click here to see the driving route via Google Maps.
Traveling to Isaan
One of the biggest reasons behind my Go Fund Me campaign – Help Get Me to Fights – was the generous invitation from Frances Watthanaya to come up to Buriram and fight with their gym, with the promise that there are lots of fight opportunities rather than just a one-off visit. While I have important reasons to stay, train and fight in Pattaya (which have been discussed at length in various blog posts), I very much wanted to open a relationship with Frances and her husband Boom in Phutthaisong. I consider Isaan the heart of Muay Thai in Thailand – Isaan is huge and most of the best fighters leave their homes and head to Bangkok in hopes of helping their families out of poverty. Ultimately though, this offer from Frances may prove the only way I can conceivably reach my goal of 100 fights in Thailand, becoming the first western woman (and possibly even man?) to do so – this is my mission. I am fighting in Pattaya, but in order to keep my 3 or 4 fights a month rate up I will have to travel for fights.
So with the huge generosity of my supporters – thank you! – and staring down the critics to some degree, I’m able to take up Frances on her offer almost immediately. We’ve rented a car and will be leaving for Isaan Sunday morning. This, my 84th fight, will be dedicated to “K Thats Notmyname” and her gym Khanomtom Muay Thai in Tampa Bay Florida; you can find their Facebook page here. Each $100 donor to my Go Fund Me has a fight dedicated to them, but K Thats Notmyname is more than just a donor. She has been a vocal advocate of mine, and of female Muay Thai in general for a long time. In fact her outspokenness and commitment to being true to her beliefs and standing up for groups rather than just herself is truly inspiring. And her gym and the women in it have stood up for me, more than once. In the donation from Khanomtom Muay Thai the dedication was to all the Nak Muay Ying who have come before and who will come after. That’s about as perfect a dedication as I can think of.
Getting a Fight in Phutthaisong – An Introduction is Needed
Despite the generous personal patronage of Frances and Pi Dit (the Giatbundit Gym owner) it has been just a little complicated in trying to arrange my first fight and we have been discussing it for more than a month. One cannot just set a date, drive out and fight. The first trip out needed to be a fairly extended one. Frances talked to me about how insular the people of Buriram can be (Isaan is far less touristed than other areas of Thailand and the people of Isaan are both ostracized by Bangkok Thai snobbery and also insulated by the particulars of Isaan-Thai identity), and that unless I invest a significant amount of time there they will likely not warm up to me. This fits with what I already know of Isaan peripherally; I’ve found that the same is actually true of all Thais – they are very friendly and it is no wonder why Thailand is called “the land of smiles” but there is separation between the outside friendliness and actual personal friendship -, but to perhaps a lessor degree. While I appreciate the invitation to spend time there, I am also building very important relationships here in Pattaya. Here too, despite friendly and open spirits, relationships take time to deepen. Thai families are more or less closed circles of allegiance. I am currently investing in two families (gyms) in Pattaya (Petchrungruang and O. Meekhun), in different ways. Right now these people are my fight family and my fight home, and as much as I would like to extend myself to Frances and Giatbundit, I am fairly limited in what I can do in terms of personal time.
So we have come up with a compromise. I should be fighting on this Tuesday the 26th, but I will come up two days earlier to introduce myself to the Giatbundit Gym family and also the fight promoter. I should get a training session in on Sunday afternoon, which will be fun and there may even be some sort of “getting matched up” event, which involves literally physically matching me up against someone else. I love the eyeball method of match-making in Thailand, something I experienced a number of times in Chiang Mai. So, in a way, at this point I do not firmly have an opponent (unclear). This, Frances tells me, is just the process one has to go through so that local people get to know me. It seems part of the insular Buriram nature, but also speaks to the fact of how fights are driven through gambling and the gamblers simply have no idea who or what I am. Once I fight and meet everyone, fighting there should be much easier. They will know me as a person, and have seen how I fight. This first travel to Isaan is as much a social exchange as a fight, and this initial journey was really the big push behind the necessity of the Go Fund Me. Without the fundraiser I could not make a 4 day journey to Isaan to begin a new relationship, from where I stood. And I thank everyone who has supported me (both in donations and in words) for making this possible.
Bringing Isaan Closer to You
The big hope is that through this fight a relationship with the Giatbundit Gym begins, and I’ll be able to share with you my experiences of travel to fight up in Buriram multiple times, perhaps as much as once a month (or best case, traveling once and fighting a couple fights at a time). There is very little to be found on the Internet about Isaan Muay Thai, or what it is like, and it is looking to me like Frances, Boom, Pi Dit and Giatbundit may be a very important gym in Isaan for building relations with the rest of the western Muay Thai world. I’m going to try to photograph, film, but mostly write all I can to give readers a sense what is possible, for those who might really want to come and train and fight in Isaan.
I’ve fought in Isaan only once. It was a big TV fight in Nongbualamphu, back on my 35th fight a year and a half ago. You can read my experience of that time here: Fighting in Isaan, a Trip to the Heart of Muay Thai. It was an incredible personal experience for me. I felt both excluded and also embraced by everyone around me in a powerful way – but it was only a fleeting event, while this feels much more like a journey. And as I mentioned before, Isaan is a huge region of Thailand, so while there are unifying similarities in the people and identity, there are also like big differences and seeing this particular area in Buriram will be an entirely new experience for me.
Hopefully you’ll find it as exciting at I do.
You can see the Giatbundit Gym website here: muaythaiburiram.com – follow their Facebook page here – and you can reach Frances Watthanaya directly on Twitter here: @Watthanaya