An MMA Photographer in Thailand: Journal Entry #2

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BY JACOB KLENSIN

So, my trip is about to hit the half way point and I figured it was about time to let the Fight Nerd and all the readers here know what I’ve been up to. The trouble is, the intention of these postings, as opposed to others that I may put up throughout the internet, is supposed to be to write about the “other” side of this trip.

I am attempting to write about and include all the non particularly fight related things here and share with you the somewhat lesser known sides to traveling around Thailand and training and photographing Muay Thai. Problem is, where I am, Muay Thai is everything, and I really don’t do much else. If you are interested in hearing those Muay Thai related stories, thoughts, and experiences, please check out figureoffighting.com, where I am of course writing more about that specifically. I will first bring you up to speed. Since my previous post I have left Bangkok and am now about six hours north, in Buriram, at Camp Lookchaomaesatong.

This region, and this camp in particular has produced numerous, if not countless Muay Thai champions and legends. One of those is Coban, who just opened a camp in New York, but was the head instructor at Daddis Fight Camps in Philly when I started training there. I was somewhat nervous coming here, cause even though I’ve done more than my fair share of travel, the night before heading up here I had a pack of expats marveling at my adventurous nature for coming to Thailand for the first time and heading to Buriram.

That combined with the brooding and silent stares of the man I was told would be my trainer, a somewhat large man, which is rare for a Thai, was at first making me reconsider the length of time I planned to spend here. I’m glad I didn’t though. While I’m looking forward to my easy living down in Phuket, up heres pretty calm and casual as well.

To get here I piled into a pickup (the front part, not the exciting part) with a number of people from the camp who had been in Bangkok and arrived here late at night. Besides being mocked for having a hard time deciding weather to use chop sticks, fork, or spoon for each element of our meal during the one stop, and seemingly always picking the wrong one of the three, the ride was uneventful. I arrived in what people here refer to as “real” Thailand late that night and found that the house I am staying in, directly across the street from the camp, is beautiful, I have my own room, has internet, and a French fighter who speaks english staying in the room next to mine. I expected… none of these.

Buriram is nice and fairly easy going. We are in what is considered to be Buriram city, but I would perhaps use the word “town” more appropriately. Although if we’re using all the surrounding villages (the ones as close as a mile away from the camp) as a point of comparison, than city it is. But its nice, fairly quiet, in the non-literal sense of the word. Literally speaking there is the frequent sound of poorly maintained scooters passing by, and the much more frequent, if not constant sounds of dogs barking/crying/howling, or making somewhat indistinguishable noises. The dogs here, believe it or not, seem to have it rougher than those in Bangkok, and make the morning runs somewhat interesting.

I’m confronted with occasionally odd and uncomfortable sights while running in Philly, but dogs that look like they get hit by cars more often than they eat, doesn’t tend to be one of them. I love dogs, so my skittishness is mixed with sadness and sympathy, bur when i’m a few miles from the camp and being chased by a mentally unstable and physically unhealthy dog, thats not the time for me to solve the animal crisis around here. Besides, some of them are just straight up bums, and if you give them any money, they’ll probably just blow it all on fancy accessories.

My days here generally consist of the following: I wake up early and train, fairly casually for somewhere around two hours. Me and Pierre (thats really his name, i didn’t just pick one that sounded French) eat the absurdly large breakfast that is waiting for us back at the house. I drink coffee on the porch, I do some work, maybe go get a massage, and take a nap. And regarding the massage, I will quickly head off any joke, questions, or assumptions, and say no, not “that” kind of massage. Just a good old fashion innocent Thai massage. We usually go see a blind man named Pitchet, and if your ever in the area I highly recommend it. Its very much worth the three dollars an hour that it will cost you.

Sometime around 4:30 I train again for 2-3 hours, eat a huge dinner, get some work done, and fall asleep. I would never imply that the life of a Thai fighter in Buriram is easy or comfortable, however the life of a foreigner here to photograph and train for only a brief period of time…not so bad. As much as its nice to seek out that “true” Muay Thai experience and live like the fighters, and do what they do, all of which might not seem to be the case for me, I’ve realized that its more or less impossible to really gain that experience. That is of course unless you went through puberty while living at a Muay Thai camp and having had dozens of pro fights under your belt.

You can’t really visit that true Thai fighter experience, because part of it is growing up as a fighter. And these kids at the camp here, are definitely that. Theres an eleven year old kid here who has had over forty fights already, and his older brother has already had over a hundred. Their little brother is two and cries until someone picks him up and puts him in the ring. I’ve never even fought, and really only train as an extension of my photographic work. So I’ll never really know what these kids go through, no matter how I spend my days and nights while here, but I’ll continue to do my best as a documentarian and watch, observe, interact and capture.

The other night four of the kids from the camp fought at what was basically an orgy of public events. It was as though they decided it was best to do everything at once and in one place, so it felt like I was at a flea market, circus, fair, concert, outdoor movie, name any other large public outdoor festive event, and Muay Thai fights. Me and two of the other foreigners were the only white people there and while non of us speak or understand much Thai we were able to consistently recognize the words for foreigners and the name of our trainer (Namkabuan, who’s a bit of a local legend) coming from the announcer over the microphone. The entire night I had this insane back and forth between feeling like I was in an incredibly natural and familiar setting (photographing fights) to realizing the more exact details of my surroundings.

There was no back room or even tent to warm up, which is ok, cause Thai’s don’t warm up, just a bamboo mat, that they brought, where the fighters wrap their own hands and then get massaged with layers of liniment oil. I’ll be honest watching a large crowd of people surrounding a ring with kids, sometimes as young as seven or eight, fight it out with full kicks, knees and elbows, with no protective gear other than the gloves and a cup, all shouting their bets and cheering them on, sometimes felt weird.

But those kids were tough, and the fights were good, and being in the corner was one of the most exciting places I’ve ever been. Besides, who am I to judge, I went to a cockfight today. And that, is how you transition into telling the story about the time you went to a cockfight.

I had been told you could see them around here, and so last night, at the camp BBQ we had, I asked my trainer when and where. He responded more excitedly than I had expected, and said we would go in the morning. And I will pause here to say that I am in no way drawing comparisons between cockfights and the competitive fighting that I photograph and work with. I would never do so, and I think it takes hugely blind leaps in logic and critical thinking to do so, and is unspeakably disrespectful to the fighters, their martial arts, and their sports. It just happens to be one of the only things I’ve done here not directly related to Muay Thai. And who doesn’t want to hear about someones first cockfight?

So this morning I was just doing work on the porch like most mornings, when he began hurriedly telling me that it was time to go. I am well aware that cockfighting, and my decision to go to a cockfight, is morally questionable, but I’m a real sucker for anecdotal value and experience, as well as being in what some would call less than desirable settings. It was pretty close to everything I could have hoped and imagined.

We arrived at the covered lot which was full of people preparing their roosters while others toured the area and I assume scoping out where to place their bets. There were a lot of intricacies that escaped me, like the hot gluing of addition feathers to their wings, or sticking a feather down their throat and twisting it around, but I felt as though questions would get me no where. The lot had a number of small circular rings set up throughout, and in the center, a much larger one, surrounded on the first level with stadium style seats, and then three levels of circular bleachers and a standing area up top. And to complete the effect, yes, it was caged in.

The main stage. We got in just in time for the first fight and got ourselves some good seats. From there it was pretty classic cockfight. The only thing missing really was wads of money being waved around. Instead it was just hand signals and shouting and then writing bets down in the small notepad your provided with when entering the main stage. I was tempted to wave some money around myself, in the traditional underground gambling manner, but felt like my unique skin pigmentation, national origin, grasp of the english language, and camera in hand, really made me stand out enough as it was. The whole environment was a bit less stabby than I would have imagined my first cockfight to be, but thats most likely what allowed me to photograph the experience, so I’ll take it.

I’m not sure how much else there really is to report for now. I’d love to talk about what I’ve been eating, but I really have no idea what any of it is. So I guess I’ll end on the cockfighting story, I suppose thats as strong a point as any. In a few days I’ll pass back through Bangkok on my way to Phuket, the “not real” Thailand where I’ll be spending the remainder of the trip. Thanks again for checking this out, and as always thanks to The Fight Nerd for encouraging me to take a breather here and there and share the simpler things from this adventure of mine.

Don’t forget to keep an eye on figureoffighting.com for more photos and writing from this trip as well as links to all the great places that my work can be found. Until next time…

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