According to John-Pierre Melville, the French filmmaker and World War 2 resistance fighter, "There is no greater solitude than that of the Samurai unless it is that of the Tiger in the jungle... Perhaps..."
Bollocks to the Samurai and the Tiger in the jungle. What about the loneliness of the long distance kickboxer? Not so long ago, in a faraway sweatbox city called Bangkok, that was the square root of my day-to-day existential problem.
What exactly was I doing in Thailand's capital, the infamous city of angels and angles? I wasn't a holidaymaker, an English teacher, a travel writer, a heroin addict or even a bargirl banging sex freak. I was a "diplomatic spouse," posted by Her Majesty's Government no less, and thousands of miles from home sweet home (Notting Hill) because of the wife's highfalutin job. What a boon. What an opportunity. It was time to forget Muay Thai in England and concentrate on Muay Thai in Thailand.
Nonetheless, you are a foreigner, a bum of the month kick fighter in a strange land. Bewildered. Dislocated. Disoriented. Almost drugged. Everything is so intense to the newbie kickboxer in Bangkok. First, it's the feverish heat that reduces your ironed shirt to a sweaty rag. Then it's the overpowering smell of street food vendors and uncollected garbage, and, finally, the constant, vibrating bustle of the roaring traffic that makes you forget who you are, and where you come from.
You take a pew in the lonely crowd and try to get your bearings. Stranger in a strange land or not, take stock; you are a nak muay farang (foreign kickboxer), not some sleazy pedophile with a tire for a belly. You are top of the food chain, the hey number one, and, if this was some Hollywood film, give or take the odd artistic license, you would be played by Jean-Claude Van Damme and not Fatty Arbuckle. So get real.
Wandering the streets like a blind man who has lost his cane, where am I going exactly? I don't understand the lingo. I can't read the road signs. I'm a malfunctioning illiterate on Planet Thailand. I hail a taxi on Sukhumvit to the Muay Thai gym down the road. Instead, the middle-aged cab driver from Isaan Province takes me on the Magical Mystery Tour to a chemical factory off Rama IV highway. Hmm, I'd better learn the lingo ASAP. After all, I'm going to be here for a while. I'm going to be here for some lonely years to come.
It's really tough to get by in Thailand without the take away talk. Do you really want to live as an illiterate expatriate? Learn the lingo. How else are you going to understand those raspy old Thai geezers at the gym? Sure, they can speak 'boxing English' alright, "1 minute, 2 minute, 3 minute, left hook, upper cut, kick, knee, elbow, 1 minute, quickly, quickly!" But don't expect the conversation to stray into the sad plight of the foreign fighter because no human being ever truly understands another in a foreign land.
Still, humor interrupts those uncertain feelings of solitude. Uncle, the wrinkly, prune-like, octogenarian timekeeper in the royal yellow polo shirt, catches my eye. "Heil Hitler," he shouts out, "Heil Hitler!" He must be joking, right? I can't wait to call up my American dad in England. This will make the old man laugh. It does ("He said whaaat?")
You ring off. Silence shouts down your ear. You're home alone (again) in your new home from home (again). The wife is off in Mongolia building a road for a United Nations project, and you're not meeting people, not even trying. You're living like a monk, training like a fighter, something's got to give, something's got to make sense. It doesn't. You just keep on living the same day, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, like you were an inmate in Marvin Hagler's jail.
Quit bitching. You're not in the Bangkok Hilton; you're dwelling in the eye of a dream. You're in the homeland of the sport, and training with all the top dudes in the world. All of your friends, all of your concerns, all of your gentle illusions are down at the gym. That's your posse. That's your mafia. That's your world. Get used to it. Live in it. You're there to train and fight and spend your salad days in a tin roofed, flood prone, cockroach-infested boxing gym at the back end of a Bangkok car park. How exotic. How glam. Hooray for you and me.
There are so many sights and sensations that bewilder an outsider in a Muay Thai gym. The aging trainers, Buriram and Tua, necks bejeweled with umpteen Buddha amulets, eyes closed, hands in prayer position, hoping for their numbers to come up in the lottery results that are being read out loud on the radio; an American kickboxer on a busman's holiday, looking for the promoter and the 2000 Baht ($56) that he's been owed since last month for a grueling bout up country; Lek, our senior trainer, arms folded, shorts inside out, berating a farang kickboxer for being too staccato on the pads. There's so much to take in and remember in a Bangkok Muay Thai gym, like Tua picking up a cockroach sticking it in his mouth and saying out loud, "Delicious!" The old timer's only showing off to horrify a female kickboxer from Holland. He's from the flat and dusty plains of Isaan Province, and they eat almost anything up there, even female kickboxers from Holland.
What about Thailand beyond the apron of the boxing gym? Thais don't like foreigners that much, and, coming from a supposedly liberal, multicultural society, at times it often feels like you are living in the most racist country in the world. First and foremost, you are a "Farang," a foreigner of western origin, which comes from "Farangset," the Thai word for the French. If you are black, you are "Khon Dam" a black person, or, more offensively old school, "Khon Negro." No matter how long you live there, how much you try and assimilate into the host culture; you will be always be a "farang," a foreigner, an outsider. And don't be taken in by the warm smiles of the Thais, either. They are about as misleading and as disingenuous as an election poll on CNN.
A wandering kickboxer of the realm can't even relate to polite society. It's best to stick to your own and keep your trap shut. Bangkok is a class-conscious city of liars and misfits. Dough and status is all that counts in the moldy mango. Locals and expats alike always want to (try and) gauge your social status. "What exactly is it that you do? Where do you live? What kind of visa do you have?' It used to be much easier back at school—there they just asked what your mum and dad did to (try and) work out who you were. Now that I'm an adult, it's more complex, more nuanced, but no less intrusive. You can't take it personal. Everybody asks this of everyone else in Bangkok. Still, you can barely resist the urge to lean in and sok glap (reverse elbow) the interrogator's drunken red face.
Lighten up. What about female company for the lonesome, off-duty fighter? Blonde, brown, black, yellow, apostrophe eyed, round-eyed, "short time" and "long time," Bangkok is full of stupendously beautiful women of every shape, age and definition. It's best to pack the charm and leave the Donald Trump misogyny back home. You see, not all Thai girls are bargirls, and not all Thai girls are slags. They're not that much different to you and me. They're all desperate and gagging for love and companionship.
Take my stablemate, the Canadian kickboxer. He was a WKA world champ and I benignly set him up with a man-eating friend of the wife's from the British Embassy. The slim, fresh, pale and self-possessed English rose was taken in by his rugged good looks, eight-pack stomach and world title. Less so by the simple, bare, damp, monastic room that the champ had been living in next door to the Muay Thai camp. The unpainted walls scarred with holes, the solitary electric fan, the single, low to the floor traditional Thai bed on the creaking floor, the high pitched burp of the tuk-tuk taxis two-stroke engines roaring up and down the dim, wet glow of the streets outside. Her horror dwarfed the room and the relationship soon fizzled out. So much for playing Cupid: I'll leave the poison arrow in the quiver next time.
Ultimately, lonely or not, you have to surrender. You have to surrender to the place like a painful yoga posture. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the colors, the tastes, you have to embrace the alien; listen to the crazy Thai music on FM radio, laugh at the slapstick humor in Thai TV shows and read old Thai novels (my favorite is "Many Lives" by Kukrit Pramoj). And don't try and understand a Thailand state of mind all at once. Just accept. You'll get it much later on.
However, just like home, you have to surrender when the cops nab you on the street. I got stopped by the cops in Bangkok in 9 years more times than I ever did living back home in London or Liverpool. Then again, back home I wasn't loitering in some notorious, off the map, slum area with intent to Thai box.
I recall one world-weary cop, with a stern and wooden face, asking me in perfect English, "What the Hell are you doing here?" I answered him in my best, posh, Bangkok Thai. It came as a bit of a shock. Not many white faces come through here, he said, this is the crumbling, stinky, slaughterhouse district, and a farang would only be round here if he were up to no good. He was right. More than right. I am up to no good. I'm kickboxing in a Bangkok slum whilst my friends back home in England and America are living a normal, yet boring life. Blame my barmy boxer's brain.
Back from training (again), home alone (again); the wife is out of town (again), saving the South East Asian region from bad roads and bad housing. I eat a steak and peruse YouTube for some decent crap to watch. Some geek illegally uploaded the old Japanese TV show, The Water Margin. I'd forgotten Bert Kwouk's corny narration, "The ancient sages said, do not despise the snake for having no horns. For who is to say that it will not become a dragon?" With that in mind, you snap out the lights and fall exhaustedly to bed with a painful knee injury that refuses to clear up. I am alone again in thought, alone again in a sleeping city, far, far, far from home.
Up pronto at 6am with a faint smile: the "red-eyed greater Coucal" is wide awake and singing his eerie song. I don the battered Asics to run 5-10k before the day turns steamy. You're supposed to run 5-6 times a week when you're a nak muay, right first thing in the morning, no delay. The first ten minutes your mind is sputtering and swearing with all sorts of inner doubts and silent furies. You're supposed to run 10k in under 60 minutes. Under, much under, not over, perish the thought...
You can't relate this separate, mock reality back home to the folks that you once knew. To the folks back home, and pretty much everywhere else, Thailand is beaches, bars and sordid bunk-ups with underage bargirls and ladyboys. "What the Hell are you doing Thai boxing, what are you compensating for, what are you trying to prove," and so on and so forth. You end up a bit like Lt. Willard, the assassin protagonist from Apocalypse Now, lying on a sweaty bed, under a hypnotic fan, trying to make sense of your feelings of exclusion as the walls of the room close in on you.
Nine years of loneliness as a nak muay farang in Bangkok, Thailand. Fuck me dead, what an experience. Everyone says how much they love Thailand. So did I until I lived there full time. And by that, I mean living there with no real end game. I didn't know if, or when, I'd ever return to the West. Yes, that kind of living there definitely isn't "living the dream" like everyone usually says about the place. Most nak muay farang who lived out there felt much the same way, too.
It's not so much the country. Nak muay farang aside, it's the kind of people that the country attracts. A lot of folks are content to live and die in Thailand because home, where they come from, doesn't feel like home anymore. But it truly doesn't matter what country you happen to be in, as a foreigner, you will always feel like you sometimes don't belong, and that your "friends" don't truly understand you.
Maybe the solitude, the loneliness of the long distance kickboxer, had something to do with the fact that no matter how long I was there, no matter how much Thai I knew, (to the point of telling taxi drivers from Isaan Province the best route to the chemical factory), I was always looked upon as an outsider, always considered a "farang." That fact will never change for the Tiger in the jungle... Perhaps...
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.