When I first moved to Thailand, it seemed pretty common for westerners to just refer to their opponents as “a Thai”. In part this is understandable because not only can Thai names be long and confusing in English transcription (until you get used to the patterns), they can also sometimes just not be in English at all, or not known all together. But it is also more than this, there is something kind of fetishizing and alienating at once. I’ll not forget one memorable “bucket list” check, by a then prominent western fighter, something along the lines of “I want to beat a Thai in spectacular fashion.” There was, and probably still is, a tendency to just see “Thais” as faceless and somewhat exotic. You’re just fighting “a Thai,” and who they are or their name is unimportant above the simple fact of their Thainess. A lot of this fault lies on our side. But if fighting teaches you anything, it’s that you and your opponent are in this together. Thanks to the spread of social media, the increased place female fighters are having in Thai promotions and news coverage in Thailand, and the growing strength of female fighting itself, this is seriously changing. And for me, from the beginning, it’s been really important to try to see the world from my opponent’s perspective in Thailand, or at least honor that there is a perspective other than my own or what I have access to, as a westerner. These women are fighting for very different reasons than most westerners fight, and only by seeing their world do you really come to understand what fighting in Thailand is.
I’ve been fighting in Chaing Mai for over 5 years now, at first exclusively – as that’s where I lived and trained – and now on a monthly basis, as it’s the center of quality female Muay Thai in Thailand and traveling up there in a 10 hour trek by car from Pattaya is a meaningful, valuable, and fruitful experience. I’ve seen it flower. Chiang Mai has been the hub for female Muay Thai in Thailand for many years now, but it has substantially grown, deepened and changed in the the 5+ years I’ve been a part of it.
What spurred this post is that there have been a few recent articles and videos that have begun stripping away the barriers that separate western viewers (and fighters) from the female Thai fighter, who in the not too distant past has often been reduced to a caricature of a poor (very young) girl, fighting against her will and out of desperation, surrounded by poverty and rice fields. This western stereotype, which probably grew out of male projections and experiences of Thai prostitution, was the de facto “Thai female.” Yes, there are indeed many female (and male) fighters fighting out of disadvantaged or quite rural circumstances, something that deserves our attention, but this is by and large in Isaan or other outlying provinces, and generally only the very best of these female fighters will ever see a western opponent, once they have climbed to national prominence. Instead, the female fighters of Thailand are probably better understood as working class, lower-middle class, and urban, poised between opportunities in their mid-teens. Many of them have been fighting since a young age, perhaps starting their Muay Thai tutelage under a knowledgeable family member; most are in school, and many are dreaming of making it to the Thai National team. And most of them are not specifically fighting westerners, but rather honing their skills in repeated and frequent Thai vs Thai matchups between sport schools or at local rings. Nowhere in Thailand is this more the case than in Chiang Mai, a growing hotbed of female fighting and what I call the best city for female fighting in the world.
In this video above you get to hear directly from a fairly typical female fighter in Chiang Mai, Nong Benz, who at the time of the video was part of the Sitdobwod Gym, a gym with many active female fighters. (The gym has since been absorbed and renamed by a prominent promoter to Sakchatree Gym, but still boasts some of the top female talent in the North.) Nong Benz is a student and fighter, her purse from fighting is an additional income for her family and she is pursuing a degree in university. Two years later (now, after this film), Nong Benz is still fighting and still in school. Her younger sister is also an active fighter, who entered the military in her path of secondary education. It’s wonderful to hear directly from female fighters, to hear Nong Benz’s voice and that of her coach, who is familiar with training female fighters in the Chiang Mai area. Nong Benz has experience fighting international fighters, more so than her younger sister, who is at a weight not typical for westerners, and Nong Benz might often be written up by those opponents as “a Thai,” with whom they fought while in Thailand. But this is her story, this is her reality, this is where she fights from. Bringing her reality to a western or at least English-Speaking audience is, in my view, quite new and valuable in understanding the world of Thai female fighters, whose stories are rarely told. I’ve had conversations with Nong Benz’s sister (Somo) and her coach, but I’ve never heard directly from Nong Benz. And the few times we’ve had exchanges before or after our fights, they’re before or after a fight and that clearly influences the brevity of our words together. I’ve sent her well wishes when she’s been in the hospital and had to cancel a fight with me (once for a motorbike accident and once to have her appendix removed), but seeing her train and express her concerns about the more permanent aspects of being a fighter (facial scars) is something that I’m never privy to. Seeing her in the ring with her trainer feels significant to me in a way that seeing a well-known athlete at home with his kids feels like a meaningful glimpse into a more rounded personality.
A lot of those stories are not as exotic or unimaginable as many westerners might think. While the motivations for fighting in Thailand are rarely separable from finances, they’re not always borne of desperation and poverty, as is often assumed. Many of the young women fighting in Chiang Mai are from lower-middle-class or working class families and Muay Thai offers a supplementary income due to the four permanent stadia in the city. Unlike in Isaan, where gambling is the main source of money in the Muay Thai game, young women in Chiang Mai can gain a win-or-lose income from every fight, allowing them to compete frequently and with less risk in each bout. This allows the female fighters in Chiang Mai to gain a lot of experience, which makes them much better fighters. In fact, the sheer number of female fighters and rate of opportunity has allowed the Northern region to rank female fighters and attain regional titles beyond what many of the other regions can accommodate. This is also advantageous for western or non-Thai women who want to come to Thailand to compete in Muay Thai – Chiang Mai offers the best competition and opportunity for us as well. This is us growing together.
My article Why Chiang Mai Has the Best Female Muay Thai Fighting in the World inspired follow up research by journalist Arthur Nazaryan, who also spoke with gym and stadium owners in Chiang Mai, who echoed my assessments of the scene in Chiang Mai.
Some excerpts from the article by Nazaryan:
“Kob Cassette, the promoter for Thapae Stadium, who has taken a keen interest in making female fights a daily occurrence in his city. He also happens to be the president of the northern region for Muay Siam, a national Muay Thai association.
In his cramped office tucked in the corner behind Thapae Stadium’s ring, Kob Cassette recalls that it was about four years ago that Muay Siam began to officially categorize female fighters according to weight class, paving the way for official tournaments.
The initiative started in Chiang Mai — under Kob Cassette’s direction — after Muay Siam’s Bangkok office identified it as the region with the most female fighters. Kob Cassette estimates there are about 200 female fighters in the province.”
You can read Nazaryan’s full article here:
My original article, Why Chiang Mai Has the Best Female Muay Thai Fighting in the World , tries to trace out why in fact the best fighting in Thailand, and maybe the world, is in Chiang Mai. I’m proud of the fact that it became a launching off point for another journalist who dug deeper into the story, and was able to share Thai perspectives. It is my hope that the articles I have written, and will write on the Thai female fighter experience can be just this kind of thing. Anchor points for new story telling.
Women and Opportunity – The Bottom Rope
Above is a short video featuring the once very prolific fighter Yodying Sitnamkabuan, who is about 24-25 years old (2017) and had a highly successful fight career of over 200 fights before entering into semi-retirement and focusing on training a team of young female fighters. Yodying still fights every now and again but only does so if the financial compensation is significant. But she’s unique in that she’s become a Kru of a young woman’s fight team – a few female fighters in their 20s are now instructors, but none that I know of to the capacity that Yodying has become a trainer – more so offering fitness training at “hi-so” gyms or maybe a seminar here and there, not training a fight team as Yodying does. But what I love about this clip is hearing Yodying’s perspective on women’s challenges in Muay Thai, as a man’s sport. She happens to be a “Tom,” which is a complicated title that can most easily be expressed as a butch lesbian but may or may not include masculine self-identification. Yodying uses the male personal pronoun in private but to a stranger in public defers back to the feminine; she told me it’s just easier that way. This too is something I’d really like to research and write about, as Toms are a significant portion of Thai female fighters. I remember asking her once, online via text, about women going under the bottom rope and she more or less said that this is just the way it’s done. She didn’t offer any critique or personal insight to how she feels about that practice, so hearing her open up more about her own feelings toward this divide is really valuable to me. And it’s valuable to all of us, as Thai female voices are almost never heard on this subject. The fact that there’s a difference between how men and women enter the ring is not inconsequential, and here Yodying alludes to some of that consequence, namely how it aids in the exclusion of women from the greater opportunities of prestigious Muay Thai in Thailand.
You can read more about Yodying and also top Thai female fighter Sawsing in the BBC 100 Women article. Here is an excerpt of the article on Sawsing, who has returned to Muay Thai after becoming a mother:
She says she is determined to push herself further and inspire the next generation of female fighters in Thailand.
“Getting married and having a child didn’t stop my desire to be a female Muay Thai fighter,” she says.
Early last year Sawsing made the sacrifice of leaving her family for three months to train.
“It was very hard time for a mother like me to leave my five-month-old son and practice for competitions when my body had not fully recovered from the delivery,” she says.
She admits she had been under a lot of pressure from her trainer, who questioned why she decided to return to the ring when she had a child and husband to look after.
“My thinking is different,” Sawsing says.
“As a mother, I hope to raise my child to the best of my ability. As a female fighter, I hope to raise the bar for other woman, something people don’t believe I’m supposed to do.”
For me as a female fighter who has fought over 100 Thai opponents, as each of these special and highly skilled women struggle to position themselves in the landscape of Thailand’s Muay Thai, the greater point is that female opportunity in Thailand is ultimately limited by exclusion from the largest, most prestigious rings in the country, namely the National Stadia in Bangkok: Lumpinee and Rajadamnern (although women are also excluded from Omnoi and Channel 7, as well). Fighting in these rings is the aim of all young Thai Nakmuay, who dream of entering those rings due to the long history of these stadia being a mark of achievement, accomplishment, as well as better fight purses and the possibility of becoming champion of the highest regard. It’s like kids playing pickup games of basketball in the park dreaming of becoming professionals on the big stage. Note for purists, many inexperienced western fighters, even relatively unskilled western boys already fight a Lumpinee. Anybody (with the right anatomy) can fight at Lumpinee. By excluding women from the possibility of these stadia, it means there’s nowhere for Thai female fighters to go – there are no top ranks, no high-enough esteemed titles, importantly no 30,000+ Baht fighter fees. Look at what has happened to the UFC in terms of female fighter economics. Instead, female Thai fighter’s aims are to perhaps occasionally fight outside the country (mostly Japan, China) where purses can be better but still not comparable to the money even medium-level National Stadium fighters make, and nowhere as frequent. A young man in his late-teens and early 20s might be peaking in his career, whereas a young woman at that age despite her talent and experience is likely looking at retirement, and may have stopped training rigorously. There’s just nowhere for these women to aim; nowhere for them to go, and they are denied the regular opponents of the highest caliber which would make the already formidable, hard-won skills of their early youth mature into what the unreal fighters they could be. Ultimately, it is the bottom rope is what connects female Thai fighters to their exclusion from the opportunities that their country would most naturally afford them: a fan base, and a stage where Muay Thai of the highest level is loved and adored, and ultimately reached for. One day Thai female fighters will fight for a Lumpinee belt, as they should.
Below is an older video of a female Thai boxer talking about the bottom rope and the superstitions that keep her out: