J and I were arguing over the date that establishes the gym, Petchrungruang. Neither of us know for certain, I’m basing my number on a T-shirt that says 1986 and J is actually part of the family, he’s Pi Nu’s cousin but nearly 20 years younger so he didn’t live it first-hand, he says that the accounts for the date differ and he’d written 1982 on the new website he is putting up (still being worked on, but completed very soon). So, of course, we have to ask Pi Nu, my trainer for the real foundation date.
When Pi Nu was a kid the gym wasn’t a gym, it was a farm and it looked nothing like it does now. In fact, Pattaya – the city in which it’s situated – looked nothing like it does now. The Pattaya I see, everything is cement, there are cranes peppered across the horizon in any direction to indicate hopeful growth in real estate condo development, and the whole city is laid out on a grid: Jomtien, Thepprasit, South Street, Center Street, and North Street, all zipped neatly up by the superhighway, Sukhumvit. On the gym side of Sukhumvit is markets, shops, malls and the beach. On the other side is called “The Dark Side,” and it’s still pretty underdeveloped, but mostly residential and grassy, dirt fields between everything. When Pi Nu was a kid, however, some of these major roads weren’t paved; they were just dirt and between everything was banana trees and high grasses. To hear him describe it sounds like a different world.
His own father, Bamrung, also grew up on the farm (that’s Bamrung in the photo at the top of the article, looking handsome as can be). He wanted to be a Muay Thai fighter and his parents said “no way,” so he mostly just fought with his friends after school. For his own sons, he found them trainers and they began learning the art. They’d been training already for some years before they finally had a ring built in the backyard, the cement being poured into the ground to stake a claim to a proper training facility was a momentous event. That was 1986. So, they’d been training for sometime prior to that year, but they became legit with that ring in 1986. And that ring is still there; it’s tiny and the floor of it is soft, maybe from years of covering over old, torn canvas. The smaller kids mostly train in there and the few times I’ve gone in for clinching or sparring, it’s like playing on sand. Pi Nu opens up a photo album and points to an old picture with two gangly-limbed boys in Muay Thai shorts and gloves that make their arms look like lollipops, posed awkwardly in a “fight pose.” Next to them is a much younger boy, playing with a toy gun. Behind them is foliage from banana trees, grass, and some reddish dirt.
Pi Nu points to the two boys, “me,” he says, “and my brother.” I squint at the photo and can barely make out their likenesses – both are in their early 40s now and these kids are maybe around 10 years old. Then he points to the little one, “you know my cousin, he comes and lifts weights in the morning.” That guy is my age, so of course I immediately flash back to when I was this tiny kid’s size; yeah, this is probably around 1986… and go figure, in the photos around this page of the album you can see the ring. It doesn’t look like how it looks now. There was no roof and now it’s attached to a garage, as well as lined with apartments all around the perimeter. None of that is there. Pi Nu explains that when they were done training, they had to cover the ring. When it rained, they had to cover the ring. It was the entire gym back then. Now, it’s the kid’s ring, tucked away beneath the huge, way larger than standard sized ring that fills the majority of the training room. There’s a weight room now, lined with mirrors and benches, full of Cybex type machines and free weights. None of it was there. All of this was banana trees and dirt.
a filmed a little of the photo album flipping
Looking at these old pictures, Pi Nu launches down Memory Lane, just meandering and pointing as he goes. He points to little boys’ faces and tells me I know all these people. They’re all his cousins and I can recall some of their faces now, but attaching them to these little bodies in the photos is just a leap of faith. He points to a photo of four men lined up against the ropes of the ring, most of them shirtless. One, I recognize as his father, Bamrung. He’s amazingly handsome and you can see how all the men in the family got their looks. To the right of him is Pa Pong, who I see literally every day and call “Pi Nu’s Uncle Who Doesn’t Like Me,” as a nickname, to differentiate him to Kevin from “Pi Nu’s Uncle Who Likes Me.” He doesn’t actually dislike me, but compared to the one who does like me, it’s a reasonable differentiation, he’s very quiet. Pa Pong is probably about 70 years old now and kind of strolls through the gym with a half smile on his face, teasing the boys. I don’t recognize him at all in the photo, nearly 30 years ago. He was tall; he isn’t now as he’s kind of always bent at the middle. The last man in the line Pi Nu points to and says was his first Muay Thai trainer, “he’s dead already,” Pi Nu says in a very Thai, matter-of-fact way, “cancer,” he adds.
I’m flipping through the albums, laughing at one picture in which Pi Nu has a bandage on his ear. He laughs, too, saying this was after a Lumpinee fight. His brother gave him cauliflower ear from years of clinch training (it was worth it, his brother’s clinch is amazing), something that Pi Nu is partially proud of and partially very self-conscious. I reckon the pride part is newer than the embarrassment, so it will take a longer time to become the dominant feeling. In a fight at Lumpinee his cauliflower ear had really swelled up and he went to the hospital to have them try to drain it. They did a little bit but ultimately they’d have to do a surgery to cut out the meat of all that old scar tissue. He never went back for that procedure, so this photo in the album with the bandage on his ear is after they’d just sucked some of the fluid out. It captures a moment when he had decided that this would be part of him, forever.
Pi Nu is thinking, reminiscing, and he hops up out of his seat and starts punching the air, just left-right-left-right. “My first teacher,” he says, stopping to point at the album, “he make us do only this for an hour.” I look up at him, he’s marching back and forth across the tiled floor, just left-right-left-right. “No pads,” he said, “just punching, me and my brother like this.” Then he put his hands behind his head, like he’s going to do a situp, and marches back and forth bringing his knees up into his chest. “Then we do this,” he says, laughing, “when I boring [this is how Thais say, “when I get bored”] I do this,” and he dropped his knees so he was just phoning in the knees, “and my trainer make me bring them up, up.” He stops and shakes his head, then starts marching again, first punching and then the knees, to keep demonstrating. But his balance is awesome. He couldn’t do it wrong if he tried. “For months, only this,” he says, “and I think Muay Thai is very boring.” I laugh at that part. Then he explains that they only had one pad, just one, and nobody was allowed to kick it except the, “men before they fight.” That means older fighters, that Pi Nu and his brother Pi Nok were just too young, so they didn’t get to kick the pad at all. My God… what a different world from how Pi Nu grew up with Muay Thai and how his own son, about to turn 16, grew up with.
This came in the context of discussing the current gym, changing its training regimen to offer two pad sessions per day. Right now Pi Nu only offers one and you can pick morning or afternoon. Starting in August, you can select a two pad sessions per day price option. It’s so incredible that my thinking, as a westerner who has only spent a mere 4 years in Thailand, is that the “Thai way” is hard padwork, kicking the bag, sparring and clinching, then shadowing and doing conditioning around the perimeter. That’s how Bank, Pi Nu’s son, has trained. But just one generation apart, there were no pads. There probably weren’t any bags for a long time either. It was all shadow, all the time; all conditioning. When they got that ring, man… that was it. They became a real gym, even though they didn’t even have equipment. After a while, after those initial months, the brothers got to graduate into different kinds of training – Pi Nu’s stories about how hard his padwork was are some of my favorites – but multiple months of just marching back and forth doing high knees and left-right boxing. It probably still exists in family run gyms in rural areas of Thailand, gyms that just don’t have equipment or space. But what a pure kind of dedication. The way Pi Nu is telling me how bored he was, how much he hated this training, and yet there he is, marching across his livingroom doing those damn high knees and punches. He’s reminiscing. He’s nostalgic.
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