The Muay Thai Road to Europe, Isaan-Style

Photos by Matthew Yarbrough

On a humid morning in February 2016, four Muay Thai fighters from Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region sat haphazardly in the waiting room of the Belgian Embassy in Bangkok, preparing to present their visa documents to officials. Keeping their paperwork in order was Frances Watthanaya, a blonde Canadian who took time off managing her gym in Isaan to escort the fighters to the capital. She thumbed through their stack of papers; everything looked to be in order. The Belgian promotion sponsoring the fighters was confident its invitation letters would suffice.

Still, Frances was nervous. She didn’t know how the Isaan fighters would fair in their interview or how difficult Belgian visas were to obtain. She’d been through the visa rigmarole for the United States and Canada for her Thai husband, and that had taken months to sort out.

The four fighters, however, sat calmly. Unlike Frances, they had no previous negative experiences with immigration and international travel. None had ever held a passport before, much less applied for visas. It was now their fight careers that had brought them into this waiting room. When Belgian company Fight Night Promotions got the idea to bring fighters into their European events, they contacted Frances, their Muay Thai liaison in Isaan, to scout fighters. She hand-picked four fighters between the ages of 17 and 32, spanning weight classes from 58 to 70kg, and all with fight experience in the triple digits.

None of the four fighters she picked had passports, though. Three of the four had never flown on a plane. But if all went well at the embassy, they’d be flying halfway across the globe in a month.

Senrak

For 17-year-old Senrak, the youngest of the bunch, the possibility of a Facebook check-in in another country plus matching selfie was virtually enough to guarantee his accepting the fight. He wasn’t able to wait until Belgium to pull out the camera, killing time in the embassy waiting area with repeated selfie-taking. Frances and the other fighters laughed at his enthusiasm. He was unperturbed, excited about his first plane ride and fighting his first show abroad.

Jom Wo

Jom Wo, on the other hand, didn’t show any emotion. He was never much of a talker¾after a nine-hour card ride to Bangkok, all Frances could get out of him was that he likes girls and was looking forward to fight abroad. It was hard to believe he was an 18-year-old high school student about to graduate, only one year older than selfie-obsessed Senrak. Jom Wo’s face was starting to leather from 13 years of fighting; his shyness was mistaken for maturity. He rarely parted his lips while smiling, perhaps to hide the missing teeth lost from years of fighting without a mouth guard.

Frances and Silalek

Frances and the fighters chatted as they waited. Overhearing their conversation, a curious man in his sixties approached, introduced himself as the owner of a Thai tourism company there to get visas for his clients, and asked what the five of them would be doing in Belgium.

He laughed when they said they were fighters. “Really?” he said. “All of you?”

He pointed to Silalek, a fighter so conventionally handsome that he works part time as a model. “You don’t look like a fighter.”

Flattered, Silalek laughed. “He is a fighter,” Frances assured the man. She didn’t tell him about Silalek’s part-time modeling profession, or that when he found out this visa quest would be an overnight trip, begged Frances to turn the car around 10 minutes outside his Buriram home so he could bring along his hair straightener.

Rittidet

“What about him?” Frances said, pointing to Rittidet. “Does he look like a fighter?”

The old man nodded appreciatively. “Yes! That’s what a fighter should look like!”

Quiet, unassuming Rittidet grinned. The oldest of the fighters at 32, with a wife and children to support, Rittidet didn’t much care about going on an adventure abroad. Bringing home the paycheck was what mattered. A drifting fighter with heart, experience, and a strong work ethic, he was too old for most gyms to take an interest in him as anything more than a pad holder or a clinching body.

Rittidet was devoted to fighting, had fought all over Thailand and was now eager to make a name abroad. When Frances asked if he could fight at 63kg, he said absolutely. That would mean a weight cut of only 5kg, something he’d done before. “I’ll get down to 60kg if I have to,” he reassured her. When Frances’ friend came to visit, a strength-and-conditioning trainer from Canada, Rittidet asked him to take him through some circuits. Coach Matthew showed him burpees, ladder drills, and plank work. Rittidet was impressed, and exhausted. During dinner that night, he told Frances how challenging it was. “I’ve never trained so hard in my life,” he had said. 

“Foreigners train like this for six to eight weeks before a fight,” Frances said.

“Wow. If I trained this hard, I bet I could fight 10 days in a row!” Rittidet had said. After a moment, he added, “Come to think of it, I have fought 10 days in a row. But I never trained this hard.”

Fighting in mad bursts, multiple fights in just a few days, is common during certain times of year in Thailand’s countryside, but Rittidet is older now, and can’t bounce back like he used to. He talks about making the most of his remaining years in the ring. Fighting is a job, and for someone like Rittidet, most fights are worth considering.

But some fights are more important than others. Frances explained to the four boxers the importance of fighting abroad, and fighting smart. Get your name out there, she said. Give the audience a good show. The bigger your names get, the bigger your future purses. “It’s not about the gamblers anymore,” she told them. “Winning isn’t as important as putting on a good show; you need to be conditioned, show heart, and be aggressive.” The fights would be televised online; if they were to perform well, both their fame and fight purses would increase. And they would be guaranteed a spot on another show in September.

“I hope you know you’re lucky,” the old man in the embassy waiting area said. His job was dealing with rich Thais who paid good money to travel abroad; he knew the difficulty of getting visas, and how much people would pay for the chance to see the world.

Soon the four fighters were called up for their interview. Frances was permitted to accompany them. They presented their documents carefully while the Belgian Embassy official, a middle-aged Thai woman elegant in her plainness, interviewed them in a combination of Thai and English. When the official asked Frances what her stake was in this, she said, “I love Muay Thai.” The official smiled, said the visa results would be sent to Frances via e-mail and the passports would be returned through EMS delivery.

As they made their way out of the embassy, Frances wondered how the fighters would fare in Belgium. They’d be with her Thai husband Boom, who had grown up in Isaan but had lived in Canada in his mid twenties. He’d make sure they were comfortable, staying on track with their fight prep. Fight Night Promotions would be booking their flights and giving them a daily allowance. They’d be put into decent hotels, a new experience for all of them.

Even the hostel they’d stayed in the night before had been a new experience. Having to share a bathroom with strangers and needing to bring their own towels was a surprise. The hostel’s bunk beds were also a source of curiosity. There was great concern as to who’d sleep on the top versus bottom bunk, based on age and respect. Frances was amused when the fighters all agreed that no one should sleep above her. She was awarded a whole bunk to herself.

The embassy was within walking distance of the hostel, and the fighters had set out early for their visas, paperwork bundles in hand. They stopped along a footbridge over traffic and posed for photos, all wanting pictures of themselves on a bridge in the big city. All except for self-conscious Jom Wo, who shied away and silently stood off to the side. Senrak made up for it, trying to capture himself, the bridge, and the BTS light rail line all in one shot. He was envious of Frances’ iPhone 5 and asked to borrow it for his photos, promising her he’d earn enough from fighting abroad to buy his own. Early morning commuters in sharp suits shot annoyed glares at Senrak, oblivious to the pedestrian traffic jam his selfie-ing was creating.

“Okay, time to go,” Frances said to him.

“Wait!” he said, camera still at the ready. “I want to get a picture while the train is going by!”

Ten minutes later, Senrak borrowed Frances’ iPhone again, this time posing with her Starbucks coffee cup. The other fighters milled around Starbucks, looking for something to eat on Frances’ recommendation. “It might be a long day at the embassy,” she had told them. “So eat something now.”

Rittidet perused the options, returning to the table empty-handed.

“Where’s your drink?” Frances asked.

He paused, his allowance of 100 baht (about US $3) still in his hand. “I just can’t spend that much on a fruit smoothie,” he said.

Relieved everything had gone so smoothly in Bangkok, Frances called her husband Boom on the way out of the city. Frances had been the one to bring the fighters to Bangkok, but Boom would be their chaperone in Belgium. She told him to expect her home in nine hours, depending on traffic and how long she’d stay to chat with each fighter’s family.

The tiny Toyota Yaris, packed with four fighters and one gym owner, edged through Bangkok traffic until it reached the open highways sprawling the countryside. Silalek used the long ride to learn about the practicalities of Frances’ everyday life, curious about her rent, car payments, insurance, and her former life in Canada. “So if I have a degree in sports science,” he said, “what kind of jobs could I get abroad?”

Soon the conversation turned to Muay Thai. Frances talked about fighting abroad, what to expect, what was expected of them in return. “The first round is like going into the fifth in Thailand when your opponent has been offered a one-million baht tip-out,” she said. “The Europeans are going to do everything they can to win, and they’re going to try it all in the first round.” 

Rittidet understood. He’d fought foreigners while working at a gym in Phuket. The other three had little to no background, but acknowledged what Frances was saying. Okay, they said. It’s no big deal. We can handle it.

With somewhere around 1,000 combined fights between the four of them, they passed the long car ride swapping stories of ring battle. Senrak told them about fighting three times in 16 hours last New Year’s. Silalek said he’s fought men who outweigh him by 10kg.

“Ten kilos?” Rittidet laughed. “I fought a guy with eighty kilos on me!”

Jom Wo didn’t say much, perhaps still tired from his most recent fight, just one day before the trip to the embassy. When Frances picked him up at 8am, his father mentioned Jom Wo had fought at 2am.

“We didn’t get home until four,” his father had said.

“Who’d he fight?” Frances asked.

“Sam Gaw. Jom Wo beat him by KO in round three!” he said proudly.

“Sam Gaw’s still around?” Frances laughed. Sam Gaw was a local legend, known as a monster both in and out of the ring. He was Frances’ initial pick to fight abroad; she knew the European audiences would love a wild fighter like that. But drug problems and multiple arrests prevented him from securing a passport.

So she rounded up four others, now crammed into her car.

Still talking shop, Silalek turned to Jom Wo. “I heard you fought Petchpotong a few months back. I wanted to fight him too but I heard he’s been out for an injury.”

Rittidet chuckled. “That was Jom Wo’s left kick. He broke Petchpotong’s arm. How many arms have you broken now, Jom Wo? Fifteen?”

Jom Wo smiled slightly and looked out the window at the passing rice paddies.

Thai-English interpretation by Frances Watthanaya. 

 

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