Muay Thai and Marigolds: Festival Fights at the Botanic Gardens of Northern Thailand
Late November 2015
There are supposed to be eight fights today, or at least that's what people say when we show up to the annual Mae Moh Festival an hour or two outside Chiang Mai in Lampang. They say eight fights, but it's hard to tell what the fight card at any given festival or fair will really be. Changes are made all the time.
They also say this fair is held at the botanic gardens to celebrate the blooming of marigolds, but on the way in, all I see are some open fields and a golf course.
The Santai Gym team drove in this morning from San Kamphaeng, two trucks full of fighters, trainers, and friends there to support. Three of their fighters will be competing: nine-year-old O, teenage Chuy from a northern Thailand hill tribe, and Englishman Greg Artis, the sole foreign contender fighting at the fair.
This year's fair, the 13th of its kind, is put on by the Tourism Authority of Thailand in conjunction with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), in hopes of attracting domestic and international tourists. The oddly matched tourism and electricity authorities aim to give fair-goers an experience of "fresh and beautiful nature, excitement of temple fair atmosphere, and celebrity encounter," according to the EGAT website. We tourists are also encouraged by EGAT to "admire the beauty of the flowers blooming in winter and enjoy performances on the stage with wonderful light, color, and sound systems, carnival parade, shows from celebrities, special show from Mae Moh students, temple fair games, fun park playthings, walking street full of OTOP products, and Mae Moh slider."
We snake through the food booths featuring cuisines and snacks of varying appetizingness, and set up camp behind the Muay Thai ring and stage in the open air. Some trainers from Santai roll out mats on the dirt for their fighters. Typical of outdoor festival fights, there are no dressing rooms; the fighters get oiled up and change into their shorts out in the open. No one pays much mind. Passers-by are too busy eating fair candy and fish balls on sticks, or admiring the bizarre, overly elegant horse-drawn carriages.
Around noon, Santai's first fighter O enters the ring with little acknowledgment from the large, surprisingly subdued crowd, sitting in plastic chairs fanning out from three sides of the ring in haphazard rows a dozen deep. Standing spectators take up the back, only semi-interested in the Muay Thai goings-on.
Nine-year-old O is around the same age as most other kids at the fair except they're all playing on the dirt bike track and he's up in the ring getting ready to tangle with another kid. He's small for his age and most of his opponents are bigger than he, but his scrappy heart makes up for it.
Oddly enough, there is no apparent gambling. This might be the first event I've seen that features a Thai audience free of at least a small section of gamblers.
O and his opponent flail and spin in a flurry of gangly elbows and knobby knees. The crowd watches quietly, no cheering, no shouting, nothing. Is it because there are no gamblers and no one has anything invested in this fight between children? The Thai announcer is into it at least, giving a play-by-play to the very few who seem interested. The spirited announcer is wasting his time on this passive crowd, but the exuberant child boxers keep fighting.
A quick hug is shared between the two children at the last bell. No one claps in the end, no one acknowledges the boys as they leave the stage. O lost the fight, though received some sort of certificate of accomplishment afterwards, reminiscent of the plague of participation awards given out to all kids in sports when I was growing up.
Next two child fighters are up, a little bit older than O and his opponent. The audience actually claps this time. But still no gambling.
A couple fights later, the MC announces in Thai that a farang [foreigner] from Santai Gym will be fighting a Thai national, which causes an influx of spectators, newly interested in the boxing ring, to fill the empty spaces in the audience.
This is Greg Artis's fourth fight in Thailand. Originally from the Birmingham area, England, Greg came to Thailand four months ago, picking Santai based on recommendations from his coaches at Diamond Academy in England. Now he's squaring off against a local Thai fighter in the blue corner.
The formerly silent crowd loosens up during the farang-Thai fight. Minor cheers rise when when Greg lands a solid kick. His opponent tries a flying knee but it's cut short, so he goes back to good ol' reliable high kicks, which he keeps throwing.
More cheers during Round Three, when the fighters get into the heavy hits. Some scattered audience members cheer politely when Greg throws his local rival down in a sweep.
Round Four, the Thai fighter catches the Englishman with a hard elbow, splitting his brow and sustaining blood splatter on his own sweaty skin. Greg keeps fighting, unaware of the cut until he sees his blood dripping down.
In Round Five they disengage, both having been coached by their corners to stay back because they may have won. In the end, home team Thailand is declared the winner, but the fight was excitingly close. No one in the crowd reacts overtly when their Thai countryman's hand is raised—not much nationalism at this event.
Greg is led away to the little clinic tent at the other side of the fair. "First time getting stitches in Thailand is always interesting," he laughs cheerfully.
At the clinic tent, Greg is bandaged up before being taken away to the local hospital for further treatment. He happily boards the ambulance and wonders aloud what it'll be like at the hospital. "Hopefully they'll give me a local!" he says. Greg is lucky he wasn't cut at a fair in rural Isaan, where doctors often stitch patients up ringside and anesthetics are not always used.
From the clinic tent, I go off in search of the "fun park playthings" the festival website promised us. There's a zip-line over the pond, a rope obstacle with intermittent enforcement of helmets, and some lovely pink elephant lawn decorations. This really is a proper fair. Trash bags are helpfully tied to trees. Some people even use them. As a tourist to this region, I can safely say that Lampang does it right. But I'm still looking for the marigolds that are supposedly blooming somewhere around here.
And then I find it, the hidden jewel of the Mae Moh Festival. Not marigolds but… a breakdance fight. YES! Thai B-boys, bringing it back. Various teams get up on the modest stage and square off, taking turns flipping and six-stepping and freezing. I have low standards for breaking since I never get to see it live, and this exhibition certainly meets or exceeds those standards. The audience is small, composed mainly of the elderly and very young children, who make sounds only when a performer does a tremendous flip or nearly falls off the stage. Luckily, the multitude of performers have each other to cheer them on.
The b-boys' competitive attitudes are on point for the dance-off, and the battles are sweetly concluded with friendly half-hugs and the wai (a Thai gesture of respect). The whole thing totally makes me enamored with Lampang and its resident annual festival, which is what the Tourism and Electricity Authorities had in mind when planning this event. Congratulations, yet another tourist loves (or has at least heard of) Lampang, Thailand.
Back to the Muay Thai fights, where a startling number of people have amassed since I was last here a half hour ago. Santai Gym's third and last fighter of the day, 15-year-old Chuy, enters the ring and situates himself in the blue corner. Like Greg, Chuy is fighting another local boy. Gym owner Nik Hjalmarsson thinks this might pose a problem for him. Chuy is part of the Karen hill tribes, a group often discriminated against in the rest of Thailand. If it's a close fight that goes to a decision, Nik fears the local boy might win over Chuy, whose home is four hours away in the mountains.
I can tell the crowd actually likes this fight, based on the fact that they number in the hundreds and are making any audible cheering noises. Still, it doesn't compare to crowds that are comprised of actual gamblers.
The fight is evenly matched though some Santai folks comment on the fact that Chuy is 15 and his opponent is in his early 20s. Their body types aren't too different and they appear to be the same weight and skill-level, but it begs the ethical question of a "boy" fighting a "man." This sort of pairing, however, is common in Thailand and few people bat an eye. From far away, standing in the back row with the other onlookers, I can barely tell their ages apart.
The fight lasts all five rounds. In the end, Karen hill tribe "boy" Chuy is declared the winner over local "man." He is all smiles as he poses for pictures and accepts his prize money. Afterwards, he unwraps his hands and gets back into regular clothes, relieved his fight ended well and looking forward to enjoying the fair with the rest of his teammates, now in search of snacks and everything else the various Thailand authorities have put together for this festival weekend.
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