The Panty Incident – Gender, Undergarments and Cooties in Thailand
I wrote this post a few years ago, probably in the first year that I was training and fighting out of Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai. At the time there were a lot of cultural differences from the west, that are perhaps more emphasized in the conservative North, that were eye-opening to me. The superstition and downright fear of women’s undergarments was a big one, which is illustrated by this story I’ve called “the panty incident.” Enjoy.
A few days ago I noticed a rogue sport-top bra (style, not really supportive) hanging on a drying rack at the gym. Since there are so few women ever training at the gym and they don’t belong to me, I was curious how it got there and who would have left it. Since it had been a few days already, I casually (although with full understanding that it would not be received casually – I was kind of messing with him) asked Den to whom he thought it might belong.
We were in the ring doing padwork. He stopped immediately and went to peer at the clothes rack, unable to locate the items to which I was referring.
Den squinted and peered, then started yelling at big Neung, who was in the men’s ring holding pads for a rather clumsy guy almost twice his size. Neung stopped, came over to the side of the ring that was closest to the women’s ring in a kind of side-walk, not even looking at the rack he laughed and shook his head, “no.” Den must have asked if the item might belong to Neung’s wife. It was a fair question; Neung and his wife live in a tiny apartment (along with all the Thai boys) that is just maybe 20 feet away from the two rings.
Next Den yelled at Big. I guess Big has a girlfriend who might come visit sometimes and as Den yelled to him Big dropped his work on the bag and shuffled over, between the rings and then around the side, his gloved hands dangling – weighted – at his sides as he moved. Big’s only mode of walking is a shuffle; the only time he doesn’t is when he’s fighting. He made it over to the rack and bent at the waist, turning his head this way and that way to inspect the bra at a safe distance, moving his body to get a view from different angles. He looked at Den blankly, then a little confused and perhaps even a little apprehensive. He shuffled back to his bag.
Den turned to me once more and we resumed our padwork but there was such a strong absence of “oh well, I guess we just don’t know,” in the attitude resulting from the mystery undergarments. It was not stored safely in the back of Den’s mind or forgotten, as it might be the way any westerner would shrug off the mystery.
We finished our padwork and Den spent about one round’s time in the ring either waiting for someone else to come do pads or just hanging out for a while before deciding to exit the ring. When he finally climbed out I turned around and saw that he and now all the Thai boys were gathered around the offending undergarments. Den was holding a stick he’d procured from the tree that overhangs the waist-high fence that lines the side of the gym, maybe 4 feet from the ring. He was poking at the bra with the stick, kind of trying to pick it up but also being very careful not to disturb it too much – somewhere between a maladroit attempt at chopstick utilization and prodding a maybe-dead animal on the road.
“Den,” I laughed, “Den, I can touch it.” Den was too immersed in his operation to pay much mind to what I was saying, but he did kind of turn toward me as I came over and picked the bra up with my thumb and index finger. “It’s not panties,” I clarified, “it’s a bra.” I held it up near my chest but not strapped over it as one would actually try on a bra. Den’s face fell into a pose of relief. “Why you say underwear?!” he demanded. I explained that “underwear” can mean either bra or panties when referring to women’s undergarments, but it was clear that his (and every other Thai male’s) horror and discomfort stemmed from the belief that these were women’s panties left to dry at the gym.
(I recall a year ago a pair of rogue women’s underwear was dropped in the driveway of the gym, probably having flown to freedom from a laundry basket or was pulled from one of the rooms of the house by one of the dogs at the gym, and nobody would touch it. The men circled it at great distance and joked and pushed each other toward it like children near something dead – fascinated and horrified and excited all at once. Eventually, Wung – a surly, drunk, and wonderful trainer in his 30’s – picked up a stick with which he fished the undies off the floor and flung them to safety in the confines of a garbage can.)
As much as this is something you might find among prepubescents in the US – or maybe even not for real but in a movie as a means to demonstrate the mystery and danger of women’s underthings, something so close to a woman’s sex and “otherness” – this seems not at all uncommon among grown men in Thailand. To be fair, the gym does nurture a very young attitude in that it’s a strongly male space and anyone privy to a locker room in the west might see some very immature and boy-like behavior. But the danger of the panties was real. In Thailand and perhaps especially in the north and northeast, women’s underpants are the stuff of dark magic. As a woman, where you hang your underwear to dry requires a great deal of care (unless you don’t give a damn about offending). I’ve heard it can’t be “too high” off the ground, too visible and certainly cannot be above anything of religious importance or, you know, men’s heads. To allow your underwear – dirty or clean – near the height or above a man’s head (or directly near his head) is like walking under a ladder while a black cat crosses your path and you step on all the cracks... during a cootie outbreak. But with actual belief backing those superstitions. (The way in which underwear might be head-level is on a laundry line, or if your dresser drawer is remotely near where a man lays his head when he’s lying on a bed, etc.)
Seeing this display – the “panty incident” – was truly amazing. My husband Kevin was absolutely stunned while watching Den poke the bra with a stick. Not because he didn’t know about this belief but because to actually see it in action, in full effect, is something you cannot anticipate. As comparison, you might witness grown westerners prodding at a live eel or refusing to touch some kind of bizarre food stuff, the way a kid might be horrified and refuse to eat an unfamiliar food – to those who are more familiar with the offending object, the attitude is, “just eat it, dude.” It’s just one of the most purely bizarre experiences to witness as a stranger in a strange place. A stranger with dangerous underthings.
If you enjoyed this post, you may like my Muay Thai Gendered Experience posts