Living in Pattaya – What it All Feels Like

I am through and through a “country mouse.” Having grown up in Granolaville (Boulder, Colorado), moving to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand wasn’t too far of a...

I am through and through a “country mouse.” Having grown up in Granolaville (Boulder, Colorado), moving to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand wasn’t too far of a stretch for me. Yes, sure, lots of exotic and amazing differences between cultures and people and what I’m doing with my life with Muay Thai, but the number of barefooted, harem-pants-wearing backpackers and hippie ex-pat professors was very familiar, indeed. Chiang Mai is a University town, which gives it a kind of middle-class feel and there is always someone around who speaks some English to help you if, for whatever reason, the place you’re at doesn’t have signs and menus in English anyway.

Fast forward two years and things had changed a lot for me in my situation at the gym, so Kevin suggested we shake things up and take a few weeks to travel down to Pattaya and train with Sakmongkol, who I’d met in Colorado prior to moving to Thailand and had a good experience with. I was hesitant. Not only do I hate taking time away from training – even though this would be training, just not at my home gym – but the thought of going to Pattaya, of all places, was not something I felt like jumping into. I’d only ever heard about Pattaya, I’d never been. It’s about an hour and a half south of Bangkok and has beaches, but it’s not at all like the beaches you picture when you conjure an image of Thailand’s paradise islands. They’re not awful, there’s water and sand and palm trees, but the disparity between the photos you see of the islands and the reality of Pattaya beaches is pretty much comparing Hawaii beaches to the Jersey shore. The reputation for Pattaya being a destination for sex tourists and dirty old men is an earned one. Nearby to Pattaya is Sattahip, which has a military base and when American soldiers took a break from the Vietnam War for some R&R, they came over to Pattaya and there was a supply of bars and sex workers to meet that demand. German tourists have been coming here on holiday in droves since forever, but Russians took over as the majority of tourists in the last decade, and now there’s a surge in Chinese tour groups. None of these groups send their best and brightest to Pattaya, so it can feel you’re getting the worst, rudest, oblivious-to-local-culture people from each country. Pattaya is, in many ways, exactly the kind of place I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole.

But Kevin has good ideas. I can’t list them all here but there are a lot of them and he keeps tallies of how many “points” he deserves for being right about these kinds of things. So I listened to him and we came down to Pattaya with the intention of staying 3 weeks and training with Sakmongkol. Once we got here and actually experienced the city, we decided to stay for 5 weeks. And then 6 months after returning to Chiang Mai we decided to move here, which is absolutely crazy sounding, even when I think of it now nearly 3 years later. Sure, if the training is good and you have a schedule, you can live pretty much anywhere. My world as a nakmuay is gym-home, gym-home, with some eating and running in there. I can do that anywhere. What’s really amazing to me is that when we travel for my fights, coming down off the Motorway onto the main stretch of Pattaya, which is just a highway with nothing special about it, I feel a very strong sense of relief – that relief you feel when you come home. Now that is crazy.

So now comes my love letter to Pattaya, to explain all the reasons that the reasons I gave above didn’t hold. Yes, Pattaya has a very seedy (and sometimes cheesy) Red Light District, but it is very easy to just not go there. If you stay away from Walking Street and Soi 6, you never see it. It’s all relegated to a stretch along the boardwalk and a few other small sois; like, just don’t go to Times Square, like a normal New Yorker. And yes, the tourists and many ex-pats can tend to be the worst. They’re hideous men in nearly every sense, but if you don’t hang out at bars and you’re not keen to chat them up, it’s pretty easy to stay away from them as well. There is far less English readily available at every turn in Pattaya – a lot of the signs and menus that would be in English in the North are in Russian, German or increasingly Chinese here – and as a result my capacity to speak Thai skyrocketed when I moved here. That alone has made a difference in how I experience my social circles here, in contrast to before. And whereas the tourist culture is heavily catered to and integrated into the fabric of Chiang Mai (city) culture, in Pattaya there is a divide. There is an undercurrent of Thai culture and society that sits just under the tourist and ex-pat nonsense, which just slicks over the surface like an oily film; but a very charming Thailand is the water underneath the oil. I love that.

During our initial recon mission to Pattaya, we had to find a second gym because Sakmongkol’s gym only had one session per day. Again, I wasn’t on vacation and had no intention of slowing down during this time away from my home camp, so we had to find somewhere for morning sessions. That’s how we found Petchrungruang, which appealed to us because it had a lot of kids. We didn’t even think that this meant I would have sparring and clinching partners, rather the draw was just that knowing it had Thai kids meant it was a gym doing its own thing, and not focused on westerners. We couldn’t ever have foreseen what Petchrungruang has become for me. When we moved to Pattaya this became my primary gym and everyone else became supplemental to my training. I started learning the city the same way I’ve learned every city since college, which is using my runs to go down streets and side roads, just exploring and discovering. Despite being a city that is paved to the gills – which isn’t something I like at all – I found the growing familiarity somewhat quaint. Pattaya is actually much smaller than it seems. In Chiang Mai I could walk to the gym; it took me 7 minutes from my front door to the gate of the gym, so other than that one road and wherever I ran, my experience was very routine and limited. I liked that, that’s not a complaint or minimization. About a year into our life in Chiang Mai we invested in a motorbike and it changed everything. Suddenly we could go places, which allowed us to discover more areas of the city. It broadened our fishbowl a little bit, but in a way that was quite significant – Chiang Mai has a kind of sprawl that you don’t really notice. But moving to Pattaya, we brought the bike with us and so my reach in the city has been like a little worker bee exploring the garden. I go from home to the gym all the time, just like in Chiang Mai, but now I go to multiple gyms, so my route gets little antennae shooting off from the main course. Sometimes I’m incredibly tired from training and don’t want to leave my apartment again after coming home and showering, but other than that kind of fatigue I am never unhappy to be on my motorbike. It’s how I engage with the concrete world I’ve fallen into. And now that Pi Nu (I can write a whole separate piece on Pi Nu, and should, because he means so much to me and my Muay) takes us out for long runs on the rural roads between Pattaya and Sattahip on the weekends, my love for this place – my chances to be country mouse while running – has just deepened.

The soi on which Petchrungruang is situated is nothing remarkable. It reminds me of the wide, white-ish cement that coats Southern California, which freaked me out as a kid when I would go visit my cousins. Where were all the trees? I was used to grass and “open space.” This was just empty space, surrounded by concrete. That’s what the soi looks like and feels like. On one side there is this high, incredibly long wall that has a kind of stucco treatment that makes the entire thing seem like it has thorns. It’s not friendly at all and it means there’s nothing to look at on the street. But on the opposite side is nothing but houses, most of them quite large and nice; it makes Petchrungruang stand out as being quite obviously much older than anything else on the street. When I get to the gym I go through the back (you can also enter through the house), ducking under the roof of the garage, which claps off like a light the bright glare of the white-ish cement of the road. In the shadow of the garage your eyes adjust quickly and you’re in this cave of little kids’ bicycles and motorbikes, clothes hanging from single bar racks because they don’t fit in the apartments, and as you move through the cave the silhouettes of people training, the thudding of padwork and kids hitting bags, they all come into focus and as you step past the gate into the gym the lights come back up. Like the House Lights in a theater, reorienting you to this incredible, social space. For three years now I’ve sat in my own sweat on the edge of the ring, Pi Nu with his long legs dangling off the side as well, while he tells me about what his training was like when he was a kid. Pointing to the bags where I spend so much of my time, “that was a pineapple tree. We had to ask my grandma if we could cut it down to hang our first bag, before we had a ring.” So, even though Pattaya is this huge cement block, it’s filled like a storage locker with sentimental objects and picture books and memories, which aren’t even mine. But I love them all the same, I remember every one of them and map the farm that Pi Nu grew up on over the walls and floors that are the gym now. Like two images super-imposed on one another. Sometimes, on my bike, I’ll turn down a road and there will just be a huge patch of jungle between two apartment buildings. It’s undeveloped space, even just a patch of it, and it reaches out from Pattaya’s past. When the gym van is full of tired, quiet kids after our long runs on the weekend, I look out the window as the sun rises and see the edges of the city – the undeveloped parts that look how the city looked 20-30 years ago. Perhaps it’s a bit like a woman who has reworked her face with plastic surgery to the point that you see the construction more than you see her. But then you see a picture of her as a kid, standing with her brother, and the familial resemblance is strong. Then, every time you look at her face, even though it’s not the same face, you’ll find remnants of that family resemblance. You’ll see her face from before this face, even if just like a ghost.

The ways of that old life are always peeking through in the people and between the buildings of Pattaya. It’s not a romance for  the way it used to be, like living in a memory, but it is being absolutely charmed and intrigued by the way in which these different times seem to have collapsed into one another. Like fingers of two hands interlocking, holding together. I like that you can – that I can – feel that, which isn’t something I ever felt in Chiang Mai, which is just beautiful and laid back and quiet by itself. Chiang Mai feels young, even though it’s got a rich history; even with ruins from hundreds of years ago around the moat of the Old City. It’s lovely. Pattaya feels old, maybe like a book that’s gone soft around the edges from so many years, the pages yellowing but with a nice, glossy bookmark holding a place as well. And sure, the pages are just filled with marginalia, underlining and notes from former owners who may not always have read those passages the way you do, or highlighted parts you find irrelevant. But somehow, despite all those other perspectives and input who have left coffee rings on the cover, the book still feels like it’s your copy. And with my motorbike, zipping around over the hot cement, under the hot sun, I do feel like that little busy bee in the garden. It’s not a huge garden, it’s certainly not lush. But I know where the blossoms are and I love buzzing to and fro, being surprised at times to find a new one coming to bloom every now and again.

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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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