family is made richer by each time I see them. I never thought that I would identify so much with Phetjee Jaa – the affinity anyone has toward her from watching her fight is very obvious as she is just incredible – and with her reserved character upon first meeting her adds to the feeling that I’m glimpsing a unicorn when I see her. But as she warmed to me and as I got to see her interact with her brother, the bond they share, her absolute joy and badassness in the ring as she’s dominating her brother at times in clinch or laughing when he launches her backwards in padwork (he outweighs her by maybe 4 kilos but she appears much stronger and more skilled), the way she lights up and comes awake when she does Muay Thai… all these things are aspects that I never could have anticipated, that I couldn’t have guessed, but many of them are things I feel – or that I strive for. When I thought before how much I admire Phetjee Jaa it was for what she represents, for what she does; I’m overjoyed to learn that I hadn’t even seen a fraction of all that she is.
Where the gym is, but there are rumors it may be moving elsewhere in Pattaya soon:
You can see an interactive Google Map here in this post.