The Neighborhood – Rambaa Somdet’s Homemade Muay Thai
As I turn by motorbike onto the small side street, Soi 39, I see two little kids – maybe 5 years old – running arm and arm against some hedges taller than I am. I recognize one, a little brown-haired boy named Pepsi, both of them have these tiny white shoes that kind of flash against the dusty gray of the pavement as they run. As my motorbike pops over some overly large speed bumps and slowly swerves around roaming chickens and uncoordinated puppies in the road, I see another runner – this time an enormous Finnish man who I’ll spar with later. I pull my motorbike over onto a dirt driveway that separates the gym from a row of apartments, like a motel but typical of Thailand – just single room housing that may or may not have their own shower. From inside the room closest to the road is some recognizable Thai pop music and a young man’s voice singing out of tune and much louder than the radio. I take off my helmet and am immediately met by this enormous yellow lab; his head is twice the size of mine and he’s so dumb and wonderful. His favorite game is being chased out of the gym, although his version of running is this kind of slow lumbering movement, attributable to his sheer size. He loves me, and I love him, so we share some shoves back and forth before I give him some hard pats and head into the gym.
The gym itself is bigger inside than you’d imagine from looking at it from the outside. The whole front is chain-link, like an MMA cage, but inside everything is highlight-painted with this insane lime green color. Like, Joker’s hair kind of green. There’s a ring just inside to your right and an octagon cage beyond that. (Octagon cages are an absolute anomaly for a neighborhood gym in Thailand, like this one.) Bags line the side on the left and there are prints of a bee with its tongue sticking out on banners and the mats covering the floor. This bee is Rambaa’s caricature. He stings like a bee, so it’s fitting, but the bee with a tongue out is not nearly as comical and scary – again, a bit like the madness of the Joker – as Rambaa is. The bee has its arms bowed out, like a cartoon cowboy in the middle of a “yeee-haaaaw,” but when Rambaa does this motion it’s more of a chest out kind of strut. He’s a small man, maybe 5’4″ if you’re being generous and still very muscled, which makes him look a little stocky. But when he stands up he does so with his chest; when he takes up space, he does so with his chest; and it’s amazingly effective. You get the hell out of the way or you get walked over. How can such a tiny thing as a bee have such a nasty sting? Behind the ring is a huge chalkboard with names of the fighter’s written on it in Thai. It’s their fight schedule and when I asked Rambaa about it he gave his signature sweet smile and explained that most of the names are little kids. The three names I recognize are at the top, his fighters who are champions at the local Max Muay Thai stadium – fighters of whom Rambaa is immensely proud. But it’s the bottom of this chalkboard that catches my attention. Written in Thai, in larger letters than the rest of the board, is a series that translates like this: “not a camp; not a gym; we are a home; we are a family; we are ‘Baan Rambaa’ (the house of Rambaa)”. That, pretty much, says it all.
As I slip into the ring with Rambaa there are people everywhere. It’s almost like a stage scene, with extras appearing and disappearing from the set to express a bustling familiarity. A middle-aged woman and a young man are directly outside of the chain-link fencing in front of the ring; they’re sitting at a stone picnic table and eating from a collection of plates: spicy papaya salad, some noodles, some grilled chicken. Rambaa is teasing the woman through the fence as he organizes the pads on his forearms and starts the clock for me. We go through a round of non-stop punches and when the buzzer sounds for a break a different young man is sitting at the table, eating from the same plate of noodles, and the little kids who have been running are flush-faced and sharing cold water out of a clear plastic cup. A broom cart – this is literally a motorized cart covered in brooms and dusters that drives up and down residential streets, selling brooms – is going by when Rambaa calls out to the driver, who pulls into that dirt driveway where I parked, and Rambaa jumps out of the ring with his pads still on his forearms and buys two brooms. One is laid inside the entrance to the gym; the stick handle on it is taller than the little kids who have now kicked off their shoes and are organizing gloves from where they’re lined up inside the cage to a far end of the interior. They must do this everyday, as nobody ordered them to do it. Rambaa gets back into the ring in time for the buzzer and we start again.
The older fighters are starting to appear – the one who was singing in his room comes out in his Muay Thai shorts and hair that betrays he’s been napping not too long ago – and Rambaa doesn’t even break his rhythm on the pads as he tells one of his champions, Bowee, to get ready to do some boxing sparring with me. When Rambaa starts addressing me, however, he stops the padwork for a second to lean close to me and says, “Bowee’s got no energy; just one round and he’s finished. Kill him.” Bowee absolutely overheard this and smiles. He has a round face and a square-ish grin, which kind of makes him look like a character in a kid’s show, like a Doreamon character or something. But Rambaa trains his fighters hard, even the little babies, so they’re ruthless in the ring despite being incredibly sweet in personality. Just like Rambaa. I know that even if Bowee is about to collapse he will still give me a hard time, so I’m mentally preparing for our sparring even while finishing my pads with Rambaa. Just after the buzzer sounds I look out the front of the gym again and see an old man on a motorbike, dark skin with a white Ayutthaya haircut and long mustache – amazingly handsome in photograph from the Old West, in Sepia tone, kind of way – I wai to him and he gives me this charming smile. It’s Rambaa’s dad. He’s a surprisingly big man for Thailand and, again, almost seems like he’s a character actor in a period piece about Siam’s glory years centuries ago. Rambaa also has, at times, opted for this Handlebar Mustache, but he also shaves a bee’s stinger into the back of his otherwise bald head – a combination that expresses Rambaa in a truly wonderful way, kind of caught between the rebellious and playful teenager and the charming but strict old master. This street dead-ends in the direction the father was driving, which means he was probably going to visit the Sor. Klinmee Gym just maybe 200 feet down the road. That’s Rambaa’s uncle’s gym. This whole street is family, local kids, the ice-delivery and broom carts stopping in to do business and watch the kids train, or ask Rambaa a million questions about the falang girl (me) in the ring. He isn’t being poetic when he says this is a house and a family; or at least not only being poetic. It’s a sentiment toward his ethic of teaching, but it’s also very accurately realized by the way in which the space is inhabited by little kids, teenagers, and the neighborhood community that stops in and hangs out like an open house. Rambaa’s house.
What’s incredible is that Rambaa built this gym – this house – with his own hands. No kidding. A few years ago I’d never heard of him and happened to be at the well-established Sor. Klinmee gym just down the street. His uncle’s gym. There was a spirit house near the road (this goes up first, before any construction) and a foundation for the cement floor poured in an empty lot, but that was it. In fact, when I was looking for Sor. Klinmee the first time I thought there was no way this construction wasn’t part of that gym, because they’re so close. But over a period of a few months Rambaa just kept building, putting up the walls and roof in a kind of time-lapse that was fully completed with the way kids, neighbors, dogs and cats (and chickens) all just buzz around it like a hive now. I’m pretty sure Rambaa did much of the construction for the fighter’s dorms that have appeared in the back now as well. The house that Rambaa built. The community that the hive is the center of.
I thank Rambaa and my sparring partners before stepping out of the front gate and into my shoes. More kids are arriving from school and the woman at the stone table is offering for me to come finish off some of the papaya salad from the plates that everyone has been sharing. As a gesture, it’s wonderful to be invited. But I don’t eat when I’m training and I have to run to another gym. As I’m walking over to my motorbike I get interrupted by the enormous lab again and this woman stands up from the table to smoke a cigarette at the edge of the driveway while I pet this dog as hard as I can. He mouths my hand, his enormity never more evident than when my wrist looks like a toothpick in his jaws. He’s still just on the edge of being a puppy and as he gets more excited he kind of tries to jump on me and, being that he outweighs me, it’s a bit tricky to keep my balance for a moment. A young Thai boy appears from around the corner with a ball made out of tape – the kind you use to tape your wraps at fights – and he throws it up the street for the dog to chase. The dog knows this game and lumbers up the road. The kid smiles at me, letting me know he just saved me from the family pet getting out of control, and I take the cue and jump on my bike. As I pull out I see Rambaa standing in the open doorway, just kind of looking out over the road. To say a “king in his castle” sounds trite and also doesn’t express Rambaa’s humble disposition. Like a father over his household, though; that seems right.
You can find Rambaa’s gym here on Facebook
Some of my work with Rambaa 2016
If you enjoyed this post, you may like my latest Patreon Only article: