Walking Street is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Thailand. It stretches across the waterfront on the southern tip of Pattaya and is a somewhat bizarre combination of a Red Light District and Boardwalk. It’s a ghost town in the daytime and a neon, sensory overload at night. What’s most strange is that tourists will bring their young children with them to see the sights, maybe like how Las Vegas kind of sold itself as a family vacation spot in the late 90s and then had to rebrand itself as Sin City with those “what happens in Vegas” ads. From the cobblestone-like main stretch of road, you’re struck by how not seedy it all appears – you see the women hanging out at the front of clubs to try to get men inside, but you have to actually go inside to get the full effect. So it’s not that crazy to have kids there, so long as they don’t go into the clubs. There’s tons of street food and knick-knack shops, so it’s just kind of a boring night out to look at neon lights for kids.
In the nearly 3 years that Kevin and I have lived in Pattaya, we’ve stayed far away from Walking Street. We just have no reason to go near it. We never, ever, thought we’d even visit Pattaya, let alone live here, but it turns out that if you just stay away from the areas which are most famously unpleasant, the rest of the city is actually quite charming. This post isn’t those charming aspects, it’s about a bar down in that quarter. At the front end of Walking Street, just outside the arcs where the pedestrian-only area starts, it’s always swarming with tourists at night. And about 100 feet away from that arc is a very deep row of bar counter-tops that stretch all the way back to the water, almost like a pier. All the bars are identical: maybe 10 stools around each, way too many young women working to serve drinks, everything flooded with these red lights everywhere. There are televisions playing soccer games, no sound on, really lame music playing over the sound system from a DJ booth you’d be challenged to locate if it were your first time (it’s the size of a phone booth), and at the center of everything is a half-regulation-sized boxing ring. There’s Muay Thai there every night.
Between rounds the referee watches soccer on the TV; cheers swelled in response to the game, not the fights
And that’s where all of this was going. That boxing ring. The fights are organized by Kru Den, who is a man in his 60’s with a giant mouth that makes him look like a Blue Meanie when he smiles. But he’s hilarious, very cheeky, and every time he sees me he asks me how my dog Jaidee is doing and whether he can buy him off of me when we go back to America. The answer is no, but he keeps asking. He loves Jaidee. Kru Den also holds pads for the young men at Petchrungruang – not the babies, the Lumpinee fighters who are 14-17 years old. And he’s relentless in making them do entire rounds of just kneeing. He’s exhausting but the boys win with knee KO’s a lot – because of the relentless and endless knees on his pads. So he holds for the boys in the evening sessions – some of them have his name “Kru Den” stitched into the waistband on their fight shorts – and in the night he’s managing these bar fights. When my own trainer, Pi Nu who is 43, was a little kid he was scouted by Kru Den – at that time much younger, maybe 30 years ago or more – and Kru Den, in my imagination, said, “Hey kid, I like the cut of your jib!” and invited Pi Nu and his brother Pi Nok to fight at the bar. This bar. So my own trainer, who was a very established OneSongchai fighter later on, cut his teeth fighting at the bar. This bar. Phetjee Jaa and her brother Mawin also do fight shows at the bar for a small income, and have for years. Video of these demos has made the circuit around the internet and often westerners mistake it for a real fight. All the fights at the bar are officially, legally, considered “show fights” as they are not under the sanction of the Chonburi Muay Thai Authority – so they’re kind of like “smokers” in the west – but each individual fight is as “real” as any two fighters make it. You’ll see fat adult men swinging at each other for beer money in a comical, harlequin demonstration; you’ll see Phetjee Jaa and Mawin give a beautiful demonstration that amounts to semi-choreographed sparring, close enough to be mistaken for a real fight; and you’ll see kids and newbies of all ages and sizes fighting as hard and as sincerely as if they’re going for a national title. The difference is that it’s only 3 rounds, the breaks between rounds are very long, and at the end there is officially only supposed to be one outcome: a draw. But they declare winners all the time, because this is how the kids get fight experience. It’s perfectly real for them, they just don’t get paid outright and can walk around collecting tips afterward from the bar patrons. Pretty much anything can happen at the bar – I, for the experience, even fought a boxing-only fight there once against a trained boxer from Singapore…a draw. Because there are no female fights in Pattaya I might even fight an exhibition fight there again, just to throw-down against the former World Champion The Star, without having to drive for hours. I’ve been to the bar only a few times.
The other night I went to the bar to corner for Angie, the trans fighter from my gym. She has a very hard time finding opponents for a number of reasons, the first of which is that she’s Khatoey, so she legally has to fight against men and she’s also only been training for only a little over a year and finding male beginners at 55 kg is not easy, as that’s an adult man’s size here. Added to that, finding male semi-beginners at that size who are also willing to fight a “lady boy” is near impossible. The bar is a good solution for her to get experience because the fights can be labeled as “show” fights, it won’t necessarily go on anyone’s record and these men can save face by pretending it’s not a real fight against not a real lady, or whatever. That night she was meant to fight a westerner who has only 1 or 2 fights (Angie has 4), but she had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him in order to let Pi Nu see whether or not the fight was acceptable. Angie came down in full makeup and a pretty dress, as she likes to do before changing into her fight shorts, and this guy was looking utterly lost and confused while being led around by his trainers. He was too big. Pi Nu looked him up and down and then looked at me with some disappointment. He wants Angie to fight but he doesn’t want to put her in a bad situation and this guy was just bigger than anyone had anticipated. Kru Den told her to come back the next night, as he had another westerner in pocket who he claims is closer to my size (smaller than Angie). Not my weight, but my general height and lighter than this other guy, basically telling Angie and Pi Nu that this other guy was a better match. So Angie didn’t get to fight, but it’s far less disappointing than if you’d gone to a stadium fight and not been able to compete. That happens too, when people don’t make weight or are just bigger than their gyms promised. Having Angie come down with all her gear on a “maybe you’ll fight, maybe not” basis isn’t that unusual. There are “match ups” all around Thailand, usually at rural festival fights, temple fights, etc. In those you just stand shoulder-to-shoulder, step on a scale if there’s a side bet, but it’s a “come and see” kind of situation. The bar is not entirely unique to Pattaya, but it’s maybe our version of the temple fight, the festival fight, or the little kids getting their experience in the ring on the “pre-show” before a main fight card starts out in the provinces.
Podee (blue shorts) in a scrap against another pudgy kid from a local gym; they’ve fought 3 times already.
I was disappointed that Angie didn’t fight. I’d arrived maybe 20 minutes before she had and already in that time I’d greeted probably 30+ people who I know from the Muay Thai community around Pattaya. I hadn’t been told, but we had a number of other fighters on that night. Mostly the bar is little kids getting ring experience, but sometimes even our experienced little fighters – Podee who is 12 and has maybe 60 fights – will appear at the bar because Max Muay Thai killed the local stadia scene in Pattaya. Thepprasit used to be known as the stadium where kids and women fought, but now there are hardly any shows there. Women and kids can’t fight at Max, so the bar keeps the kids active and I travel far outside of Pattaya for fights. The first fight at the bar night was PTT’s little cousin, who is maybe 10 years old and has about a dozen fights. In his corner were Pi Earn – a best friend and former trainer of Pi Nu, as well as PTT’s trainer – and some familiar faces from Venum Training Center. On the opposite side of the ring were familiar faces from Sor. Klinmee Gym, where Sudsakorn grew up and had his gym before moving over to Venum. It’s a small community here, everyone knows everyone else and these are friendly gyms – but their kids will fight at this ring like interclub sparring or “smokers.” After this fight was Podee, who is very chubby now and fought against another very chubby kid, also from the Sor. Klinmee group. Pi Nu and Thappaya (who owns and is Sor. Klinmee) grew up together and trained together for many years. It’s like two chums having their kids play in the backyard. Following this fight was our newest addition to Petchrungruang, Tert, who is 7 years old and this was his second fight after about a month of training. He’s not skilled yet, but he loves hitting things. He’ll arrive at the gym for training and jump through all the discipline hoops of bouncing on the tire, holding his stance for rounds at a time, and counting out hundreds of repetitive kicks and punches and knees on the bag just to be able to hit pads or spar. He needs a lot of attention when he’s doing his drills, but when he gets to be the center of attention hitting pads he just lights up. So it was a no-brainer to get him in the ring ASAP.
Bank and Lom help Tert put on his gloves, cup, and mongkol before his fight
I went ringside for Tert’s fight. His mom looked lovingly at him as he stood between Bank (Pi Nu’s older son) and Lom (a former fighter at the gym and Podee’s older brother), both about 16 years old, as they pulled his shorts down to tie on his cup and put his gloves on. Pi Nu stood at the corner of the ring and just rubbed his fingers over Tert’s head, somewhat absent-mindedly but affectionately, as they waited for his turn in the ring. Pi Nu really likes Tert. He had previously said that he didn’t want any new boys at the gym until his baby, Nat, turned 5 years old and would start training. Pi Nu had been hurt by a number of fighters who had grown up at the gym and then their fathers, in the name of money, had betrayed their loyalty to the gym. This is obviously painful, as you’re talking about 10+ years of raising a boy in your gym, turning him into a successful fighter, and then once he’s a “product” his father wants to sell him to a bigger gym. So Pi Nu kind of shut down his heart for a while and said “no more new boys.” When Nat turns 5 and starts training, he’ll need a fraternity of teammates to grow up with, like how Bank has grown up with 4-5 boys the same age and like how PTT (3-4 years older) grew up in a “class” as well. But then Tert came along and Pi Nu kind of had to let him start training because he knows his father. To be clear, Pi Nu was letting new kids train, he just wasn’t going to sign or invest in them as he would with fighters who he intends to raise to be Lumpinee fighters. But Tert turned his heart. He’s only been training at the gym for about a month and Pi Nu only gives him attention after all the fighters have finished their work. The ring quiets down, the gym gets darker as the sun disappears, and Pi Nu will sit on a stool in the corner of the ring to hold pads for Tert. He’ll scroll through his phone with the timer on while Tert has to hold his fight poses. Pi Nu is watching, he’s just not looking. After the first week of Tert coming every day for training, Pi Nu came and sat next to me while I undid my wraps from hitting pads in the morning, when it’s just the two of us. “Maybe I start bringing boys in now,” he said. I think he forgot how much he loves the process of eager little kids. For a year since the last fighter had left the gym in this hurtful way, Pi Nu had refused to work with any of the new kids at the gym. He’d let them come and permit the other trainers to work with them, but he didn’t give his own attention. He had to work with Tert though, because of his father. And he realized how much he loves it; he remembered. Now he was about fight in the same bar Pi Nu fought in as a kid.
Kru Nu chatting with Tert’s dad before the fight
It was Tert’s second fight, after only a month of training. Pi Nu watched from a neutral corner, not saying a word while the fight was going, then calmly walked to the corner when Tert was seated between rounds and poked his head through the ropes to give him instructions. He’s done this a million times. On the opposite side of the ring, his opponent was experiencing the same thing. This fight is as real a fight as any other, but each boy is just learning how the whole process works. Yodkhunpon, a former champion and superstar of the Golden Age of Muay Thai, leaned against the ropes to watch the soccer game on the TV between rounds. He’s the referee every night. This absolute legend of a man plays referee in bar fights, which sounds like such a sad thing; but it’s having a seat in the local Muay Thai community. Everyone who surrounded the ring last night, or who slipped between the ropes to rub water over the limbs of the tiny fighters, they’re all actively involved in doing the exact same things for current stars in Muay Thai – at Lumpinee, at Thai Fight. It’s all Muay Thai. And every single superstar you can think of: Saenchai, Buakaw, Pornsanae, Samart, Dieselnoi… they all started out like this, in temple fights, festivals, or at the bar. It is probably a sure bet that Samart fought at this bar.
Tert’s mom and dad (far left), the boys from Petchrungruang, Podee as cornerman and Pi Nu telling Tert to knee
Two weeks later I went back to the bar to corner for Angie, when she actually had an opponent. She’d had a fight the night after the other one hadn’t worked out, so she’s getting pretty good experience at the bar. There’s a long wait between fights, so usually both fighters stand in their corners while club music plays over the speakers and the referee has time to get out of the ring and mill around for a bit. Kru Nu was sitting on the bench just at the lip of the ring, his back to the ropes and his long legs comically folded over to the side due to there being very little space. But he had a nostalgic smile on his face. He started talking to me but I couldn’t hear him over the music and so I squatted down, my hands on the bench and my head politely lower than his (he’s older than I am).
“You know,” he began, “coming here makes me more happy than going to Thai Fight.” I laughed. Pi Nu has gone to the last two Thai Fight events because they were close enough for him to do so and to support our superstar, PTT – who also fought at this bar as a kid and whose little cousin was on the card again tonight. Pi Nu pointed to the blue corner, “I used to sit there and wait for my fight, so happy,” he said, once a fighter who came within a hair’s breadth of winning the Lumpinee belt (given the belt shenanigans had deprived him of that honor). He explained how the three bars on the other side of the ring used to just be a cement block where all the kids would line up to be matched, shoulder to shoulder, a half-hour before the fights started. Country style. I asked him if he made good tips for his fights and he shook his head, saying, “never. Before they used to pay. For my first fight,” he held up a long finger as a number one, “I got 70 Baht.” He looked satisfied with himself even now, saying this number. “For me, 10 Baht was a lot of money, so when I got 70 Baht I was just,” and he made a kid seeing the best present ever kind of face – mind blown. “As I got better, I got 100 Baht,” he said, again, super pleased with himself even now. He said he used to go home after fights with his 70 or 100 Baht and just lay awake in his bed, too excited to sleep. I love when Pi Nu talks about the old days, his fighting days. In this story he’s talking about being very young, maybe 13 years old and a good 30 years ago. Pattaya was a different world back then – the main highway Sukhumvit wasn’t even paved yet, it was just a dirt road cut out of the jungle. What’s amazing is that Pattaya has changed so much in that time, becoming a little metropolis, but the kids coming up by fighting in the bar is the same – even Kru Den is the same. When you stand around waiting for your fighter to get in the ring, you know all the young fighters and their trainers. And Pi Nu knows them as kids he grew up with at his gym, many of the younger trainers with their own gyms now were his students 15-20 years ago. “Fighting at the bar” sounds so inconsequential and seedy, but in reality it’s steeped in tradition and multiple generations of Muay Thai come together under those red lights to carry on the practice.
Petchrungruang group after Angie’s fight, a “show fight” ready to go in the ring behind us.
And just some more pictures because I like them:
A young fighter from a different gym wais to Kru Nu as a respectful hello
Tert’s opponent and cornerman before round 1
Yodkhunpon, the legendary “Elbow Hunter of 100 Stitches” referees every night