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
Til the End of It (April 8, 2010)
It’s Saturday night, my second week in Phuket, and I’m at the fights in Nai Harn beach, along with most everybody else from Tiger. The card is a mix of Thais and ferang, some of them from our gym and some from Dragon, down the road, and some from Simba Muay Thai, a gym with which we apparently have a rivalry, like in an 80s summer camp comedy. I’m four rows back from the ring, in a knot of other guys from Tiger, with six cans of warm beer in a plastic bag at my feet; it’s Chang, which is the shittiest brand of Thai beer. The ring’s set up in a wooded park a ways off from the beach, and it’s a sticky night with no breeze, and I’m actually wearing jeans for the first time in I don’t know how long, because this felt like a special occasion. I’m sweating.
We’d eaten dinner at a restaurant on the beach, figuring to miss the kid fights at the bottom of the card, but there are still a few to go. The two in the ring as we’re sitting down are about eight years old. It’s a rough fight, and the next one is even rougher, ending in a knockout by elbow. There’s a German-looking guy braced behind one of the corner posts, videotaping the fight. A little blonde boy lolls around at his feet, creamy and tow-headed, spitting distance from the fighters. By this point I’ve seen enough kids boxing that it feels commonplace, even boring, but the German boy rekindles some of the strangeness for me; he’s maybe three years younger than the boys he’s watching but is essentially of a different species. That kid’s not good for anything, I think to myself.
The real fights get underway. A gang of Thais crowd behind the corner of the ring nearest us, practically on top of one another. I start making bets with Bruno, a big hairy French-Canadian sitting behind me. He’s got a growly voice like a cartoon dog. All my picks win, and all of his lose; we keep going double or nothing. I finish up my second Chang and get a cigarette from the guy in front of me. Every drag makes the air press down heavier on my skin, but I soldier through it.
The next fight is a Tiger-Simba matchup. Our man is a stocky black guy, shorter than the Simba fighter by at least six inches. It’s Bruno’s turn to pick; we both agree that Simba is the safer bet, but Bruno doesn’t want to bet against our gym. I don‘t have any problem with it. The fight goes the full five rounds. Simba dominates the first four; the height difference is an issue, and Tiger can’t sort it out. He keeps throwing a flashy spinning kick, like you see in Tae Kwon Do, again and again throughout the fight even though it isn’t working; he’s at loose ends. Simba leverages his extra inches to land a lot of solid-looking overhead elbows; Tiger manages not to bleed, improbably. He rallies in the fifth, but it’s not enough. Now I’m up six hundred baht.
I get up and go over to the food tables. I consider an ice cream but opt instead for a skewer of deep-fried cocktail franks. The meat is lukewarm and practically dissolves in my mouth. I finish it and order another.
The fights keep going. I open another Chang, but it‘s warmer than the night air, and I end up pouring it out. I don’t feel well at all; I get up again and wander in the dark amongst the trees. There are at least five fights left, I figure. The prospect of staying to the end turns quickly from a chore to an ordeal to an impossibility. I hastily say my goodbyes and head out. Serendipitously, a group is heading back to Tiger right then, in a touk-touk. One of them is a Scotsman, insensibly drunk, and the others are escorting him home, so that he won‘t try to ride back on his scooter and die; I have to help a guy with a huge beard wrestle him into the cab. It’s the Scotsman’s last night, and he is very mournful about something, but it isn’t clear what. “He’s so damned pretty,” he says, a couple of times.
On the ride back my extremities feel tingly and brittle. I’m not sweating at all now. Me and the bearded guy discuss the Tiger-Simba fight. There’s a girl with us too, Cerie, a Midwesterner whom I met on my first day; she’s been teaching in English in Korea, like a lot of people here. When I first talked to her, she seemed a little overwhelmed and asked a lot of questions, but since then she’s come to understand her prestigious position as one of the few women at a Muay Thai camp, and grown accordingly more haughty towards me.
The driver drops us off at the Scottsman’s hotel, a little ways down the road from mine. I leave his friends to wrangle him home. Once I’m through my front door, the fever kicks in as if wired to the light switch. There is a thin layer of hot sweat trapped beneath my skin, which interferes with everything. Thirty seconds of a cold shower sends me rocketing in the opposite direction, and I am under the blankets, still wet, stabbing at the fan with its remote control to turn it off.
It goes on like this for a long time, hot and cold, frightening and tedious. At times I get so cold that the tremors of heat are almost pleasurable when they come. I cue up public radio podcasts on my laptop, and then forget about them, and then slip in and out of conversation with them. I feel badgered by presences and periodically uncomfortable with my nudity; over and over I realize that I am by myself, but this doesn’t bring any comfort, or even much lucidity; I struggle all night with a notion of my blankets as some kind of complicated apparatus, with four stages, the third of which keeps eluding me, and which I’ll be tested on at some point before morning.
It’s still dark when the fever finally breaks, but I can hear roosters crowing. I’m so relieved to find the world in order that it takes me awhile to notice how shitty I feel. There is a huge bubble in my stomach whose contours are so manifest that my flat belly in the mirror seems impossible. All I want to do is shit and fart but I can’t do either.
I spend most of Sunday in my room. I make myself eat a couple of times, rice and bananas. I’m not drinking enough water and I know it, but my stomach’s so bloated that I don’t care. In the evening the fever returns and stays for a couple of hours.
The next day is only a little better. By now people have noticed my condition and are eager to help. The brisk lady who runs the hotel presses a couple of lozenges on me; the packaging reads “anti-flatulence,” which would seem to be exactly what I don’t need, but I’m in no condition to argue. And there is Tuschka, a friendly and sinister Bulgarian covered in small, blurry tattoos. He gives me two packets of a powder called Szmekna. “You put in water—a little water,” he explains to me. “Two hours? You take again. And then…” He puts his thumb and forefinger together and nods decisively, as if at that point all this will be behind us.
I take all of it and more, but nothing helps much. My stomach continues to balloon, invisibly. I’ve already missed a day of training, and tomorrow is clearly a wash; the idea that this might be an indefinite condition starts to take hold. I sit at a chair by the pool, reading a dense fantasy novel I found at an internet café and regarding the people around me—capable of training but blithely not training—with a physical bitterness. I take my second packet of Szmekna. When the fever comes on again around sunset, I’m just about at wits end, but I drink six liters of water in ten minutes, and it retreats. The next morning I manage to shit a little, which feels like my first unalloyed triumph since coming to Thailand. In the afternoon I go running for an hour; I have to stop and throw up halfway through, but I’m right alongside an open sewer at the moment—more serendipity—and I feel better afterwards in any case.
The day after that, which is Wednesday, I’m back at the gym, though there isn’t any training in the morning, because they’ve brought in some monks to bless the grounds. We’re all invited to come watch the blessing. On my way over I fall in beside Cerie, who is dressed in short shorts and a top that’s really just a sports bra. Casually as I can, I suggest that if she has a t-shirt or something it might be good to put it on, out of respect for the monks, who have many of the same hangups about women and their bodies as monks of other religions. She looks at me like I’ve told her she has sweet tits. It serves me right, since I guess I said it mostly to make her feel bad. The blessing is interminable, and I’m not in any shape to eat any of the breakfast after. But training that afternoon goes well enough that I can convince myself I’ve recovered 100%.
Both sessions on Fridays at Tiger start with light sparring for twenty minutes straight, then some pads and bagwork before sparring hard for three more rounds; it’s Western boxing in the morning, Thai boxing in the afternoon. A three minute round can feel very long sometimes; twenty minutes of boxing is an eternity under any circumstances. This Friday I’m paired up with an Englishman named Ken. He’s about my size, with four or five professional fights, but he’s gotten a little out of shape since then. Ken and I get along very well as sparring partners, and though we start out light, it escalates, so that by two minutes in we’re going pretty hard; we try to keep the weight out of our straight punches—or I do, at least—but a punch thrown quickly will land with some force, regardless.
Class is sparsely attended that morning, and we zigzag like a couple of drunks over a wide, empty expanse of floormats, dominating one another by intervals, pausing every now and then to grin at how impossibly long this has been going on for. For a few stretches—twenty seconds or so, probably, but they feel longer—I find myself boxing with uncharacteristic inspiration: I pull off a few relatively elaborate feints; I slip down and to the outside of punches I would typically just absorb into my forearms, to pop up somewhere inconvenient; I suss out things he’s up to and preempt them with punches of my own. Towards the end I land a left hook to the body—always my gimpiest punch—that nearly folds him double for a moment. When it’s over, my left eye is already going black, and we’re both a little punch-drunk and pleased with ourselves and each other and that it‘s over.
I limp through the rest of class, but by lunchtime I can barely sit up straight, I‘m so tired. The smart thing would be to skip out on the afternoon session, but it’s my last day of classes at Tiger; I go back to Bangkok on Monday. I take a nap and wake up and drink an off-brand Thai Redbull, and then ten minutes later I drink another, a different kind, with a picture of a shark on it.
The afternoon training gets underway and I feel all right, at least at first. I spend twenty minutes sparring with a gangly British kid who stumbles back endlessly, making me chase him; it makes us both look bad. I start out light as I can, to show him there’s nothing to be afraid of, but it doesn’t make any difference; after a while I start hitting him in the face every chance I get. I’m spaced out and pissy by the end of it.
We shadowbox awhile, and then do three rounds on the heavy bags, and then it’s time to spar again. I pull on my shin guards and start to tape my toes—I’ve bent them sparring at least a half dozen times this trip, and each time hurts worse than the one before—but my feet are too sweaty and so I give it up.
My first partner is another Brit, Jamie, my height but a world more muscled. I can’t land a thing on him, and he gets me hard a couple of times; we’d been an even match on Wednesday, but I don’t think much about it. Next up is a tall, curly-haired guy I haven’t seen before, and we tangle our limbs together to little end. In between the second round and the third I am daydreaming about all the television I’ll watch tonight in bed.
My last partner is Soren. He’s a short, oafish Swede, with a gut, and dull eyes beneath a sloped brow and ravaged hairline. We’ve sparred a couple of times before; he can‘t box for shit, but he’s strong and doesn’t know how to hold anything back. We square up. His whole body is tensed; his hands vibrate in their gloves. As I’m watching them vibrate, he punches me in the face. I circle around him a bit, trying to focus. He kicks; it’s clumsy and slow; I watch it arc upwards, into my ribs, hard. It hurts; I’m irritated. I snap a kick back at him, and my big toe catches his elbow and bends back a ways. An electric shock runs most of the way up my leg. I grit my teeth and stomp around for a few moments before I can compose myself. We square off again, and my whole foot throbs crazily; I’m furious that I’ve hurt my foot, and it’s Soren’s fault, for being such a clumsy fatass; he doesn‘t have any business being here; he kicks me in the ribs again. I roll my eyes. One of the trainers asks if I should stop, maybe, and I sigh and start to strip my gloves off, like a piqued little lordling who’s forfeited a joust.
Saturday I limp around in a funk, eating ice cream and popping anti-inflammatories. At lunch Bruno carries a tiny prostitute across the hotel dining room, trailed by four of her tiny friends, all of them shrieking with laughter. I go to Patong that evening, planning to see a movie, but there’s nothing I want to see. Sunday morning I’m on a flight to Bangkok.
I walk out of the airport and get into the first cab I see. I have a printout with the name and address of the gym—but written out in Roman letters, not Thai—and a mobile number and below that, two square inches of a Google map. I show it to the driver as I’m sitting down, and he glances at it and nods. We’re already getting on the highway once I realize how little English he has, and that he can’t seem to read the address.
He barks at me, “Name hotel?” and I tell him “Kaew Samrit Gym,” pronouncing this as best I can. He comes back with something that begins with “Kow” and ends in a yowl, as if to ask if this was what I meant. I repeat the name again. We have this exchange several times over the next ten minutes.
He tries the mobile number a couple of times but can’t get an answer. After a while he asks how much I want to pay. I point at the meter, which is running, but he’s not having it. “No, no, too far, too far.” I consider pointing out that he doesn’t know where we’re going yet, but I don’t. He wants eight hundred baht, and I get him down to 650.
We continue on at highway speed, apparently blind. Periodically, the driver glances down at the paper again, as if the characters will spontaneously become intelligible, and on the sixth glance they apparently do just that: he points to the word “Talingchan,” and looks back at me and asks, “Talingchan?” I tell him yes yes, Talingchan, and he slaps his forehead and moans. “Talingchan!” I tell him yes, again. “Is far, man! Talingchan! Not Bangkok! Far, far.” He renegotiates the fare up to seven hundred, plus the airport tolls, which I’d already figured on paying.
It does turn out to be pretty far; we stop to transliterate the address and then twice more again to have it clarified, and by the time we get to the gym the meter is close to what we‘d agreed on anyway. Kaew Samrit Gym is not in Bangkok after all, but in a suburb to the north. It’s a strange area. We turn off a dirty four-laned motorway into a hushed, residential maze: the streets are wide and shaded by drooping trees; there is very little traffic; the few dogs around are languid and even the children playing seem not to make much noise, or else the noise is swallowed up by the foliage. There are some of the hard-angled concrete row houses that are everywhere in Bangkok, but many larger, fancier houses as well, each one walled off from the others. These aspire to a western style of architecture but miss the mark somehow, throwing together columns and cupolas and gabled windows without much logic; the effect is like a man wearing a necktie, a sun visor and a watch on either wrist.
We are driving slowly down one of these streets, apparently close, when a woman runs out and flags us down. She helps me out of the car and leads me into the gym. Its layout is similar to Jitti’s, a walled compound with a couple of small one-story buildings, and a ring set up beneath a freestanding roof. The mats and equipment seems a bit nicer than Jitti’s, but not by much. Behind one of the buildings I can see a second, larger ring; cartoonish figures on the wall demonstrate various Muay Thai strikes, with their Thai names written out phonetically beneath them. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else around. It is very quiet, quieter even than the streets.
The woman is very friendly, but does not have much English. She leads me back past the first ring and around a corner, past a bookshelf housing about fifty pairs of running shoes and up a couple of stairs and through a door, into a dim hallway. There are three doors on either side; my room is on the left, all the way at the end. It’s got very high ceilings and two twin beds and two massive armoires against the opposite wall, each at least eight feet tall. The sheets and the pillowcases on both beds are peach-colored satin, and so are the curtains that run the whole length of one wall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a room done up with so much satin; the effect is somehow funereal. The pillow on the bed that isn’t mine has the words “Romance Mode” stitched out across it. The woman leaves me in this room, and I unpack.
I wander around the gym a little. I meet a couple of Thai men who look to be trainers; they shake my hand but don’t seem to speak much English either. There’s a stack of a magazines on a chair by the front office; I leaf through a French comic book that turns abruptly pornographic. As evening approaches, the absence of other ferang, of any sign of them at all, is getting difficult to ignore. I go back out into the streets, in the direction of a 7-11 I remember passing on the drive in. A group of Thais jogs past me, shirtless, back towards the gym; all but two of them are teenaged or younger; we smile at each other.
Back at the gym, the silence is oppressive. I linger in the hallway, first by one door and then another, listening for movement, but there isn’t any. I stare at the shelves of shoes, as if they might disclose somehow their owners’ nationalities. Then it’s time for dinner, which is held in the asphalt courtyard of a little tin-roofed building across the street. The boys I saw on the street earlier are all there, and few older men. They’re all at one table, and I’m seated off by myself, at a little table the size of a desk. Dinner is white rice and a bowl of dry ground beef that’s spiced to the limits of edibility. There are vegetables at the other table, but nobody offers me any. Everyone keeps smiling at me, though. It takes awhile for me to work up the nerve to ask if I’m the only ferang staying here, and a little while longer to make the question understood, but someone does, finally, and I’m answered in the affirmative: tomorrow, he tells me. They’re all in Pattaya for the weekend. Right then a cheerful tune wafts in from the street, as if my relief has escaped from my head and is vibrating through the air around us. It’s an ice cream cart; we all go out and buy some ice cream.
I wake up at six the next morning and eat a packet of peanuts I’d bought at the 7-11, and then I lie on my peach satin sheets for awhile, staring at the ceiling. At six forty-five I go out into the gym with my running shoes; I know from the website that the morning sessions begin with a 10k run. There’s nobody around though. I drift around the gym, confused. A Thai man comes out of the front office. I ask him, “run?” and he nods and tells me, “little bit, little bit,” and I go uncertainly out into the street. I run about fifteen minutes, backtracking a lot so as to stay close to the gym. I pass a couple of other ferangs, separately, both of whom seem to have been running for awhile already. When I get back to the gym, the class is already assembled in a circle, stretching, maybe fifteen of them, all of them Thai except the two guys I saw on the street. I join the circle.
The first day or two at a gym is always hard. I know I’m being scrutinized and it makes me tense, and tension gets exhausting fast. And there is the litany of small proprietary adjustments they want me to make: to hold my right hand a bit higher, and keep my left hand closer to your cheek, and turn into my kicks more, and into my punches a little less. I’d forgotten, too, how thick and wet the air in Bangkok is, compared to the islands; there’s more junk in every breath, and less oxygen.
Within ten minutes the pain in my toes starts in again, rising up through my leg every time my leg connects, and the anticipation makes it hard to keep my form correct. And my shoulder hurts, and on my right shin, just below the knee, a bulge of fluid has begun to rise as if in protest of all the kicks that have landed there. I’m tired in a way I’m not used to; every movement feels belabored and pointless. Thai teenagers frolic violently all around me, with an ease that feels like a rebuke.
Lunch is white rice and steamed vegetables and a very salty broth with something that looks like stringy chicken but turns out to be some kind of mushroom. I’m seated across from David, one of the four other ferang at the gym presently. He’s a professional MMA fighter from British Columbia. I tell him about how I keep hurting my toes and he nods; his toes hurt all the time, he tells me. “Not so much when I’m over here,” he says. “But when I’m somewhere dry, it’s hard to take sometimes.” He pauses. “I’m gonna hate life when I’m 45.”
The rice fills me up too quickly. I’m used to getting a lot more protein. Also, the food is just sort of gross. I go down to the 7/11 after lunch to buy some peanut butter, but there isn’t any. I buy a couple of mini Snickers bars, then go take a nap; I don’t feel any better on waking up.
The afternoon session has barely started and the back ring is already full of Thais, boxing Western-style with headgear and big 20 oz. gloves. This is the first time I’ve seen anyone wearing head protection in Thailand. One of the trainers approaches and asks if I’ll be sparring. I watch them for a few moments more and then tell him no. Things don’t go any better than they had in the morning. I’m exhausted, and everything hurts; I don’t feel like I belong here.
I’m supposed to spend seven days here; in the end, I manage two and change. Something in me snaps shut, finally, about twenty minutes into the third morning. I muddle rotely through, then limp back to my room and start shoving things into a bag. The woman in the office doesn’t seem surprised that I’m leaving. She offers to call a car, and asks where I’ll be going. I tell her Kho San Road; it’s the only place I can think of where I’m sure to find a room. She laughs a little, before she can stop herself.
Two hours later, I’m seated at an outdoor cafe on a street which bristles with similar cafes, surrounded by Anglophone signage and men in cargo shorts brandishing rifle-like cameras, and momentarily a waitress will bring me a Heineken and a milkshake and curly fries. There will be plenty of time in the next few days for ambivalence and worse, but right now it’s hard to feel anything but relief, at having left behind those opaque streets and that cavernous pink room, at having nobody to fight this afternoon, at being just another sunburned asshole getting drunk.