I am in the back of a pick-up truck on one of the hottest days I’ve ever endured. I am drenched in sweat, and yet am shivering. I have vomited eight times in the last two hours; behind bushes, in filthy bathrooms, and in plastic bags when no alternatives present themselves.
I suffer through this transit because I know it will come to an end at some point in the next six or so hours, and I am on my way to a Thai cooking course on a sustainable farm outside the city. I can’t currently imagine preparing food much less ingesting it, but I must tolerate this penance.
But first let me tell you how I got here.
This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
In Thailand, Muay Thai Boxing is a national sport and popular pastime. Upon arrival in Chiag Mai, still jaded by Bangkok but eager to turn over a new leaf outside of the city, we are informed of an Authentic Muay Thai boxing match that is taking place this evening. It is a very important regional championship tournament; a big deal. How lucky we are to have an opportunity to see such a piece of authentic Thai culture on our very first night in Chiang Mai!
We arrive that night at a boxing ring in an open square surrounded by bars, deep in the nightclub district (which seems to be invisibly connected with the red light district). Promises of a “cabaret” performance are met with “lady-boys” (Thai gentlemen very adeptly dressed as women – a common phenomenon in Chiang Mai especially) periodically performing lightly choreographed dances to popular drag queen songs.
We are immediately ushered to the very front row at the edge of the boxing ring. Seating is quite comfortable, and somewhat unsurprisingly occupied by nothing but tourists. We resign ourselves to the fact that our dollars are paying for this “championship fight”, and we wait for lower-paying Thai people to fill in the rest of the seats. And to some extent, this eventually does happen. To some extent.
To pass the time before the first fight, we decide to immerse ourselves further in this authentic Thai experience by ordering a bottle of authentic Thai Whisky. We consider ourselves to be amateur Scotch aficionados at home, and so to sample Thai comparatives is a treat.
Of course it isn’t exactly of the caliber of what we drink straight from Scotland (or even Canada), but the sweet aroma and pleasant bite does the trick for our small group in attendance. Bottoms up.
When the tournament begins, we are somewhat surprised to see two boys who are well under 10 years old enter the ring.
I must pause at this point in the story to plead my case against being here at all. I am not a fan of boxing or fighting of any kind. Although I appreciate the strategy, skill, and fitness required of boxers around the globe, I don’t appreciate two people beating the crap out of each other for other people’s viewing pleasure. So much so in fact, that I was perfectly prepared to give this event a miss entirely. But at the last minute, I caved into a self-propagated sense of guilt for missing something so culturally important and educational.
And so back to our evening, and watching two tiny boys enter the ring.
The ceremony that precedes every fight is actually quite interesting. A semi-choreographed dance to live music takes place, as each boxer delves inwards and seems to implore their spiritual powers to guide them through the fight.
Ding! And so the fight begins. The referee, towering over the two boys, gives the signal to start.
Muay Thai boxing employs the use of kicks, knees, punches, and a few wrestling maneuvers. The children, obviously trained but still grasping the strategy that takes years to learn, almost immediately find themselves in a stronghold, trying to use their knees to get points by nailing each other’s ribs or groin areas. The ref periodically breaks them apart, only for them to repeat the same pattern. Occasionally one gets a good punch to the head, meeting with the cheers of supporting audience members.
Each boy has a conglomerate of Thai supporters in their corner, cordoned off from the rest of the audience – being of course, tourists.
Between rounds, each boxer retreats to their corner to be pampered, stretched, coached, and watered down by their team. They quite obviously take this very seriously, and we feed on the energy.
Enter the lady-boys from stage left to perform another dance.
Order another bottle of whisky. Bottoms up.
I truly don’t know how I feel about little children boxing in this manner. They are unprotected. No head gear, no pads, and only possibly a jock strap. I feel upset about the cognitive impairment these children will experience growing up with a lifetime of punches to the head.
But this is Thai culture. They are representing their families, and some sort of pride (and possibly income) is involved. I can do nothing to change what I am seeing, only appreciate the differences in culture. And make a mental note never to attend another Muay Thai tournament.
With each subsequent match, the boxers in question get older. Some are boys, and some even girls. With age, the skill levels and strategies improve. And with each round, our sobriety lessens.
All of a sudden, surrounded by music, lights, sounds, and being sprayed with the sweat of boxers, we realize that the formally dressed referees are gone. There is no judging panel any longer. The boxers are adults, but are not dressed in the same regalia as their younger predecessors, and nobody is in their corner coaching and watering them down between rounds. And all the Thai spectators and supporters are gone.
Apparently the authentic championship boxing tournament was one of children, not adults. The adults boxing in front of us are entirely for show.
Bottoms up. Time to go.
The streets of Chiang Mai seem to look the same. Wandering earlier in the day, we easily found ourselves lost, searching for non-existent street signs and trying to discern our location on our badly photocopied map.
If during the day the streets of Chiang Mai blend into one another, then at night they are entirely indistinguishable, especially with a number of authentic Thai whiskies in us. We wander around and around the empty streets, looking for some clue that we are going in the right direction, but recognizing nothing.
Finding anybody at this hour, much less somebody who speaks English and can direct us to our guesthouse is a challenge. And so we wander, and wander, and wander, taking in this authentic Thai experience for all it’s worth.
A walk that should have taken 10 minutes takes over an hour and a half. Every member of our group is tired and frustrated, having argued much of the way home, feeling somewhat “taken” by the boxing experience, and all of us quite drunk.
We later understand the inherent risks of what we did. We were wandering around late at night, in a city we barely knew our way around on a good day, much less while drunk. We may as well have had a giant bulls-eye on us; we were certainly a target for anybody to take advantage of us. What we had on our side was power in numbers, and a certain degree of physical size and strength (myself aside). I don’t know if Chiang Mai is generally a safe city to wander around in at night, but on this night we find no trouble to speak of.
Ah well. Lesson learned. Home safely. Off to bed. Tomorrow, we meet our teachers and travel to the farm for a three day cooking course.
Arising in the morning to a crushing headache, I have to wonder if the cooking course will actually happen for us. Anybody who knows me understands the meaning of this statement. I tend to have epic hangovers. Actually they are not hangovers – I think they are allergies; my body rejecting the poison that certain forms of alcohol seem to be for me. And although at home Scotch doesn’t present a problem for me, in Thailand I am quite apparently not impervious to Whisky.
Having been through these hangovers more than a few times (sadly – you would think I could learn this lesson once and for all), I immediately understand what the day has in store for me. Constant vomiting, sweats, weakness, and general agony for six to fourteen hours.
I know it will end; that I simply have to endure the day. The cooking course was pre-reserved, and a pivotal reason for our trip to Chiang Mai in the first place. If I could drag myself (with Kelly’s incredible support, both moral and physical) to the rendezvous point and onwards to the farm, I would be sufficiently recovered in time for dinner, and the following day of culinary adventures.
And so we come full circle to being in the back of a pick-up truck, vomiting, coming in and out of consciousness, and generally wishing I was dead. I do not travel to get drunk, and to effectively ruin entire days following with body-crushing illness.
It is here in this truck that a decision is made in light of our whisky-drinking extravaganza at a Muay Thai tournament in Thailand: I shall never drink again. I truly appreciate a glass of wine at dinner with the best of them, but it is quite obvious to me that the wine does not appreciate me in the same manner.
I bid adieu to two things on this day: alcohol, and “authentic” Muay Thai boxing championship tournaments. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I shall never grace a Muay Thai boxing ring again; I only hope that I can hold to the second part of my vow.