Farang, or a Love Song for Bangkok
They call me Farang, or Muay Farang. Foreign boxer, it means. It is not a title of honor. I’ve been here for a month now. Coach expects by the time I come back I’ll be a top prospect for the fancy TV fights, considering my kickboxing experience in the states. Everything depends on how my record turns out over here. This’ll be my third fight now. Kaewsamrit Boxing Gym puts all new inductees straight to work, and that’s slow to the boys over here. They do it every week and sometimes twice. I wonder how they do it, but then I see seven year olds literally living in the gym and I guess that’s pretty much my answer.
I’ve been in there with them though, dying and falling all over myself and shit, giving everything I've got to a handmade heavy bag. Tonight it's another Farang like me, since I haven’t earned the right to climb into the ring with a Thai just yet. His name is literally Bruce Wayne and he is the blue corner, and that is all I know about him.
Coach sprays my face with water from a bottle and Anong, the wiry kid so untalented he is essentially an intern, throws a towel up over my soaked shoulders. I am pacing in the wings, shadowboxing like they tell you to. I rotate my hips slowly, following through into the air. I will show them my teeth. It’s what I came here to do.
Praenpai explains to me in fractured but effective English that blue held his own in an exhibition match against Youssef Boughanem back in the states. Probably nothing to worry about, because it was years after he lost the only middleweight Lumpinee title ever bestowed to a foreigner. But still, you could never be too careful.
Coach tried to shush him, but I heard anyway. Coach claps my back to steer me away from him, back into the sweaty tunnels where every door led to a broom closet somehow. The ceiling shook with the stamping thunder of feet in the seats above, demanding blood to wager over. The mounted lights flickered in and out with the vibration. They expect me to be scared, but blue doesn’t look so tough. Everyone knows exhibition matches don’t mean anything anyway. It’s just another fight. Be like Rodtang, Saenchai, Buakaw. One after another after another, until their names are meaningless and their memories are stats-only.
I am ushered through the thundering halls and out into the open arena. Sarama musicians are playing traditional boxing music on weird-looking Oboe instruments and bongo drums. It sounds like the music a snake charmer uses to charm a cobra from a basket. I dance lightly on the tips of my feet, shimmying like a snake and feeling the points of my body move in unison. I shake out my shoulders, raw inside from the time spent at the heavy bag this week. I can’t see where the music is coming from over the crowd of gambling business travelers and tourists. No hands reach out to touch my prajioud, armbands tied by a neophyte fighter from my gym for good luck. The Thai love, love, love to watch a Farang lose after traveling across the country to try and conquer their beloved national sport, but they welcome us to try anyhow. It is a matter of national pride.
Anong follows behind me as I move around in the wings. He wide-steps behind me to rub my shoulders while I walk. Coach grabs me and flashes five fingers in my face to show how much time we have left before the bell. Mai bpen rai- no problems, he said. No problems.
Now it happens faster than you think, and if you miss those rare crystal-still moments right before the action, you are already at a disadvantage. Don’t blink. If you find yourself just waking up when the bell rings and falling into the action instead of walking in calmly like you mean business, you are fucked. You have to come correct.
I focus on my breathing moving to the ring. In the way of all matches, we meet in the ring and honor the coaches and those who have come before us with a traditional dance done before every match. It looks silly under the lights, like we are doing the chicken dance. Two tattooed white boys dancing the Wai Kru in a room full of Thai citizens, many of whom likely fought themselves as boys? It just feels a bit disrespectful. But to not do it would be worse so we dance our silly looking dance and meet in the center with the ref.
I watch Bruce Wayne peacock about the stage in his blue armbands and gloves, with a colorful Monkgon headband. I can take him. He doesn’t look so tough. The noise below the Samrad music is low, because our fight is not important. There are still a few die hard gamblers, and drunks looking for somewhere dark to be, somewhere public and private. I smell the sweat and blood baked into the cloth beneath my bare feet and feel its damp surface.
The bell rings. We touch gloves in a universal sign of respect for the game itself, but that is the last iota of respect I get from Bruce Wayne this side of consciousness.You know what he does? He marches straight across the ring, in those lurching double steps to keep the feet fleet and light, ready to strike or defend at a moment. He doesn’t wait and test the waters to showcase for the gamblers who will place their bets in the first and second rounds, as is iron-clad tradition for the Thai. His shorts have a pot leaf patch on them even though getting caught with cannabis in Thailand will net you years locked up in the name of the king, or worse.
I begin my own swaying orbit, watching the rhythm in his side-to-side for any shifts or changes. The snake charmer music times our two bodies locked in dance. He was much bigger than the scrappy dutch tourist I dispatched last week. I watch a vein bulge in his forehead, and his right side drops a bit.
I bring up my left knee to close a gap with my elbow, feeling a shin blade that wasn’t there moments earlier swing toward my ribcage in the aether between observable moments and meet the side of my calf instead. The air follows his leg, a nasty right round indeed. I slam my foot back onto the clothed mat and return with a clean but lackluster leg kick. Unlike Bruce Wayne, I stick to convention. First two rounds are for probing, and now I know Batman over here has a mule-like right leg, and he knows nothing.
I circle around him, expertly stepping forward off the backfoot every ten or twelve paces to push kick blue out by a couple feet and cut a new angle, to avoid point loss for retreating. His guard is a little more open than the standard Muay Boran, hands-at-the-eyebrow stance. This is common among Farang. Again I hold to convention, framing blue in the rectangle between my gloves. My arms are like blinders and I don’t see the gamblers, hanging forward off the corner and waving stacks of Baht through the air overhead and screaming at us and each other with idolatrous lust.
Here I feign the push kick and switch stance, bringing my weight back with my left foot in a quick plie and bouncing it off the mat. Destination ribs. Blue makes no effort to block and I connect with a solid thunk then feint back to continue orbit. We trade tit for tat for a bit and I backpedal my way through the first two rounds, saving energy for the thirds and fourth rounds. This is where the action is. This is what the gamblers want.
Round two, where we are still supposed to be probing and allowing gamblers to stake Baht by the forkfulls, he turns it up again. By now the gamblers are paying attention. This kind of immediate assault is unusual and usually indicative of some personal beef. I can’t believe this guy made it to Lumpinee’s prestigious ring.
I wipe the floor with Master Bruce in round three. The gamblers, beginning to filter in for the evening’s more consequential match-ups, lose their collective minds. A flashy knockout is the perennial favorite in the stadiums of Bangkok and Phuket. The Thai may have the technical advantage but take less risks toward what the west calls ‘puching thr big button.’ This is the first reason they still welcome Farang good enough to make it to Thailand. I push Bruce Wayne’s button with a right round from hell and put his lights out for the evening.
A man in a greasy little suit smoking inside hands me an envelope with a few hundred baht in it as a purse. Between what my coach gambled on me and this, I will have another week to fight and train in Bangkok. You eat what you catch here.
— — — —
I see one boy every day named Kittisak. He works harder than anyone. His parents sent him to live at the gym. I’ve seen a lot of little boys from right outside Bangkok come to stay as long as they can, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Kittisak has a little brother named Somchai. Somchai still goes to school in one of the single-classroom schools for poor kids in the Klong Toey slums. They come up to the city on foot or on rickety little bikes, sometimes three or four kids piled up on the bars. Somchai runs to the gym from school every day to watch his big brother train. The group of little brothers all hang around the edge of the ring, play spar and laugh and a few poke at the training gloves of every patron lined up in pairs along the edge.
Kittisak is fifteen. Kaewsamrit does not discriminate with the sparring rotation and I toe-toe with him often. He’s scary fast- and, at fifteen, hits harder than I do at nineteen. I am older than most of the boys at the gym, come to think of it. Of all the richly brown-skinned thin boys hugging punching bags and striking them knee after knee until the skin is bloody and the flesh beneath is swollen and bruised, Kittisak hits it the hardest.
“Hook, boss” he tells me while holding a pad in front of his perpetually smiling face. Twelve ounce gloves make the best sound on the pads, but are too light on padding for sparring. I use mine in practice, savoring the mean-sounding whacks and thumps they make. I step and swing a left hook through the pad, knocking it aside with a loud smack and following it with the right body shot he calls for next- it all blends together in a surreal chant: Yab-Yab-Kao, Yab-Yab-Teh. Dtoy tong- Kao, Dtoy tong- teh.
“Goo’ work, goo’ work.” He tells me in the tarnished and friendly English I’ve come to recognize from everyone here.
He is the principal fighter at the moment, the basket that all eggs end up in one way or another around here. A good fighter is a real meal ticket for the gym, and they show it. This status makes him somewhat of a team captain. He helps drill the younguns. He leads the pack running, and is always called first in any gauntlet. He hits the hardest, runs the fastest, and grunts the loudest. Coach pairs us often, less for my benefit and more to sharpen him on an older and larger opponent. The Thai care much less about weight classes so much as subjective skill. Kittisak might be the single-handed reason for this. I have a hard time keeping up with him.
The weekend’s victory allowed me a bit of extra attention from Coach. Tourists come weekly to train Muay Thai in an ‘authentic’ environs. It is unlikely for a Farang to advance much or win a title in Thailand (I mean it is the national sport, after all). When it happens though, the payoff in Western dollars is irresistable. This is the second reason the Thai still welcome Farang that are good or simply dedicated enough to make it to Thailand. He separates me during drill, standing in studious repose and watching my ankle arc up into a waiting kick pad ten, twenty, thirty times. He stops me every few whack’s to make adjustments, occasionally pushing a thumbs up right up in my face to show improvement. My legs are long so widen the stance, aim up here not down here, you need to focus on lowering the overall movement with the weight shift for this- he relates all this to me in a series of hand gestures, facial tics, and spare words in both Thai and English.
My clinch game isn’t up to snuff, so I spend most of the week arm-in-arm with a rotating cast of partners hell bent on destroying my abdomen with knees. Their knees swinging into my gut, one left then one right then one left and so on, but also my own knees, swinging up leftrightleft on pure abdominal muscle. On Wednesday, Praenpai forgets we are in practice and slides an overhand elbow through my guard, which bloodies my lip. For the rest of the week, the sore opens when struck even lightly. An hour of clinch a day and I can’t stand straight by the end of it. Then we run. Then more sparring. Then more running.
We run through Bangkok’s outskirts. We run through Manthana village and Mueang Phet. We run past Wat Champa temple and the Sot Suksa school where Somchai goes. On the weekends we run all the way to Lumpinee park and stare hatefully at the kidney-bean shaped profile of the Big Show before turning around to come back. We run huffing and sweating through markets and neighborhoods. We run along the side of the Chao Phryra, stopping to do push ups in a line on the banks, sucking in chestfuls of nasty-smelling river air. We run past temples next to comfortably modern skyscrapers. We run down Rama and cross the Skytrack walkway. We run through neon and smog and cigarette smoke. We run through clouds of steam rising through grills on the street from the city's underlayer somewhere, some hidden Bangkok. We run through markets that smell so good, you have to stay within view of the pack or you might get stuck there by accident, ogling meats, breads, and cheeses with the desperately hungry stomach of a distance runner while the squadron leaves you behind. We run past rickshaws and flower-peddlers and taxi stands. We run past Baan Muay Thai, our rival gym in Ban Wat Sai. We run until sweat soaks into our socks so bad it starts to bleed through the soles of the feet and leave wet footprints from eight different ragged pairs of shoes. We run until we get back to the gym, to eat and sleep before we run again.
— — — —
They are feeding me a low-rung native this weekend. My performance last week was spectacular enough to the promoter’s that they want to accelerate my career here. Now comes the part where I fight a scrappy Thai and either lose and slink back to the states humbled or gain a new, invisible badge of honor as a Farang who took a local. The gamblers love this.
The gambling machine in Lumpinee stadium is centered around viewing the fighters as some sort of hybrid between a salable commodity and a religious figure. Grown men stake their houses and cars over a fight between two eight year olds. They say things like no one can compare to Samart’s boxing or red seems wise indeed. They use intricate hand signals to bookies, who ask which fighter do you want by shaking a hand with the thumb and pinky stuck out, like a surfer. Thumb is for Red, Pinky for Blue. Then the denomination is agreed on by a series of finger, thumb, and fist patterns. Gamblers scramble for bookie attention over one another, making for a sea of waving fingers and waggling fists in the stands. Lumpinee is run by the King’s Royal Army, and armed guards posted throughout the stadium’s estate oversee the exchange of some forty billion baht through a year.
Kittisak gets a special match this week. Coach reads the cards from a torn envelope clutched in his badly withered and gnarled boxer’s hands. The students old enough to understand the complex rivalry involved cheer, whistle, and catcall when Kittisak’s matchup is read aloud: Ponpranong Baanmuaythai.
Some fighters adopt the name of their gym or a sponsor as a surname when they reach the level of recognizability where a name matters. This practice is essentially a pro card, since coaches typically wave the weeklies as long as you don’t bring shame to the gym on the public stage. Watcherachai and Anuwat are both fighters that have taken the Kaewsamrit name, but they are both teaching clinics around the world and are no longer involved in the gym. Ponpranog is a known rising star who has been dispatching handfuls of skilled nak muay, but Kittisak seems just as excited as everyone else to see what happens.
Back in the states we do fight camps, where months of careful and calculated preparation go into finding and exploiting the very specific weaknesses that can be found in any human fighter. Here though, we are given a name and a week to summon the correct ratio of hatred and technical prowess needed. We train for ten hours a day, easily. Here we do not starve ourselves to make weight, we eat six times a day and then some and still, the space between skin and raw muscle is so thin that we look like a pack of tribal huntsmen crossing the plain in the hot red sun. I feel light. Like my bones have been swapped for titanium in the month I’ve been here.
— — — —
Wednesday night a few of us go out into town after dinner. Coach despises the practice, but we are good at regulating our teammates when it comes to booze. Partially because if anyone shows up to practice drunk or hungover, especially if they have a fight that week, coach will circle us up for sit-ups while he walks from stomach to stomach laughing. But also because most of us honestly want to get better.
After a week of being on the business end of his signature switch kick, I wanted to buy him a drink. If not out of respectful admiration, then at least out of the selfish desire for the alcohol to weaken him in sparring. take a little heat off in hard sparring. When I approach him after supper, he is attacking the heavy bag, endless knees and elbows at olive garden style. I try out my Thai, but never seem to get the pronunciation right.
“You want spar?”
He rolls his fists around in front of him in a mock western boxing stance like some black and white photograph with a handlebar mustache. Even in play his fists are quick, and graceful.
“No, come drink.”
“Yeah, drink.” I make a bottle gesture with my hand.
I hold one finger up and twisted my face in a cartoonish expression of expectancy.
“No drink, farang. No baht.”
He smiles like always and goes right back to throwing absolutely diabolical kicks on the bag. Whoomp. Reset. Whoomp. Reset.
— — — —
This week I am Blue. Pritpanong is red. Tournament gloves are doled out from a plastic promoter’s table somewhere in the jungle of hallways surrounding the central auditorium. I see the enemy through the throngs of people bustling around to make the night’s show happen. He looks much smaller than Bruce Wayne. Shorter. I estimate a wingspan advantage close to a foot.
We do the rigamarole of pre-fight taping and wrapping. Coach is yelling at a man in a suit in staccato Thai. This week Kittisak wraps my hands, swirling a long strip of cotton expertly around my wrists and between my fingers. Anong ties on my blue prajioud. Coach makes them himself for the Farang, since typically a family member makes the armbands out of an old shirt for good luck.
Kittisak finishes wrapping the left hand and Anong slides the glove on while he gets started on the second. The blue Twins Special lace-ups provided by the tournament have a sick stale sweat and lysol smell to them. Must not be a very fresh pair.
“You good luck, big boy.”
The smile Kittisak gives me is so big, it looks like it is trying to escape his face. He grabs me by the shoulders and speaks into my face directly while Anong laces up my right glove/ There is a cold dampness inside from use, but I decide that it is definitely lysol and not sweat.
“Win him. We go drink later, ah? I want see you big champion. Big champion Farang.”
He smacks my shoulder once with that unshakable smile. He and Anong fall back to the rest of the group, allowing me a private moment to shadow box and loosen up. The team stands around chattering in excited Thai. Coach is no longer arguing with the suited man, he is placing his bets for the week. He bets on all the students, one way or another.
I imagine Pritpanong’s face in the air where I am punching. I force myself to hate him, to hate this stranger. It's funny, you would be surprised how hard it is to overlook the little voice that says Hey. You aren’t supposed to hit people in the face. Not everyone shares this hesitation, so it must be eradicated. I imagine him as the bullies that made me hate myself in high school. I imagine him as the drunk driver that killed my mother. I imagine him as my father, who taught me that not all people have that little voice. I let the hate flow through me, warming my veins and bringing a heat to my face, just below the eyes.
From the blue corner, Praenpai and Kittisak sing a Thai fight song that I don't understand. The bell rings and I touch gloves with The Enemy. Thai referees are heavily invested in safety, known to take a dive here and there if they can catch a falling knockout on the way down. Tonight's ref follows us closely as we circle, staring intently and making an ersatz Mexican standoff until we engage.
Pritpanong shows caution in the first round, feeling me out as I do the same. I test a low kick, on the right side, and he checks it and slides in for a jab. I duck the jab and cut to the right. Time to check out the left side.
I try to distract him by moving in with the hands. I jab, then with the cross, I step forward into southpaw for a sneaky switch kick. With a lesser skilled opponent, they wouldn't even notice the shift, but Pritpanong manages to catch my left foot at his ribcage.
It happens so quickly I almost don't notice, but he looks to the side of the ring for a flash then drops my foot from his grip, moving back into stance in front of me. This guy. He's a careerist. In the spot where he looked I see a group of gambling businessmen, real high-roller Japanese executive types paying a premium for ringside seats with the bookies.
I settle in for a long one. We sniff each other's asses for two rounds like circling dogs while the crowd of gamblers and families and locals and tourists and brothers and scouts and bookies and businessmen roar with building anticipation. Tonight drew a much larger crowd than last week, and it seems like Pritpanong and I have decided to give them the show they came for.
The round three bell tolls high through the dark rafters. My soul is burning inside my body. I am so focused on this moment, so inherently invested. Kittisak and Anong call out from the sideline, each of them offering different suggestions over the top of each other. I don't know what they are saying enough to follow through, even if I could hear them over each other.
Pritpanong lands a disastrous knee to the liver that makes me regret every drop of alcohol I've ever had. I badly damage his lead leg during a poorly executed series of punches. He uses hands too much, and makes it worse by being born a foot shorter. I'm slowed for a moment by the liver shot, but start to pull away toward the end of round three.
I am in rare, rare form tonight. In stance I feel as if in the cockpit of a very expensive, delicately constructed fighter jet. I am light, I am strong, I am someone else. The Samara rhythm moves me like a marionette, whirling and sliding from place to place on raw muscle memory and calculated hate. I find holes and exploit them; where I am sought, I am not found. The space where I used to be still holds my heat but my fury is elsewhere and reaching out to hurt.
By round four, I have secured a safe lead. The enemy is badly hurt and the hatred recedes. He sees the fourth round through with every bit of fading light in his battered head, but the Hate has sufficiently receded and I dance away, showing incredible social grace for a farang nak muay by allowing the enemy to preserve his honor without a more finishing brutality. A classy move.
Round five is more of the same, and we don't even reach for each other. Just dance around pathetically and shake out the broken parts for a minute and a half.
Baht is traded hands quietly to and from bookies throughout the stadium, from the moment it becomes apparent we are done. It's a common practice. I understand this boy does it as a job. He has a need to provide for his family and right now, this is how he does it. I owe him the rigor of honest competition and nothing more. I have no business taking away his ability to work, bit by bit, foot over fist.
The finishing bell rings and they sling a flowered garland over my neck. The team crowds around and slaps at my back. The sweating businessman that coach was arguing with hands me an envelope slightly but not much thicker than last time, enough for two weeks. Score.
Kittisak, unfortunately, is also in rare form tonight. He is there. He sinks like a rock. His fists miss by less than inches but enough to matter. He demonstrates as much grace as possible while being systemically dismantled.
He endures a heavy handed beating for three and four and is allowed to escape further damage by limping pathetically in a circle for the last round.
Coach watches in horror with a hand covering his brow, in shame I think. A loss like this, by the principal fighter and pro shoe in, and to Baan Muay Thai no less. A public disgrace. Kittisak was favored in odds, and lost Coach and many others quite a bit of baht. A man stands up and starts sobbing and screaming what I can only imagine are obscenities at him. Kittisak does not give up, not until round five. They sling the same flowered garland over the enemy Ponpranong's shoulders. They use the same one over and over, it's just for photos anyway.
— — — —
Kittisak is not at practice this week, so I train with Praenpai instead. I catch Kittisak packing his shit up to leave, since we are both among the students that often sleep at the gym. I try to talk to him about it, the best I can with hand gestures and bad Thai. I point at his bag and make play-sparring punches at him, nodding toward the vacant ring. His eyes are sad, but his smile is impenetrable.
“No spar, Farang.”
“Why not? Tam Mai a?”
“No spar. No baht.”
Praenpai explains to me later that Kittisak's mother barely makes enough to pay for their hut and basic food, and his father left when Somchai was a boy. Kittisak fought to pay for the school for his little brother. When he was winning, there was enough to pay his gym dues and the school fees to send Somchai to school. Ponpranong Baanmuaythai was his first loss. Rather than let Somchai fall off the roster, he would go find work in the village and help his father with the house. Praenpai tried his best to sum it up, but it didn't feel correct, or sufficient somehow.
“Time he grow up.”
— — — —
With the decisive victory over Pritpanong, I am thrown a bone this week. They have arranged for me to fight a genuine Thai champion named Samil Saetangbangkok. Samil held a middleweight title at Bangkok's other premier arena, Rajadmnern Stadium, ten years prior. He held the title for six months prior to losing it in an unspectacular defeat. He bounced around the stadiums after saving for a small gym of his own. Five years ago, when I started my first steps into this weird and violent art, Samil was opening SaetangBangkok.
I read all of this on Google, which is a mistake. For the first time, there is footage available of my opponent in the wings. He is graceful, he is powerful. I watch match after match of exquisite technique and flawless movement. I look for weaknesses and find very little. There are no recent matches, but even post-title-loss, he looks incredible.
I learn his age is nearing thirty. The Thai have a much lower expiration date. Likely from fighting week over week, often just to eat. This does not make me feel any better. I watch him, recognizing carefully manufactured hatred in his eyes through the grain of YouTube 480p. This man is dangerous.
— — — —
I don't know what to practice. I can't find a weakness. His title loss and handful of other loses are slow, bleeding losses in the clinch. American gyms don't train the clinch, do I am severely lacking there. If I focus on the clinch, I cannot make up in a week for years of hard fought experience. If I neglect the clinch, it will be an easy win for him. I don't know what to practice.
I practice everything. I practice punches: hooks, jabs, overhand, combos to the face and body, set-up and fakes. I practice roundhouse and straight kicks, teeps, front kicks which are different than straight kicks and teeps, fake kicks, kicks walking backwards, kicks walking forwards. I practice footwork. I clinch for two hours every day up until Thursday, then drop it to one to protect my neck strength. I practice sweeps and drops. I practice checking kicks, Paenprai and Anong throwing endless sloppy kicks at every angle they could muster. I practice sliding elbows through a guard or over a guard to bloody their eyes. Sufficiently bloody eyes are an instant victory by blindness. I practice hate. I practice everything.
— — — —
This time Coach wraps my gloves. Blue again. He says nothing, just grabs my face and stares at me like go kill him, you fucking animal.
Samil looks smaller in person. His legs are knotted and stubby, beaten stone hard from years of abuse. I see no hate in him, smell no hate.
He sizes me up like a gentleman and I do the same, carefully toeing and jabbing to look for holes. My heart, which hammered as the cold faced vet entered the ring looking cocksure confident, slowed now as I found hole after hole in his guard. His reactions are true but an inch slow for me. I tap him a few times in the second, testing his limits before we open up in three and four.
I would like to tell you I gave mercy to him. I would like to tell you I thought of Kittisak and pitied the aging star, sparing a true beating so he could return to class Monday, head held high for his students. I would like to tell you this.
I don't. I don't even see him. I see the screaming gamblers. I see the lights, the impossibly attractive local girls in bikinis holding signs 1-5, and the referee slinging that disgusting flower garland around my neck again. I love that fucking garland. I see a future where they stop calling me Farang and use my real name instead. I see a long but torturously clear path to joining the very small panoply of truly great farang.
BLUE WINS, TKO THIRD. I wasn't even breathing hard. As my arm gets raised, I feel the glorious cold damp of the garland. The gamblers shout down the ramparts and whirl fat piles of baht to each other in envelopes. I receive my own envelope from a soaking wet businessman in a suit. He is fat and doughy and smells too strong of spearmint. He hands me my own envelope, enough for another week to live or die by blood and baht in Bangkok.