An Air of Innocence

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There is something about the morning air at the gym, even for Bangkok, a city of smog and pollution. There is an honesty and purity about it. While the morning rays of the sun are busy cutting through it and across it, piercing the awnings and openings, casting its light upon every crack and crevice, the air remains honest. Even at the epicenter of struggle, the place where dreams are born and manifested, the place where fighters come and fighters go, there is no tension. There is no hostility among the bodies that exist on the landscape of concrete and canvas, the tough surfaces where the art of muaythai is carefully crafted.

The morning heat has yet to scorch the soles of the barefooted children, some just 8 or 9 years old, who practice alongside their older counterparts who jump rope. There is an innocence to all their faces, even on those faces which have been hardened by the ring, left with scars and stitches and pink tissue that has yet to heal. If one were to step back, the gym would look like a well oiled machine. There is no one single person barking out orders; instead, it is routine that leads the fighters while they spar and kick pads and punch bags. Some glove up and, playfully, jokingly, go back and forth with kicks. “Owwwaaay!” one of the fighters calls out. Another fighter plays the role of the referee, pretending to give an eight count to the fighter who was just scratched above his eyebrow by the toenail of the other.

13coins 10

A trainer awakens to the sounds of the fighters laughing in the ring; the gym is coming alive. A hippy sits on the chipped concrete wall and watches, still drinking what remains of last night’s beer. As he gets up and walks away, cigarette in hand, another fighter cleans the empty beer bottles off of the gym floor. He is the same fighter whose pictures grace the uppermost portions of the gym’s awning, pictures of him posing half-crotched with a championship title around his waist. There is no ego at these sort of places. There is no separation between the champion and children. They are all part of a community, a group within the larger society that banded together for a common cause.

It is now nighttime, and the very same fighters that joked and played in the small soi oasis now taunt and chaff each other in the dimly lit preparation area down the back corridor of Lumpinee Stadium. Their teammate is fighting next. Already warmed up and gloved up, he begins his decent into the belly of the concrete beast, where a thousand eyes wait for him to enter the ring so they can cast their weekly wages in the hopes of doubling, or maybe tripling, their earnings. The gamblers start their chatter and banter and the air becomes thick with the hunger for money, for the fighters, it’s the hunger for survival. The fight is ended early on the account of a knock-out from an elbow, and the fighter who wore the sauna suit this morning, cutting the last of his weight atop the broken blacktop of the temple parking lot, was now being carried out of the ring on a stretcher made of green canvas and two sticks of bamboo.

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In the back corridor his wits came back to him just as his trainer began removing his hand wraps. The fighter’s girlfriend stood there clutching her purse. No one spoke. But a strange man came over and patted the young fighter on the back and told him how well he had done and not to be ashamed. Another fighter put the mongkon back in the black, weathered suitcase. The air was heavy now, so different from the morning air that brought with it the innocence of muaythai.

wolcott.johnjoseph@gmail.com

Twitter: @MuaythaiJournal

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About Author

John Wolcott currently lives in Thailand and works as a freelance writer and videographer. He owns and operates Thailand Journal where he writes about his experiences abroad.

33 Comments

  1. I think for someone who has only spent a short time in Thailand, or none at all, these posts might be appealing. But for myself, as well as possibly others who have been there for longer than a month or two and/or have somewhat of an understanding of cultural imperialism, they read as somewhat romanticized, naive and even paternalistic. I just don’t think it’s healthy to portray this sport as something that it’s not; some kind of answer, solution, or ideal. Muay Thai in Thailand is imperfect just like anything else; there is substance abuse, poverty, exploitation, depression, unhappiness, anxiety, physical and emotional abuse (and yes, even ego), and of course there are also the beautiful aspects that so many of us appreciate and you write so aptly about. But, in my opinion, only an outsider looking in with extremely selective vision could describe it as you do, as only the good side, some kind of haven where people have escaped unhappiness, materialism, selfishness etc. I just feel that perhaps you are trying to represent Muay Thai as what you want it to be, rather than what it is, and to me, that is unfair to the readers, as well as the sport.

  2. Another great article John. I understand Mr Grime’s point about newbies possibly getting a fairytale view of muay thai from these posts. John has a beautiful writing style that in my mind contrasts the harsh realities of what our sport is. Our sport is beautiful,ugly,sexist,oppressive,liberating etc. We chose to practice,teach and fight in a sport that many many thai people think is low class. So if John can write from a positive viewpoint while still including the sad realities than so be it.

    About 5.5 years ago I gave John sh$t over what I felt was unecessesarily describing the poor conditions of the people who lived along the running route of Kaewsamrit gym. I felt he didnt need to speak on the smells and housing conditions of the locals. So I felt he kept it too real in his account. At the end of the day everyone has different ways of expressing what they experience.

    Keeping it too real can lead to turning more people off to our beautiful sport, but I think John has struck an almost perfect balance.

  3. Ok, but I implore you to simply look at the word innocent, which is the prominent theme in your article as well as your response (from my mac dictionary);

    innocent |?in?s?nt|
    adjective
    1 not guilty of a crime or offense: the arbitrary execution of an innocent man | he was innocent of any fraud.
    • [ predic. ] (innocent of) without; lacking: a street quite innocent of bookstores.
    • [ predic. ] (innocent of) without experience or knowledge of: a man innocent of war’s cruelties.
    2 [ attrib. ] not responsible for or directly involved in an event yet suffering its consequences: an innocent bystander.
    3 free from moral wrong; not corrupted: an innocent child.
    • simple; naive: she is a poor, innocent young creature.
    4 not intended to cause harm or offense; harmless: an innocent mistake.
    noun
    an innocent person, in particular:
    • a pure, guileless, or naive person: she was an innocent compared with this man.
    • a person involved by chance in a situation, esp. a victim of crime or war: they are prepared to kill or maim innocents in pursuit of a cause.
    • (the Innocents) the young children killed by Herod after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 2:16).

    At best it is synonymous with not being guilty of a crime, which is not what I think you mean here, but it is still not applicable to most fighters, nor most people in the world. At worst it is synonymous with ‘being without experience or knowledge,’ being ‘not corrupted,’ being ‘simple,’ ‘naive,’ ‘poor.’ Gym culture is infinitely more complex than that and it is extremely offensive to characterize it that way.

    You do talk about poverty often, but then you say that it isn’t important, because poverty doesn’t matter here, because these kids are living the dream and they get to train Muay Thai every day. I feel that anyone who has spent a significant amount of time at a gym will have observed kids training on days they don’t want to train, fighting when they don’t want to fight, being exhausted from combining this with school, missing home, etc. And no, many times it’s not worth it, which is why most of them don’t end up sticking with it. Of course everyone you interviewed said muay thai was the answer, they are the successful ones, that’s why you interviewed them. You should interview the kids that got hooked on drugs, or knocked a girl up, or got kicked out of the gym for whatever reason, or just the ones that weren’t get enough to make a decent living doing it, ask them if Muay Thai is THE answer.

    Muay Thai is beautiful, it changed my life, I don’t fight anymore and I barely have time to train these days but I still don’t think I’ll ever be as passionate about something as I am about Muay Thai. But I don’t project that onto people. I don’t assume that me and an 8 year old Thai boy are the same, that we train for the same reasons, that we have the same interests, that he is just as happy as I would be if I was training for 6 hours a day 6 days a week. I think it is a hell of a lot more complex than that, matter fact I know it is, that’s one of the most important things I learned there. Muay Thai is beautiful but there is an aspect of harshness to it as well. It’s the difference between hitting pads and fighting. There’s a graceful side and an ugly side. These are things that you say you know, but I don’t observe it in your writing. It’s more complex than all good or all bad. I feel that if you knew that you wouldn’t pity fighters living in poverty, nor idolatrize them by saying they have no ego. Just my take. Yes it’s all very well written, but to me it’s also grossly inaccurate, oversimplified, and a tad colonialist, and completely unnecessarily so.

    • If you examine the language of the Europeans who colonized the Americas, South Asia, Africa etc, you will notice the use of words like ‘simple,’ ‘pure,’ ‘innnocent,’ alongside ones like ‘backward,’ ‘primitive,’ ‘barbarian.’ Portraying an image of a meek, ‘noble savage,’ if you will, was a justification for usurping indigenous resources as such uncivilized specimens would not be able to utilize them themselves. I’m not saying John is trying to steal anyone’s sticky rice or anything, but I do feel that his perspective suggests an air of superiority (no pun) and is quite eurocentric and patronizing. Essentially, you are characterizing people in comparison with yourself. You assign them labels such as ‘innocent’ simply because you perceive them to be more innocent than you, when the reality is that cultural context manifests these qualities in different ways which are not observable to the outsider’s eye. So, you say fighters have no ego because they don’t beat their chest in the ring or something, but fail to recognize that perhaps these characteristics display themselves in other ways which you are not accustomed to perceiving.

      To put it simply, ‘colonialist’ as I use it here means describing a culture through the eyes of your own.

      • John, I really appreciate your documentaries and much of what you write about. I’m just providing a critique to a public post. I’m not trying to attack you personally, or say you’re evil or anything like that; everybody has flaws, and they’re usually exposed when we open ourselves up in these mediums. Maybe you will take some of my thoughts into consideration, or maybe you will just stop posting here. Either way, good luck :)

        • To be honoust, I don’t think John writes anything from a colonial perspective. He is just writing about the innocence of a Muay Thai camp. And to be frankly, I think it’s a great post. I hope John will keep on writing what he does, because I think it is very appealing and true.

          The same innocence I have encountered during my times in Thailand. Like the boys who come straight out of school to train, or the disciplined lifestyle in which they sacrifice their spare time to train, or the fact that they raise money to help other poor people, the fact that they never fight in reallife, but are so brutal and dangerous in the ring. How they have each other to make it through the day, and the pure love for the game, since you can’t be a champion without a ton of willpower. Or the fact that some fighters do university and still have the love for fighting in their life.

          John,please keep on writing. I don’t know where the critique came from, but it looked more like a personal attack than legitimate critique.

  4. Briefly, Grime is correct in everything he said. And to my eyes he said his piece as politely as a human being possiibly could. Its not out of spite its a gentle correction to me. Believe it or not he is trying to help. But I can see by some of the retorts it would just become a long exercise in futility. If all you’ve ver had is an outsider’s skewed perspective and you religiously adhere to it, its all you’ll ever have.

    • While I see where grime is coming from, I also know that John addreses the dark side as well. If it seems overly romaticized that could just be his wordplay and writing style. He’s very descriptive in his posts but he does give both sides. Most of us love this sport and when you love something you can be honest about it but you will choose your words carefully.

      If my sister had a drug problem and chose to make her money as an escort I would describe it as such. If it was someone I didnt care about I may be inclined to describe her as a crack whore. Same difference but since she’s my sis I choose the former…..cuz i love her.
      (And for the record My sis isnt either one)

      Grime did say something about “colonialism” which in no way is polite.

  5. wow… polite discourse, don’t get that too often! At the end of the day, we want to talk about and share things that move us. John, is sharing and putting himself out there. I think he’d done an excellent job straddling the light and the dark.

    Nearly all of you who’ve commented have contributed to MMT, representing fairly diverse views and opinions. We share a love of Muay Thai, and I think we try to present it in a positive light (in our own ways).

    I welcome all of you to contribute, feel free to drop me a line if you want to put yourself out there.

    Thanks!

  6. Colonialism is a far kinder term than what could have been used. And Grime imo identified the behavior correctly and instead of using the term that would no doubt immediately identify it Grime chose the much gentler option.

  7. I didn’t respond because you said you weren’t going to anymore, and then said you were leaving the site. Also, I do enough research for school, and frankly don’t feel like going back and reading what I read, and saying what I already said. If you want to know more about my contribution to Muay Thai, you can Google ‘ Tariq Rahman Muay Thai.’ I don’t care to get into personal tiffs, but if you feel like taking shots at anything you discover, feel free. I also taught kids and adults for two years, but because of school at the moment I’m only able to get in the gym here in Eugene, OR once or twice a week, where I just try to keep my skills sharp and help guys get ready for fights. But whatever man, ain’t about me, or you, just my thoughts on your article. Good luck dude.

  8. Just to clarify, you were complaining about a website not compensating you for using your photo, and I asked you how you compensated the boy the in photo. You said you bought him a chicken drink. Nothing colonialist about that though.

  9. GorillaPalmz on

    I’ve had a good time reading this thread. I respect John very much for what he does and I’ve spent a lot of time with Grime as well, in Thailand, and I understand his perspective. John is a great writer and wants to project muaythai in a favorable light while Grime is suggesting there is more going on under the varnish of holiday training trips – I respect both of these perspectives. While I will refrain from taking sides on the issue because I think both are valid, I think most people on this site have a very, very unrealistic view of what life is like in the boxing camps.

    Fighter kids raising money for the poor? Never fighting out of the ring? Sacrifice their spare time to train? This is stereotypically naive and is, as Grime mentioned, a view of those who haven’t spent much time at the camps. It is a product of too many YouTube videos. Charity? That money has 1000x better chance going to ya baa than a donation. Fighters are generaly poor and their families are poor – I have not met any fighters who are supporting strangers on their minimal purse. (Dropping ten baht in the cup of a blind singer doesn’t count.) As far as fights, fighter kids are often picked on at school for being poor and having no real family around. Older fighters can just be plain aggressive – they are just people like any of us. Fights happen, for sure – and when not full blown fights, definitely confrontations. Free time? You may seem them as kids, but fighters are employees/servants. The camp system is the closest thing to indentured servitude I have personally seen. There are gym owners who more or less nice about it, but it is what it is. And this is exactly Grime’s point: does reporting on muaythai only in a positive yet incomplete light present the sport as something other than it really is?

    At the same time, I understand where John is coming from. He writes to support the sport and I think he does great work. There are enough people in the community who couldn’t give a damn about what is going on in Thailand or the boxing gyms there and while simultaneously reaping the benefits of being associated with ‘muaythai’. I feel that is wrong, and John’s work helps to bring what is going on in the motherland of the sport to light. It’s a labor of love for him. And, if nothing else, John is entitled to poetic license to describe what he enjoys about the sport.

    I understand both parties involved. I think we all, not just John, come with a rather western value system and unconsciously apply our values to the muaythai world. John as set up an organisation that helps buy shoes and other things to help some camps out. Grime has given his time in Thailand to teach English as a certified teacher to Thai boys at a certain gym. Others are out there doing their part as well. We all do our part for the sport in different ways. I think we all see John’s side of things. As for Grime’s, why don’t you imagine this piece that John wrote was about American boxing instead of muaythai? What would you say about that? Would you take it at face value? It’s only ignorance that would allow one to think this representation is the whole truth of the sport. If you think what John wrote about is the complete truth, that’s not his fault nor his intention, and Grime is trying to point out that’s the case.

  10. GorillaPalmz on

    At the end of the day, John and Grime, knowing both of you, you are both on the same team, though this thread would suggest otherwise. There is no rule that says we all have like each other anyway, but I think the internet is a strange place where we are both more technically connected and more personally removed than ever, and situations like this arise quite frequently. I think if you met under different circumstances, you two would probably get along. We all have different roles to play so let’s just keep our nose to the grindstone and take care of our respective business.

  11. This whole discussion is about being to positive about the life of the fighters, and if there’s one thing I learned during my stays in Thailand. is that it’s not all black&white (just to us a term). Sure, you have the kids who have been dropped in a camp by their addicted parents, but you also have the boy that was fascinated by the older guys training. Yeah, you have the alcohol drinking fighers that use their money to drink and gamble, but you also have the university student who’s got love for the game. I even encountered a kid who was fighting in Lumpinee and gave some of his purse to an orphanage.

    Anyway, John did describe the “innocense” very well. And I don’t understand what the problem is about highlighting a positive aspect of Muay Thai.

  12. John, you take the words out of my mouth. There is a time for describing the negative things, there is a time to write about the positive things. And indeed, what’s the purpose of being involved when we only see the negative?

  13. John,

    Sincerely speaking, you should listen to grime. Don’t take it as a personal attack, but as a constructive critique on your work.

    I hope you take his words to heart as his perspective is one that is all too often ignored and dismissed.

    Grime has pretty much laid out all you need to hear, but let me give you one specific example of what he is talking about. You speak from a position of privilege. And that perspective distorts things. Take the following sentences you wrote below:

    “There is a connection; as human beings we want to be happy. So when I see an eight year old fighter who has no family and sleeps under a boxing ring smile more sincerely than I’ve ever seen on the richest man I know in America, there is a powerful thing to be learned there. And at that moment we are connected. Because just as much as that kid needs what I have in life (education, job, security), I need what he has in life, which is the ability to be happy with so little.”

    This is the classic trope of the Westerner getting enlightenment from the noble other after projecting his/her experience onto theirs. Trust me, I work with refugees and I hear this story all the time.

    However, I would wager that that kid you are talking about would much rather be the richest man you know in America, than to be where he is today. This is indeed the case for most of us (including myself, I must confess).

    So you see, casting these fighters as somehow more noble (and gifted with the ability to be happy with less) is actually detrimental to forming this human connection we talk about. They essentially become the objects of our enlightenment instead of the subjects of their own life journeys.

    And it is from this latter perspective where we can start talking about the choices that they (we) make and the circumstances and conditions that allow/constrain them. Then it becomes a lot more complicated, in terms of what it is we can learn from each other.

    • This message is irrelevant.

      You talk about the fact that a kid with less is more happy than a rich man, but would he have a choice he’s much rather a rich man. Okay, so what? Does that mean that the whole equation about being poor or a being a materialistic westerner is wrong? No, it means that life has meaningful moments that a materialistic way of life can’t offer, and that’s the message. It doesn’t mean that young Thai kids in a Muay Thai camp know this themselves, but being a westerner you can comprehend this. Being a westerner, you can see the same beauty that some of the Thai people also see in Muay Thai.

      It’s something I heard Buakaw speak about several times already.

  14. I believe people who don;’t understand this article, have a very one-sided view of what Muay Thai is. They generally say that is me who hasn’t been in Thailand long enough to comprehend, but I believe it is you (people with one-sided view) that have a picture that is to black and white, since they translate their view on their own western ideas, instead of viewing a story based on the perception as a human being. The thing about Thai people, and all people around the world, is that we are not so different. There are things that drive us, not by materialitic motives, but by the way they inspire our heart, and do so for other people as well.

  15. It’s the fact that Buakaw chose to live with his family in Surin. Allthough, everyone thought he must be living in a mansion. Widen your view!

  16. Surin,

    That’s very nice and all, but you missed my point.

    Let me quote you down here:

    “Life has meaningful moments that a materialistic way of life can’t offer, and that’s the message. It doesn’t mean that young Thai kids in a Muay Thai camp know this themselves, but being a westerner you can comprehend this.”

    This is exactly the patronizing attitude I am trying to highlight in this article, and consequently, in your response. Your message sounds very nice, and I’m not saying it’s wrong.

    My point is that it’s a story you tell from your own privileged perspective, and in doing so you appropriate the voice of the people you are talking about. Like I said, this is dangerous because it makes them objects of your own enlightenment rather than the subjects of their own lives.

    • Ok, this is a late reaction, but I would like to adress your critique. Don’t know if you will ever read it, but nevertheless, here it goes.

      “Life has meaningful moments that a materialistic way of life can’t offer, and that’s the message. It doesn’t mean that young Thai kids in a Muay Thai camp know this themselves, but being a westerner you can comprehend this.”

      What I understand about this is the following: Thai kids enjoy themselves in their simple lifestyle they have, without contemplating about it. As a westerner, you have a point of reference in seeing this beauty in reference to a western lifestyle. The Thai kids don’t see this beauty in a reference to a western lifestyle BUT that doesn’t mean they are not enjoying this beauty or are not aware of it. That’s why I got Buakaw as an example, because it’s this simplicity and beauty he talks about himselve:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ooLVLJgYun4
      from 06:38

      I guess this shows that Thai fighters can value this beauty and can be aware of it, allthough it wouldn’t necessairily be in reference to a western lifestyle. SO, as a westerner it’s more easy to see this contrast. Again, I think it’s dangerous to make a distinction in Thai people and western people, whereas we should view all humans beings as similar, driven by the same motivations. It’s only the point of reference that differs..

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