On the Road to Chonburi
Imagine Bangkok first. Because Bangkok is where it begins. Then head east, past Mega Bangna and Survanabhumi Airport. Go further down the road and you’ll reach the outskirts of the city. It’s where industry meets rice fields and signs speckled in between read BA YANG and GAI YANG. The mid-tone in the first YANG meaning rubber tires, and the higher tone in the second YANG meaning grilled [chicken]. After Market Village on your right, the road runs into the raised highway above it. At the base, three lanes of cars and trucks squeeze and inch their way in. Toll booths line the top of the ramp. Past that, the long stretch of highway that began in Bangkok and ends in Chonburi.
My story starts where the highway ends, inside one of the offices I work at four nights a week. It’s where I take center stage for two hours a night and teach what I know—and learn on the spot what I didn’t know—about English. It’s also where my students and I share our love for each other’s cultures.
They put across their passion for Bon Jovi, Linkin Park, and soccer. And I talk about my love for Sek Loso, Caravan, and muay thai. Are they surprised that my favorite song is Om Pra Mah Pood? No. What about my fondness for revolutionary Thai folk music? A little bit. What surprises them most is my dedication to Muay Thai.
I have a habit of bringing up Muay Thai in my classes. I like the looks I get from the mid-level managers and engineers and clerks who are unaware of Muay Thai, aside from what they see on Thai Fight. The questions begin:
“What you think of Buakaw? He the best, right?”
A smile crawls across my face. “Buakaw’s ok,” I say. “But not the best.”
“Who the best?”
Even after I make clear what these men have done for Muay Thai, blank stares follow. I get the same look when I teach the English perfect tenses—fair enough. But Saenchai and Petchboonchu have done for muay thai what few fighters from our era have been able to do. And in Thailand their names cause as much confusion as advanced English. My Thai students agree that muay thai is the national sport of Thailand. But what they don’t know about modern muay thai makes me think differently.
Bridging the Intracultural Gap
At times, I’m not an English teacher. I’m an unlikely ambassador who bridges the gap between middle-class Thais and Muay Thai. I show them how their heritage has influenced the world. And how so many countries have embraced the customs of Muay Thai as their own. I beg them not to give up on their sport or look down on it, even if they see it as “lo-so” (lower class).
If you ask the average Thai to view Muay Thai in any other light it would be difficult. The money-bribes and gambling have already effected the sport. Thais are bored with their national pastime. In the West we see Muay Thai as a virtuous martial art. We practice it to better our lives. The average Thai sees the sport as a weak reply to a greater problem: the lack of resources and education. Muay Thai isn’t something you do in Thailand if you’re family already has money. That’s what Tae Kwon Do is for.
Because of this, Thais are shocked by how crazy we are over Muay Thai. In a land where the poor fight their way out of poverty through Muay Thai, we’re trying to fight our way into it. For students and fighters in the West, Muay Thai offsets the pleasant lifestyle we’ve created. It shows us that the vital things in life exist outside of our office spaces and job titles.
But just as young Thai fighters in Thailand have yet to experience a society where Muay Thai is needed to balance a boring lifestyle, we have yet to experience poverty so harsh that our 7-year-old children are forced to trade blows for extra income. Muay Thai exists as this paradox.
What This Column Will be About
Twice a month I’ll write a mixture of personal essays and feature stories on Muay Thai and its most intriguing figures. I’ll explore how the cultures of the East and West have merged through Muay Thai, and how they influence each other, despite the contrast in lifestyles. I’ll examine the fighter’s journey and what prompts pugilists to answer the call to action. And lastly, I’ll probe my own place in the sport, and how it has and continues to change my life and view of the world.