In January of 2010, Neil Chamberlain left Brooklyn for a three-month tour of Muay Thai boxing camps in Thailand. While abroad he kept an online chronicle of his experiences that was followed voraciously by his family and friends. Neil returned from Thailand in early April; less than two weeks later he was dead at age twenty-eight, killed by a hit-and-run driver. In light of the brute intensities he’d so recently and lovingly chronicled, the cruel and sudden randomness of his passing was impossible to comprehend. Like many others close to him I’ve re-read this often since his accident, missing my friend, lusting after his sentences, wishing desperately that I could read even one more. It’s a great cliché to describe prose as “alive” and I’d be perfectly content if this is the last time I ever do so, but it’s a privilege to say it now, and to share Neil’s words and travels here. -Jack Hamilton
Lessons (February 3, 2010)
My first night in Bangkok I arrive at the gym just in time for dinner, and I sit down across from Euddi, who is huge and very Teutonic and shirtless; everybody at the table is shirtless, except for me. He’s very friendly, in the way that people tend to be when they’re too large to have ever been fucked with. We have a lot in common, at least relative to the other foreigners training at the gym; he has a normal job back in Germany, as a systems administrator, whereas most of the others are professional fighters and MMA coaches or, in the case of Dave, a genial Englishman with a bed adjacent to mine, ex-pro fighters turned perpetual narco-tourists who live in Muay Thai camps but don’t train because of nebulous injuries.
I go to bed early but then can’t fall asleep. I lie in the dark for hours, listening to the traffic and the whir of the three floor fans in the room (one in front of each bed), at some point rediscovering a “Great Books” application on my iPhone, with a large selection of public domain texts. I’ve read about a third of Conrad’s The Secret Agent, before Farmer comes in at 7 and asks if anyone’s up for a run. I totally am.
Farmer is 19 but looks way younger; he’s milk pale and rail thin, with a buzz cut and big eyes with long lashes and a light spray of zits around his mouth; he could be a flashback to lost innocence from a gangster movie. Back in Ireland, he’s the top-ranked Thai boxer in his weight class (which we inexpertly convert from kilos to about 125 pounds) and on Wednesday he has his first fight against a Thai (which he pronounces “Toy”) and on Friday he has his second fight.
The fighters go to one of two parks by the gym to run. Today we go to the smaller one, with a narrow path twisting around a man-made lake through weird landscaping; it feels sort of like a futurist golf course. Farmer tells me about how last week he was chased through this park by security guards because the national anthem had started playing (it plays every morning at 8 over loudspeakers throughout the whole city) but he hadn’t heard it, because he was wearing headphones. Whenever the national anthem comes on here, you are expected to stop what you’re doing; it’s a big deal; there’s a few things like this that you have to keep an eye on.
Farmer talks more or less continuously from the moment we set out to the moment we get back, but he doesn’t come off as hyper or pushy, or even particularly talkative; information just flows from him as naturally as air or sweat, though his brogue is so thick that at least 1/5 of it slips pleasantly by me, uncomprehended. He tells me how he regrets having paid for a full six weeks at the gym up front, because he and Jitti are not getting along, because Farmer has been sleeping with too many local women; one of the first things Jitti had told me when I arrived was not to sleep with any women in the area; he gave a number of reasons. Farmer tells me a complicated story wherein he sleeps with three different women in one night—he stresses that they weren’t prostitutes, or else they were but didn’t make him pay, except maybe in one instance—and another story, or possibly part of this same story, where one woman mistook his subway card for an ATM card, and paid her own “bar fee” (this is one of the ways prostitutes operate here,) and took him back to her apartment, and made him a big breakfast from things bought at the 7-11 downstairs, and now wants him to come away with her to some beach house this weekend. Farmer tells me that women here especially like young, pale foreigners: this is because Thais associate dark skin with farming and manual labor, and pale skin with money; and also because they assume young men traveling abroad will be rich and virginal and easily overwhelmed with sex. “Let em think it,” he advises me.
Some other advice Farmer gave me during the run was not to go out drinking with the trainers, because they will stick you with the bar tab; to stay away from dogs in general, but in particular the gym’s salt and pepper terrier, who is prone to spontaneous violence; and to check your luggage before leaving the gym, in case the trainers have planted drugs in it and tipped off the cops for a commission.
About halfway around the track, the national anthem starts playing over loudspeakers all around us. Farmer does not seem inclined to stop, but then we notice some security guards a little ways off, so we do, and listen. “It sounds like something from a cartoon,” he says. It’s true; it does.
Chewed Up (February 4, 2010)
I don’t sleep much more on my second night than I did on my first, so my second day starts early, at about 1 or 2am. I cycle between Conrad and The Myth of Sysyphus and staring into the fan. By 7 AM I’m too hungry to read—breakfast is served at 10, after morning training—so I put on sandals and walk down the street to the 7-11. I buy a mini-snickers, which comes with a free Tigger stamp. On the way back I notice a bottle of Johnny Walker Red standing amongst the curbside detritus, with two or three inches left in it. I’m in the ring skipping rope at 8 sharp, even though nobody else will be out there for a little while.
My whole body is sort of loopy from lack of sleep; I’ve probably managed less than eight hours in the last 72, though my muscles are less sore than ought to be. But the soles of my feet are raw, because the mats here are rougher than what I’m used to. I do a few tentative kicks and feel the skin crinkle up brittle against the ground. I can see at least three spots where it’s primed to crack and blister. I go back inside and put on socks, even though I know the trainers will think I’m weird. My balance seems off, too, but I don’t give it much thought.
I warm up half-heartedly, and then Sern wraps my hands. He’s one of the trainers, and a giant, as far as Thais go, and he will reveal himself in the coming days and hours and minutes to be a fucking dick. I get into the ring with Alex, a young Filipino guy brought up in Switzerland. Sern puts us in gloves and shin pads and tells us to spar. I feel up to it for about 30 seconds, until I realize I’m not. Alex’s boxing is more or less on a level with mine, but he’s fitter, and in any case my head is just not in it at the moment. I keep it together for the first round, though he’s usually a step ahead and I take a couple of punches to the face, and some kicks to the body. He also gets me in the balls twice, by accident—not particularly hard, but worrying—and when I ask Sern if I can go put on a cup he laughs and shakes his head.
By the end of the second round I’m too exhausted for any pretense of boxing. I fall for every one of his feints, and I can’t manage to keep a guard up. Jitti is watching too now, alongside Sern. They were boisterous at first, howling every time one of us landed a kick, but they aren’t now. After the third round Jitti takes me out of the ring, and berates me for showing up so tired. I feel like I’m about to cry, because I’m too tired not to. He notices my feet are bleeding, and makes me put on my running shoes. Then he has me do some push-ups and wanders off.
I’m feeling better by breakfast, which is chicken and rice and peppers. There’s no question of any afternoon training, though. Jitti makes all of us give him samples of our handwriting; he needs someone to fill in the names and dates on some training certificates he’s making out for someone. But none of them are deemed acceptable, and the certificates go back in the envelope.
Where Do You Live (February 7, 2010)
Right now I am living and training at Jitti Gym, which is in Ratchapidisek, which is a shitty neighborhood in east Bangkok full of slummy two- and three-stories and cheap new mid-rise developments. I haven’t found the neighborhood in any guide book; I think the gym is its only point of interest to farangs, but last night I saw a fat white couple and their kid at the metro so maybe there’s a basket museum that I don’t know about.
The gym is a little compound with granite-brick walls about 12 feet high, and a huge wrought-iron gate that’s painted gold and quite ornate and as such stands at odds with the rigorous unfanciness of everything else. All the cooking and eating and fighting is done in the open air, under corrugated metal roofs that start in about five feet above the walls. Right when you come through the gates you see a few big picnic tables made of dark wood, with logs for legs, and behind that there’s a fridge and folding table and a couple of rough cabinets with dishes and cooking supplies. All the food’s cooked back there, in one pot over a big gas burner. Up on one wall by the tables there’s some photos of fighters who’ve trained at the gym and photos of Jitti at various ages and some weird water-color portraits of boxers. Top row center, pride of place is given to a poster of Natalie Portman dressed as a galactic princess, which reads “One Love. One Quest. Star Wars.”
There are about eight foreign fighters training at a given time, and maybe four Thais, and then six Thai trainers. Everybody sleeps in a small two-story building, set in between the dining space and the boxing ring. I sleep on the ground floor with a couple of Brits named Dave and Ethan. There are two other rooms upstairs, plus Jitti’s room. Some of the trainers sleep in tents on the roof. Outside my room’s another little room, with pillows on the floor, and when they’re not training the Thai boys sprawl out there like big cats and watch television, and sometimes sing karaoke. There’s a wall of lockers in that room, where we keep our passports and sundry valuables. And there’s a shelf with some trophies, and below those is a glass case with a carved figure of the King, seated at a table with his legs crossed, reading a newspaper. At his feet two little ceramic cats play with marbles. There are stuffed elephants and carved elephants everywhere all over the house, and many broken fans.
The training area’s out back; I can see it through my window, if the curtains aren’t shut. At the center of everything is big ring that’s about one and half times regulation size, with some mats and heavy bags arrayed around it. Some of the heavy bags are quite dilapidated, and some of them are little more than skeletons of heavy bags. There’s a pair of wooden sit-up braces that look like something a castaway might build, if he was training for a fight against a bear.
There’s a terrier who has the run of the place—on a side note, in Thailand the silhouetted dog icon used in “no dogs allowed” signs is recognizably a terrier—who can stand on his hind legs more or less indefinitely, when he thinks there’s food in it for him. Sometimes he will steal off with one of your shoes and leave it up on the roof. It happened to me. And he will bite you if you touch him.
We wake up around seven—or we’re supposed to, anyway; jet lag wakes me earlier—and run three or four miles. We run around the city, or in a park, or sometimes through the city to a park and then back again. The other day a dog chased me for a couple of blocks, but I don’t think he expected to catch me, and he didn’t.
After the run we come back to the gym, and train for an hour or two, some combination of padwork and sparring and shadowboxing. What you do and how much depends on who you’re training with that day; an asshole like Sern will be throwing knees at your head halfway though the first round—and this is during padwork; I refuse to spar with Sern, because he’ll just hurt me and I won’t learn anything—and you’ll be fucked after 20 minutes.
Morning training is pretty quiet; people drift in and out, and some people just skip it. The afternoon session, starting in around three o’clock, is much more raucous. Everybody comes, and then a lot of people staying elsewhere on top of that. It’s about three or four hours, loosely regimented: five rounds of pads, then bagwork, then sparring, then clinching. The rounds are five minutes long, rather than the usual three: a fucking eternity. But you can take a round off whenever you feel like it, or even have a shower and come back; the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed and nobody wears a shirt, like a pool part where people are hurting each other.
Brits (February 7, 2010)
I’ve mentioned there are two Englishmen staying at the gym with me, Dave and Ethan. Dave arrived a few days before I did, and Ethan a few days after. They’re both likable, though you have to make a few more compromises if you’re set on liking Ethan.
Dave is thirty, the oldest fighter at the gym and the only one older than me. I’m an inch or two taller than him, though I feel as though I shouldn’t be: he has the presence of a large man, but without any jittery Napoleonic strain to be larger than he is. He’s built stouter than the other fighters here, with thickly muscled arms and legs, and serious, venerable-looking abdominals evident beneath a thin skein of beer fat. And he’s very handsome. I really like Dave. I like his hearty Midlands accent, whose long vowels render nearly everything either funny or compelling. I also like the magnanimous way he’ll repeat the key clause of other people’s remarks, as if savoring it, even when it’s nothing special.
Ethan is twenty-four, but it’s a “hard twenty-four,” as they say. He makes me think of those British mercenaries in North Africa, who drift from civil war to civil war: he has a perpetual squint, as if from a lifetime spent in harsh sunlight, but also skin that’s shut-in pale; his body is as strong and unsexy as a cudgel, and a bit doughy in the way that athletes get when gone to seed. There’s scars all over his body that don’t look boxing related and a raised circular burn in the center of his chest about the size of an Om tattoo.
I learn about most of the other people here in dribs and drabs; I know more about Ethan than all of them put together, probably, because he talks a lot. Farmer does too, but Farmer talks a little like a jazz solo, full of angular turns and flowering tangents. Ethan is more like a piece by Philip Glass: obsessively, hypnotically repetitive, delineating and relineating some small facet of Thai boxing, drugs, or prostitutes. I don’t mean that Ethan’s boring; he’s fun to listen to. He uses a lot of good expressions like “cheap as chips,” and appends a reflexive “innit?” to most of his statements, which is probably my favorite idiosyncrasy of British speech. But a lot of those “innits” feel less rhetorical to me than Ethan probably intends, i.e. “A Paki’s like to lie about the time of day, innit?”
Ethan grew up poor in Leeds, in a council estate, and now he lives with his parents and sells weed and coke. Still, he and I share real common ground; we both love Thai boxing, and if I don’t like drugs as much as he does, I did once, so I can relate, especially vis a vis the difficulty of balancing drugs and Thai boxing. But we really diverge on the subject of prostitutes. When I told him I was not interested in fucking a prostitute, full stop—something I put off making explicit for as long as possible, I admit—he was incredulous. He pinched my arm and asked if I was real and was not being wholly ironic. He asked me how many women I’d slept with, and I gave him a rough number, and then he asked me if I really hadn’t paid for any of them.
Although I object to prostitution for a lot of reasons, I’m not bringing this up to scorn him, not in a moral sense and certainly not in the sense of “what kind of man would need to pay for sex”; it’s not like I’m appreciably more handsome than he is, and I think a lot of girls would find him much more engaging than they would me. And I really do like Ethan, though I would I go to jail before I went out drinking with him. He’s funny and generous and doesn’t condescend to me when we talk about Muay Thai, though as a pro fighter he has every right to. I’m only illustrating the gulf between our sensibilities, and the gulf between my sensibilities and those of a lot of men at the gym, and a lot of the men who come to Bangkok. It’s evident everywhere and it’s in my thoughts a lot of the time, because—hopeless Jew relativist that I am—it does not feel as straightforward as it did before I got to Thailand; I don’t feel like summarily hating half of the men I meet. I’ve been putting off unpacking all this here, though, and I’ll do so a little longer.