Fighting in Isaan, a Trip to the Heart of Muay Thai

you can read about and watch the video of the fight itself: 35th Fight – Nong Mai Sit Rapee At the Gym Before Departure We found out about a...

you can read about and watch the video of the fight itself: 35th Fight – Nong Mai Sit Rapee

At the Gym Before Departure

We found out about a week prior to the fight in Isaan that it was going to involve a parade as part of a promotion the day before, which meant leaving a day earlier than expected.  So I trained in the morning on Thursday, went home and showered and then returned to the gym an hour later for take-off.

I was surprised when I returned to the gym to find it more full than when I’d left it.  A group of American teens had come in as a group and were being run through a rudimentary and introductory training session.  It felt quite nice to be sitting in a full gym and I exchanged smiles with the trainers as they guided young women who’d never put their hands in a boxing glove before through the motions of punching, kicking, elbowing, etc. with all the grace of a newborn colt trying to stand on legs that have only just unfolded for the first time.  There was a beauty in that absence of understanding, the frenetic energy of inexperience trying to hurl power into a movement that perceives a landing point and has no understanding of how to get there.  I sat there watching, smiling, knowing that the thousands of hours I’ve committed to learning those paths has brought me toward being more stable on those stilt-legs, still not even close to the galloping weightlessness of the trainers.

Andy brought out a small bag and set it down beside me, explaining it was my wraps, tape, vaseline, oil, and towel.  Everything one needs to bring to a fight – besides oneself – fits in such a small space, basically the size of a travel sundry bag.  Neung told me to go get a jump-rope off the rack and to calibrate the scale I’d purchased to check my weight when we got to the hotel.  I’d calibrated it against our scale at the gym earlier in the morning but it was good to see whether it was easily knocked off from the earlier adjustment.  On my way back from the gym’s scale all the eyes of the young women waiting to go in the ring lingered momentarily on my black eye and then darted away quickly when I met their gaze.  I smiled wide and lifted my chest a bit as a non-verbal indication of how I felt about the black eye.  It’s funny to me that this symbol means so many things – pride and hard work to me; recklessness and bad timing for my trainers, who thought it inappropriate to go into a big fight with a shiner; and embarrassing or worrying for women whose lives do not have any association with facial bruises as indicative of anything other than shame or abuse, perhaps even fear of getting into the ring themselves.

Tor stepped in front of me as I weaved between two bags.  He towers over me by probably a full foot and he stands at a slight distance, a fighter’s distance, so that his length is really felt.  Tor is 19 years old and towers over almost everyone at the camp, his height appearing more willowy and elegant against the height of the westerners who frequent the gym – almost all of whom reach six feet.  He’s the oldest of the boys at the camp and the son of Daeng, one of the trainers, so he’s grown up in the gym and walks around like the oldest brother in a family walks through his own living room.  His English is quite good, but he rarely speaks more than a few words of it at a time.  Once he began a full conversation with me out of nowhere and I was astonished by how much (and how well) he could speak with a casual inflection in English.  Now he was looking at me very seriously, “Sylvie,” he said, “on Friday I fight taller opponent, same you.”  My eyes widened – a Thai taller than Tor seemed miraculous – but Tor went on.  “Step in,” he said and feinted elbows and knees, then pointed at me.  I smiled wide and thanked him, knowing that this advice was not given lightly or without thought – it’s the advice of a brother to his sister for the first day of school or how to get out of detention.  Then he gave me a fist bump and walked  away as Big tipped his chin up at me from the ring and said, “Sylvia – chok dee!”

View Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu – Muay Thai Map in a larger map

On the Road

Kevin and I crammed into the backseats of the cab in Andy’s truck and Neung settled into the passenger seat [I first wrote several months ago about Neung and wanting to train with him here: Hidden Gems ].  We set out on Highway 11, which I’ve taken once out to a festival fight a few months ago, but it felt like we were breaking away from the small bubble of familiarity I’ve come to know in Chiang Mai.

As we drove I was surprised by how much the fauna around the sides of the highway looked like the foliage one sees on the highways between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, save for the occasional palm tree or technicolor blossoms.  It wasn’t so much that it was familiar as that it didn’t register as exotic.  And I think that’s how it goes in my mind.  I still see all the details, catching all the things that would appear exotic and tropical and strange at first but my mind no longer registers it as different – just as any rest stop along a highway looks pretty much like every rest stop along the highway, save for the meandering chicken in the restaurant that is no longer bizarre but only memorable.

In the late afternoon light we drove over a mountain range that looked like it had come out of a computer animated Pixar movie.  The mountains didn’t slope in broad ranges like the mountains I grew up with, but rather shot straight up with sharp, flat peaks and huge drops between them.  The sun settled in hazy patches between the crags and as we passed over the highest point and began our descent I looked out the window at a long road along the ridge of a lower mountain – like the spine of a dragon – stretching out like a long pier and at the end sat a large statue of Buddha, his back to the open mouth of the valley and his immense hands crested and facing upward in his lap.  We moved down past another mountain crest and he disappeared.

30 Kilometers From Nongbualamphu

About 30 kilometers out from our destination of Nongbualamphu Neung started receiving frequent telephone calls on his cell.  He spoke briefly with each one and he directed Andy to turn off the highway at a nearby exit.  We moved off the highway and onto a smaller, 2-lane road.  Immediately I noticed the Tuk-Tuks in Isaan were different.  Rather than a 3-wheel go-kart with a forward facing backseat carriage, accommodating maybe 3 persons in the back and maybe two in the front (including the driver), the Tuk-Tuk’s out here are a motorcycle in the front with a carriage in the back that has benches facing each other on each side, allowing probably 6 persons to fit in the back at once.  I noted the difference to Andy right as a tractor pulled out in front of him and he swerved to go around him.  “Welcome to Isaan,” he said with a big, toothy grin.

A ways down this road Neung received another call and he motioned for Andy to pull over to the side of the road.  We pulled into what looked like a motorbike dealer and Neung got out of the truck for a minute.  When he got back in he gestured behind us and said, “Moto-sai,” and we turned around to follow a broad-backed man on a big chopper with wide handle bars.  He led us down a side road and into a “resort” which was about 12 bungalows around a culdesac .  We were told which numbers were ours and we drove down to the end and unpacked the truck.  Each bungalow was like a little one-room house (plus a bathroom) with painted tile floors and colorful walls, a tiny front lawn with a garden hedge and each with an individual driveway.

Making Weight

The sun was quickly setting and Neung came and knocked on my door, telling me to find my Thai oil and get into my shorts for a massage.  It took a while for me to really understand all his instructions (he doesn’t speak English and my Thai is spotty) but I finally figured it out and stretched out on the tiled bench that lined our porch.  Neung rubbed oil over my legs, stomach, back and arms, then had me suit up in sweats and my rain jacket to begin jogging and shadowboxing in circles around the grassy, shrubby median that ran the length of the culdesac.  I asked him how long, suggesting 30 minutes as a guess and he nodded as if he hadn’t even considered setting a time frame.

I ran in circles, about 100 feet length on each side, throwing short punches as I went.  A few times Neung told me to chill out, “sabai, sabai” with the speed of my running and the length of my punches, showing that I was just supposed to jog at a lazy pace and keep my arms moving to generate sweat.  About 10 minutes into my circles, as it was getting quite dark, a little 5-year-old Thai boy who lived at the hotel began running with me, on the opposite side of the median.  He would sprint and then stop, duck down and hide from me and then sprint again.  I thought for a minute he would catch up with me but then he disappeared.  Abandoned by my little training partner I put on the hood of my jacket and kept running until Neung flagged me down.

I laid out again on the tile bench and he put a towel over me to rub my legs and back.  Sweat was now dripping out of the cuffs of my jacket and I felt quite soggy all over.  His massage was surprisingly painful given the low level of exertion from running in circles.  He had me stretch my legs a bit and then handed me the jump rope, telling me 10 minutes.  I jumped and listened to a podcast on why women-owned start-ups aren’t a thing, my earphones getting slippery in my ears and the sound of the plastic hood of my jacket making exaggerated crinkly sounds.  Neung stopped me after 5 minutes to wipe my face with a towel and then had me resume jumping while he sat on the porch looking quite comfortably authoritative and checking his watch.

After another 5 minutes he took my jump rope and showed me how he wanted me to shadowbox.  A lot of footwork, jumping around and very light, lazy arms.  I did this for another 5 minutes and then he gave me one more rubdown before sending me inside to check my weight.  I happily stripped off the jacket, watching little drops from the sweat splatter across the pavement.  I kicked off my shoes and took off my sweatpants, stripping down to my undershorts and sports bra in the bathroom and toweling off before stepping on the scale.  I was surprised that I’d lost a whole kilo in such a short amount of time, but I couldn’t see in the light and with the weird bubble plastic over the numbers whether it was flat on the 45 kg line.  So I called Kevin in and he checked at a few angles before we announced to Neung that it was 45 kg.  He made a surprised and happy sound and told me to shower and get dressed so we could go eat.

The way I cut weight doesn’t involve cutting down to weight and then going for dinner in order to cut down again the next morning, but I follow my coaches.  We went out and found a street vendor – the same you see on any corner in Chiang Mai, or in Thailand anywhere – ordered some food and sat down on the plastic stools that surrounded each table.  I nervously and carefully sipped water and scraped the sauce off the pork and picked at the rice.  Neung told me to eat, that I’d hit 45 so it was no problem, but I was concerned about the salt causing me to retain water as I’d been cutting sodium out completely and dehydrating all day.

I remarked how the street on which we were eating seemed almost exactly like what I’d be experiencing on any street corner in Chiang Mai.  For all the talk people give about the uniqueness of Isaan, it doesn’t feel drastically different.  The people look a bit different, the dialect is notably different and there’s farmland everywhere, but it is still strongly and comfortably Thailand.  Just as every town in the US has it’s own character (or used to, back when my family would road trip when I was a kid; now days when I drive across the US everything looks the same all throughout) and this is notable in small degrees in Isaan, but by and large it felt more same same than different.

Little Thai House - Bungalow - Nongbualamphu

Massage Dropping Weight - Muay Thai - Sylvie

Back at the resort we agreed upon when we would meet in the morning and filed into our bungalows.  A few days before the trip down Taywin had told me that I would be weighing in a day early, the morning before the parade the day before the fight rather than the morning of the fight.  I’d been pleased by that idea because I didn’t like the thought of being hot and dehydrated and uncomfortable on a float, posing with my opponent for a parade.  The idea of being done with weigh in seemed much more amicable.  Once we were actually in Isaan the time for the weigh in went from 8:00 AM to 9 AM to 10 AM in the course of the evening.  It’s Thailand.

Back in our room I finished the few ounces of water I had left in my liter for the day and changed into leggings and a long shirt before tucking myself in under the thick blanket on the bed.  Kevin and I watched some American TV shows on the computer and then went to sleep.  A few hours later I woke up in a sweat.  I could feel myself sweating everywhere and it seemed like anywhere I rolled was just a wet sheet.  I tried to just go back to sleep, since sweating out during the night was my whole plan, but I couldn’t take it anymore and I decided I’d run it out in the morning again if I had to, just to be able to sleep now.  So I got up and took a hot shower, stood in front of the fan for a minute and then crawled back into bed.  (The sheets were dry, I was just having a crazy fit before.)

When I awoke the next morning I went into the bathroom, spit a few times and stepped on the scale.  The needle quivered just behind the 45 kg line.

Nongbualamphu - Isaan - Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu - Home

Our Hosts

When Neung came to knock on our door for breakfast I stood on the scale to show him I was at 45 kg.  He looked shocked and then happy and told me I could eat breakfast.  I laughed and told him “no way,” that I’d sip some coffee but I was good until weigh in.  There was another man there with him who looked at my weight and inspected my scale a few times.  After a while I figured out he was from the TV channel that was putting on the fights and we got into his SUV to drive over to breakfast, which actually happened to be right next door.  We literally could have walked through the hedges and gotten there faster, but apparently the right thing to do is drive back and forth.

The place next door was elaborate.  I wasn’t sure at first if it was another resort as there were no rooms, just a big building that looked like a nice house and a patio with two very large wooden tables and benches, a wooden canopy and fountains around it.  The tables and benches were giant slabs of lacquered wood, perhaps enormous trees cut at a bias.  We sat down and were served a Thai rice porridge for breakfast.  Neung explained in Thai that I couldn’t eat because of weigh in and then helped me figure out instant coffee for myself.  People buzzed around us, coming and going as if they were staff in a nice hotel or hosts at a private home or people who I should know – it was confusing and comfortable all at once.

(I realized later it is the private home of the local government official who presided over and probably helped organize the fight event.  As a politician it made sense for his home to accommodate hosting large groups.)

Weigh In

During breakfast I’d received a fight top from Muay Dee Wi Tee Thai, the TV program that was promoting and broadcasting the fight.  I do love swag.  I love it so much and I’m a pretty good person to give it to because I actually wear it until it falls apart.  Getting a shirt or shorts never loses its excitement for me, so I was inspecting this top for a really long time before actually putting it on.  I also got some Vivo gloves, which I was to wear for the photos.

Muay Dee Wi Tee Thai TV fight shirt

I got dressed in my new, blue and super soft poly-blend material fight top and my blue Lanna shorts and we headed out to the venue.  It wasn’t far from our resort, maybe a 5 km drive.  It was out front on the lawn of a big government office, which Andy explained was the most important type building for local government.  He was very interested in whether or not the ring they would be constructing (which wasn’t there yet) would be the same one that he had been working for the past year delivering and erecting all around Thailand.  There was a big government sponsored effort to put rings everywhere, providing them for schools and towns and athletic commissions all over Thailand, so Andy had literally been driving all over the country with rings in the back of his truck, setting them up and heading on to the next place, whether a field or a school or a hotel.  (It did not turn out to be his company’s ring, although the runway down to the ring which we walked had used his company’s stairs.)

When we first arrived I was in my sweatpants and a zip-up jacket, despite Isaan being significantly hotter than Chiang Mai is right now.  The north of Thailand is really the only place that experiences a “cold season” and Isaan is not far enough north for it.  Fights the next day were scheduled to commence at 2:00 PM and I was wondering how hot it would be, given that it was already in the high 80’s (probably) at 10:00 AM.

I saw my opponent across the way and went over to say hello.  She gave me a big but shy smile and when I got over to her the government official running this shindig immediately had us stand shoulder to shoulder.  She was a good 4 or 5 inches taller than I am, but she didn’t seem nearly as tall as I’d expected.  We stood on either side of the official and posed in fight stance and with both of us having our arms raised.  It was friendly.  I went over and sat down across the table from Neung and a woman came and brought over four glasses of water for me, Neung, Kevin and Andy.  I smiled and thanked her, knowing I couldn’t drink it until after I stepped on the scale.  There was some milling around and some people coming and inspecting me before the crowd finally organized into getting the scale out and actually getting us weighed in.

Everyone gathered around a small digital bathroom scale and Nong Mai was instructed to weigh in first.  She stepped very tentatively onto the scale, lifting her full weight onto it so slowly it was like she thought it would break.  She stood there while the digits fluttered and fluctuated until finally landing on 45.5 kg.  We were signed to fight at 45 kg.  So they called me over and I stepped up on the scale and the numbers settled on exactly the same number: 45.5 kg.  Everyone started clapping and cheering.  There were some shouts back and forth from different folks and it was decided we would double check the weight.  So Nong Mai stepped back on the scale and it stayed at 45.5 and then when I stepped back on and it was still 45.5 everyone applauded again.  I think the joy was in us both being over the same amount so nobody had to jump or run off the weight – there was some official agreement that we would accept 45.5 kg as the new weight instead of both having to drop down to 45 and then it was time for photos. You can see video of the excitement and get a feel of it all below:

 

Neung called me over immediately to go get some water and an Ovaltine malt drink after weighing in, as if I were at the brink of death and needed fluid “post haste!”  I didn’t know if this was for show – acting as if I’m much bigger than I actually am and pretend like I really struggled down to 45 kg – or if it was just how it’s done.  So I went over with Neung and got the drinks and then was hurried back over to the lawn for pictures.

We put on our gloves and stood behind a long table, behind which all the officials sat in a line.  A lot more people stood on either side of us and even behind us while journalists snapped photos on big cameras and directed our gazes and lay folk joined in taking photos on their phones.  We stood there for a long time while Khun Jaru, the representative from the TV station, read out the official fight card, name by name and weight by weight.  This was a little odd to me as an outsider because there were no video cameras around and when he had difficulty with a name he was corrected and would start over from the fight previous, as if it were being recorded for editing.  But Thailand and Thai culture is much about appearances, so it’s not hard to understand.  I stood right behind him and could read the card (in Thai) over his shoulder.  Nong Mai and I were listed as the third fight and, a curious thing, a third of the fights were listed in kilograms and the other two-thirds were in pounds.  It didn’t seem to be based on the weight itself (like, over 50 kg being lbs instead), so I reckoned it might be the region the fighters are from.  (In Bangkok they use pounds.)

The longer I stood next to Nong Mai, the less tall she felt.

Nong Mai Sit Rapee and Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

“Sylvie, you like ant egg?”

After weigh in we came back to our rooms for a quick shower and change of clothing before heading back over next door for lunch.  Before the food came out one of the reps from the TV program – he was a gentleman with a kind face and a ready laugh, we found out later he had been a doctor for 14 years – brought out a small bag that was bulged with something heavy at the bottom.  He placed it in front of me and as he opened the top asked me, “Sylvie, you like ant egg?”  My first response was what? as I didn’t even register what that meant, but then I peered over the lip of the bag and saw what looked like soaked barley at first, but was unmistakeably larvae by their shape.  A few black ants scurried to and fro around the top of the pile and I wondered if they were hatched or caught when the booty was being scooped from the hive in the first place, or what?  I responded that I’d never tried them and reached over to gather a few between my first two fingers and thumb.  They were slightly cooler than I’d expected and felt – I don’t know, fleshy?  They had a very slight give, the way the tiny segments on clementine oranges do from the juice inside.  Kevin snapped open the cover of the camera and hurriedly pointed it at me as I popped the three little larvae into my mouth.  They burst on my tongue as I began to chew and released a kind of funky, fermented taste.  It wasn’t unpleasant but it definitely wasn’t something I’d eat as a “wow, I could really go for some ant eggs right now” kind of thing. I took a few more in my fingers and put those in my mouth for a second try – one thing I learned from watching Andrew Zimmern’s show Bizarre Foods is that you should always take two bites, even if you don’t like it.  The second taste is rarely the same as the first.

Isaan Food - Muay Thai Host

(Later on I did have some ant eggs sprinkled on top of a Thai omelet and in that context they were a lovely textural addition and the flavor didn’t register quite so funky.)

It was a beautiful spread of food brought out to us, a curry followed by fried rice with Isaan sausage and Thai omelets, as well as two hard-boiled eggs specifically for me.  Neung directed me to eat both of them and watched me closely to make sure I ate a lot – he was probably still freaked out that I hadn’t finished my dinner the night before.

The Parade

After lunch we had a rest and Andy remarked how it was a good thing they’d decided to cancel the parade since it was “so damn hot.”  I offered that I’d definitely heard (eavesdropping in on Neung’s conversation in Thai with the TV program rep) that something was happening at 6:00 PM, so I reckoned they were waiting until early evening.  Andy agreed that was a better idea than midday and we all wen to our rooms for a lie down.

Well before 6:00 Neung came and knocked on my door and told me to put on my fight top, but when I asked if I needed my shorts he said not to bother, so I wore my jeans.  I figured maybe we’d be sitting or not visible from the waist down for the parade?

When we got to the venue – the large field was starting to develop with scaffolding, stacked chairs, moving workers and equipment for the events of the next day – Neung was handed a very large bag and given instructions on how to get to a different location.  I caught very little of what the official was telling Neung I’d be doing but I did understand hair and make up.  I should have known that for a parade I’d be done up some, but I was pretty surprised anyway.  We pulled up to a bridal shop and salon in town, a few short blocks away, where I found my opponent already in a chair with a full face of makeup.  Full face.   I still don’t know why I was surprised – maybe because this is Muay Thai? – forgetting that this was a parade and in Thailand.  Beauty contests and floats are a huge part of nearly every celebration in Thailand and any festival fight could have a beauty contest right next to the ring, but because I don’t participate in that half of it I was really taken aback to be thrust into it as a Muay Thai fighter because I’m female.

The salon workers were fantastic.  They were two very, very effeminate young men who I would only casually label as kathoey, the Thai third gender “lady boys” as they’re called, but these boys didn’t dress as women and yet did use the female polite particle “ka” at the end of sentences, therefore did self-identify as female to some degree.  They fawned over my opponent and chatted frenetically like chirping birds, giggling and gesticulating as the larger of the two – who had a really incredible face that looked like a sculpted lion mask to me – teased my hair up so big I was really afraid he was going for an 80’s Cyndi Lauper look.  He did start combing it around and gave me a twisty, half-up ‘do with full volume.  My opponent and I exchanged shy smiles and stole glimpses of each other in the mirror as the other beautician and Nong Mai’s mother began to fuss over how to make her ponytail go straight up on top of her head in a traditional Thai style.

They fussed for a while before having the two of us change seats so that now I was getting my makeup done and she was with the lion-faced beautician who seemed to be more conducive to hair theatrics.

Thai Beauty Salon - Muay Thai - Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

The one working on my makeup had a really beautiful, youthful and not entirely androgynous face.  S/he was amazing with makeup and basically spackled my face with foundation that almost entirely covered my black eye.  I then got blue eyeshadow and glitter eye-liner, blush and very pink lip-gloss.  When I got out of the chair Neung pulled a number of items out of the big bag that the TV program rep had given him and told me to go change into them.  It was a full uniform of Top King gear – a top, shorts with my name, gym and a bunch of advertising sponsors on them, anklets, a mongkon and prajaet.  I went behind a semi-circled curtain that acted as a dressing room and discovered that my Top King top was quite small at the top.  That’s great for fit (when the shoulder straps slide down I lose my mind) but is terrible when you have both big hair and a full face of makeup.  You have to choose: makeup or hair?  If you choose to try to clear your big hair you run the fabric right over your wet-paint face and if you choose to try to clear your face you’re putting the tension right over your giant hair.  I couldn’t call for help because it was just too sad, so I tried to put the whole thing over my head first and then try to cram my arms through underneath, which proved a terrible choice.  I got stuck and had to pop a few stitches to get my right arm through, but damnit! I looked good!!

Andy laughed at me many times and made good fun of me when I crawled back into his truck to go back to the venue.  I joked along, saying I didn’t know how I’d ever fought without this and that the Thai boys at the camp must love their “away” fights for this very reason.  Andy laughed and joked, but I think he actually enjoyed the experience a little.  Kevin actually really did love the whole thing.

Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu v Nong Mai Sit Rapee Isaan promo

Nueng and Sylvie

Nueng and Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

my boxing coach former WBC belt holder Neung

Neung and Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu - Isaan

 

When we got back to the venue we took some photos, exchanging who stood between me and Nong Mai in a round about pattern and Neung got a picture with us as well – he seemed delighted by the whole process – and then we walked over and climbed up on top of a truck that had a motorcycle and an umbrella and a railing around the edge; that was it.  Nong Mai’s mother and Neung and Kevin climbed up behind us and we stood side-by-side in fight poses as the truck began to roll.  Nong Mai’s mother blotted her face with a cloth every now and again and Neung offered me water a couple of times, but other than that we just stood there in our fight poses as the truck rolled through town and a recorded announcement gave details of the fight.

It was a little strange standing there all dolled up, in a full fight outfit with Mongkon and Prajaet and wearing gloves but with makeup melting in the hot sunlight, the smell of hairspray vaguely around my head and standing next to my opponent in what felt unmistakeably like a modeling exhibit.  The non-feminine quality of my muscled body next to my opponent’s endless, soft and willowy limbs further accentuated the twin islands of masculine and feminine, strength and beauty, between which the two of us and our impending fight stood as a bridge.  I was not at first comfortable transitioning from beauty salon to fight-face (and indeed did not really ever become comfortable so much as accepting) but I realized that for the promotion and for many of the Thai people involved there was no transition necessary – it wasn’t flipping from one side of the coin to the other but was rather a celebration – albeit strongly stereotyped – of the fact that we are female fighters.  We were not ignoring that a fight was taking place and we were not abandoning or suppressing the feminine ideal in order to “play male” in a masculine-idealized sport, but rather embracing the two at once.  This was not unproblematic for my western analytical mind, but because I am somewhat outside of the culture in which this preparation of traditional female/male gender role typing was being played out it felt exotic and a little surreal, rather than merely restrictive.

School had just let out and the main roads of town were absolutely buzzing, full of kids walking, on motorbikes and packed into the backs of trucks with benches that act as school buses.  They all looked up, turning around on the backs of the motorcycles and waving from the sides of the road.  Many laughed, a few tiny little boys put up their fists and boxed at us a little bit and everyone – I mean everyone – I made eye-contact with gave me a huge smile and thumbs up.

I was impressed by how beautiful the people of Isaan are.  They are beautiful in the way they are friendly and open and smiling, but they are also just incredibly beautiful on a stunning-face, surface level.  In Chiang Mai there are many beautiful girls.  It’s a university town and the mean age is pretty young and since I live near the university I see lots of beautiful young women around all the time.  Usually one in every 20 or so is just stunning.  Central Thailand does not prize the darker skin and features of Isaan and instead favor a very light skinned, European half-Thai look in print media and TV/movies that is unfortunate because real Thai looking Thais are so much more beautiful.  In Isaan, on that 5km parade that led from the government building to the government house next door to our resort I was amazed to see that about 1 in ever 5 of the school girls I saw on that route were just unbelievably beautiful.  And the boys, though not as many, are also very handsome.  Isaan is just full of really beautiful people.

Muay Thai Parade - Isaan Nongbualamphu


You can see video of the event above

Meeting Khun Jaru

I’d met Khun Jaru earlier but only really had a chance to sit with him and talk at dinner that night.  Again we had an incredible spread of food and there was a testing smile that accompanied every inquiry of, “do you eat sticky rice?”  Sticky rice is glutenous rice and it’s aptly named for how it sticks together (and to everything it touches).  You eat it with your hands, forming a ball and dipping it in delicious, spicy sauces and to pick up clumps of food.  It is absolutely a part of the Isaan identity and the question is humorous, but also with some pride and judgement.  And yes, I eat sticky rice – you can find it everywhere, not only in Isaan – and it will help you sleep if ever you have a bout of insomnia.

Khun Jaru is a head honcho over at channel 11 and the Muay Dee Wi Tee Thai program, which was producing and broadcasting the fight event.  He has a very open face with eyebrows that almost vanish behind his spectacles, but his forehead and shaved head form a shape together that is almost a permanent inquiring expression, which is very sympathetic.  He has an almost imperceptible lisp (something I pick up on when others don’t) that connotes a gentleness and gentleman class quality rather than an impediment.  He asked me many questions and seemed genuinely interested in my answers, even when language became somewhat obstructive to the communication.

As it turns out Khun Jaru used to work in the movies and, indeed, had a big hand in producing Ong Bak and The Protector (or as it’s known in Thailand: Tom Yum Goong, which is the name of a spicy shrimp soup).  My mouth dropped open and he seemed equally surprised at my familiarity of the movies.  You must know this, I explained to him, Ong Bak is what introduced me to Muay Thai in the first place.  I’d never seen Muay Thai at all before that movie.  You, sir, are the reason I am doing Muay Thai, in a way.  How great to sit there and see this man who had played a part in my introduction to Muay Thai right at its inception when I fell in love with the movements and now, here, together we are expanding my experience of it with my first fight in Isaan and first televised fight.

Khun Jaru asked me if I’d like to be in movies, sitting up straighter and looking more excited when I nodded and said, “yes, sure.”  He asked me if I really meant it and gave the, “I can make you a star!” expression while I shifted in my seat and smiled, adding, “yes, but fight first,” and Andy laughed and chimed in, “yes, let her finish fighting first!”  It was a very sweet exchange.

Don’t Drink the Water – Fight Day

The next morning at breakfast I got myself a coffee (now an expert at mixing instant coffee, thanks to Neung’s tutelage) and sat down.  The government official and owner of the house was sitting at the head of the table.  I wai’d to him and realized much too late that I’d done it in an inappropriate way for his status – I wai’d with my hands too low in relation to my face, and my head did not bow enough to accommodate touching only the mouth, implying equality – and hoped that my foreignness would excuse what probably came off as rude.  He greeted us and spoke in Thai with Neung for a moment before wishing us a good breakfast and going into the house with a phone call.

I overheard Neung asking one of the ladies organizing the food to get me a plate of rice because I’d be fighting in a few hours.  He was firm about something regarding what I would be eating but I wasn’t entirely sure what that was, especially since he came over and sat down with a plate of a fried dough breakfast and gestured for me to share it.  I’d seen this on my street a million times and always wanted to try it but wasn’t sure how it’s done.  It’s dough cut into strips that often stick together and form little X shapes, but puffed.  It comes with hot soy milk or a green dipping sauce.  Neung just dipped his in his coffee.  I picked one up and took a tentative bite.  It tasted like fried dough – not sweet, like pizza crust but lighter.  I tried dipping it in my coffee, but it wasn’t sweet so it wasn’t a great combination.  In America we’d douse that stuff in powdered sugar and call it a Zeppoli, I think.

I had a more reasonable array of food, filling up on a fried egg, BBQ (which is really just grilled) chicken (including my first ever chicken foot, which tastes exactly like the rest of the chicken but for a slightly weird texture), a boiled pork soup and a stir-fried baby corn and shrimp dish.  Midway through the meal Neung got a call and barely spoke into the phone but grunted affirmations a few times before handing it to me.  I heard Den’s voice on the other side and stood up to step away from the table.  Den asked how I felt and then launched into asking why we’d weighed in a day early.  I explained that Taywin had spoken with the promoter and then told me it was at 8:00 the previous morning.  Den was not happy.  He said he’d been speaking with the promoter, too and that Taywin wasn’t supposed to be making decision (which I totally agree – I was curious why Taywin was directing so much of the communication for this fight, but he had originally been who was coming as my corner so I figured it was residual even after Neung was selected as my corner).  Den said, “in Thailand we weigh in the same day, not the day before,” and I told him that I didn’t think it was a problem.  I was actually happy to have done it already and didn’t think weight was much of an advantage for my opponent whose height was the real obstacle.  Den made it clear that weighing in the same day was our advantage because my opponent’s height would have made her making 45 kg much harder than it is for me and she would have been tired.  Then he stopped and told me it was no problem, that he’d call the promoter and not to worry, to just do my best.

I was happy to hear Den’s voice.  I was even happy he was upset because it felt like he was invested in me, protecting me and looking out for me.  I also, quietly, was really happy that he didn’t think it was appropriate for Taywin to be making the decisions with the promoter, which was driving me up the wall as well, since Den is my coach, trainer, manager… everything.  I want all things to go through him.

Heading to the Fight

Fashion Models and Muay Thai

There were a few hours between breakfast and heading over to the fight, so I showered and laid down to rest but couldn’t really sleep.  So I shadowboxed in the room, listened to music, read a little bit and then just laid still for a while.  I felt good.  I felt nervous and eager – hungry for the fight.

At about noon Neung came to tell me to get ready.  Apparently I had to go get my hair done again, although I was pretty sure it would be fight appropriate and not a fancy wedding up ‘do.  Fairly sure.

At the salon my opponent was just getting finishing touches.  We smiled at each other and then she and her mother headed out.  Neung and Kevin sat on the couch and Andy waited in the truck.  Neung was super uncomfortable in that space, but was more talkative today when the older lady who may have owned the shop was chatting and knotting my hair.  She twisted the front all back in loose braids and secured them at the nape of my neck in rubber bands, then made a bun there.  It looked good, but didn’t feel like it would hold in a fight.  I figured I could redo it later myself.

She asked about my black eye, which Neung explained was from training.  My black eye had been a near constant source of interest for the promoters, TV people, beauticians, etc.  They all were very accepting of the explanation that it came from training and the men all were very enthusiastic when I added that it didn’t hurt, mai jep.  In fact, when I got the black eye it was just a little blood blister no larger than a beauty mark from a tiny pinch of impact during padwork.  My two trainers Neung and Den a few days ago had argued with each other over who had given it to me and when I confirmed it was Den Neung had done a victory dance.  It was just a small thing, not bending back far enough on dodging a hook.  But they didn’t want me to have a black eye for a big fight on TV so I’d done everything I knew to do to make it go away faster and humorously enough by messing with it too much I accidentally burned the skin under my eye, over the bruise.  (That skin is delicate folks – warm water, not hot water on the eyes!)  Ironically, the bruise disappeared completely by fight day but the burn was dark and crescent under my eye, peeling a bit like snake-skin.  Buying that this was just from training must have been more confusing than just a black eye.

Putting on Make Up - Female Muay Thai

Now this lady, who’d just inspected my head while doing my hair, asked about the scar in my hairline from the stitches I got a few months ago.  Neung gave her the story, laughing and letting his voice rise to a point of breaking a little bit, like telling a joke you almost can’t get out, but he said it with pride when he explained that I hadn’t stopped fighting.  She never stops, he said in Thai.  The lady made a “ooooh” sound and the lion-faced beautician flailed his/her arms and rapidly said something about how the moment a strike got near the fight would be over.  It was pretty funny.  I offered the phrase chi wit nakmuay, meaning “it’s the life/fate of a fighter,” and they all nodded.

The lady started doing my makeup and under her breath, almost like a personal reminder, said bao bao, meaning “gentle” or “light.”  She told me to close my eyes a few times to dust on some shadow and once, when not paying attention I delayed and she very casually asked me, in Thai, how to say lap dtaa in “Farang.”  She didn’t know what language I speak, so she just asked, “how do you say close your eyes in foreign?”  I found this really charming, especially since she didn’t know whether I would even understand her.  I told her, “close eyes” and she repeated it a few times and then I translated the literal words to Thai (lap dtaa as a phrase means close your eyes but literally means “sleep eyes”, so I said bpit dtaa “close eyes”) and she started kind of singing the two phrases together.  I loved that exchange.

All told I got my hair done twice because the lion-faced beautician didn’t think my hair done by the lady was good enough.  So everything came out and three french braids were put in, secured at the back and the rest knotted in a bun.  It felt secure and Neung had explained that it has to last through clinching, demonstrating the turmoil my head would endure through arm gestures.  The back was secure, but the top I knew would be risky.  I didn’t want to redo it though as I would have to take everything out, so I just ended up with messy hair at the end of the fight.  For makeup I had a little shadow, blush and lip gloss, all of which got covered in Vaseline about 30 minutes later.

Putting on Vaseline Before Muay Thai Fight - Isaan

what it would look like when Neung applies my fight vaseline

Neung Wrapping Hands - Muay Thai Government Office

Dressing Rooms and Documents

When we got back to the venue we were ushered into the big building while Andy parked the truck.  We were led upstairs and past my opponent who was already getting her oil massage into a small glass office in the back of the room.  The air was flipped on and Neung laid out the mat.  I had a feeling that we were not the third fight and that my opponent’s corner knew this, so I prepared myself for being the first fight.

Before we left the resort for the salon Andy had told me to pack my own water.  He told me that Den had called him and was concerned about the changed weigh in (still) and because a lot of money was being bet on this fight he told us to be wary that someone might try to mess with me, so not to accept water from anyone, food from anyone, etc.  Andy and I agreed that the 200,000 Baht riding on this fight wasn’t a great deal of money for the people putting up the bet, but we heeded Den’s warning and brought our own water and ice.

Neung wrapped my hands to feel like clubs and it was great.  Then I got covered in oil before a group from the TV program came in and told Neung we had to go downstairs.  When we got down to the front of the building there was a large crowd of police and reporters, all of whom wanted pictures either with me and my opponent or of me, my opponent and some officials that rotated in and out.  Then Nong Mai’s father appeared and everyone cheered, indicating perhaps that he’s a somebody in local politics.  Then I had to dig a pen out of my bag and fill out a form that was basically information about my name, gym, age, birthday, number of fights, trainers names, height, etc.  I began writing answers in Thai script and a small group of men gathered behind me to watch what must have seemed like a magic trick – a Farang writing in Thai.  Neung helped me interpret what some of the questions were and calculate what my birth year is in the Buddhist calendar and I heard Andy make an exclamation of surprise because he had no idea I’ve been studying Thai to that degree. Many learn the spoken language, few learn the script.  (He’s lived in Thailand 22 years and can understand quite a lot of Thai, but doesn’t speak, read or write it.)  I think it went over as a big impression on the Thais who saw it and I’m pleased that it did because I have made the effort to really learn to speak, read and write Thai out of respect to and interest in the culture and people.

Putting Gloves on - Isaan - Muay Thai

When we got over to the tent with the gloves my opponent already had her’s on.  Neung was handed a pair of blue gloves and then suddenly an argument broke out.  Apparently we were provided gloves by Top King, who sponsored our whole ensemble, but they are 10 oz and everyone else was fighting with the standard 8 oz gloves.  I had my blue Top King gloves right in my bag but I watched Neung argue back and forth until Nong Mai’s corner began untaping her gloves to change out for the 8 oz.  Brilliant!  I loved not only that it was the right thing (gotta love that) but also that it was Neung playing toward my advantage, which I’ve actually never experienced in any fight before, whereas I’ve experienced advantages being handed over to my opponent right in front of me several times before.  Once I was tied into my gloves Neung told me to start shadowboxing, mere inches away from a large crowd of locals there for the fights.

I shadowed hard, throwing long punches and stepping hard to cover distance, snapping my punches and flexing a bit.  I was self conscious and showing off at the same time.  So weird.  Then Neung grabbed my wrist and guided me over to a place next to the large stage where he put a piece of ice in my mouth and told me to shadow some more.  More people gaped at me, children stood a foot away and just stared, unabashed.  I was taken under the stage itself and given instruction – only in Thai – about how I was supposed to walk out.  I didn’t understand it at all and worried I was supposed to make some kind of turns or wait somewhere off to the side after being introduced or something that I’d be totally lost doing and on a stage at that.  Thankfully I slowly started to realize by looking at all the children dressed in blue or red vests under the ring that I’d seen this show before and the fighters always walk out with kids (a show borrowed from soccer), do a little shadow boxing thing and then bow to each other before entering the ring.  It was uncomplicated.

I was guided back out to the area on the side of the stage and shadowed a bit more before Neung pulled over a plastic chair and told me to sit down.  Locals came up to me right and left to have photos taken.  I would stand and move the chair when police officials came up and keep my head low to the shoulder in a seated fight pose when grandmas and kids came up.  It was amazing how many people wanted a picture with me.  A group of three women came up to my husband, a grandmother and two teenagers and started talking to him in Thai or Lao (the dialect of Isaan) and he had no idea what they were saying.  Finally one of the teens reached into her memory or her confidence or somewhere and slowly gave the sentence in English, “she is so beautiful.”  Then the grandma came and took a picture with me and wished me good luck.

A better came and looked me up and down, then handed me 100 Baht before the fight.

Little Thai Fans - Girls and Grandma Isaan

Two Thai Girls Before the Fight - Muay Thai - Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu - Isaan

Muay Thai Grandma - NongbuaLamphu Isaan - Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

Photos Before the Fight - Fan

Finally I was given the blessing by Andy as he wrapped my sponsored blue cape around me and went to stand under the stage for our entrance.  We were, indeed, the first fight.  I stood next to my opponent for probably 15-20 minutes on either side of the staircase leading up, the kids who were supposed to walk out with the fighters being rallied for the entrance while the rest of them bumbled around and many other children, not part of the event and none nearly so rotund and the cute little examples hired for the entrance, stared at me with unmoving, unreadable expressions.  The kid I was to make my entrance with was standing still and then producing flurries of punches to the air, shadowboxing harder than half the guys at my gym.  This kid was serious and he refused to look at me.  My opponent craned her neck and looked over the stage while two announcers gave a seemingly endless talk, but I kept hearing my name over and over again so I knew they were introducing the card or the fight or something that would lead to our entrance.  Nong Mai’s mother crept past me with her folded white cloth and dabbed at Nong Mai’s sweat-beaded face before Nong Mai hissed and in pure teen irritation batted her hand away with her bulbous red glove.

Then the music and steam started and up she and the little red vested boy went.  I watched from the first stair to make sure my understanding of the task was correct and indeed it was.  So on cue we firmly trodded up the stairs to the stage and stood on the first X, then a guy at the bottom of the front steps beckoned us forward to the next X, where we threw some punches to the air, then he motioned us forward to the last pair of X’s and we turned and bowed to each other before he went off wherever little kids like that go and I stepped down and walked around to get in the ring.

You can read about my fight and watch the video of it in my post 35th Fight – Nong Mai Sit Rapee

 

 

 

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Muay Thai

A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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