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In March of 1997, I took a trip with my travel partner, ToShun, to Chang Mai, the northern capital of Thailand. What is recorded below is NOT representative of the country as a whole. It is simply an example of the hairy situations I seem to get myself into when I go abroad.
The "Land of Smiles" has a dark side which is actually quiet easy to find. Seedy nightlife has become an institution in Thailand. A "must see" on the checklist of every tourist. Some go to do a lot more than just "see." They go for total immersion and may never again see daylight. Lonely Planet even dedicates a section to it in their award winning guidebook.
As for ToShun and myself, I admit this was a bit of a curiosity. But wed already gotten our obligatory tour of the strip bars in Bangkok. It was sort of the sexual equivalent to a "Scared Straight" video or a trip to a slaughterhouse. Once youd seen it, you were ready to become a well-behaved sexual vegetarian for life.
After Bangkok, we were just looking to experience the good side of Thailand, as well as some homegrown sports. Living in Japan, wed become quite interested in Sumo and other martial arts. Muay Thai or "Thai Boxing" seemed to be the local equivalent, and while it did have the same controversial violence and gambling associations as its US cousin, we still wanted to see it for its art and ritual, preferably in a local, small town stadium.
ToShun and I were not all that impressed with Chang Mai. Over the years, it has lost its mythical charm to the tourists and the effects of growing too big, to quick. The locals still smile, but their expressions have been tarnished by pollution and too much contact with ugly outsiders.
All Thais in Chang Mai (at least from my unfortunate vantage point) seem to be surviving off the tourist industry, whether they're restaurant workers, tuk tuk drivers, guest house owners, or those formerly cute girls who try to lure men into bars. Their raison dêtre to is serve us the wealthy farangs who abound in Chang Mai. In our short time there, it proved very difficult to find anyone we could genuinely relate to, local or foreign.
In our quest for a boxing ring, we spent an hour and a half in 100-degree heat on completely trashed rental bikes, wandering through a labyrinthine, Bermuda triangle of a neighborhood. A ring was supposed to be there, but we never found it. Finally, we gave up and settled for a match to be held in a local bar that night. It had been recommended by a rather reputable looking travel agent, so we figured what the heck. Still, we weren't quite sure what to make of the "Live Sadist Show" sign, printed above the door.
The place was actually many separate bars under one large, corrugated tin roof, surrounding a boxing ring. Each one had Thai girls: Some were cute; some were sleazy; some were men in dresses. All were competing for our attention. They writhed on their bar stools and called-out to us.
The place was full of foreigners -- mostly men. ToShun and I were the only ones without a girl. Still reeling from our Bangkok experience, we shooed-off the girls as they came up to us. They pouted and walked back to their posts, assuming we were on our gay honeymoon and wanted to be alone. Obviously, they were not used to being turned down. We knew that these girls weren't really interested in us, they were just trying to make a living. Every guy there knew that, but apparently didn't mind basking in the illusion. After all, they were on vacation.
The organizer of the fight and our host for the evening was a tall, lanky Australian with a Brian Adams complexion and a mullet. He was dressed in black boots, black jeans and a black sleeveless shirt (I think it said "Def Leppard"). He looked like the kind of guy who might carry a big knife in one of his boots, but only get himself killed if he tried to use it. He spoke the language well and had obviously been there a while. I watched as he sat across from us with his very sweet-looking Thai girlfriend and her friends. They may have still been in high school. I caught the impression that she did not fully approve of his lifestyle, but supported him nonetheless.
According to what I've read, Muay Thai is fought to traditional live accompaniment. In this respect, it is much more dance-like than Western boxing. Before the fight, each boxer performs his own original dance. It serves as a stretch and warm-up, but it is also religious in nature. While dancing, the fighters will go and pray at each corner of the ring, making sure all areas of the ring are blessed and there are no spiritual bad spots. Once the fighting begins, the music flows to the pitch of the fight and perhaps energizes the fighters during the slower moments. Unfortunately, the music for tonights fight was recorded.
We were to see two bouts, neither of them professional. In fact, the fighters were high school-age locals (I'm not sure they even went to school actually), who were simply going through the motions as they did their opening dances. It was obvious that the fighters were all friends and were not really interested in hurting each other. Like everyone else, they were simply putting on a show for the tourists.
Thai Boxing is regarded by some as the most deadly martial art. Traditional practitioners of the sport are trained to strike with the bony parts of the body (esp. elbows, knees and shins) not with the padded hands and feet. Punching and kicking are used to only wear opponents down while knees and elbows are reserved for the kill. Striking with their bones, damage is done to BOTH opponents with each blow. But the laws of physics tell us that it is usually the attacker who receives the lesser amount of damage. Thus the idea is to strike first. All areas of the body are legitimate targets. You can even grab an opponent's head and bring his face down on your knee.
In order to deal with the pain involved in Thai boxing, I am told that part of a boxer's initial training is to be beaten by his trainers to the point where all the fighter's nerve endings are damaged almost beyond repair. They continue to fight while healing and scar tissue forms over the nerve endings. They become less sensitive to pain at the expense of their sense of touch.
Suddenly I was becoming aware of the true gladiatorial nature of the sport. Id seen the Thai people stoop pretty low for the tourists, but now I was watching them actually destroy themselves on our behalf! The 2 boys in the ring were beating each other to a pulp while 18-year old cripples looked on from ringside -- obviously fighters past their prime. Meanwhile girls were at every table prostituting themselves
As I said, I saw 2 matches. The most pathetic was actually between two girls who don t traditionally participate in Thai Boxing. They looked to be about 16 years old. Zero skill was involved -- just 2 girls, literally kicking in each others heads. One was clearly dominant over the other, who fell several times. But for some reason (I assume for our benefit), she kept on till the finish. As they exited the ring, the Australian's girlfriend, who was looking very concerned, ran over to take care of the loser. She was OK. You could still see her beautiful smile, every time she wiped the blood from her nose.
ToShun and I sat stunned. The fights were over but the real show was just beginning. It was time for the long awaited "Sadism Show." A skinny but muscular Thai boy came into the ring. I had noticed him earlier in civilian attire. Hed been sitting with the Australian M.C. and his woman. During the fights hed disappear off and on, only to return each time looking a little bit more like a member of K.I.S.S.
He was in the ring now, with nothing on but face paint and skimpy black underwear. Whatever he was going to do, ToShun and I did not want to see it. Still we were having a hard time leaving. Canned heavy metal with a dance beat pulsed through the hall as he began twirling gas-lit ropes around his body. The flames licked his arms, torso, thighs and other appendages. He seemed to be enjoying himself. The music and sleazy ambience were beginning to give me a headache. For his next magical trick, he guzzled fuel from a can and spit flames all over the ring. The smell of gas was everywhere.
The Australian turned the music down and announced that our entertainer would now do his encore performance. "Thats it?" I thought. The musics volume surged again and the man in the ring whipped-out a machete. He commenced to rub it all over his body, while gyrating and flicking his tongue. It seemed to have a life of its own. Then, when we least expected it (as if one ever could expect it!), he grabbed his tongue and hacked off a piece! With a sinister look on his face, he offered it to everyone watching, as if it were a piece of Hickory Farms beef sausage. Blood seeped down his chin. With dramatic flair he threw the piece into the audience, where it landed in some lucky patrons lap. As the beat of the music increased, he began to chop at the rest of his tongue. The faster it got, the more chopped, blood flowing from his taste buds until, finally it was over
On the way home, ToShun and I were strangely hungry. It was 1 A.M. and we were commenting on what wed just witnessed as we headed for a late night sandwhich shop. The place was run by a Thai woman married to a swarthy old Australian named F.O.G. ("Fuck-off Gil"). He gave us the low down on the attraction between Thai women and farang men in Change Mai:
"The women are very beautiful! And while 2 good-looking young blokes like yourselves might not be in need of company, it's a much different thing when you're a fat, 50+ year old man! Suddenly you're in a country where sweet, 17-year old, dark-skinned girls want you to hold their hand and shower them with attention all for the price of a cup of coffee!"
His words rang true. I could see the temptation. Of course, the girls were only in it for money, clothes and food, but these men don't really mind. They'll keep the illusion alive as long as possible.
So there ended my experience in Chang Mai, but fortunately not the country as a whole. The next day we traveled to Ayuthaya where we were finally able experience Thai hospitality at its best. ToShun and I were befriended by a group of possibly the most genuinely friendly people I have ever met, who put us up for 3 days, free of charge. Not surprisingly, we were the first foreigners ever to enter their lives
and hopefully the last.
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