Underground Gambling, Beetle Fights, Heart and the Clinch of Muay Thai
File this under The Culture of Muay. If you are to understand Muay Thai, I mean really understand it and see how it grew out of Thai society, and the forces that sustain and feed it today, you have to appreciate Fight Culture. It is not just the techniques and gyms that make up Muay Thai in Thailand, but rather a whole system of beliefs and experiences the pull together the karma and excitements of gambling – gambling on contests of body and soul.
Part 1 on the Battle Beetles of the North is here: Muay Thai Clinch is Not Boring
Nook is one of the most consistent gamblers I’ve ever known. He’s not a high-roller and he’s not overly committed – he can go to a fight and not put any money down if none of the matches inspire him – but he gambles on a daily basis. Every Saturday he goes to the horse races – for over 20 years he’s gone every Saturday – and his interest in Muay Thai is absolutely from a gambler’s perspective, even though he is himself an ex-fighter and has been a trainer for probably over half his life already. It’s Nook’s way of life. The gambler and the fighter touch.
So when we came across the gwang chon “fighting beetles” for sale on the road leading from breakfast to the camp, we knew exactly who to ask about them. After learning a bit about the fights from both Nook and Gan (see Gan explain here), it was no surprise that Nook knows where these bug fights take place and could take me to watch it live; of course he can.
Our first attempt was foiled by rain and we didn’t go out at all. It was meant to be a big event, lots of people coming together to challenge their gwang against others, like fighters showing up to Muay Thai matchups and the crowd does an eye-gauge assessment to make matches. But when we couldn’t go because of the rain, Nook said there’d be smaller events the next night and I said that was fine enough for me. I just wanted to see what these atmospheres were like: gamblers huddled around two thumb-sized insects wrestling on a log, shouting their bets. That kind of thing is something I had to see. As a Muay Thai fighter in Thailand the more I learned about gambling culture the more I learned about Muay Thai itself.
Going Out in Search of the Beetle Fights
On the next night I met Nook at Lanna gym, exactly like the 80 or so times I arrived after dark at the gym for my own fights, waiting against the wall and looking at the fluorescent glow behind the dead-still bags, the odd chirping of geckos interrupting the silence. The plan was to follow him on his motorbike in our rented car, but we were going to pick up one of his friends before heading to the venue and it ended up making more sense to just have Nook and his buddy ride with us. The only concern was that we’d be able to leave when we wanted to, rather than having to hang out until 3 AM or however late this might go because the guys were gambling. Nook said it was no problem, we could come back anytime. So Kevin drove, Nook sat shotgun, and I sat in the back with Jai Dee and our purchased beetle that I’d named Kem.
I’ve known Nook for years now. The first time we came out to Thailand was 2010 and, as anyone who has ever been to Lanna for even a day can attest, he’s someone that leaves an impression. He’s very memorable with his endless energy, joy, strange sounds of glee and way of speaking very simply but with lots of redoubling of words; it’s never “okay,” but always, “ooookay, ooookay,” or my favorite, “bet money, bet money.” So, even though I feel like I know Nook, sitting here in the car with him was a very different experience. Maybe it was the enclosed space, or the darkness of the car and the openness of the road; part of it certainly was that technically we were in charge as Kevin was driving but we really had no idea where we were going.
We actually picked up two friends of Nook. I think the second guy may have been added last minute – if you can fit someone in a car, whether comfortably or not, in Thailand you bring that person too – Thai life is social. The crammed car or bed of a truck or 4 persons on a motorbike is an essential part of the Thai experience. I was actually quite happy to be outnumbered by Nook and his friends because it created a social atmosphere in which we were coming along as guests, and the three men talked together with great ease.
With a very large man, Nook (medium man) and me squished in the back I had to have Jai Dee on my lap and he gets super squirmy when there are people around and he can’t climb on them. I was so worried that I’d be wrangling Jai Dee and he’d knock Kem, which might startle the beetle and make him hiss. I’d experienced Kem’s hiss the night before when we had him in our room; I’d tried to untangle his little string leash and the movement of the string pissed him off and he hissed at me, loud and short. It was so frightening that I dropped everything and leaped backwards, grabbing my chest as my heart raced – old lady style. It was so scary. Our relationship changed a bit after that, me and Kem… I didn’t inspect him up close very much and kind of tiptoed around anything I had to do involving his stick – like moving his tether to give him more freedom or attaching sugarcane for him to eat. He’s tiny, but Kem is scary. So, now crammed in the car I tried with all my might to control the dog and keep him from causing Kem to make any threatening sounds, because I might die of fright if he did. All this while also trying to be polite and involved in the conversation that was taking place, as well as picking out what part was just chatting and what parts were directions, then translating the directions to Kevin (he was driving) as we drove. Talk about multitasking.
We got near where the events were meant to be and started the very Thai-experience task of stopping frequently to ask directions on long broad-lit highways with dark off-shoot lanes everywhere. A lot of folks don’t use their phones for directions the way Kevin and I must – whether it’s because they don’t have smart phones or because they don’t know how to use Google Maps, or simply because it’s still a strong social part of Thailand to interact and ask directions like this – but in this particular case you’re looking for something “underground” that the police will shutdown, so you have to ask someone who knows. After our first stop the guy sitting in the front got back in the car (having asked a very small 2-table bar on the side of the road) and said we needed to go up the road 4 more bridges. There was a canal between the opposite directions of the highway and every 200 yards or so there was a bridge where you could get across. The directions aren’t “go to x street and turn left,” they’re measured in bridges, 7-11’s, traffic lights and temples. Furthermore, these directions weren’t to the fights themselves, they were to the next guy who knew where they were, like a scavenger hunt! All the Thai men counted out the bridges one by one, like school children, with a kind of glee.
Finding the Hidden Locations
Anyway, we get more directions – giving the secret password, or just looking un-policelike – and pull into these roads that are just pitch-dark. Barely any streetlights, definitely no signs to give names of streets but occasionally a sign to indicate that somewhere in the direction of this or that is a restaurant, temple, or the name of a house. The guy in the front gave directions to turn at the moment we should turn rather than before, probably because he didn’t didn’t know where he was any more than we did, and couldn’t anticipate. So we drove more slowly to give him reaction time, rolling in the dark following the halo of our headlamps. These small, dark roads and wide empty fields on the sides felt very much like looking for Muay Thai fights in Isaan, when the ring is set up in a field somewhere. You’re navigating through what seems like nothing, driving for 20 minutes down long roads of sheer black, surrounded by light-less ricefields, when suddenly there are lights – vertical neon strips – that indicate a festival or a temple or an event. That’s what we were looking for, an oasis of florescence.
After a maze of dark turns and dirt road we pulled in to what looked a bit like a chicken farm; it was well-lit, but it was empty. There was a guy in the back, standing at the coops beyond a wide, tin-roof overhang that could easily shelter lots of cock fights, and our guy in the front seat went to walk across the property to talk to him. He came back to report that the cops had come and shut down their event because gambling without permits is illegal. Usually this might just be because nobody wants to pay for the permit unless the event is big enough, but in today’s case nobody had permits because it was a Buddhist holiday and gambling (and sale of alcohol) is prohibited. But this guy said everyone had just moved down the road about 5 km. So off we went, looking for the new spot. Like kids running from the cops to find a new place to drink, loiter, and smoke.
We found the place and it was pretty quiet. Maybe a dozen people total, rows of tables and bulbs, some beetles for sale, maybe 20 people milling around, but two guys were perched up on a very high stage with a log in the back, upon which two beetles were being prepped for their match – a few gamblers gathering. We head back there to check it out. Looking up at the makeshift stage there was a playing card between the beetles, so they didn’t see each other. On the underside of the log is a chamber where a female beetle is hidden, her pheromones meant to incite the two male wrestlers. There were two men at either side of the short log, about the circumference of an instant oats cylinder, and they each had a stick with which they baited the beetles – one man’s stick also had a noise-maker that when rolled against the log made the sound that females make as a mating call, apparently. He would stop rolling it every now and again and touch it against his forearm, which made me think maybe it gets hot from the friction of noise making.
A Story of Muay Thai Heart and the Gamblers
We gathered in front of the stage, which was about 5 ft. high, waiting for the match to start. I was holding Kem in my hand and a few random Thai men, all older and exactly like the gamblers who approach me before Muay Thai fights, came over and inspected my beetle. One guy took out a cloth envelope, in which he kept his beetle-baiting stick, which is like a stylus. He carefully removed it from its envelope and took the bamboo stick on which Kem was perched out of my hand and went about trying to agitate Kem. He’s looking to see how he responds, if he’s aggressive or strong; if he’s willing to fight. Kem backed up from the stylus and crawled to the underside of the bamboo. The man shook his head and handed Kem back to me, announcing “mai su,” meaning he won’t fight. Kem had backed up. I immediately imagined a gambler coming over and harassing a Muay Thai fighter to see if they’d be aggressive; feinting a punch to see if he flinches or something. Happily, gamblers don’t do this, but often they’ll squeeze my biceps as part of their assessment of me before a match. And they definitely stare at fighters who are waiting or warming up, looking to see how confident, calm, or introverted they are. With Kem, you can’t study his personality other than by seeing whether he’ll clamp the stick or not, or if it backs up.
A young Muay Thai fighter of course will be prodded and stuck again and again by his padholder in the course of his training, thrown into sparring and clinch against others more experienced and often larger. Thousands of times he (or she) will be assessed, not only as a whole – what is he/she made of – but how is he/she now, coming into this fight. Is the “heart” there.
The guy who road shotgun in our our car, a retired soldier, took Kem from my hands and tried to agitate him with the kabob skewers that are stuck into the bamboo. Kem wouldn’t play, but he didn’t back up. “Jai yen,” I said, meaning cool-hearted, and the man nodded. We all looked eagerly at the men trying to get the two beetles on the log to latch onto each other, which is the only way to start a round, but they both kept crawling away from each other. They were too jai yen, too. The two men made sounds of disappointment and gathered their beetles to give up and climb down off the stage. If they won’t fight, they won’t fight.
The retired soldier took Kem over to a table just off to the side of the stage and I followed. There were maybe 10-12 beetles in separate plastic containers (no lids), perched on pieces of sugarcane. They were huge, these beetles, and on the sides of the plastic containers were their pricetags: 200 and 220 Baht (we paid 20 baht – $0.70 on the street for Kem). Our guy would take out a sugarcane stick and hold it next to Kem to measure size – they were all much bigger than Kem. Very much like Muay Thai matchups in Isaan, where you just show up and stand on a scale – then they write your weight on your arm and group you together with similar weights and out of that grouping they stand you shoulder-to-shoulder to make a match. Then you fight your best match, or you go home without a fight because there wasn’t anyone. Kem was having a hard time being matched. The man selling the beetles would pull out suggestions from their containers and prod them with his stylus; all of them fought back. Not like Kem. “Maybe he needs to see the lady beetle first,” Kevin suggested, “maybe he’s just an underdog.”
Without a great match and with not much going on at this event, we kind of wandered back toward the car. Nook took great pride in talking to everyone about me being a fighter (complete with stitches in my forehead as proof) and they all oooh’d about it. It was weird enough for Kevin and me being the only falang to come try to match our beetle in this underground scene, probably the only one they had ever seen, but me being a fighter brought a lot of smiles. On our way out Jai Dee was attacked by the fiercest, meanest calico cat I’ve ever seen. She followed after him even when he jumped away from her. I laughed and humorously tried to take bets on the fight, but it was over pretty quickly with Jai Dee scared out of his wits. It was a bit disappointing to not have found any gwang chon to witness – the beetles had refused to latch – but it was also getting late and all the driving around was a bit tiring. Nook said there was one more place to try and it was on the way home anyway, so we’d just stop to see.
More highways, more dark side streets, and eventually we parked at a temple down a side street. But this looked promising. We got out of the car and immediately saw a pretty large group or people and the same food-stalls you see at any festival fight: dried squid, pork balls on a stick, and noodles. Just past the gate was a table selling beetles. Kevin investigated that while I followed the guy from the front seat all the way back to a high stage with three logs on it. One log had two beetles getting ready to go and small crowd gathered in front to watch. I felt excited; it felt like standing right up on the ring when the first fight is starting, the really little kid fights.
A log is straight, so there are no “corners,” but apparently the right side is usually the “red” side and left is “blue.” The man in front of me was shouting his bet of 300 Baht for red, which made me giggle because even though the competition hadn’t started yet, red was the much-harder-to-wrangle beetle. His handler was younger than the man across from him, and really calm and expressionless. His beetle kept walking toward him, away from the hand placed between the two contenders. The man in the blue corner, however, was older, had an unlit cigarette bouncing between his lips as he shouted and gestured with his hand to take bets, periodically pulling his attention back down to agitating his beetle with the metal “mating call” wand.
With a few bets confirmed and a third man sitting behind the two handlers, between them and facing the audience, the hand was removed and the two beetles faced each other. And nothing. The loud man on the left stuck his stylus between the two horns of his beetle and it gripped back, which he used to drag it forward a half-inch; then he removed the stylus and the beetle grabbed the next closest thing, which was the other beetle. They locked, the round began, and we all started shouting. The man between the two handlers was the “referee,” and he would periodically move these playing cards that were strung on a cord from left to right, high above the beetles. I thought they were the score because it seemed to happen after one beetle lifted the other, but Nook said they were rounds. Perhaps they were a bit of both. There are 12 rounds in a fight and they’re not timed, the beetles just break and re-latch and that’s a new round. It is just pure Muay Thai clinch, “chon” in gwang chon means “clash”, power against power. The beetles “lock” and they leverage against each other. You can lift an opponent, you can drop an opponent off the log, but the round lasts until one beetle lets go. A fight is over when a beetle will no longer lock.
The handler in the blue corner was very animated and shouted at his beetle the whole time. The handler in the red corner was totally poker faced the whole time, but his beetle was getting some really good lifts. When the two are locked together they’ll move as a unit and the handlers have to roll the log to keep them visible on the top. The red beetle charged toward the blue and actually pushed him up, vertically, so he was attacking the belly. The blue beetle just walked over the back of the red beetle and they separated, starting a new round to the disappointed oooooooiiiiiii sounds of the two men with money on the fight. We captured this on video (below).
Nook was laughing and shouting Muay Thai instructions, “dtee! dtee!” (“knee!”) and cracking up about how funny it was to him. I was laughing too and having very similar responses to the movements of the beetles, getting my breath caught when one was lifted and all his little six legs splayed into the air, me shouting “oooooohhhhhh!” There was no keeping score, there was no I-don’t-know-how-to-watch-this feeling, because which bug is dominating and which is in trouble is unbelievably clear. You watch for the beetle that will lose heart, who will give up or walk away. That’s the loser; he outs himself. It’s beautifully uncomplicated and, in a strong way, illustrates how gamblers watch Muay Thai fights. Because beetle fights aren’t kinda like Muay Thai, they’re just like Muay Thai in terms of the ethic of the performance. Yes, in Muay Thai there are actual skills, tactics, rules and strategies… that’s all different. But when you pare it down, you’re really just watching whether or not heart is going to win out over all those other things. Absolute glee of the gamblers isn’t money, it’s aligning yourself with strength, with the karma of contest. You can see the very same thing in any Thai gym when sparring between kids gets heated:
I don’t know that I learned anything new from watching the battle beetles, although it was a bit unusual for me to be hanging out with a group of gamblers to go try to see them rather than being what the gamblers are betting on here in Thailand. I think more it was a pure expression of what I already know about Muay Thai, but my own feelings about being a human being and wanting to “do well” or make my trainers proud gets in the way of what I already know. Kem didn’t fight, but if he had I wouldn’t have cared one iota if he’d done any “moves.” I’d just want him to face the situation head-on, to have gumption and resolve, to stand up for himself even if he lost in the end. I don’t think my trainers or people who follow me have ever asked more than that of me, either. The Egyptians believed the scarab represented the life and death cycle, as they would bury themselves in the ground and reemerge, like resurrection. The Egyptians saw the sun do this every day: burrow into the ground at sunset and rise again at daybreak, immortal. They would carve into the bottom of the scarab amulets that rest on the hearts of mummies a saying that is basically, “as above, so below and also in-between.” So, if the sun (god) dies and rises, and the lowly scarab does also, then surely so too does man – the middle. That’s what I saw in the gwang chon beetle. That’s what it taught me about myself.
Additional Media and Side Story
Kem stayed in our room for a few nights, and he definitely had a presence. In the dark you could hear him munching on his tethered bamboo home, and in the morning you could see a nice pile of saw dust from all his eating.
As you can see, Jai Dee our Soi Dog rescue, found Kem’s chewing worth taking a note of, and a bit worrisome (below):
Our gambler friends spent a lot of time trying to match up our 20 baht beetle, who was on the small side. Here is some of the prodding and judging he had to go through as a prospective fighter (below). The persistence in looking and testing was kind of touching. He was just a small beetle, lacked aggression, but our group leader didn’t distance himself from him at all. He carried him about at two gambling venues, held him in the car, and generally took him under his wing. There was a certain sense of obligation:
And of course, after his night of trying out as a Gwang Chon fighting beetle of the North, we let Kem go in a bamboo grove.
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