Dark Roads – Driving Lost in Thailand
Kevin and I are looking for my fight. It’s early still, so we have time, but I have a growing nervousness in my stomach as we wind down ever-darkening roads with fewer and fewer streetlights. I actually love looking for fights like this. We get out in the country roads and they’re just so dark and there’s nothing on either side except a few banana tree groves and enormous rice fields that seem to stretch into forever. But how can you know? You can barely see 10 feet in any direction.
The road signs give warning of bends in the road, but you can’t see them, even as you’re right upon them. It helps when a motorbike or car is in front of you, so you can watch the red taillights trace the road in front of you, but you don’t always get that. The scary parts are the ghost cars, these trucks and little motorbikes with sidecars that don’t have lights on them, so you can’t see them at all until you’re right up on it. Kevin and my hearts jumped as we saw the single red eye of a motorbike swerve over to the right (into the oncoming lane) to go around a little cart that you couldn’t have seen from even 3 feet away, carrying the driver (on the motorbike) and three old ladies (seated around the side cart). It feels like we never would have been able to avoid them without that motorbike having swerved. You can come up behind trucks that are invisible, moving slowly along the road all cloaked in darkness and silence.
“Jesus!” Kevin exclaimed, as he also swerved around the cart.
“I guess when you live out here and drive these roads, you know to look for that kind of thing,” I offer. There are searchlights stretching into the sky from what seems like nowhere, and as we follow the curves and turns of the road they are right in front of us, then to our left, then behind us. Whoever paved these roads must have been moving around something, but in the darkness there’s no way of guessing what that was, or when that was. This promoter never gives me good directions for where the venue is. Part of that is that these are temporary rings set up in the very same type of fields we’re driving through now, but usually they’re connected to a temple, which are social hubs and centers for the locals and far ranging gamblers alike. I have the name of the town, Takop, and a text message from the promoter telling me that the “contact point” is what appears to be a large body of water on the map. So, I make a guess that it’s at the dam, because there’s no other landmark on the map around that water, other than the water itself. Also, the translation of the Thai for “contact point” is very unclear. It means to touch, like physical contact, but it also means to make contact, like who you call for a job. So, I’m not sure if he’s saying to just put that huge mass of water as a landmark into my map as the general direction of where I’m headed, or if he means that’s the actual contact point for finding this venue. And he’s not answering his phone.
Kevin reassures me that we have plenty of time and, honestly, I’ve been lost and literally in the middle of rice fields, trying to back the car up so we can get back to a main road, when trying to find this promoter’s venues so I’m pretty calm about it. We can even be lost a good hour into start time and they’ll just have to move my fight. It’s no problem. I remember riding in the back of the O. Meekhun truck with Phetjee Jaa, back when I trained at her gym, looking for the venue where she was a highlight fight. It was one of the last fights she had against a boy. I just assumed that Thais know where they are going, but when we were looking for the venue, in broad daylight, we had to stop and ask a half-dozen people where it was and everyone gave somewhat vague, albeit confident, directions. So, the point of that story is that Kevin and I aren’t lost just because we’re falang, we’re lost because that’s how you find these fights.
Thank God my Thai is getting better. Not only so that I can understand when people are talking to me, but also because it gives me enough confidence to even ask. We approach a 4-way stop and there are streetlights down the road that goes left to right, but nothing straight ahead. Our map tells us to go right, toward the dam, but the three cars in front of us all turn left. That suggested to me we were doing something wrong, but I only had this one location to try, since the promoter had only mentioned this big lake as a reference point. So we go right and then there’s no cars around us anymore. About 3 kilometers down the road I see a motorbike with very dim lights parked almost in the middle of the road. I slap Kevin’s arm and say, “watch out,” which is never helpful. He never knows what to watch out for, whether to slow down or stop or turn. There’s just so little time to say, “slow down, there’s a motorbike parked in the middle of the road,” when you’ve got 3 seconds to say anything. Kevin slows the car and pulls to the right to avoid the motorbike, but the real problem is actually across the street from the parked bike, where there’s a bike on its side and a group of people trying to help a young man to his feet, who clearly just skidded out on his motorbike. No helmet, just a blue and white striped T-shirt and shorts to protect him from the road. We only see them for a moment but he looks okay, more shook up than injured. On these small roads the young men will drive very fast, their brains all full of youthful indiscretion and a hunger for the thrill of living dangerously, and maybe a little more. Another thing to look out for on these dark country roads: ghost trucks that are invisible, and teenagers who think they’re invincible.
My map says we have 1 more kilometer before turning left and then we’re at the dam, but our headlights out of the dark lane we’ve been driving hit a red and white striped gate that is definitely indicating the road is closed. We pull up close enough to it that I can read the sign, which says it closed at 6 PM (it’s now 7:30) and the pale sign kind of makes me squint as I read it aloud to Kevin through the windshield. There’s a cord on the ground that my eyes trace over to the left and that’s when I notice there’s a man standing in the guard house maybe 30 feet away. He’s looking at our car and has energy in his shoulders, like he’s not sure whether he needs to come deal with us or not. I’m actually relieved to see him, which is a huge change from even a year ago, when having to ask for directions filled me with anxiety and I wished we would never run into real people and I could just let the phone tell me I’m lost over and over again. But I’m happy to see him and I grab the phone and search for the fight card that the promoter sent me, then hop out of the car to approach him. There’s a swarm of small moths in the halos of light created by our headlights and I can see the gray of the road for a few feet before stepping onto grass that appears black as tar under my feet. The cord that led me to the guard house actually connects to it, maybe a way for the guard to pull the gate closed without leaving his office, although that seems physically difficult. I wai to him as I approach and his shoulders relax a little, just because of this one gesture of Thainess that makes my foreignness slightly less bizarre to him.
Koh toht na ka, I start (“excuse me”) and I tell him I’m looking for a Muay Thai ring, then turn my phone to face him with the program already displayed. I put my first two fingers on the screen and spread them, expanding so he can see the one part of the program that kind of indicates where the venue is but is, to me, incredibly non-specific. Like, if you had a ticket for a show that just said, “Downtown,” in Manhattan, but no street numbers or address. It’ll get you near it, but not to it. The guard was in his 50’s, handsome and definitely military with his body posture. He squinted his eyes as he looked at my phone, the glow off the screen illuminating the creases and lines in his face. He smiled and showed recognition, then pointed back down the road we’d just come from. He said go back to the 4-way stop and turn right. I ask how far that is and he smiles, like he’s tickled to be having a conversation in Thai with the most alien person he’s come in contact with in this night shift in a long time. “About 4 kilometers,” he says, and when I ask if the location is far after I’ve made that right turn he shakes his head and says, “no, it’s right there.” I thank him, wai again and run back to the car, my eyes blinded by the sudden change in blackness to the headlights. There are sharp rocks lining the sides of the one-lane road, keeping drivers honest, I guess, or making it so they can’t park on the grass, but it makes turning the car around to head back a 10-point turn that I have to guide Kevin through. The guard watches from his office – probably the least efficient turning around he’s ever witnessed on this shift. Whatever; who put those damn rocks everywhere?
We head back to the 4-way stop, the accident on the road is already cleared up in just those 10 minutes, and when we turn right down the other road we feel a sense of promise because we can see those searchlights in the air again. “That’s probably it,” we say to each other. But as we follow the dark road (no streetlights in this direction) we just seem to be going farther without ever getting closer to the lights… or closer to anything, really. I look on the map, which I’ve now set to the only other part of the program I could understand, which was a serious of abbreviations that indicate a military office. It showed up on the map, but there’s no way of knowing whether the program is just telling me that the military is promoting the event or whether it’s actually on military land. So, this is another crapshoot, putting a location into the phone’s map and going toward it while also following the directions from the guard at the gate. As the road gets darker and there are only banana groves on either side, we decide to turn around and go back to the main road. At least now we’re headed in the direction that all the other cars turned when we first came to the 4-way stop and it seems like we’re headed toward more civilization for the first couple kilometers, but then it’s just blackness again. We’re getting close to the location I had on the map, which really is just trying to get us to another place with people we can ask. At the point where we’re supposed to make the only turn required before arriving at this probably-definitely-not-where-we’re-going location, I see a huge billboard on the side of the road for my fight card. It’s an enormous sign. We pull over and I get out of the car to go look at it. There are only a few lights around, none of them directly near the billboard, so it’s dim and hard to see. There’s lots of writing on the billboard, but none of it is helpful. I keep staring at it, looking for some indication of where it is. It just has the name of the town, Takop, and a promise that all the fights on the program have a side bet (that’s for gamblers), as well as a big advertisement for a stage show of music and dancing. Again, just go “Downtown.” A few cars and motorbikes whiz past me and I become very aware of how close to the road I am as I keep studying this sign. I look down the dark road in both directions and hurry across, grab the phone out of the car to take a picture of the billboard in case I can send that to the promoter as an indication of where I am, so maybe he can help me figure out where he is. As I’m crossing the street again a motorbike with three adults on it slows down to turn up the road that Kevin is parked on. The bike is so heavy with their three bodies on it that it’s just puttering along and I can call out, “Pi! Pi!” (Big Brother!) and the driver stops to look at me. I run over and ask if he knows where this event is, pointing to the billboard. The driver twists his body to try to see the board
behind him and the two other people on the bike kind of twist with him. “Oh, yeah, Takop,” they tell me. I start laughing and show them the program on my phone. Literally the only useful information is just the word Takop, which means that’s enough information for a Thai person to get close but I’m not being told to go back 4 km, which is pretty much that damn 4-way stop again. These three folks on the bike are super happy to be trying to help me – way more than I ever was trying to give directions to anyone in America, that’s for sure. They keep pointing down the road and saying it’s 4-6 km and the lady on the back most part of the bike is just saying, “Takop,” over and over again. I laugh and thank them, then get back into the car and we turn around again.
About where we started out Kevin sees a bar and makes me get out to ask there. I’m mad because I hate asking at bars – people are always super friendly but you always get, like, 5 people talking at you at once and they never fully agree with each other. It’s confusing. He pulls over onto the gravel on the side of the road and I prepare the program on the phone again before getting out, my nerves about asking here all afire. It’s super quiet where we parked, but on the other side of a van is the bar itself and I can tell it’s much louder over there. As I round the back of the car there’s a woman walking toward me and she stops and calls out to me, asking if I need help. That’s a first. I walk up to her and she approaches me at the same time and I show her the phone. I tell her I’m looking for this and she lets out a wonderful chirp of excitement as she asks, “oh! You want to go watch Muay Thai?” Yeah, I say and show her the program. I happen to have a photo on the fight list and as I’m trying to show her the top part, where it maybe has the location, she spots my sweaty, mouthpiece-goofy photo and says, “you’re not watching, you’re fighting!” I tell her yes and she gets all excited and tells me she’s going to go also. Then she points down the road – that goddamn 4-way stop again – but tells me it’s, like, 300 meters away. It’s at this moment I realize how tiny she is. She’s smaller than I am and she’s carrying this big basket of laundry that she has to kind of juggle from one side to the other and perch it on her hip so she can point with her right hand down the road. “Wat Takop,” she says. At that point I felt a pressure valve release in my chest. Why didn’t the promoter tell me it was at a temple? Sweet Jesus. I immediately type the words for the temple in Thai into my phone’s map and there it is, literally 500 meters away. I show the woman the screen and ask if it’s there. Thais don’t like maps like this and falang don’t do well with Thai maps, so there’s a pause as she looks at it but when she sees the words Wat Takop she nods and says, “yes, just past the Chinese snack shop,” (which is how Thai directions work). Then she says she’ll be over to cheer for me in just a little bit and I thank her, keep myself from kissing her on the cheek, and run back to the car to tell Kevin the good news.
We drive the short distance and see a million people to the left on a 4-way stop… but not the 4-way stop we’ve visited already now so many times. This one is just a quarter mile pasts the other one and, guess what? Those damn searchlights are the epicenter of it. Damnit. Everyone is parking on the narrow road leading to the temple (I know it’s there because temples all have these archways at the mouth of the streets that lead to them), so we park and get out to walk with the masses. We’re quite a sight: a huge westerner, a tiny westerner, and our nervous-ass dog on a leash. I’m always following the map on the phone, but like those pitch-black roads, you have to watch the red dots of the other people on that road. When everyone turns left and your map says go right, follow the people. The promoter doesn’t give me exact locations because that’s not how Thai people find anything. You’re supposed to stop and ask. You’re supposed to make contact and look where everyone else is going. There will be a crowd; follow the damn searchlights. When he sent me that huge body of water as the “contact point,” he wasn’t really wrong. That’s the first stop I got out of the car to ask anyone; that’s when my directions actually started working.
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The Perfection of Festival Fights in Thailand | A trip to the clinic to receive a boosting IV leaves me drifting through thoughts of belonging, as I listen to my kru talk about me to the nurse. read it here
Cheet Yaa – “if there were no cuts it wouldn’t be Sylvie” | A trip to the clinic to receive a boosting IV leaves me drifting through thoughts of belonging, as I listen to my kru talk about me to the nurse. read it here
Jai Rohn – My Story of Blood, My Pride and Stitches | My heart was racing, I was upset at my performance, and then there was the pain of stitches, more painful than any stitches I’ve had before. read it here