The Glory and Grit of Giatbundit Gym in Putthaisong – Isaan Muay Thai
[Update 1/14/15: Things have changed pretty rapidly at Giatbundit Gym. The description of my experience below may not correspond to the facts of how things are there now. The Facebook page no longer is devoted to Giatbundit Gym as well.]
visit the Giatbundit Gym website, Giatbundit on Facebook, or contact Frances on Twitter @Watthanaya
This incredible initial trip opening up the doors to fighting in Isaan was made possible by my supporters on GoFundMe.
The drive up to Putthaisong, Buriram in Isaan from Pattaya is about 6 hours. The roads are all highways but they’re small and kind of quaint. We drove up on a Sunday and the traffic was light, so the entire trip was pretty relaxed and most of it quite beautiful. We stopped at a gas station midway and bought a bunch of grapes, something that the area (wherever that was) is known for and enjoyed those while listening to mor lam (Thai country music) on the radio which makes me happy.
When you get into Isaan everything on the sides of the highway becomes vast fields, which because it’s rainy season are an impossible emerald green. The deeper in you get, the more buffalo you see grazing along the sides of the road or being herded by a single man or woman, covered head-to-toe in cloth to protect from the sun. The stands on the sides of the roads sell checkered, kind of like gingam, cloth in the form of wide pants, very square shirts or these long, wide scarves that men wear over their shoulder, tied around the waist or coiled on top of their heads. There will be literally the exact same patterns and selection of clothing at three different stalls, all next to each other but all different vendors. I don’t understand how this works in Thailand, but it’s very, very common.
here is a link to a Google Map of Giatbundit Gym, the location of the apartments is on that map as well making it easy to find if you have smart phone navigation. Here is a link to driving directions from the Pattaya Bus Station – drive takes about 6 hours.
Phutthaisong the Town
We arrived at a crossroads and the GPS took us down a road that made absolutely no sense, so we just turned around and parked at a big gas station near the four-way intersection and called Frances. Starting with an inexact mark the GPS on the phone had told us to turn the exact opposite direction right before arriving at the town and when Frances came to meet us at the station we were only a few minutes from the center of town (our map above has a new accurate position that should serve you well). She took us on the “long” way to the apartment building, so that we would be driving through town and be able to see it a little bit. Phutthaisong small town with shops and food stalls all along the main road, a few temples, schools and government buildings and everything organized (at least for my own orientation) around a couple small lakes or reservoirs.
After settling into our apartment I ventured out to get some food and drove myself down just a short way back into town where I spotted a little canteen that looked promising for my appetite at the time. The menu was only in Thai, but that’s okay for me because I can read – however, if you know how to say two or three dishes in Thai these kinds of canteens can make it, no problem. Fried rice (kaow pad), pork and basil (kaow grapao moo), Pad Thai (pad tai)… no menu needed. However, this place seemed to have quite a lot of seafood. There was also a western man seated at a table with his Thai girlfriend or wife, as well as two more western men with their Thai ladies in the convenience store that I stopped in while my food was cooking. I was a little surprised to see so many foreigners all at once, but there was nothing really surprising about the types of foreigners: There was the ubiquitous older man with a younger Thai woman, and the apartment building where Frances lives – and where we stayed – houses mostly young men who teach English at the school. These are pretty much the same long term backpacker types you’ll find in Chiang Mai or its outskirts, and the older fellas who have found their way to their girlfriend or wife’s town or village. There is a kind of sub-culture of western travelers in Thailand and Phutthaisong seems to have a share of it, at least from what I could tell during my brief stay. Yet other than he few the westerners associated with the gym/teaching and the two older men I saw while getting lunch, I didn’t run into another westerner the rest of the time we were there. The town was quite friendly toward me on my various trips out. Some places in Thailand you can feel like you have three heads the way folks stare at you, and other places you’re largely ignored because you’re western – those are the extremes – but here in Phuttaisong I felt comfortable and all my interactions with the locals were quite pleasant.
A Walk Through the Apartment Up to the Lake – Living There
The apartment where Frances and Boom live is about a 10-15 minute drive from the gym. The actual living space is enormous, absolutely the biggest place I’ve stayed in many years, maybe even including the little cottage house Kevin and I rented in Fort Montgomery, New York before we moved. It’s furnished with a table and chairs, a sofa, TV, a separate bedroom with the air-con (which is amazing, actually, and less expensive than cooling an entire apartment), a bathroom and a kitchen in the back, as well as a back patio where you can dry clothes. The only downside I’d say, speaking to all factors, was that the construction of the building itself carries sound quite easily, so your own privacy or the noise level of your neighbors might make a big difference in your own experience. Our neighbors were Frances and her family on one side and a personable fellow named Henry from Uganda on the other. So we lucked out in that neither side was very noisy at all and I only hope our watching movies on the computer wasn’t loud for either side. One night we got an incredible rain and the sound of it drumming on the acoustics of the tin roof was at first astonishing, but then remarkable. Not “soothing” as one thinks of rain against a window or muffled on a tiled or vinyl roof, but an incredible roar that felt at once all around and also safely outside of your concern. Amazing.
To the side of the apartment buildings is a temple and in the early morning, maybe around 3:00 AM, the bell is gonged many times. It’s something I knew would happen, although I’ve never lived next to a wat before so I’ve never experienced it firsthand, and I didn’t mind it at all. I would wake up, acknowledge what was happening and then fall right back asleep. Frances says she rarely wakes up from it anymore. One early morning I awoke to the sound of the monks chanting. It was one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever awoken to and I hope I won’t forget it. Other than these couple experiences though the presence of the monks next door was largely unseen and unheard. The wat almost seemed empty, like a beautiful cemetery, with silent stone stupas standing all around its wall.
Just past the temple is the lake. It’s got a road that leads all the way around and you can run there – maybe a few kilometers around. I took Jai Dee there for walks a few times and he got to agitate a few local dogs and coax their security guard duties into a game of chase for a few minutes. More often though it was just the trees, the tall grasses and a family of enormous and truly beautiful buffalo grazing on the side. One was a baby, about the size of a cow in the US I reckon, and it was somewhat curious about us and would stare from the security of the tall grass and its mother not far away, with an expression that I think looks quite a lot like a look I get from Jai Dee when he’s sleepy. It was pretty sweet. I was pretty surprised by how many buffalo I saw in Putthaisong and the surrounding areas, mostly because they don’t seem to have a great deal of purpose. They can be used as beasts of burden on the fields or you”d think you can eat them, but there’s not a lot of beef on the menu anywhere in Thailand, and certainly not here, and the work of a buffalo on the field is rendered pretty obsolete by the power of farming machinery like tractors. (The tractors and trucks in Isaan are outstanding – without a picture I can’t even try, but there is a specific look and they are just awesome. Even the Tuk-Tuks are different with the front looking like a Harley-Davidson Chopper leaping out of a carriage, like if H.R. Giger had a G-rated design.) We asked Boom about the buffalo and he said it’s mostly that families who used to raise buffalo still keep buffalo as part of their way of life and also as a form of status and wealth. Makes sense.
Boom was kind enough to make us morning coffee twice and Frances and I have discussed coffee a few times now. It’s hard to find good coffee beans in Thailand and even more tricky in more remote areas like Putthaisong, so the generosity from Frances and Boom is not lost on me at all. I was enormously happy to sit and sip coffee while I prepared to leave for my fight and again before leaving for the long drive home. If you plan on coming to Thailand for a long time and coffee is important to you, you might look into mailing yourself a care package or trying to pack some quality beans in your luggage. Dougie, a reader of mine, brought me three pounds of the stuff as a surprise and its like three bags of gold.
Reporting from Giatbundit Gym After Working Out
I talk about the green of Isaan a few times in various updates from the trip. Let me explain a few things. One, I grew up surrounded by nature and was conditioned to appreciate and savor it by both my parents and my personal disposition, so the color of a tree or the quality of a breeze will etch itself into my mind in a strong way without my thinking I’m being “overly sensitive.” Two, the tattoo on my leg is in part inspired by the description of a storm in one of my favorite books, And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave – storms and nature are intensely connected to my senses and something in my soul that I don’t feel the need to define. And three, I visited Vienna once and happened to be in a park as the sun was getting low in the afternoon sky and the malls of grass were this color of green I’d never seen before or since. Of all the things I saw in Vienna, that green is what has stayed with me most. It struck me in the same way that being underwater and suddenly seeing the bio-luminescence of a deep sea creature might make you believe you’d dreamed it, or hallucinated or something.
That’s what it felt like when Boom, Seamus, Henry, and two of the teenaged Thai fighters from Giatbundit Gym headed out for our afternoon run. The road was narrow and empty for the most part, but anything beyond the width of the road was this intense green and yellow blend, like Chartreuse or Absinthe being stirred by the wind and this dark, nearly black soil that might as well have been the non-matter of outerspace between some of the blades of grass close to the road. Trees grew out of nowhere and the fields stretched out forever, limitless until they ran into the sky which was gun-metal gray and heaving with these enormous, ominous clouds that promised rain the way a surly bouncer promises an ass-kicking. It felt like being inside the belly of a whale, like the whole atmosphere, the Ether itself, was breathing all around me.
There is an Isaan identity. Interestingly, Isaan means “northeast” and that’s pretty much how huge a part of the country this region covers. The people of Isaan are ethnically different from central, southern and northern Thai but they are also largely different from each other, with Isaan sharing borders with a number of neighboring countries and having distinct dialects. The outright racism and more general ostracism that people from Isaan suffer from the rest of Thailand is unifying, in the way that racism and prejudice all over the world lump people together who are in reality quite diverse from one another. That said, the people of Isaan also feel themselves to be Isaan in a strong, unifying manner – perhaps in the way that in America coming from “the south” is a common identity that might bond folks from very different cultures and areas like, say Appalachia and Texas.
From the outside, like from a western perspective, Isaan is romanticized in ways that is both fetishy and perhaps mildly xenophobic. Anyone looking to go to Isaan – any area of it – for the purpose of training Muay Thai that this kind of romanticizing of the region, the people, and the lifestyle seems to me to be largely inappropriate. This is, of course, true of going into any culture to which you are an outsider, but the fetishization of impoverished people by westerners is often overlooked under the veil of “immersion” of middle class, often white westerners. All that said, there is something universal about the identity of people who come from the land versus people who grow up in urban settings. My roommate in college was from Queens and had never traveled to the sprawling open space of the Midwest or the mountains and deserts of my neck of the country. I felt claustrophobic in the excursions we took into the city – she was terrified of “all that space” in the opening scenes of Idaho in “Napoleon Dynamite.” This is to say that as a westerner we will never penetrate into the identity that is Isaan, but there are universal identities that connect us – people who come from the land or people whose hearts sing for those landscapes. I personally felt a strange – though not unpleasant – sense of being connected and disconnected at the same time, including in my experience training at the gym. The space itself is familiar enough, the people were accepting enough of my presence that I didn’t feel unwelcome in the least and Muay Thai is certainly a unifier across language and culture and nationality. It definitely helped to have been invited by Frances and have her as my ambassador in the space, helping to fill in the gaps where my language failed and my limits of understanding were reached, and her comfort and assertive, authoritative position in the gym as well.
Isaan (and general Thai) Training Realities
Something that most westerners won’t ever come in contact with is the fact that the majority of training at gyms in Thailand is absolutely nothing like what we picture in our heads. The romantic notion of being one-0n-one in the jungle with your trainer, or in the sticks where you’re the only westerner among all hardcore Thai fighters, learning the secrets from your trainer that nobody else learns… it’s not like that. A lot of people write to me and ask for gym recommendations and specify that they don’t want to be at a “western” gym. They mean with a lot of westerners training there. Here’s the thing: if they allow westerners in the gym, there will be westerners there. If you have access to the gym, then so do other westerners – generally speaking. Some gyms are more commercial than others and the presence of western customers is part of the program – the cost of training is part of how that gym survives and operates. This is true of virtually any gym with westerners in Bangkok (where some folks swear the only “real” training is happening), it’s true up North, it’s definitely true in Phuket, in Pattaya, and it’s true in areas of Isaan as well. The glory of training under a legend is largely a western conception. Training at Banchamek with Buakaw or at P.K. SanchaiGym with Sanchai is something westerners do; it’s not typical for even the greatest names in Muay Thai to enjoy accolades by students wanting to learn from the best. In most gyms you’ll see these incredible masters of Muay Thai, whether it’s a name you know or not (YouTube has certainly changed recognition for some Thai fighters), working alongside someone who barely knows what they’re doing in Muay Thai – being a trainer or a padholder is work and it’s hired labor. A guy who knows significantly less technique than I do isn’t distinguished from someone who has hundreds of fights or multiple Lumpinee or Rajadamnern titles in a Thai gym. Someone just passing through a gym might never even discern the difference.
The second part of this is that what you picture to be training at all is not necessarily how most great champions were brought up. Do you imagine your trainer teaching you a technique and hounding you until you get it right? Do you imagine him praising you when you finally nail it? Not so much the way most fighters come up in Thailand. Thai fighters have years and years to become good fighters and they’re in the ring long before they’re good. The idea of teaching in the way that we think of in the west is not absent from Thai gyms all together, but it’s not a primary function of them. Muay Thai is a way of life the way farming is a way of life. You don’t learn how to plow a field, care for sick animals, harvest, maintain the land, etc. in a programmed lesson plan. You learn it over years and years of hard work, of bored work, of tedious work, of being told to get out there and herd the animals before you really know how to do that – you learn by doing. There’s not a lot of hand holding in the traditional pedagogy of Muay Thai and some of the best fighters you can think of learned largely on their own. I can’t tell you how many times Sakmongkol has told me that nobody ever showed him anything. He was just left to work on his own and figure it out through trial and error, his trainer sometimes holding pads, sometimes not – he demonstrates how he had to just march back and forth doing the exact same moves for endless hours without any recognition by his trainer… it’s not a supportive and nurturing environment he’s describing. Raising Muay Thai fighters is not practically entirely different from raising animals; they learn to eat this grass instead of that grass or to go in this direction rather than that direction by a shepherd keeping watch, but there’s not a lot of “instruction” involved, necessarily.
Giatbundit is just such a gym and there are literally thousands like it around Isaan and other areas of Thailand. Kids pound on the bag, maybe imitating their favorite fighters from TV. The fighters who know what they’re doing clinch and spar each other in the ring until they stop, not a lot of correction, if any at all, goes their way. There might be a padholder and more likely there isn’t one. But then a two-time Royal Cup winner, ex-Rajadamnern champion will show up for a few and dispense with immense knowledge – read about the extraordinary Rotnarong, the inventor of Saenchai’s cartwheel kick here, a great article by Lindsey Newhall. I saw Rotnarong holding pads in the Giatbundit ring the day before my fight. They have no regular trainers – those who come in do so because they want to and the information or technique offered to the kid that trainer is working with is not a regular feature, so you’d better pay damn close attention. Even at my gym in Pattaya, which raises kids to become Lumpinee fighters, the amount of time that the kids are in charge of their own training versus the amount of time they are shown anything is staggeringly disproportionate. And the trainers who work with them aren’t paid – they just work with kids they like and maybe get a tip out from the fight money when that kid fights. It’s probably very similar at Giatbundit for the guys who come by to act as trainer for a few hours, basically on their own time and out of their own love for Muay Thai. What I’m saying is, if you don’t already have an idea of what you’re doing at a gym that’s this kind of normal, you’ll be lost. If you have years to figure it out and a keen eye for watching what works for the other guys, you’ll find your way.
A Slight Aside – the Lack of Meritocracy
Learning how this traditional pedagogy is still so much a part of gyms all across Thailand has been a slow and difficult process for me. When I was arranging coming to Giatbundit with Frances, she told me I had to come early and have a day of training at the gym before the fight, so that Pi Dit could look at me. Then, you get to the gym and it’s a “train however you want,” situation. I hit the bag and shadowed and did some rounds with Boom, which I was too shy to ask for and so Frances actually arranged for me, and all the while I would have had no idea that anyone was watching me. But of course Pi Dit was watching me the whole time. I’ve slowly – perhaps even from this experience – learned to identify how my trainers watch me without looking at me. In sparring at Petchrungruang I am so pissed when Kru Nu doesn’t pay any attention at all and then after I’ve had my ass kicked says mai dok jai (“don’t startle,” or basically don’t react to being hit) and I think to myself, “you weren’t even watching and you didn’t help me!” But he was watching. I’ve just got this western, “look Mom! Mom, look!” attitude.
One of the reasons I left Lanna up in Chiang Mai was that I felt I wasn’t growing anymore and part of that was that I never received instruction. Seeing how kids are brought up in Muay Thai at my new gym here in Pattaya has definitely put my previous experience in perspective. There is, of course, instruction going on at all gyms at some point. But it’s not the kind of progressive instruction that offers you objective stages upon which to map your learning. My western mentality – which I don’t think is a bad thing – is that Muay Thai gyms and learning should be a meritocracy. I work hard and show my dedication and love for the sport, so I should be rewarded with attention and acceptance by my gyms. That’s not how it works. It’s not a meritocracy, it’s a hierarchy and I don’t register very high in that system and probably never will. I won’t be a Lumpinee champion and I’m not even allowed to fight there, so the potential I have as a fighter is limited. Add to that my age, that I’m not Thai, that I haven’t been doing Muay Thai for as long as most of the 12-year-olds in the gym already have… it goes on. There are times when someone new has to hold pads for me and it’s always a bit awkward. These guys have seen me around the gym and know I work hard, but actually interacting with me is another thing. It only takes about half a round for them to get excited, usually, and I normally end up with an enthusiastic attitude from my previously apprehensive trainer at that moment. But then it doesn’t lead to being taken under their wing as a student – Modt Ek, who cornered for me at the Queen’s Cup – does come and talk to me about how I should stand closer or watch the hips or whatever he’s been thinking about, which is awesome that he thinks about how I can improve, but he doesn’t work with me on it whereas he works with the boys all the time.
I can’t take it too personally. I’ve heard from guys who train at the big gyms in Bangkok that unless you’re a fighter the padholders basically ignore you. I get pissed because I am a fighter and I get this treatment, but as a woman not all fighters are equal. Imagine you have a really aggressive hen that scratches and flaps its wings at the roosters when they’re being conditioned as fighting cocks. What a crazy chicken, right? Maybe it’s funny, maybe you nod your head at her sweet skills or think it’s awesome that she’s so feisty, but she’s not a rooster. She’s half the size of a rooster and, quite frankly, isn’t a rooster. So you’re not going to get all into training up your hen when you’ve got a few roosters around that will actually be used in cock fights; no matter how feisty or hard working that hen is.
That said, this hierarchy changes with Muay Thai tourism. The capital that comes from westerners paying for training at commercial gyms brings a degree of equality – or at least value and interest – that does not exist in the traditional hierarchy. So as much as people want to poo-poo western-friendly gyms and tourism and “resort” gyms, they actively make a difference in women’s access to training in Muay Thai – even in the pedagogy outside of those gyms.
The Amazing Dr. Tanyarat – Fight Doctor and Feast Maker
Pi Dit, the owner of the gym and the man who negotiated my fight in Buriram, is a really lovely man. His eyes are very alert and his face is equally intense whether smiling or stoic, but his calm energy is a constant that is very enjoyable. His wife, however, runs the show. She has an enormous spirit, a female direction and calm that pervades the gym when she enters. She’s a ringside doctor at many fights (see the linked article below) and works at the local hospital; she would come home from her shifts while the gym was busy training and take over the cooking from whatever Pi Dit had started (mostly butchering was his job and he’s great at it) and right after everyone finished sweating we’d all sit down on a row of mats on the floor of the gym and feast on an incredible spread of delicious foods: larp, sticky rice, steamed rice, fried chicken, som dam, a kind of “hot pot” where you can cook your meat on the center grill with a broth of vegetables boiling on the outside… unbelievably generous, delicious, and wonderful to share a meal every night we were there. The hospitality of Pi Dit and Pi Tanyarat is incredibly welcoming. One feels that you are in their home in every way.
Preparing for my Fight
Getting to Giatbundit Gym in Phutthaisong
View Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu – Muay Thai Map in a larger map
Tried to capture some of the emerald green on the way home on video
In a few days my video interview with Frances Watthanaya will be up, look for it.
Thank you to my wonderful supporters on GoFundMe who made this trip possible:
Minu Oh, Lisa Hearting, Wing Wong, Thomas Palmer, Andy Evangeli, Nell Geiser, Dustin Grant, Robyn Klenk, Pixi Pickthall, Khanomtom Muay Thai Tampa Fl, Karen Rihanna Lim, Adrienn Neset, Michael Regala, Dana Hoey, Rachel Knox, Augie Matias.
Will KBRN UK, Cormac O’Síocháin, P-A Guillon, Andrew Viloria, Michael Ashe, Joe Miller, Meagan Brooks, Kurosch Saremi, Tony Le, Matt McCartney, Jeff Mazziotta, cynthiakoala, Walter Gouws, Michael Satumbaga, Tai Krueger, Christopher Chiu, Charlotte Stone, Matt Doerflinger, Jenny Prowse, Andrew Dearnley, Lisa Hedden, Mindy Cunningham, Matt Lucas, Michelle Garraway, Alice Friedman, Michael Meyer, Trini C, Dana Castillo, James Douglas, Richard Hart, Will Weisser, Radhika K, Holli Moncrieff, rosy Hayward, Khanomtom Muay Thai, Alexander Cunningham, jeanette yap, Belinda Miller, Jillian Bosserdet, Kate Simmons, jay c, Marie Porter, Cory Fundme
and 25 additional sponsors who wished to remain anonymous.