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
Several Days (February 9, 2010)
On the evening of my third day I still haven’t slept anything close to a full night since my penultimate night in New York, and I am starting to feel psychological effects: phantom movements in the peripheries et al. I’m dead on my feet by 7:00 but worried if I turn in too early I’ll be awake again by 1 am. I settle on staying out until 9:30, and so wander a shitty and bracingly frigid mall in Lumphini district; I buy a pair of athletic shorts, which I mislay fifteen minutes later, and then a $30 canister of chocolate-flavored protein powder (for point of reference, my plane ticket to Koh Samui cost maybe three times that), imported from the States with white stickers slapped over the nutritional info; I start down what I take to be a broken escalator but is in fact a motion-activated escalator, apparently something that exists here, and nearly break my neck.
Once I’m finally back and into bed, I sweat out all my sleepiness in about ten minutes. My body’s a horse led to water. I realize if I don’t get to sleep I will lose my fucking mind. I get up and go sit at the dining table with Dave and Dylan and some of the trainers; they offer me a glass of beer and after six months sober I don’t hesitate. I’m back in bed about forty minutes later, and I manage about five or six hours sleep that night. Things start getting better after that.
The next night I go to the movies. I see From Paris With Love, which is a Luc Besson-produced piece of shit, French-financed and full of cynical French-baiting for its dumb American audience and starring John Travolta as a fat ten-year old’s notion of a badass. But the cinema is a velour-upholstered jukebox-cum-cathedral made even more fantastic for being set atop the Siam Paragon Center—a pretentious white-on-white faux Guggenheim with a Hermes outlet and a Lamborghini dealership—like a Ring Pop on a wedding cake. The screens are IMAX huge. They play lite-jazz versions of songs that were pretty fucking lite to begin with: “been around the world and I-I-I …” You pick out your seat when you buy your ticket, which is great for me because I get stressed out if I can’t sit dead center. The national anthem starts up after the previews, and the screen bids the audience to stand and to sing along if it wishes. Then it goes into a karaoke-style montage of Thai citizens enjoying life and being great parents. You can get soda in a big bear-shaped cup.
On Saturday during afternoon training, two hours in, I’m motioned into the ring; I’m to do a couple rounds of stand-up boxing with Alak: no kicks or knees, just punching. Alak’s maybe five foot one and of deeply indeterminate age, with a frosted mullet and abdominals out of a comic book; he rolls up the bottoms of his shorts, which makes the shorts look like a diaper and Alak in turn like a muscular golden baby. I am fucking terrified of him. I try explaining first to him and then to Sern that I would like to keep things light, but Alak can’t understand me and Sern doesn’t want to translate.
I try to set the tone by throwing out a few slow, gentle jabs, but he just looks confused as he slips in and gets me hard under the chin. Even then it feels weird to punch somebody so small full in the face. I move around a lot and throw a ton of jabs to keep him the fuck away, and I even catch him with an uppercut when he works some fancy slip for the third straight time. But in the next round I start to tire, and he starts to get inside, and the second time I get hit hard enough to cross my eyes something serious, and at the end of that round I beg off. Sern is all smiles afterward; in my post-coital relief at being clear of Alak I imagine that he’s pleased with how I handled myself, but in retrospect I think that he just likes seeing farang get hurt.
Today is the second day of my second week. At some point over the weekend my feet started swelling from the heat, and now I have a huge Cronenbergian blister on either pinkie toe, both jaundiced from a weird liniment Jitti keeps applying. I picked up a black eye at some point yesterday, which makes me feel sheepish and trashy when I’m out on the town. Five days from now I’ll get on a plane heading south to Koh Samui, to train at the Lamai camp there. I’m looking forward to a change of scenery; I miss the manic discombobulation of those first few days, without which the regimen here feels a bit like work. Also, I’m getting sick of Bangkok.
Pack It In! (February 10, 2010)
When I wake up this morning my neck is almost too sore to lift; there’s no way I’ll be up for clinching this afternoon, so I decide to train hard in the morning and then take off for the day.
After lunch, I head over to Sukhuvit and have some hairy patches waxed off my upper body, in preparation for the beach next week. If anyone out there is on the fence about this, don’t hesitate: you’ll feel like a new man after.
I take a ferry north from Saphan Taksin to Ko Ratankosin, one of the old parts of Bangkok and home to the Grand Palace and any number of big beautiful temples. What I want to see in particular is an amulet market which I’ve heard several people go on about, but it’s closed by the time I find it. I end up back at the ferry and eat dinner, and I look at a map for awhile.
I decide that since I’m in the area I should go look at Khao San Road, which is the city’s backpacking epicenter. Going from one tourist mecca to another, I don’t bother trying to get a metered cab; I’d have to walk halfway there before I’d even have a shot, and it’s not worth the two dollars I’d save; for the most part I think it’s fine to get swindled, as long as you know it’s happening.
Khao San is a wide street, largely closed to cars, with strips of Thai flags hung across at regular intervals; the flags remind me of New York’s Little Italy, which I suppose is Khao San’s sister in cultural venality. The foot traffic is shoulder to shoulder, and everybody here is either farang or in the business of farang. On either side is a procession of tattoo parlors, noodle shops, “Italian” restaurants, currency exchanges, “Irish” pubs, hostels, cheap tailors, 7-Elevens (three on one block) and internet cafes. It’s easy to see what’s what because every business has a giant sign that lights up. At one end of the street’s a dental clinic, but I wouldn’t go there.
The sidewalks are lined with tables selling sundry eatables and dreadlock hair extensions and bootleg everything; at one stall, you can buy a “rock and roll” T-shirt with a video screen embedded in it. Ladies walk about selling jewelry that looks to me more generally “ethnic” than specifically Thai.
I want to sit down and take things in, but I’d feel guilty drinking beer after skipping out on training; after all, Muay Thai is what lets me feel like I’m better than the people here, and it’s an admittedly fine distinction at the best of times. I order an Italian ice at a sidewalk cafe, and I make myself nurse it so the waiter won’t bother me for awhile.
Sunburns; sunburns everywhere. Protuberances: bellies, backpacks. Cargo shorts are absolutely pervasive among the men here, a hard stream broken only by a few shirtlesses in board shorts and the tasteful lacunas of Japanese. Linen pants are pretty much their female equivalent, though a lot of women wear floral-print sundresses instead, and others wear both; I see a few hippie girls who do this and still manage to be achingly beautiful. Many people here look to be dressed in outfits bought entirely on this street.
A little ways off, a Thai with an open suitcase full of hip flasks in the crook of his arm marks me with his green laser pointer. A one-legged man scoots by him on his ass, shaking a cup of coins; he seems in high spirits. All about me is “Rite Round” by Flo-Rida and the sound of croaking frogs, made by ladies who are selling a wooden instrument which makes a croaking frog sound. But nobody offers me anyyaba(translation: “crazy medicine.”) Don’t people in this town know how to have a good time?!
Every woman here above a certain age has a sunburned, Teutonic look to her, and wears angular eyeglasses. British boys seem to travel in matched sets—same stocky build, same ballcap, same haircuts and goatees—as if bulwarking each other against the strangeness.
There are no good tattoos on this street.
Eventually I have to leave my table, after the fifth visit from a woman grown incensed by my failure to buy her medallions. The ferry’s stopped running by now, and it will be even harder to get a metered cab here than in Ratankosin. I need to go a lot further now, however, so getting swindled is a more expensive proposition. But there’s not much to be done about it.
Home + Away (February 17, 2010)
It’s Saturday afternoon and my last day of training at Jitty Gym; Monday morning I head to the WMC gym on Koh Samui. The session today is lightly attended. I’ve done my five rounds of pads and now I’m on a heavy bag, doing intermittent sets of push kicks but really just trying to look busy. Between rounds I get out my camera and take quick portraits of the trainers. I’m spent, from the pads and the morning session and the whole ordeal behind me. I have a giddy, valedictory feeling about leaving. In the past two weeks, my body’s gotten fit, and I’m stronger; I can throw ten kicks on either side in quick succession, head height, on command, and the tenth kick will be pretty good. And I’ve escaped any serious injury, which was a prospect I’d dwelled on every morning, in the minutes between waking and getting up to train. I’m about to duck out early but then someone tells me I’m sparring with Doni.
Doni is my favorite trainer. He is small and older than the other trainers, somewhere in his forties, with smooth, feline features that look more Japanese than Thai. He has a smile that suggests secrets, largely happy ones, and that literally never wavers; his smile is persistent as my nose. It lends him a magical air, like that of a man who’s also a cat and so is party to a lot of special info. He hugs you after every round.
We suit up and get started. I’m fighting very sloppy; my affection for Doni maybe blunts the nerves I usually get when I’m sparring, and I’m exhausted in any case. His corrections are gentle at first and then less so. My kicks get harder as I tire, because it’s too much effort to modulate them. Doni follows suit. First he winds me badly with a cross to the stomach. He asks beatifically if we’re to go on and I say we are, for whatever reason. A few moments later I throw a body kick that bounces harmless against his forearm, and he throws one into my ribs so hard that it pulls my knees to my chest and my feet off the ground. The gym erupts in laughter. I’m back up a second later but there’s no question of going on. Another trainer tries to get my arms over my head, to help bring my wind back, which I am perfectly capable of doing myself except I’m too winded to tell him so.
A few minutes before, the trainers were clowning for my camera and slapping my back, but none of them will meet my eyes as I leave the ring. Their laughter was not with me, I realize. I don’t feel hurt or humiliated, though, only irritated. I’d been kicked in the ribs by a master boxer, and I fell down, which seems eminently reasonable to me. What did they expect? I ask myself. And then that night I find out, or begin to.
After dinner, they pile about ten of us into the back of a pickup, and we drive a harrowing fifty minutes to a temple fight on the edge of Bangkok. Excepting the temples and the Muay Thai at its center, a temple fight looks a lot like the carnivals that roll through town on Independence Day, though with different fried snacks and rides that are shoddier by an order of magnitude, if you can imagine. But the midways are more or less identical; Farmer, a darts champion back home, wins bear after bear for his girlfriend and then one for Jitti’s wife, Sarah.
The fights take place in a grove behind the carnival area: an elevated ring surrounded by huge old trees with thin strips of white-glowing neon hanging from their boughs. It’s an all-ages crowd, relatively subdued because no alcohol is served on temple grounds. Two old jokers in Hawaiian shirts provide commentary from a table by the ring; their voices are so amplified that certain syllables vibrate inside my head like a length of wire.
The first fight is between two ten-year old girls. The second is between two boys who are considerably younger, seven or eight at the most. One of them is about a head shorter than the other, and he exhibits all the sangfroid you would expect from a tiny boy who is kickboxing before a large crowd. But he—like his opponent, like the two girls before them—is practicing what is recognizably full-on, if clumsy Muay Thai: kicks to the head and to the solar plexus, knee strikes and elbows (the principal aim of an elbow strike, if you do not know, is to open a cut in your opponent’s face bloody enough to make the referee stop the fight.) They fight as Thais always do, in tiny six-ounce gloves and without shin guards or head protection.
There is some confusion between the second and third fight. Earlier in the day, Jitti had been joking to Dylan and Farmer that they would have to fight tonight; now he is suggesting it in earnest. The opponent in question is a young Thai lingering behind us by the loud speakers. It’s hard to say just how old he is. He’s small, but we all know that doesn’t mean anything. He looks back at us without interest.
Dylan ran about five miles this morning, and he trained all afternoon, and now he’s more exhausted than I am. Meanwhile Farmer has barely trained at all since his fight last week, choosing instead to swan about with his new rich girlfriend—five seats down from me at present with a Prada clutch in her lap—who buys him fancy dinners and lets him drive her car. Neither’s in any position to fight if he wanted to, but Jitti keeps at them regardless. He goes cajoling from one to the other, and his mood darkens progressively. He says that they are letting down the gym. He calls them chickens and cowards. He tells them they should get up in the ring and apologize to everybody for not fighting, a suggestion that baffles us all.
Affable sociopath that he is, Farmer is not much bothered by any of this. He sits with his girlfriend and chews gum and half watches the fights. Dylan is a more sensitive soul, however, and he prizes Jitti’s good opinion of him and so is hurt by Jitti’s scorn. He goes over and over his reasons for not fighting, with me and with everyone else; I don’t think he needs a reason not to fight at some Bangkok county fair on a moment’s notice, and I tell him so, but he’s still upset.
Eventually Sarah comes over and talks with him. She’s Australian. She’s been married to Jitti about ten years, though as far as I can tell they don’t see much of one another. I eavesdrop on her conversation with Dylan, but we’re close to the speakers and a lot of what she says is lost to me amongst droning Thai and feedback.
She tells Dylan something about the Thai’s word for “fighter” being derived from their word for “animal,” and how the concepts are linked in the culture. Fighters are expected to be animals, she says; they have to be, or else they’ll be taken advantage of. It’s inconceivable for a fighter not to fight because he doesn’t feel like it, she says, that’s just something they wouldn’t understand.
I’d be pretty stupid not to have picked up on this somewhat already, but I’ve never heard it all laid out explicitly. It explains a lot, as does the sight of a seven-year old boy kneeing another one hard in the chest, before a cheering crowd.
By the time I started fighting my personality was pretty well formed already, and what attracted me was its contrast to who I was and the life I was leading. Since then I’ve become a competent boxer and I hope to be good at Thai boxing as well, but I’m not a fighter and I never wholly will be. I roll my eyes at the backpackers in Kho Sahn but I’m tourist here myself, obviously. When I crumple from a kick to the ribs, or decline to spar a loutish Brit with 30 pounds on me, or decline an order to kick harder when my partner’s not blocking quick enough, it’s as a tourist, who’s come to study Muay Thai. And I think these are reasonable things for a tourist to do.
But now I’m starting to understand how alien that stance must seem to a Thai fighter, and why the trainers at the gym seem so bemused and often hostile towards me. To them, Muay Thai isn’t one interest among many, but an identity; and so in their eyes my actions are perverse, a repudiation of the self. Probably it would be easier for them to understand if I was fat, or an absolute beginner, if I dropped in now and then for an hour. But I’m there every morning and every afternoon, and I know the sport, and if you stand me up in shorts next to a real fighter like Farmer, there’s not much in our builds to tell between us. Except there’s an essential softness to me that’s evident soon enough, and that I don’t think I could ever be totally rid of, or would want to be. I think that makes me something of a distasteful hybrid to them, and though I’m sure they’ve seen plenty just like me that doesn’t lessen the strangeness of it.
As the fights go on, it’s easy for me to feel the blows as they land because it’s evident by now that my ribs are bruised, though I’m not sure how badly. I’ve had bruised ribs before and they tend to linger for awhile, like a bad stomach cramp on one side that lasts a week or so; I meditate gloomily on this. Up in the ring, one fighter throws a head kick that seems to fall short, grazing the other’s face with a bit of foot; this second fighter takes a step forward, then cocks his head to an odd angle and half-pirouettes on his way down.
After the fifth fight, we see to our amazement that Doni’s hands are wrapped, and Jitti is rubbing his limbs with liniment. Like I said, he’s in his forties, which in terms of Thai boxing is positively Methuselean. It isn’t clear if his fighting has anything to do with Dylan and Farmer not fighting; it seems likely to me that there’s some connection, but I don’t speculate out loud.
As Doni climbs up, Jitti ushers us out of our chairs to ringside. The bell rings, and the music starts up: deep, insistent drumming, unsyncopated, and a whining oboe line that twists after itself, ourobouros-like. The first round of a Muay Thai fight is subdued, a series of discrete engagements where the boxers sniff each other out. The other fighter—younger by more than a decade, easy—snaps out a couple of head kicks and Doni parries them nattily, as if wagging a finger at him. I start to suspect I’ll be witnessing some sort of feel-good miracle. The first round ends; back in our corner, the trainers massage Doni’s legs and give him water, and for good measure Jitti gives him a slug from a can of Heineken, and we all laugh.
By the third round, though, the other fighter is starting to dominate, getting the better of Doni in most of the clinches. The trainers exhort us to bellow every time Doni throws a knee, and we do, but most of the knees aren’t landing. Doni’s smile is gone now, replaced with something grim that looks all wrong on his face. In the fourth, he gets thrown hard to the mat, tries to rise, then collapses flat on his stomach. And that’s it. He looks like an old man as the trainers help him down out of the ring.
The last match of the night is Sak’s, another trainer at the gym. Sak—which is Thai for “tattoo”—is twenty seven, a year younger than me. Most of his two-hundred-odd fights are behind him. He’s lean and handsome—one of the girls at the gym told me she won’t train with him because she finds him too attractive—with lively eyes that go flat as a chalkboard when he fights. He can be charmingly insecure about things, though, and is always solicitous of our opinions on his hair and outfits.
His opponent is a fucking giant, maybe not much taller but a whole world thicker, around the legs in particular. His face is a horror show: a hair lip above a mouth where half the teeth are absent, and above that’s a nose so flattened it spans the whole distance between his cheekbones. It soon becomes evident how he got a face like that. He moves only forward, never back and apparently never down; in the second round, Sak spins him round with a right cross to the face, but he stays up, for that punch and any number of others to come.
At first a knockout seems inevitable, but by the fourth the giant has absorbed so much without comment that we have to reexamine our assumptions; Sak is miles ahead in points, but the giant seems to throw harder as the fight goes on, clumsy for the most part but coming very close at times; he’s stronger in the clinches, too, though he doesn’t seem to know how to press his advantage there. We holler along to every blow; I’ve never wished harm on a stranger so intently.
The fight ends with a standstill in the fifth and final, maybe fifteen seconds from the bell; the giant lets his arms drop to his sides, silently conceding. They stand side by side as some official gets up into the ring to present Sak with first a very large trophy and then a small one, which is a separate prize for Fight of the Night. Sak seems as blasé about the win as he was about the fight itself beforehand. Later on that night I hold the big trophy and find it disconcertingly light, because it’s made of hollow plastic.
As we leave the fairground Dylan is remarking on how Sak had only two days of preparation for the fight, on account of a split shin he’d picked up in a match last month. Sarah says that Sak’s been at it long enough to know what he has to do, that he’ll fight regardless of injuries or training. Ethan asks, rhetorically as always, if it doesn’t make you dead hungry to get in the ring, watching a fight like that. I honestly can’t say if it does or not, but he wasn’t talking to me anyway.