An MMA Photographer in Thailand: Journal Entry #1

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BY JACOB KLENSIN

There is something immediately nostalgic about stepping out of the climate controlled comfort of air travel and into that uniquely tropical night time heat. It unites locations all over the world within a given distance to the equator. In my own experience it makes Bangkok reminiscent of Ghana which brought back memories of Venezuela. I’m no stranger to travel, and to be coy, I’ve done some crazy shit.

But I’m not here to talk about my two-week camel trek in Niger, or the time I got lost for four days in Burkina Faso, or my run-ins with the law in South America. I’ve moved beyond these things and I am now a documentary photographer, focused on capturing combat sports, who just landed in Thailand on a mission to begin capturing the true root and essence of Muay Thai. But as grown up as that sounds, I’m still a late twenty’s guy who lives in Philly and works as a bicycle mechanic to supplement the frequently un-lucrative career as a photographer, in Thailand for a month. So lets not get the impression that its all business. And even though I do plan to stay as busy and productive as I can, theres always the little things, the intricate details of a combat sports photographer traveling in south east Asia, that most won’t see in my hopefully glorious images showing true Muay Thai.

Oh, and I’ll be training too, which I’m sure will provide a number of entertaining anecdotes considering the training will most likely be years beyond my level of skill, experience and athleticism. You see I’ve never been much of an athlete and certainly not a fighter for that matter, but became curious about training once I began photographing fighters. I only began training Muay Thai regularly about seven months ago, so I can’t wait to tell as many people as I can about getting my ass kicked in training or throwing up half way through a run. I’m terrible at running.

So I’ve linked up with The Fight Nerd to bring you some of the gory details. Some will be fight related to varying degrees, others might be what I ate, (that is if I’m able to figure out what it was), but they will all be the reflections and stories of a fight photographer in Thailand. By the way, my name is Jacob Klensin, and my project is called “The Figure of Fighting”, and this will be the side of it that few have yet to see.

So where was I? Oh yeah, the heat, it’s hot here. And its that kind of heat that just doesn’t exist even on the hottest day in the northeast. Its that still, calm heat, that makes your clothes feel like you’ve been sweating in them for days before even putting them on. I certainly hope I’m not the only one who’s clothes feel that way in this kind of heat. I realize how gross it sounds as I write it and acknowledge that it would be a poor way to introduce myself to a new audience.

But I was told to keep it casual, so I will assume you all know the feeling. Bangkok isn’t what I expected in a few ways. The drive from the airport to hotel at midnight reminded me a lot of Mexico City. I think theres something, other than the weather, that unites well developed cities in otherwise fairly poor and underdeveloped countries. The smallest details seem similar, down to the constructions of basic infrastructure that one might not notice until its seen repeatedly in otherwise disconnected cities throughout the world. Or if your an observational photographer frequently obsessed with and overwhelmed by human infrastructure, which i’m aware most people are not.

By day I was well aware that I was a good bit further from the American border and considered the possibility that the similarities may have been somewhat credited to the twenty-four hour trip and twelve hour time difference. But Bangkok still wasn’t what I expected, and I realized quickly that I really should have known better. I was told by a friend who has lived in Thailand for a number of years now that Bangkok is as crazy or as not crazy as you want it to be. The seedy underworld frequently highlighted in films seems to be just that, an underworld.

On the surface its much like many other major cities, and if anything its remarkably clean, especially considering I can never find a trash can. There are lots of stray animals, but they are generally cute and too exhausted from the heat to be anything but. There are a lot more of two things here than I thought there would be, white people and 7-11’s. There are a lot of both, and maybe I should be focused on other things considering its my first time on this side of the world, but I continuously find it intriguing. I guess who wouldn’t want a slurpee in weather like this?

As clean, well developed, and accessible by public transport as this city is, there are always those little reminders that you are in Thailand. Its those little details like the never ending unrecognizable street food, or the fact that I don’t normally communicate mainly through pantomime, or maybe when your taxi doesn’t slow down for the elephant crossing the road. Oh yeah, two nights ago my taxi barely even slowed down for the elephant crossing the road, and I’m still in the city. So despite being contrary to certain expectations, or reminding me of other parts of the world in light of jet lagged delirium, there is no denying that I am here in Thailand. And its been moving fast.

It’s been less than a week and I’ve already photographed and trained at Fairtex in Bangplee. I think they were going easy on me, cause even though my entire body hurts to move, I can still move. I’ve seen fights twice already. Once outdoors in front of a mall, one of the very fancy ones in fact right in the center of downtown. Imagine that MMA fans back home. The others were at the legendary Lumpini stadium, which with the exception of the overwhelming presence of tourist, was everything I had hoped and expected. Not arena sized by any means, but as energetic as any sold out 20,000 seater, cooled only by fans and with the top level separated by the rest by an eight foot high fence housing the bulk of the gambling.

The ground level was the ringside level and access there allowed you full entry to the backstage area where the fighters had their hands wrapped, were massaged with liniment oil and warmed up. It was also an area frequently mobbed with sight seers posing for photos with the fighters like they were in a super hero costume in front of the chinese theater in Hollywood. Although I really am in no place to speak too poorly of the tourist visiting the stadium considering I’m almost as white as most of them, just as western and had about 10 pouches on my belt each full of various camera gear. But hey, thats what I do.

Tomorrow I head about six hours north of the city to an area that most people who know the country raise their eyebrows and say that I’m about to see some “real” Thailand, if not Cambodia, which it borders. I have only suspicions as to what that means, but I’m looking forward to finding out. I’ll let you all know as soon as I do. So this is just the start, an introduction of sorts.

I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface during these first few days here, and especially in this brief writing. Trust me, theres a lot more to come. So check back, let us know what you think, and I’ve already had one fighter request video of me eating the weirdest things I can find, and being that I’m a sucker for challenges, lets keep those to a minimum. I want to thank the Fight Nerd for collaborating with me on this, and you all for reading it.

Stay posted, more of the miscellaneous adventures of a combat sports photographer in Thailand coming soon! You can learn more about Jacob on his website as well!

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