Preface: It feels ODD to be posting my remaining blogs for Thailand, Japan, and India (around 9 months after they happened – though I was about 3 months behind on blogs at that time, so really only half a year late to post these, right?). Anyway, I would’ve done it sooner, but my Bonderman journey took a slight detour (not even a detour really, since I was still abroad and still growing/learning/evolving). So not really a detour, but a sharp turn resulted in me shelving the blogging after April. The past summer and fall were occupied with applying to schools and some other things that I’ll expand on in later posts. But now, I’m finally able to look back on the unpublished months of my Bonderman experience, process them, and post them. I believe it’s a good exercise in follow-through and resilience to finish this, and that is my driving force. Thank you for reading, here’s Thailand:
Muay Thai training has been, in two words, a lot. I live in the gym’s designated dormitory with the others who are training. Some are Thai and some are traveling around, like me. Twice a day, two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, we practice in the open air gym. It is conveniently situated: the Chiang Mai Old City is an easy 20 minute walk away but far enough for us to be pleasantly removed from the bustle and dust.
I’ve been in a scrappy mood lately, so a few weeks of punching and kicking stuff is exactly what I need.
A recap of my progress: The first day I was good. Second day I was okay. Third day I sucked. Today I was simply average. There’s an assortment of food stalls near the gym to choose from for lunch. At night, we get dinner and go shopping around the Night Bazaar where there’s usually live music.
Scorpions on a stick, found near the Night Bazaar
The gym owner and head coach Prasit seems tough, but he has two dogs that wander around while we train, and one time, one of them ran away for three days, and Prasit cried the whole time she was gone. When she finally came back home, he immediately bought both dogs tracking-device-implanted collars. He’s a big softy underneath all that lethal muscle.
The days have started to blur together: wake, train, shower, eat, hang out, train, shower, eat, hang out, sleep. My body is splotchy with all the hematomas I’ve sustained from being kicked/punched and from kicking/punching.
Ping, one of the Thai girls training at the gym, is going to be in a professional fight tonight. She’s 16. I feel a bit guilty; training for me is recreational and by choice, but Ping told us that her parents want her to fight to bring in money for their family. Her story isn’t uncommon; children start training early and often forgo school to help support their families financially. Most professional fighters come from disadvantaged backgrounds. This knowledge is making me take my time spent in the gym very seriously.
Ping won! To celebrate, we turned in early after a big glass of warm milk so we could train on our day off.
Jk, they all got hammered.
The fights were really cool to witness even though I had some trouble with the violence of it all. Before it began, the fighters performed a ceremonial dance in the ring. Some of them wore headpieces that had been blessed for good luck. The rhythmic pre-ritual and fight music, Sarama, which is played on percussive instruments and oboes was almost hypnotic; I felt like I was in a trance the whole time. Every time one of the fighters was on the verge of striking, the music would speed up dramatically which intensified the viewing experience. At the end, the opponents bowed to each other. So respectful after annihilating one another.
I cannot fathom striking with speed and force like the kind I saw in those fights. It was important to me to try Muay Thai because I’m not so formidable physically. Sure my brain is synaptic enough, but in regards to brute strength and defending myself, I have never been completely confident. I really felt this deficiency in Morocco. Muay Thai is about turning the entire body into a weapon and shield. Though, I’m focusing more on the shield part.
Fight night highlights
All the people here are getting pretty close. Having identical schedules for weeks helps with the bonding I guess. There’s Nick, the Italian sailor who is unflappably laid back at all times. He told us an incredible story of how he was sailing alone once and fell from the mast, breaking his back, and had to sail back to the mainland. Probably something like fracturing his spine and almost dying in the middle of the ocean but somehow still maintaining his grip on life so he could steer his boat to safety must’ve made him super chill. He is always doling out nuggets of wisdom like, “sometimes you have to break to become stronger” (well, my hands and feet felt so broken today that I skipped afternoon practice…oops). Adrian is from London, and I’m giving him guitar lessons in exchange for extra help in training since he is pretty good. Sas is from Canada, and her female friendship is much needed. I’m working on getting to know the others better.
Exploring new places in Chiang Mai; the last picture is of a fairytale-esque garden cafe called Chom.
Not wanting to be a total slob for missing training, I visited Wat Umong, a 700-year old Buddhist temple to the west of the Old City. It is Chiang Mai’s only forest temple, and the monks that live there feed the wildlife that meander through the grounds. It is my kind of temple. There was a vast collection of damaged Buddhist and Hindu effigies of unknown origins. Being amongst the crumbling sculptures with hundreds of the “venerable one’s” stone eyes on me, I felt at ease.
After wandering further on, I came across a dark, underground tunnel complex. According to some legends, the subterranean network was built by an old king to accommodate a well-known and perhaps eccentric monk, Therachan, who they believed was wont to wander off the premises and into the forest unexpectedly. You and me both, Therachan.
They say you repeatedly kick in order to deaden the nerves in those areas and make your bones stronger through direct blunt force trauma. It seems a bit much to me, but that’s probably because my shins feel like splintered shards of glass grinding against my skin right now.
I’m getting a little restless at the thought of staying in the same place for so long. It doesn’t help my outlook that my body feels more like a conglomeration of bruised organs than anything else.
Thai food is amazing, but sometimes it can be a little too sugary for my taste. I went to a restaurant called Aba for lunch and asked if they could make me a vegetarian curry that wasn’t sweet. The owner scrunched his eyebrows together in thought and said, “I’ll come up with something really special for you!” This frightened me a bit, but I remained open-minded. When the dish came, he explained the soft tofu and extra veggies he put in. And “no sugar at all,” he said proudly. I took a bite; it was perfect.
Just got a Thai massage, and it was unlike any massage I’ve ever had before. I did some reading about it before and learned that traditional Thai massage was influenced by Indian, Chinese, and other South Asian practices, and incorporates acupressure and assisted yoga poses. You remain dressed in loose clothing, and the massage is given on a cushioned mat on the floor.
All I know is that it felt like the masseuse (or “giver”) disconnected every one of my limbs and joints from their sockets before kneading and rocking them back into place. Bones I didn’t know I had were cracked. It was amazing. I feel like a jellyfish right now. Why haven’t I been doing this every day?
I’ve become a regular at Aba; I always ask for my special dish. Sometimes, the owner will come out and say he “changed something” and ask if I like it. I always do.
Instead of heading to the Night Bazaar with the group after training, Sas and I went to a Jazz Co-op to hear the talented musicians of Chiang Mai play.
Also, I learned today that some Thai toilets have hoses for your butt. They call them bum-guns. I’m too scared to touch them.
My restlessness and desire to get in a whole month of Japan has won out, so later I’m going to take a bus to Bangkok after saying goodbye to everyone at the gym. I really do feel more confident in my abilities to defend myself now. I don’t think another week of training would make a huge difference in my abilities, but leaving now will give me time to meaningfully explore new places. I’d need months I can’t give right now to accrue the benefits I’m seeking from Muay Thai. Hopefully I can continue learning it more longterm when I return home.
Taken by my friend and fellow trainee, Mara, at the Happy Sheep Cafe, my happy place in Chiang Mai
Bangkok is suffocating. It’s too hot. I’m dying. I planned my Bonderman trip to visit most countries in their colder/late Fall/Winter seasons. Southern Vietnam, Thailand, and India were the main exceptions, places where the heat was unavoidable. But even those I tried to mitigate by training in Northern Thailand and leaving humid Ho Chi Minh City for cooler Ha Giang ASAP. I’m going to move to Alaska one day. Or Siberia.
My flight to Tokyo is later tonight/early tomorrow morning, so I have the whole day to spend in Bangkok. Earlier, I played a game where every time I saw a 7/11, I’d duck in for the A/C and to avoid heat stroke. Khaosan Road, one of the city’s main attractions, was pretty crowded and full of souvenir stalls so I hung out at the Phra Sumen Fort instead. It was by the water and there was a nice park to enjoy the mango smoothie I’d gotten to deter dehydration.
Phra Sumen Fort
I passed by another temple, and it makes me consider the duality of Thailand: on the one hand, Buddhism, which teaches non-violence, is the predominant religion and highly integrated into the social fabric of the nation. On the other hand, the combat sport Muay Thai is a prevalent part of Thai culture too, and though it held many purposes historically and today, it is, ultimately, “fighting.” There are nuances to both, but it’s an interesting contradiction to contemplate. At least while I’m waiting five hours to head to the airport.
My one regret about Thailand (besides not getting more Thai massages and not being able to train longer) is that I didn’t get to have little fishies eat the dead skin off my feet till they were soft and smooth like I saw other people doing in Chiang Mai. Next time.
Japan post coming soon…