March 26, 2013 –
This fight was organized about a month ago and I’d been expecting to fight a girl I fought maybe 4 months ago, named Kendo. I’d won my fight against Kendo, probably a knee KO, but I didn’t really remember it and I only came to know that it was going to be a rematch against her a few days before the actual event. It’s Thailand though so I knew better than to expect everything to go as planned. At my last fight, against Nong Kwang, at Kalare Stadium she had come up to me after the fight and asked if I was fighting in Phayao next week, which I as and so I told her “yes.” Then she went and spoke with Den or a few minutes, which was a bit strange and as it would turn out Nong Kwang ended up being my opponent in Phayao instead of Kendo, even though Kendo was on the poster and the recorded announcement (and even was even read as my opponent by the live announcer when we entered the ring; nobody got the memo?).
But this whole day was full of the kind of reversals and chaos that make fighting in Thailand unique.
I’m always punctual in arriving at the gym for fights. For this event we had to drive 3-4 hours north to Phayao, so Den wrote on the board that we would depart camp at 3:00 PM. Normally I arrive 5 minutes early and we end up leaving 20 minutes late so it didn’t seem like too urgent a matter when the line at the coffee stand proved to be much slower than we would have liked. I tried to text Den to say that we’d be there about 5-10 minutes late but I was out of credit on the phone. When we finally got to the gym at 3:15 Andy’s truck was gone and the gym was empty except for Andy and two guys who train at the gym chatting against the ring.
“Where’s Den?” I asked and Pete told me he’d already left, “about five minutes ago.” There was a lot of what?! from my end and I asked Andy to call him, which he slowly stood up and meandered toward the house to go and do while I freaked out about the one time I’m late being the one time they leave not only on time but without me. My stomach was turning and I felt all hot and agitated in that nervous, flushed or embarrassed way. It was awful.
Only a few moments later Kevin was calling for me that the truck was already back (they’d realized their error before even getting Andy’s call) and I hopped in the back of the truck while Den explained that they’d honestly just forgotten me. Thanks!
Kevin and I tried to settle into the already packed bed of the truck, atop the bamboo mats and between backpacks and outstretched legs of Luc – also fighting – Saber, who was bandaged all down one side of his body from a motorbike accident, and Little Neung curled into a corner. We weren’t 200 meters away from the gym when the truck stopped again, Den yelled something at Little Neung and he hopped out of the truck and started running back to the camp. Den re-explained how they’d forgotten me and then shook his head, saying he’d told the boys to “bring everything” and yet just now Boy had noticed that we didn’t have the Mongkol. Den popped the hood of the truck and fiddled with something for a minute before Big pulled up on a motorbike with Little Neung clamoring off the back of it with the Mongkol looped around his shoulder. He put it on the dashboard and then climbed back into the truck.
“You shouldn’t feel badly that they forgot you,” Kevin offered, “because by forgetting the Mongkol you are in the company of greatest importance.” You never fight without a Mongkol and yeah, you don’t fight without the fighter either.
The Long Drive
There’s something kind of amazing about traveling in the open bed of a truck at high speed. Not only is it something few in the west experience due to the obvious issue of safety and legality, but covering long distance in the bed of a speeding truck is another thing entirely. The sun’s oppressive presence gives a far more exposed feeling than the openness of the truck bed itself but the high winds from the truck’s own velocity makes the heat of the sun not the issue – in fact it’s rather cold – instead it’s just an intense brightness and nowhere to hide from it. I wore a baseball cap and a windbreaker with the hood pulled up over the cap in order to protect me from the chill of the wind, but the whipping of the thin fabric in the ceaseless wind could be a form of torture. It’s 3-4 hours of non-stop wind in your face, your ear, whipping around your eyes and making trash-bag in the drier noise against the side of your head.
We drove over mountains, which are beautiful and rise out of the ground in ways entirely unfamiliar to me compared to the mountains in America. They seem to shoot straight up with almost squared peaks and jungle covering them instead of pines. It’s the burning season, when farmers burn their fields in order to “reset” them for the planting and rainy season. In Chiang Mai this time of year the air is cloudy, almost dream-like, and the mountains which line the city are completely eclipsed by a curtain of white smog from the fires. Sometimes ashes blow in out of nowhere, landing on your breakfast table without warning, like Hell’s butterfly. As we drove through the mountains we went through patches of smoke and saw snakes of glowing embers creeping through the underbrush along the sides of the road.
We made it to the festival grounds a few hours before the fights were meant to begin. As we pulled up to the entrance there was an enormous billboard-sized poster for the event with a picture of me up at the top right and Kendo a few images below. The westerner pictured to represent Luc was white and a man, but other than that there was no similarity.
The fair looked great. There were pinwheels of neon lights spinning here and there, food stands and games to win small prizes, as well as a whole side of the grounds lined with inflatable castles, slides, trampolines, etc. There weren’t many people on the grounds, mostly just the vendors or operators of the “rides,” as well as a few monks walking around. There was a temple on one side of the field and a firehouse on the other.
Kevin and I walked down to the end of the small road to take a photo with the billboard and were met by the truck a few minutes later, now with everyone crammed into the bed and nobody in the cab except for Den and Big Neung, telling us to hop in so we could go get some dinner before the fights started.
In small towns restaurants close quite early. It was only 6:00 and without driving into the main city we had to convince a small roadside restaurant to take us in as they were already getting ready to close. The big issue being discussed was whether or not the westerners could eat sticky rice. I don’t know what the deal is regarding this – sticky rice is very much tied to the identity of northern and north-eastern Thai as an ethnic food but I’ve never met anyone who cannot eat sticky rice in the way that many westerners cannot eat spicy food. Apparently sticky rice puts some people to sleep. On the glycemic index it’s pretty similar to table sugar, so it’s reasonable that folks have a physical response to it as such, but I still can’t imagine someone actually seeking out a different restaurant in order to find boiled rice over sticky rice. Whatever.
We ended up all sitting down at a big table, 10 of us total, and organized plates and water glasses while Den borrowed a motorbike from the restaurant/residence and jetted off to buy two grilled chickens. The food came in waves, as is typical of Thai dining, and it was an amazing spread. We had tupperware full of sticky rice (normally it comes in bags or, traditionally, small baskets), a Thai omelet – which I’ve come to realize from my few dining experiences “as a fighter” is, along with boiled eggs, a typical food item offered to fighters in preparation for a fight -, some kind of ground pork with chilis and onion, a stir-fried dish with what I guess were snails (and was delicious), and a plate of spicy papaya salad.
Eating in Thailand is a serious affair. It’s “family style” in the sense that dishes are shared between all members of the party and a few scoops of each dish are separated onto individual plates but the main dishes in the middle are dipped into with balls of sticky rice from all directions, soaking up the flavorful juices of the shared dishes.
We finished dinner and hung around for a bit around the table for a while. The older man who lived at the residence at the restaurant found his way over to Luc, who was wearing a tanktop that exposed his heavily tattooed arms. His right arm is entirely Sak Yant, Thai protective tattoos, and the man inspected it as if reading a newspaper, running his finger along the lines of some of the spells. He likely couldn’t read it – it’s not Thai writing – but he knew what it was and made oooh and aaaah sounds of approval as he investigated all the different parts. Luc sat uncomfortably for the whole ordeal, being very patient as I’m sure this happens a lot.
We got turned around a few times before making it over to the fairgrounds again but now the place was popping. We parked and went to look at the ring, which was high and hard, the canvas stretched thin over board like a painter’s canvas laid flat. It was also notably slanted with the red corner at a steep downhill slope from the blue.
We set up the bamboo mats inside the bed of the truck and one out behind it on the ground. Boy and his girlfriend curled up against the cab of the truck and a few of us sat with our feet dangling off the tailgate. In the dimming light a referee from Kalare Stadium appeared in front of me and I greeted him. He asked me in Thai where Den was and I answered that I didn’t know but that he should be back soon. He nodded and went to sit down nearby while I explained to Kevin who that man was and how I knew him. Soon after a few men who I’ve never seen before came up to me, addressing me by name, asking me where Den was. When I again said I didn’t know they began introducing each other to me and after a short while an older monk in deep red robes was brought over and introduced to me and Luc and Boy. I reckon he must have been the head of the temple next to the fairgrounds as he was being led around and introduced like a VIP at his own party. It was strange but not unpleasant.
One of my favorite things about festival fights is that they are chaotic. Things change, it’s disorganized, but the crowd packs right up against the skirt of the stage and swells out to about a hundred people deep in every direction. You actually have to cut a path through them to make it over to the ring – you are brushing shoulders with the audience on the way into and out of the fight.
This fight was a little shifty going in. There was a hum of rumors regarding betting on this fight and it seemed suspicious, so I just prepared myself as best I could for anything. In general, when it comes to gambling, the real money is made when there’s a reversal in the third round. This is why the first two rounds aren’t really scoring rounds (generally) and you’ll see fighters kind of use them as “feel out” rounds, but those fighters are flooring it in the third and fourth and, if need be, the fifth rounds. Sometimes if a fight ends in the first round no money is exchanged at all, but sometimes there are odds even going into a fight and real gamblers will bet on everything – who throws the first kick, who’s the first off her stool when the bell rings, whether or not the fighter takes water between rounds… everything. So I knew that whatever rumors were going around could be the exact opposite of what was and I also knew that I don’t care about gambling, so I just wanted to fight my fight either way.
The last fight I had with Nong Kwang she kind of never made it out of first gear. I expected her to fight differently and I know she has power – she’s bigger than I am kicks like she’s bigger than she is – so I knew to watch for head kicks since she threw one in the first round last time. We met in the center of the ring to receive garlands and an envelope of money, although I don’t know what that was for. Then we went to our corners and began our Wai Kru/Ram Muay. The crowd loved my Ram Muay – they cheered when it was clear that I was doing one and then applauded and howled when I began “stalking” the red corner at the end of it. Respect to Master K. I love his Ram Muay.
Right out from the start Nong Kwang was hitting hard. She blasted me with a couple overhand rights and they landed hard. I’d had success kicking her legs in the first round last time so I did that again and landed a few with good power. My hands were all over the place and wide, my guard was crap and she started throwing elbows. She didn’t land well with the first but the second (I think) clipped me and I felt the blood start immediately. I ignored it and kept moving, occasionally glimpsing a fall of blood on my shoulder and down the front of my shirt. It didn’t hurt but Nong Kwang launched more overhand rights at it, trying to open it up further. Just at the end of the first round the paused the fight and took me to the side of the ring to have the cut inspected. The lady looked at it for a long time, blotting it with large cotton swabs. She looked unsure and then told the ref to stop the fight. I saw him wave his hands in the air just behind me and the fight was over. That sucked. The cut was bleeding a lot but it wasn’t getting in my eyes and it was in my hairline, which was not an immediate problem to a fight.
It seemed like a very long time before Den came over to where I was at the side of the ring. He looked at my cut and shook his head – he’d taken so long because he didn’t believe the fight had been called. The lady and an official gestured for me to have a seat just outside the ring, I thought in order to get stitches, so I went back to the middle of the ring and took a circle of bows like I do when entering the ring or thanking the judges and the crowd cheered. Then I slipped under the ropes and sat on the plastic chair.
As the lady cleaned up my cut I looked at the audience, which was packed but separated from me by a couple feet because of a fence. Many eyes were fixed on me and I smiled at a few with whom I made contact. When the lady placed a piece of gauze on the cut and then started wrapping a strip of gauze around my head – like in cartoons – I started to laugh. When she was done I looked up and asked about stitches. She shook her head and I clenched my jaw. If I didn’t need stitches, then why stop the fight?
I got up and walked over to the back of the stage where my shoes had been left by the ladder which I’d climbed for the entrance. Den asked me how many stitches and I explained that I hadn’t received any. He put his hands on my arms and moved me to the side before walking purposefully over to the woman who’d wrapped my head, speaking animatedly. Another lady came up to me and asked, in English, if I had “problem with [my] head?” What a terrific question, I noted. This second lady read Den’s energy and knew she was expected to do something, so she started guiding me over to the fire station and I kept telling her I had to wait for Den, who had disappeared again back to the area where we were set up. She kept trying to get me to follow her until I said in Thai that he was my trainer and I had to wait. Then she understood. The word for trainer must hold some good authority.
Den came back and told Kevin to go with me and the lady to the ambulance. I had to go to the hospital for stitches because there was no doctor at the fair. This fact seemed to piss Den off even more because it was acknowledging that the call to end the fight had not come from a real doctor.
Kevin and I crawled into the back of an ambulance that was basically a station wagon with a gurney and seats along one side of it. Kevin was all excited about the fight and the chaos and I would have been too if I weren’t so upset by the fight being stopped. If I’d been knocked out, sure. If the cut had been on my eye and I had blood obscuring my vision, sure. If I’d just plain lost the fight from being out-pointed, sure. But this sucked.
The back of the ambulance was dark and three heads were silhouetted by the illuminated dashboard in the front of the cab. The night air was pulled in like ribbons through cracked open windows and the different scents of countryside streamed in with it. The country roads were long and it took maybe 20 minutes to reach the hospital. When we hopped out the back of the ambulance the lady called me over to a sliding door labeled “Emergency Room,” behind which there was an absolute absence of emergency in the affects of the three middle-aged lady nurses and one young man nurse. They kept a look of puzzled expression on their faces throughout a few attempts by our lady guide to explain that I was a fighter at the temple fair and that I needed stitches. I was, at this point, covered in dried blood that had fountained down the front of my shirt, staining all the white portions of my shorts and spotting my thighs and down to my toes. And I had gauze wrapped around my head like a bad Halloween costume.
An older lady nurse and the young male nurse sat me down on a bed and went to work cutting the gauze off. The inner layer had been glued to my scalp and hair by the dried blood and it was either painfully pried off or snipped (I reckon that was the hair) with surgical scissors. I answered a few questions and the young male nurse, in ubiquitous Thai fashion, complemented my Thai despite it having been limited to where I live and whether or not my head hurt. Thais are really generous with their compliments when it comes to speaking any Thai at all.
They cleaned up my scalp and I felt the needle bite into my scalp and the thread begin to pull through. I counted two needles and then nothing. A piece of cloth was pressed with amazing force into my scalp for a minute or so and then it was lifted. I swear to God, I thought, if it’s only two stitches I’m going to hurt someone. As I laid there the young male nurse appeared next to me and began wiping my left bicep with something cold and alcoholic. I figured he was cleaning me up because I looked like a zombie killer but then I felt an injection in my arm and that assumption was chased right out of my mind. I turned my head and saw a fresh little bead of blood forming on the top of my rounded muscle and a minute later the nurse returned and asked me in English, “are you allergic to this?” Uh, I hope not. I considered the question for a moment, what was likely meant by asking me after the injection if I was allergic to it and reckoned he was asking about allergies in general, so I explained in Thai that I have no allergies at all. He smiled and disappeared again.
I got up and put on my shoes. A lady behind the desk started asking me for my passport, insurance, etc. I told her as best I could that I didn’t have any of these things and then told her I had to go speak with my husband, which she accepted as the most reasonable answer of all. Kevin was sitting with the lady from the fair and we had a brief discussion before a nurse appeared and said we were waiting for my “medicine.” I didn’t want any, which I explained a few times and they had to go get the doctor, who looked 15 years old but ultimately listened to all sides and then furrowed her brow for a moment before deciding that I could go without antibiotics. I asked how many stitches and the older nurse told me two. I started balking in Thai, two? TWO?! Why stop the fight for two stitches?! She laughed a hard laugh and put her hand on my arm, smiling. They fixed me up with a wad of cotton soaked in alcohol to clean myself up a bit and put us back up in the ambulance to be delivered back to the fair.