There are few Muay Thai krus who still carry a stick while supervising their students. Off the top of my head I know Rambaa, Sagat, and Sangtiennoi. Of the 3, I’ve only ever been bitten by the stinging whip of Sangtiennoi’s switch, right on my ankle, as he scolded me for not getting up on my toe for a knee. His eyes are kind, he’s tall and feels more towering than his actual stature, and you want to be correct in equal parts to avoid getting hit by the switch again but also because he commands respect within moments of meeting him. He just has an aura.
Sangtiennoi’s gym is hidden at the back of a fairly long driveway from the “main road,” which is actually itself just more or less a driveway to the other houses in the neighborhood. A few broken down cars have been swallowed by the creeping vines and foliage of hedges along the side of the road. The Sor. Rungroj gym itself is an oasis of structure, past which an open field stretches out in boggy, marshy mud until it ends at the edge of temple grounds. The space in the gym is enough to do any kind of training, but it’s claustrophobically filled with chicks running underfoot, very sweet dogs roaming around, fighting chickens making sounds from inside their rattan dome enclosures, and algae lined jars holding fighting fish sit together on shelves like some mad scientist laboratory creatures. On the far side of the ring are gloves, mongkol, and oil-soaked satin fighting robes with Sangtiennoi’s name embroidered on the back. There’s enough space for everything, but every millimeter is steeped with who Sangtiennoi is. He is soft-spoken, kind, speaks softly and slowly; he leaps off his chair to bring me over to a wall of framed photographs and magazine covers featuring his fighters and champions. He is so proud.
The land around his gym is overgrown, big trees that reach into the sky and vines that clamor to fill space between the trunks. The ground is littered by dry leaves that have fallen and been soaked by rain, dried again and curled at the edges. It’s here, in this “outside that isn’t outside” at the periphery of his gym that Sangtiennoi took his own life, on the morning of May 16th, 2021. Sitting by himself on a plastic chair, the clap of thunder from his handgun and the thud of his body falling back in the chair; and then silence as the leaves caught him.
My hands shook as I held my phone, enduring only a few rings before Dieselnoi answered. “Is it true?” I asked, not even needing to give context to my question. “It’s true,” he said, his voice dropping an octave. We spoke back and forth a bit before my voice started to break, quiver and fail. Dieselnoi’s strong voice began to shake too, maybe given permission by my distress. “Are you going there now?” I asked. “Yes, I’m driving,” he said… Dieselnoi is almost always driving. “Okay, be careful,” I’m able to say as Kevin comes out of the house and wraps his arms round me. I sob into his chest as I hang up the phone. There isn’t even disbelief, it’s not surreal, it’s just… unbearably sad.
Barely more than a month ago I was curled against the wall in the shower, hot water running over me and droplets catching in my throat as I tried to control my breathing. I turned off the tap and collapsed to the floor, clutching the towel that Kevin handed to me as I sobbed into it. “Look at me,” he asked, quietly, softly, repeatedly. I couldn’t. How could I open my eyes, these pulses of emotion crashing through me over and over the way you get run over by waves as they keep breaking on you. I can’t do this, and yet, there is nothing else to do but keep enduring. I suffer from Depression, these waves and storms and tidals just come; this night, I had a focal point in that Namkabuan had just been checked into the hospital after a few months of being diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer. He’d been doing pretty well, he was exhausted, but he was fighting. Then he just suddenly got worse. I didn’t know it at the time, but the moment I was crying on the bathroom floor was very likely the same time that Namkabuan would take his last breaths in that hospital. Arjan Pramod had called me maybe 4 hours prior, “Sylvie,” he said on the phone, “Piaw is on the brink.” I was at the gym at that moment, my vision blurring as tears welled into my eyes and I closed them. “Just tell him we love him so much,” was all I could say. What can you ever say?
We climbed out of the taxi, exchanged a few “call you when we’re ready to go back to the hotel, maybe go get something to eat,” words and started walking toward the Nongkipahuyut gym entrance. The gates were marked by rods of neon light, the same that mark the entrance of a festival fight, the bright colors reaching into the darkness. On either side of the gate were two blown up posters, one of Nampol and the other Namkabuan. Two brothers, champions, Legends, and now both passed on, reunited in whatever comes after this. We found our way to the stage where Namkabuan’s casket was laid, high up with flowers and photos of him down below. Karuhat showed me how to kneel and light incense as our salutation in honoring his body, then we turned around, our backs to the casket, for a photo. “I’m going to cry,” Karuhat said. “Me too,” I nodded.
It wasn’t until the next day at his funeral and cremation that we both actually fell apart. Thai funerals are long, many hours of monks chanting, a reading of the biography of Namkabuan, processions of announcements for who is in attendance, who donated as part of the “tam boon” in honor of him, donating robes to the temple. It reminds me of fighting, how the ceremony stretches out like a runway before you ever enter the ring, these processes and rituals, that extend the fight in a way that calms you. With the Thai Oil, hand wraps, mongkol, kneeling before entering the ring…. there is so much that is done before you ever get in the ring to fight. The cremation is like this. Hours of ritual, ceremony, formalities before you climb the stairs to lay your paper flower at the casket. We carried on our duties quite diligently, even allowing moments of laughter as Karuhat, Dieselnoi and Pudpadnoi talked and prepared for a Ram Muay and mock fight before the cremation. This is a common refrain in Muay Thai, “na tee,” or duty. You do your duty as a fighter, detached from the emotional investment of how you feel about it or yourself. I watched Karuhat, wearing a blazer he’d borrowed from somewhere and a face mask covering his stern expression, tying the prajaet onto the naked arms of his seniors, Dieselnoi and Pudpadnoi. He was doing his duty, preparing them for their duty, and yet they all vacillated between sober stoicism and then a verbal jab or a laugh.
When the mock fight started, Pudpadnoi kicked Dieselnoi on the touch-gloves and Dieselnoi came back with a vengeance. I laughed, knowing that part of this was that Pudpadnoi had invited it with his “cheap shot,” but part of it was that Dieselnoi was very upset with Pudpadnoi for arriving late. He took the opportunity to punish him, because even when Nakmuay are “playing,” the dominance is always real. Of course, within a few minutes both men were winded, Pudpadnoi is 70 years old already and called an end to the performance by facing the audience and wai-ing. Dieselnoi, lips already blue and chest red from the heat and exertion, he would have kept going because that’s who he is. He’d kill himself for a play fight, I swear. But Pudpadnoi is his senior and immediately he also wai-ed to the audience and then went down to Pudpadnoi’s feet. “Wai roon pee,” this is called, to say sorry to your opponent if they’re your elder.
We sat back down, Dieselnoi and Pudpadnoi hurried to change their clothes and cool down in the air-con of Dieselnoi’s car. Karuhat and I sat side by side, 3 feet of space between every chair. Namkabuan’s younger daughter stood in front of the audience, the band that played at her father’s restaurant every night since she was born, probably, backing her up as she sang one final song to say goodbye to her father. She sings beautifully; she’s beautiful. Maybe a minute into her song her voice cracked and she paused, trying to will her tears away so she could continue… and she did. But my mask became wet with the tears that were finally streaming down my face. She released them and I let them be. I glanced over and saw Karuhat’s eyes were also wet, so I silently reached into my bag and pulled out some tissue. Tapping his shoulder he turned to look at me, accepted the tissue without any words and we nodded, knowingly, then went on wiping our tears and sniffing within our masks until it was time to climb the stairs to the crematorium and lay our paper flowers down. Men knock on the wood of the casket before depositing their flowers. Dieselnoi, six feet tall, towered over everyone as the procession ascended the stairs, but his shoulders hunched and he seemed to be in an eternal bow as he laid his flower for his younger brother.
These two deaths could not be more different. The last exchange I had with Namkabuan was at his restaurant, after we’d gone to interview him and film him watching and commenting on his 130 lb Lumpinee title fight. He was thin, caughing after every few words, the exhaustion like a cloud over the sun of his personality. “This is how I beat Cherry’s knee,” he said, showing me a side trip. Namkabuan smiled, “Wait until I’m better and then I’ll come show you.” That was it, that was my last moment with him. The last image I ever saw of Namkabuan was a painful video of him sitting on his hospital bed, struggling to breathe, giving a peace sign. He never gave up, he fought to the last second. He was 48 years old. Sangtiennoi had just lost his father-in-law and the head of the gym he grew up in on Saturday afternoon. He was very distraught about this, but this is only an observation of the final wink of a star before it disappears; I don’t know why he killed himself less than 24 hours later, but it only appears sudden from the outside. He was obviously struggling for a long time; he fought for a long time until he couldn’t. He would have turned 55 in August.
When I was falling apart on the bathroom floor, I had this focus of Namkabuan going into the hospital that was tearing at me, but that’s not why; not all of it. Depression is like Cancer in how it grows, spreads, destroys. All of us, at our best and at our worst, are performing our “naa tee,” our duties. After Namkabuan’s funeral, my husband said something to me as I laid in the bed, exhausted and numbingly sad. “I know you want to kill yourself,” he carefully began, “but maybe your calling is to guide all these Legends to their passing. You walk beside each of them, one by one,” he said. Something in my heart stirred. “Like Virgil,” I said. “Yeah, like Virgil,” Kevin cupped his hand over my exposed foot. “I don’t know,” he said. “Something to think about.”
And I think about this all the time now. Maybe it is my duty to make sure every one of these Legends is recognized and honored, to the best of my ability, so they don’t disappear before they’re gone. As someone who thinks about suicide, I am shaken considerably by Sangtiennoi’s decision to kill himself, but I don’t blame him. It does, however, make Kevin’s suggestion feel like maybe the most valuable thing I can offer: just to stay and walk these men to their mortal passageways and know that they go through with the honor and respect they deserve. To wai roon pi as my persisting duty. It will be stoic and sober and sad; but it will be joyful too. These are great men.
if you would like to help Sangtiennoi’s family with funeral costs, here is where you can contribute
if you would like to help Namkabuan’s family after his passing, or any of the krus & legends in the Muay Thai project, here is where you can contribute.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, or depression, this is a video of legends of the sport urging you to fight on, Su, Su! (Fight, fight!):