Muay Thai gyms are living, changing things. I’ve written before that they go through phases and cycles, both good and bad. I experienced this at Lanna Muay Thai, over the course of the 2 years I trained there; and I’m experiencing it in a very different way now at two gyms here in Pattaya, simultaneously.
How can things not change? The fighters in the gym are people, whose lives and circumstances won’t always be the same. What’s more, they’re often children or teenagers and their growing pains are felt by the entire gym. When I first started training at Petchrungruang I recall more than once telling Pi Nu how good I thought such-and-such a fighter would be in a few more years, when he reached his prime in his late-teens or later in his early 20’s as most fighters do. Pi Nu would just shake his head and say, “we’ll see if he can make it through being 16.” That age, it seems, is when fighters come up upon the precipice where they will either develop into champions or lose interest in their own potential, in favor of motorbikes, smoking, drinking and girls.
That’s exactly what’s eating the gym right now. When I first arrived at Petchrungruang all the boys were smaller than I am. Well, all the boys that I trained with were: Bank, Alex, Jozef, Dtee, Lomchoi, and Jatukam. What made this gym such a goldmine for me – at that time – was the stable of young boys who were skilled enough to force me to grow but small enough that they weren’t destroying me… yet. I still love this gym. I still see it as the best place for me, even though all the boys except Alex and Jozef are bigger than I am now – and Alex is catching up fast. What makes it so ideal is not only the boys and their size relative to mine, but that I’ve sunk so much deeper into the “slow cook” method of Pi Nu and his watchful eye. I’ve been here almost a year and a half now. I’m still getting so much out of the experience of training, despite some very hard knocks against it: namely that they don’t find me fights and my training partners are dissolving.
Petchrungruang recently lost two of it’s top boys under very unfortunate and painful circumstances. They’re fine, the boys, I don’t mean “lost” as a euphemism for death or anything. One was kicked out of the camp for throwing a fight for money, a big betrayal of the gym and the loss of his career; and the other was recently sold to a big camp in Bangkok when Pi Nu’s hand was forced by this kid’s notorious father trying to sell him out from under his contract without even talking to Nu about it. Those are both separate blog posts, but both were huge hits to the camp. Greed and bad influences eroding the fabric of trust. It was painful for Pi Nu, who has developed these boys into well-known and highly-esteemed Lumpinee and Rajadamnern fighters since they were little children – probably 9-10 years with each at the camp – but also for the boys at the camp who are a band of brothers. Two dropping away out of nowhere is not a “well, we all go some time” kind of deal. I feel their absence from the gym and I’m not of their group at all; I can’t imagine what it’s like for the boys. They’re all appropriately stoic about it, as is the Thai way.
The other morning after padwork I was sitting, catching my breath on the benches on the opposite side of the weight room from where Pi Nu sits after the timer has called its final bell. We often have chats in the morning like this. He becomes reflective, his back to the giant mirrors in which I can see my own reflection – a strong but spent student who works the way he wants his boys to but simply will never be a Thai boy. Maybe he sees that too. Maybe that’s why he thinks of it as we’re sitting across from each other like this. “Now the group of boys very small,” he said, holding his hands as if cupping a softball. “I think Lom and Dtee are finished,” (two other boys), he continued, pushing his chin forward and looking at me, as he does when he waits for a response. I threw my wet glove to the side and start tightening my wraps around my wrist.
“Dtee is fighting on the 3rd… Lumpinee, right?” I ask, bringing the image of the fight board into my mind’s eye. Pi Nu nods, but then says that neither boy is really training. Lom was KO’d the night before in a fight he should have easily won. He’s not training regularly. They’re too interested in motorbikes – Pi Nu mimics the revving of an engine by cranking his wrist forward and back, accelerating the bike. Then he runs the palms of his hands over his hair and says, “and they want long hair. When boys want long hair, they finished.” He smiles, but it’s a strained smile. “I know,” he continues, “I see before; I know.”
Petchrungruang is the last remaining government registered Muay Thai gym in Pattaya. All other established Pattaya gyms derive core income from training westerners, and no longer register as monitored gyms.
And surely Pi Nu has lost dozens of boys to this age before. He’s seen it for years and years. But I can see the sting is not numbed by the frequency. Certainly not when this particular batch of boys is around the same age as his older son, Bank, who just turned 15. In a purely selfish addition to this thought, I appear to be losing Bank as a partner as well. When I first started training there Bank was smaller by a few kilos but incredibly strong and painful to clinch with. He just locks and cranks your neck endlessly – he’s fucking impossible to move. And so for a long time I didn’t get to work with him often, because I just wasn’t good enough. Then I got better, even as Bank got bigger, and I was clinching with him more often. It was great; I actually looked forward to his painful approach to clinching because I could give it back to him a bit. I would cackle and do victory laps when I would very rarely throw him. He politely didn’t do either of those things when he very frequently threw me. And his grandfather, Pi Nu’s dad and the patriarch of the gym, would watch us with the youngest member of the gym – Bank’s tiny, baby brother Not – in his arms, calling advice to me that was absolutely impossible to execute because Bank is just too strong. And now he’s big as well. He outweighs me by probably 4 kilos now and has insane strength. The kid is just all one muscle. But he’s not too strong for me. I can still clinch with him and get a lot out of it. But we almost never clinch together.
I wondered at this. I thought for a while it was because he only trains consistently when he has a fight coming, which isn’t often – Pi Nu does not overtly push his son to fight – and maybe the undercurrent of Thai beliefs are ingrained in Pi Nu enough that he doesn’t want Bank clinching with a woman before his fights. There’s a belief that women can weaken a man and while I’m allowed in the ring at the gym and paraded around as a point of pride for them when there are visiting spectators – “look at our unicorn of a female fighter!” – there are still old beliefs in that gym, which are strong even if unstated. A few of the boys, Bank, his cousin, and Jozef, wear little wooden phallus amulets around their waists. This is for power and luck. Offerings are given several times per week to the shrines at the corner of each ring; the patriarch is utterly fascinated by my sak yant, Kevin’s sak yant, and amulets – all of these things are within the same belief set as the belief that might keep me from clinching with Bank before a fight. But it’s never been stated, and indeed I’m allowed to clinch with the other boys before their fights. In fact, Alex has become my most consistent training partner (he does not wear the wooden phallus amulets around his waist) and it seems that I’m the tool that’s sharpening him in Pi Nu’s thought process. I’m bigger, so of course I dominate him most of the time. I get frustrated by this because I know this is all well and good for the development of Alex, but getting my ass kicked by someone bigger or more skilled is good for me. I want to clinch with Bank or Dtee.
Then something somewhat odd happened. I got my hair cut because I was sick of having to fix the mess of it every few minutes in clinch – there’s not much you can do about clinch hair other than cut it. So it’s short enough in the back I can just leave it down and tie the front part up, making the whole thing much simpler. As a result, I leave my hair alone until I get to the gym and just put the front part back with a single rubberband. It’s like magic. Anyway, the first day I showed up with my hair down Pi Nu immediately noted the haircut and told me it was beautiful. That was quite nice. The second day I came in the afternoon and some guy had put his bag where I usually sit to do my wraps, so I had to sit myself up on the ring to roll them. Pi Nu was inside the ring holding pads and Bank was looking miserable hitting the bag directly to my left. He was cutting weight for his fight, so he was really not happy. The timer sounded to end the round and Pi Nu came over to the side of the ring where I was sitting. He always makes a point to smile and say hello to me, which I realize now in writing is just the loveliest thing to feel in a space that’s still so difficult for me. He looked at Bank and teasingly asked if he wanted to clinch with me today. Bank shot him a look that expressed, “don’t fucking do this in public.” Something like that anyway; a teenager look. Two things: 1) the word for clinch in Thai is also the word for acquaintance rape or “wrestling” in a forcing-yourself-on-a-girl kind of way, so he said, “do you want to sexy wrestle with Sylvie” in addition to literally just asking if he wanted to clinch with me; and 2) the note of teasing and Bank’s response could be read any of two ways, including a combination of both: that I’m a pain in the ass to clinch with and Bank is tired and clearly wouldn’t want to, or he’s being teased because my hair is down and so he’s being asked if he wants to wrestle with me because I look nice. I have no way of knowing which of these it was, or if it was both, but I will say that I got a feeling that struck me as, “holy fuck, is it a fucking crush that’s keeping me from clinching with Bank now???”
That might explain why we never clinch anymore, or even why it had become so much fun to clinch with him instead of this chore of getting my ass kicked. I thought I’d just gotten a better attitude about it, but certainly the mood is lighter all around and it’s not only me. But I do have to appreciate, as I’ve written about this so many times, that there is something transgressive about clinching between the sexes in Thailand – it’s bodily contact that is not considered polite or appropriate outside of the very strict parameters of training. As visiting, adult westerners it is our responsibility to watch this. Add to that being a teenaged boy and I cannot argue that it isn’t potentially a difficult situation for the boy. Indeed, at my other gym – I train at two each day, just to make sure I get enough work – a group of teenaged boys have started coming in for clinching and sparring (they’re from a different gym and just mix it up with Mawin). One of the boys blows me kisses and winks at me constantly and, guess what, I will not clinch with him. It’s totally inappropriate because he can’t keep his shit together. So as much as I can distance myself from the proximity of bodies necessary for clinch, that thin line is very easily transgressed by one or both parties even just on an internal level. So, again, I don’t know if I’ve lost Bank as my clinching partner for good or if there’s an alternate explanation. It’s difficult.
So I’m frustrated by my shrinking group of training partners at Petchrungruang, which is what made it such a perfect place for me before. And honestly, I just thought I had more time in the sweet pocket of ages. I see that the boys are getting bigger, but they’re not too big yet. But teenager-ness is a swamp that swallows an entire age group, whether anyone else is ready or not. Even at O. Meekhun, my second gym, the changes are intense. Jee Jaa is growing like a weed – she’s already nearly as tall as I am, getting stronger every day, and went from looking like a kid 8 months ago to looking like a young woman with an attitude to match. She’s just over it. I remember being that age and I can’t blame her. On top of that her older brother Mawin is getting a little jerky. Not too bad, but when you start out as such a sweet kid it’s a more notable change, I guess. Mawin has the added social pressure that he has more or less kept losing while his sister ascends to the throne – he’s carving out his space. It used to be that Jee Jaa and Mawin just had each other and they loved each other so much. They were a team and virtually inseparable. Just the two of them in the world, really.
But their gym grew a bit and some new kids were added: some very young ones who Jee Jaa kind of became the trainer for and one older one, Yee, who is 16 and in attitude could be the villain in any teenage movie, like “Karate Kid,” “Never Back Down,” or, you know, James Spader circa the 1980s. Yee is just a jerk. He’s not a bad kid, he’s not a bad person, he’s just a very jerky 16 year old boy. I struggled training with an ass of a kid at Lanna when I was there, he broke my nose twice in training because he just didn’t want to train with me. Yee is the same – elbowed me for real in sparring the other day, just too hot-hearted. He elbowed me, but somehow I got lectured that you don’t elbow for real – maybe they were embarrassed over what he had done. They see that he goes way too hard at times. For a long minute when he first came he and Jee Jaa were making googly eyes at each other all the time and their clinching was highly monitored, but that seems to have died down. But his presence, and his being older than Mawin, pulled at the bond between the siblings and now Jee Jaa and Mawin aren’t so close. Not the way they were. They’re also just growing up. They’re all testing their space and their powers in the world and in the tiny microcosm that’s the gym, where you’re literally jockying for dominance at every moment. My place in that space is at the center of a patch of quicksand, so I really have no idea where I stand. I go there, I get my important work in. I continue to improve and see the quickly shifting alliances as Phetjee Jaa reaches an age where she can be a star, starting to fight opponents I should be fighting. They don’t book fights for me anymore. There’s nothing to hold on to, no one there looking out for me, whereas at Petchrungruang I at least have Pi Nu who is a pillar, and even though I’m frustrated by it I have Alex, who is constantly criticized for being a late-bloomer… but in the midst of all of this change in both gyms, I’m kind of grateful that he is.
This isn’t to say that I don’t love my gyms, and all the people in them. They are family to me. It’s to say that in Thailand, and with youth, things change very quickly, and this rate of change runs right up against the slow sure method of training itself, that it takes years to develop a fighter. I’m still training like a demon, and filling myself with knowledge at a high rate, but the bonds that keep things close are loosened, and shifting. And the big reason why I train full-time at both gyms is just this, so that I don’t get stranded when one gym goes awol a little, as Thai gyms tend to do. It’s difficult now that both gyms are going through a hard phase, as I scramble to keep improving and fighting as much as I possibly can.
I guess it kind of feels like I can boil it down into a pitiful joke: how many western women in a Muay Thai gym does it take to change a lightbulb? One: just stand there holding the bulb and the whole gym will change around you.