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Khem Lanna Muay Thai
meet Khem and his mother in this video
I first met Khem about a year ago when he was walking up the driveway of Lanna Muay Thai with a few rolling luggage suitcases in tow. I smiled and wai-ed to him, not knowing who he was. He smiled and nodded and I asked if I could help him with anything, thinking maybe he was someone coming to train. He walked right past me, ignoring my question entirely. I discovered a few days after that who he was and also that he didn’t acknowledge my question because he’s deaf, a detail that is both entirely notable and utterly invisible when you spend some time with him.
Khem I met is amazing. He’s a little taller than I am and quite stocky, totally the ex-champion body that has been “let go” and yet still has incredible strength and dexterity. He walks proudly and his confidence is quiet and deserved. When he speaks, he sounds a lot like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather,” all his words kind of muttered and muddled and yet he’s very easily understood. This drives Den nuts, because Den speaks very good English and people will sometimes not understand him and then Khem goes off about something that is certainly not audibly clear and yet it’s completely coherent to the same people who just said, “what? what? what?” to Den. But it’s because Khem is so expressive in what he’s trying to get across, and because so few of the words come through you have to go for the meaning and not the words themselves. When someone is speaking clearly you can get lost in the words themselves.
Khem jumped in the ring with me one day, brushing aside whomever it was I had expected to hold pads for me, and went to town making me hit harder and faster with every strike he called for. When the round was over and I was catching my breath he would express how I needed to not back up, that it wasn’t actually protecting me, to just move forward and be strong. I nodded; I knew exactly what he meant and I wanted to be what he he was saying I should be.
Photo: Den and Khem
About a month later Khem was in a terrible motorcycle accident on his way back from Lamphun, an area south of Chaing Mai where the Thai boys often have fights. Khem was in the hospital, in a coma. There was a heaviness at the gym that was felt even before I heard what had happened. The trainers and Pom (who owns the gym and “raised” Khem through his teen years) organized themselves to go visit him even before he regained consciousness. The doctors weren’t confident that he’d be able to walk again due to the severe damage to Khem’s back.
Khem began training and fighting for Lanna when he was about 15 years old. He was one of the first, an original at the camp, even before Nong Toom who is perhaps the most famous alum of the gym. His family is from Pai, which is not too far outside of Chiang Mai and is frequented by backpackers and hippies looking for a relaxed vibe in the countryside. But it’s a heavily agrarian area, a place where you can still see where the northern part of Thailand got it’s name Lanna which means literally “a million rice fields.” Khem’s family works the fields and that’s what Khem would have grown into as well, but he was sent to Chiang Mai by his parents to learn Muay Thai and help support the family that way, which he accomplished. He became Northern Thailand Champion at 135 lbs and went on to win titles in western-style boxing as well. He grew up at the camp, becoming like a son to Andy and Pom and a brother to Den and the other young Thai fighters of that time.
One of the most notable things about Khem when I first met him was his physicality. He’s so much in his body at all times, the way someone who has made a living off of his body tends to be. The word in Thai for a fight purse is kaa dtua, which translates to the “body price.” Making a living off of your body results in a strong connection to it, as a tool and also being in it and knowing all the things it can do; but it also takes its toll on the body and you will see in retired fighters that the fight is still in them even if their bodies are no longer blessed with youth. Khem still has fight in him, which is why it didn’t surprise me that he began proving the doctors wrong almost immediately upon regaining consciousness, moving his toes when they thought he was surely paralyzed. But it’s also very hard to see him resigned to a wheelchair, with all that physicality and fight energy inside of him with very little mobile movement to express it. He’s only in his early 30’s.
He’s going through physiotherapy and getting stronger all the time. He can stand with the aid of a support stand and doctors are more confident that he’ll be able to walk again, although it’s still uncertain. He’s living with his family in Pai. While the pictures he posts on Facebook and the time his family took him to the gym while we were all training and I got to see him again in person demonstrate that he is very clearly loved and cared for, it is also very obviously a strain on his family, as well as on his own emotions and psyche. The costs resulting from his long stay in the hospital, during his coma and then once he regained consciousness and now with physical therapy, are substantial and are causing hardship on Khem and his family.
Den is planning to organize a fight night in October with the proceeds to benefit Khem, in order to help offset the debt accrued from his medical expenses. I love the idea and hope to take part in it – all fighters will be given the option to voluntarily donate their fight purses – our kaa dtua “body price” – to the fund. We have also set up a PayPal account to accept donations from those who wish to help from around or outside Thailand and we have already received 30,000 Baht (as of this writing) from folks around the world who know Khem from their visits to Lanna, or who want to help a champion toward his recovery. We’re hoping to raise 400,000 Baht (~$13,300 USD) in total, which will be presented to Khem and his family on this fight night in a lump sum. (The total is based on the high debt for his medical costs and hospital stay, as well as for his ongoing physical therapy in hopes of walking once again.) If you don’t have much even a small amount can make a difference here in Thailand.
If you would like to help donate to this fund we have a PayPal account specifically for this benefit and you can use LannaMuayThai123@gmail.com as the recipient. if you are not familiar with PalPal, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can help you. Email me or email@example.com with any additional questions. Even for those who cannot donate, I’m happy to introduce Khem to the readers of my blog as someone who inspires me.
You can connect with Khem directly on his Facebook page