It's Saturday night in Thailand, and I'm sitting on the roof of a moving billboard advertising tonight's fights. Around me sit a dozen Thai nak muay teenagers—some are young fighters at nearby Singpatong Gym, and others, in their matching company-issued neon-green t-shirts, are employed directly by the local Patong Stadium. We're crammed onto wooden benches built on the sides of the billboard-truck roof, cruising down the main drag of Patong, one of Thailand's tourist Meccas on the coast of Phuket. Some of the boys take turns kicking pads in pairs, but most are clowning around with each other or shouting at the vacationers walking below, parroting the words they hear being announced in non-native English over the truck's loudspeakers.
"Tonight! Tonight! Tonight! Muay Thai!" the speakers blare. "The world's most devastating martial art! At Patong Boxing Stadium on Sainamyen Road!"
This is what the Singpatong Thai boxers do on Saturday nights—they drive around downtown Patong promoting Muay Thai matches from atop a pickup truck-turned-billboard. It's considered a work responsibility, but their giddy laughter and teenage antics indicate it might also be the highlight of their week. The boys wave and shout, clearly enjoying the attention, especially when tourists pull out their cameras.
"Tonight!" the announcement continues."You see Muay Thai, you see Thailand! See the best of the best! See the best of the champion! See the best of Thai boxing! Don't miss it!"
Tthe boys chant in unison, "You see Muay Thai, you see Thailand!"
I've been at Singpatong about a week now. After training today, one of the managers asked if wanted to "go on the truck with the boys before the fight tonight." I had no idea what that meant but I said yes anyway.
The two-truck convoy got going around 6pm. I climbed up onto the billboard roof as per the boys' instructions, and we all positioned ourselves on narrow wooden benches on the edges of the billboard roof. The whole thing seemed blatantly unsafe, but then again, this is a country in which families pack themselves five-to-a-motorbike and cruise around the streets helmet-less all the time.
Sure enough, we encounter our first accident shortly after picking up the young promotion staff at the stadium. A couple of stylishly dressed teenagers on a motorbike dart in front of us while we're turning right. Our truck stops short; we lurch forward on the rooftop. The bike and its two occupants are on the ground but no one appears hurt. Our driver storms over and starts shouting at the kids, who look scared.
One of the neon-green-shirted promoters on the truck, whom I refer to as Spikey due to his chosen hairstyle, jumps down and shares some choice words with the motorbike kids. They pick up their bike, say sorry, and take off as fast as they can.
Spikey climbs back onto the roof and folds up a switchblade, tucking it into the waistband of his Muay Thai shorts. Really, Spikey? I didn't think the exchange between the truck driver and the two cowed teenagers was getting so rough that a knife was needed. Maybe he just likes to feel safe.
He's all smiles when he talks to me, though. "Those are bad boys," he laughs. "The kid driving the motorbike wasn't paying attention. He shouldn't be texting while driving!"
"You always carry a knife?" I ask him.
"Oh of course! I started carrying one because three months ago I was at a concert, and I stepped on some guy's shoes on accident, and he stabbed me in the back with his own knife!" At first I think he's making it up, but my momentary skepticism vanishes when he pulls up his t-shirt and shows me a knife scar on his back. "It was okay, though, because I just kicked him a few times and he ran away!"
I later learn that Spikey, now 21, grew up in Muay Thai gyms in Thailand's poor eastern province of Isaan before getting this gig here in Patong promoting stadium fights. Now he lives in a room at the stadium with the other Thai promoter-boys, mostly former nak muay like himself. He is given free room and board plus a salary of 6,000 baht a month (about US $200) to wander around Patong promoting the stadium's fights.
We drive out to one of Patong's main roads and commence hustling. The truck pulls over and a few nak muay jump down onto the sidewalk, armed with flyers. They begin accosting the passing tourists, most of whom just wave them off.
I get to talking with the boys atop the truck, whom I've met during my past week training at the gym. There's 18-year-old Deet, who looks strikingly like a Thai version of Nick Cannon, and his 15-year-old little brother Tee. There's Bao, and Noong, and… I've met so many that I can't keep all their names straight.
"You want to pass out flyers with us?" Deet asks me.
I follow them down off the truck and grab a stack of full-color flyers. Four of the boys run around Patong's main bar street with me, some approaching drunken tourists, others working the street-side restaurants, passing out flyers to diners. "Muay Thai! You go see Muay Thai fight! Tonight!" they attempt in English.
I get in on the action by loudly babbling things to myself like, "Real Muay Thai! Real fights! Let's hope for safety tonight!" Various tourists give me weird looks, no doubt wondering what the hell this white woman is doing handing out flyers with a bunch of Thai kids in a seedy area of Patong. Rest assured, confused tourists—my parents wonder the same thing.
Phuket is crawling with the international crowd, and foreign women are not in short supply. I'm back atop the truck, watching the boys stare down at the pretty tourist girls below, daring each other to try to talk to them.
"Hello!" one of Spikey's coworkers calls out to an attractive young pair walking by. He leans down off the side of the roof and holds out a flyer. "You come stadium fight tonight?" The ladies giggle and wave him off.
The boys have much better luck around the corner, when the driver stops to grab some smokes in a local convenience store. Five French women walk by, and the boys in their neon green shirts are quick to jump down and chat them up.
"Pick 'em up!" Spikey yells to his comrades on the ground. Soon, we have all five French women packed onto the rooftop. They look thrilled to be up here, taking photos and trying with varying degrees of success to talk to some of the more outgoing older boys.
The French women say goodbye to us 15 minutes later on the other side of Patong's main bar street, and we continue driving the loop.
Shortly before 9pm, the driver stops at 7-11 and gives Deet 500 baht to buy cups o' noodles for everyone. We climb back up onto the roof and try to avoid spilling food on ourselves while the driver takes us back up the winding mountain road to Singpatong.
Back at the gym, the boys change out of their Muay Thai shorts and into sharp street clothes for the Saturday night fights. Fifteen minutes later, we all pile back onto the billboard truck. Little 15-year-old Tee tells me excitedly that we'll all be getting street-food together after the fights.
We cruise down the hill toward the stadium. The boys are laughing, pushing each other, throwing kicks and elbows playfully, enjoying their Saturday night after training all week. If I come back in my next life as a Singpatong kid, I'll feel pretty lucky.
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