Almost every night in village squares young boys and girls are matched up against each other in the hope that one day they might find themselves in the Muay Thai stadiums of Bangkok.
The sport is a means to break out of poverty. It is the way to escape the streets. For the country’s children, Muay Thai is a way to survive.
CHARLES ANDERSON and IAIN McGREGOR follow a kiwi fighter nearing the end of his career as he heads to a special gym in Thailand to visit the heart of an ancient martial art.
Web: JOHN HARFORD
Bulong shadow boxes in the corner of a village square as traditional sarama music blares through a crackling PA. His training partners have rubbed him down with liniment oil. His muscles glisten under bright halogen lights. He is 19-years-old.
All about him is noise. Fighters from around the region have descended on this makeshift stadium. At the corner of the ring is a pop up gambling den where Thai men smoke cigarettes and hold their fingers in the air as they jostle for the best odds. Flies buzz around the hanging lights that illuminate the ring.
Then his name is called. He moves through the crowd.
For years Bulong has lived in a Muay Thai kickboxing gym. Since he was a young Thai boy he has breathed the sport. It is his way out and away from a different life – one of toiling in the fields as a manual labourer for little pay. He is fighting for something bigger than himself. He is fighting for an education. He is fighting for his family. He is fighting for a better future.
Bulong slides through the ropes and turns to his trainer – Mr Dong. They have known each other for a decade, ever since Bulong arrived at his trainer’s gym with only a suitcase and two sets of clothes.
They press their hands together in prayer. Then Mr Dong places the mong kol – the traditional headress – on his fighter’s head. The music changes. The wai kru begins. It is a dance to give thanks for the fighter’s teachers – their mother and fathers and all those they respect. The fight is imminent.
Down a dusty driveway …
… past the ruins of the old city walls …
… is a garage where, in the cool dawn hours and beneath the shelter of a mosquito net, three fighters awake.
TThey unzip its blue webbing and slide out onto the garage’s smooth concrete floor. The garage is their bedroom. Their bedroom is Keaitchatchai Gym.
The fighters range in age from nine to 19. The youngest, Kai, has lived here for only a few months after his father was imprisoned for dealing drugs. The eldest, Bulong, has lived here since he was eight when his mother sent him away after a family break up.
Boxing gloves hang off ropes. There are schedules written onto streaky whiteboards. A rack of rusty dumbbells sits in the corner. As the sun slowly rises, light filters through a concrete grill and dapples the ring’s canvas floor. It is dawn. It is time to train. On the wall is a certificate awarded to Chatchai Dechanon for “Creative Problem Solving”. Known to everyone as “Mr Dong”, he shuffles out of the adjacent home and slides a metal gate back across his driveway. In the middle of the steel gate are two Muay Thai kickboxers in the midst of combat.
Several motorbikes rattle in and park up.
On one of them is Blake Tomlinson who has come from Dunedin to Kamphaeng Phet, a small town a few hours north of Bangkok. He has been a fighter ever since he was a 15-year-old who watched too many Kung Fu movies. There was something about Muay Thai that appealed, though. It was raw. It was basic. There were only so many variations of moves. It was about kicking and punching. But there was a poetry to it, an art. Tomlinson felt there was an anger inside him that drew him to it. It became an outlet. He became a fighter.
Together, in the morning chill Tomlinson, 32, and and the three younger boys lightly stretch.
When he first arrived at the gym several weeks ago the boys, Bulong, Kai and Fiuk, were running in any footwear they could find. Their shoes were torn and useless. So Tomlinson and another fighter went and bought them new ones. Now the boys shoes are bright and colourful. They shake out their limbs, look to each other and then begin to trot down the driveway.
They run out on to the main road, past shrines of civilisations long gone and the fortifications of the old city of Kamphaeng Phet. They run down the city streets which are just starting to rumble into life. There are food stalls and cell phone shops. There are motorbike sellers and flower vendors.
Pi Ying, one of the gym’s trainers, follows behind on his scooter urging them on. Then they run past temples and a 7/11 store where they see Mr Dong buying bread for breakfast. He looks up and waves as they roll by.
By the time they arrive back at the gym the day has begun and Mr Dong has set up breakfast.
The air is soon filled with the soft slap of jump rope on concrete. Tomlinson heads to the heavy bag that hangs in the corner. Then the air is filled with the slam of elbows, knees, fists and shins against canvas. It is coupled with the growl, the roar, of Muay Thai striking.
It is like he is hitting through the pads.
“Kicking is like a baseball bat drive,” he says later.
“Punches can knock you out but kicks break bones.’’
The young boys on the jump rope look at each other and smile.
Then, when training has finished, they head behind the garage to a small concrete block where a bucket of water awaits. The pick up a trowel and pour it over their heads. Then they iron their school uniforms before changing. They eat, jump aboard their scooters and head down the streets flanked by banana plants. Today is a school day.
“They all dream of Bangkok,” Tomlinson says.
But it is not just about being a champion at Muay Thai – it is about being a champion at life, he says.
Tomlinson feels for the boys – not just knowing where they have come from but what they will still have to go through. They may not make it as fighters but what they have learned will set them up for a better future than the one they were anticipating.
“They are all champions,” Tomlinson says. “ They have the hearts of men beating inside their chests … they are literally fighting for survival.”
Perhaps it’s because he came from a broken home. Perhaps its because as early as nine-years-old his friends would tell him he was angry all the time. But for a long time Tomlinson, who hails from Dunedin, seemed to be a fighter.
“Maybe that's why I had a disposition to fight sports,” he says in his small air conditioned flat near the Keaitchatchai Gym.
“Not because I wanted to hurt anyone – just to blow off steam.”
But as he gets older he does not feel like he has anything to prove anymore. He has had more than 50 fights. He has broken his arm twice during combat. He has had five broken noses and has had titles and trophies to his name.
He remembers his first bout in Christchurch. It was scrappy. He was a nervous wreck. Some people sing before a fight. Some hum. Some are moody. Others cry. For Tomlinson time seems to slow down. He just finds himself lying in bed look at the wall counting the minutes.
He says he doesn’t have a “young man’s dream” anymore. As Tomlinson says if you have “plastic goals you get plastic results”.
He is in Kamphaeng Phet for different reasons.
“Muay Thai has become part of who I am. I feel a bit lost without it.”
Even the times when he has stopped he always comes back. It is not just for the training – the day in day out dedication to the task where a busy day is going to get a coffee at a local shop. In Dunedin, where he runs a kickboxing gym he fits in his training around his physical education study. He runs on the beach with his dog. He spars. But here he eats, sleeps and trains. There is nothing else. He returns to Thailand for everything the sport represents here.
But his conversation always returns to the boys he trains with. They watch him and stare at his tattoo across his chest – two Tigers in combat. In Thai belief they are said to bring strength, power and fearlessness to the bearer.
The boys are similar to the ones he has met on his several trips to Thailand. They are young and poor and have dreams themselves. They are not just of trophies and belts.
“Here they will send money home. It’s paying for their education. It isn’t just them they are fighting for. They are fighting for a better future. They are fighting for their family.”
That has a cost, Tomlinson says, before his voice trails off for a moment.
There is something about being in the ring. He describes it like being in a car crash, that once it starts you can’t do anything to stop it. You just have to ride it out.
He knows he cannot fight forever. He trains other fighters now and hopes his study will lead into more full time work. But for now he is dedicated to his own development. His wife back in Dunedin is from Thailand herself. He met her on a previous trip. She knows how important his training is.
Tomlinson started in Taekwondo before trying Kung Fu and eventually finding Muay Thai – the "the art of eight limbs" founded during the battles between Burma and Siam in the 16th century. Fighters used fists, knees, feet and elbows. It was refined through war as soldiers honed their skills in hand to hand combat. Once it was only fought with cotton yarn around the fighter’s fists. Hundreds of years on it is a sport known for its economy, its practicality. There are techniques called “the giant catches the money” and “break the elephant’s neck”. There is “crocodile sweeps its tail” and “mountain overturns earth”. They are all based of tricking your opponent into a false move that can be capitalised on. The effects can be brutal.
“It’s striking fighting in its rawest form,” says Tomlinson. “ But there is a refinement within that rawness. To an outsider it looks like people bashing each other but there are many subtleties.”
Mr Dong stands outside his home scrolling through his smartphone stopping intermittently at photos of his students on his Facebook feed. The boys have gone to school for the day and the sounds of training have died down. He displays photos of his employees in orange uniforms outside the bank he manages. He shows off images of the gym and of promotional posters for fighters he have trained. He has had fighters come through from Africa, Italy, America and Brazil. They are what keep the gym running.
He started it more than 10 years ago initially as a way of training local children and keeping them away from drugs.
“Most of the children from the gym come from a troubled background,” he says through a translator.
“I wish to encourage the children to have a better education and do well at boxing.”
When Mr Dong was as boy he was enamoured with Muay Thai. He saw what it could do – inspire and entertain. But more than that it was a way of life.
“If you want to learn Muay Thai you have to be patient and strong.
In the past I have started from nothing I know how it was so today I’m willing to give a chance to poor kids to have a better life.”
His students have had success. Ronaket Boonthree, known as Nampon Keaitchatchai, has fought in the Asian games and received a scholarship to study for his PhD. Mr Dong pauses on a photo of him in his ledger and robe graduating earlier in the year. Satawat Pungael, known as Superman Keaitchatchai, was chosen to join the military. Others have become policemen and teachers.
“I try to look after the children in the gym like they are my own child, to make them have a sense of family and become better members of society.”
Then there is Bulong who arrived at Mr Dong’s as an aggressive young boy.
“I feed him, change his behaviour,” he says.
Bulong sends money back to his mother after she could not afford to sustain herself.
He is only boxing for the money. It is for her and for his own education.
Now he is a prankster, hamming it up for photos, playing practical jokes on his training partners. There is no hint of his history or the pressure on his future.
Mr Dong’s own children, two boys, are not interested in the sport.
“Basketball and computer games,” he says.
For many of the estimated 30,000 child fighters in Thailand it is a different fate. Theirs, it has been described, are the lives of hunting dogs.
“When a dog can no longer catch its prey then it is done,” Tomlinson says.
In 1999, the Foundation for Child Rights Protection Centre in Bangkok petitioned the Thai government to ban child boxing. The motion failed when farmers argued that the rural economy would collapse without the purses their children brought home. A watered-down law required only a parental letter of permission for children under 15 to fight.
So the boys appear at temple fairs and fundraisers for fighting purses of a few hundred Thai baht. Some trainers do treat their fighters like dogs. If they get injured they are discarded back to the streets.
It is why he wanted to come here and not to the large kickboxing gyms of Phuket or Chiang Mai. He wanted a place that would speak to the impact that the sport has had on his own life.
The sun is setting as the boys come home from school to prepare for their evening training. Tomlinson begins on the heavy bag.
Kai and Fiuk pick up a pair of dumbbells each and start to shadow him. Tomlinson starts to slam his fists, his elbows, knees and shins into the bag. He growls with each strike. The boys watch and smile at each other. They start to mimic him – including the growls. After several hits Tomlinson starts to catch on. He turns to the boys
‘‘Are you copying me,’’ he laughs, pretending to raise his fist to them.
The boys giggle.
‘‘They are copying me,’’ Tomlinson laments to the trainers. Then he turns back to the bag.
Mr Dong has prepared dinner for the boys and Tomlinson. They all take their shoes off and step up to his porch. They all sit and talk in stuttered English and Thai. It is a routine.
Then the boys go back to the gym. Kai and Fiuk go to their school bags to retrieve some exercise books. They climb into the ring and lay out the books in front of them onto the rough canvas. Then they start their homework.
“Run at 6am, batter their bodies then school then back to the gym for training and the all over again,” Tomlinson notes as he watches them. “Most adults couldn’t handle that and these are kids.”
Still, he says, it is better than the alternative which is life on the streets or labouring in Thailand’s fields or factories.
Occasionally Mr Dong will ask how they are doing. The boys, sitting cross legged, assure him.
“There is no table,” he says. “This is big table.”
They have good grades but his concern is for the older Bulong who is lying in the nearby mosquito net watching a Thai talent show on a television that sits under a yellow speed ball.
Mr Dong grabs his head theatrically and shakes it.
Tomlinson asks Mr Dong what the boys earn for a fight. Superman, one of his champions could garner 30,000 baht (NZD$1200) for a win. The fighter would keep half of that. The other half goes to the gym. But most fighters will only get about 700 baht or NZD$28 for a win.
As the boys work Tomlinson ask Mr Dong about Kai and Fiuk’s backgrounds.
“Their fathers are in jail,” Mr Dong replies.
They come from broken homes and their mothers cannot afford to feed them.
Mr Dong’s fear was that if they returned then they would succumb to the same fate that so many young poor boys in Thailand have – hard labour and drugs.
“It’s just so sad,” Tomlinson says. His voice breaks. The boys remind him of a young friend he made on a previous trip to Thailand. The boy was full of promise until he injured himself. Thinking he was of no worth he hung himself. Then Tomlinson starts to cry.
Mr Dong puts his hand on his leg and smiles
“They are strong,” he says pointing to each of the boys. “Strong.”
“I am their father and mother.”
The boys pile into a truck for the two hour journey out of Kamphaeng Phet. They lie down and rest in the flatbed. They don’t speak. They check Facebook on their phones – the glow illuminating their faces. It is fight night.
When they arrive they clamber out and wander through the streets to the ring. They pass a Buddhist shrine and Bulong stops. He climbs the stairs leading up to it, lights some incense and briefly prays. Mr Dong joins him. They rise and move on.
The boys are lined up in the corner of the square. They are matched for height and size. Their trainers are selling their traits, trying to line up a good fight that is winnable.
Buddhist chants coming from the temple over the wall is drowning out the Muay Thai commentators. Bulong strips down and Kai and Fiuk start to rub liniment oil onto his limbs. Bulong lies down and the boys straddle him, kneading his muscles in long fluid motions. Mr Dong places Bulong’s mong kol on a wire fence behind them.
Two boys have been called to the ring. They enter and start their wai kru – a traditional dance that has spiritual significance for the fighter. It is about showing respect for the trainer.
Then the referee starts the fight – the first of five three minute rounds where points are scored for clean strikes to the head and body. The pair start off slowly, checking each other out. It is much like a traditional boxing match but here they begin by kicking lightly at each other’s legs. Soon the pace escalates and one of the boys has started attacking. He forces his opponent to the ropes and the referee needs to break them up. By the fourth round both are tired but the fight is going in one direction. One of the boys is forced once more to the corner and he is caught with a punch to the face. He goes down hard onto the canvas. The referee goes over to him and begins to count. The boy struggles to stand. He cannot. The fight is over.
The boy’s trainer hauls him out of the ring and shoves him back to their area, whacking him over the head as he goes.
Bulong is oblivious. He is focussed. Soon his name is also called. Mr Dong takes the mong kol from the fence and follows his fighter to the ring. Bulong climbs in and performs his wai kru before Mr Dong takes the headdress off him.
The fight begins and Bulong starts strong. He is connecting with punches and kicks and elbows. He is avoiding his opponent’s attack. With each strike his entire body tenses and then releases – sweat splashes off his body.
The fight is going the full distance and Bulong is increasing his intensity with each round. In the final round something snaps in him and he starts throwing strong kicks to the body. He is relentless. He is laughing and grinning and grimacing. Then the bell goes. Bulong throws his hands in the air. Then they wait for the judges to call out their decision. When it comes through Bulong’s grin fades.
He has lost. He looks unsurprised. Mr Dong says the decision is political. The gym who hosts the event often get favourable decisions. Bulong shrugs and puts his tracksuit back on. For him the fight is not just about the result on one night. It is about life, now and into the future.
The boys shuffle back into the truck for the journey home. They fall asleep.
Back at Mr Dong’s gym the metal gate is hauled across the driveway to let them back in. The boys get out, get changed and climb into their mosquito net room on the gym’s floor. They zip up the blue webbing and lie down, all together, all close.
It has been a long day. They have trained, schooled and fought. They need their sleep. Tomorrow, it will be the same.