On my first day in the new class, one of the trainers approaches me and asks me where I’m from. He’s short and stout, like a stern teddy bear. I tell him I’m from New York, and he exclaims, “New York!“ He holds up one hand, which I realize is meant to be a building, and then another, which is meant to be a plane, and crashes them together. We both laugh. “You got that right,“ I tell him.
I don’t think the trainers here are used to seeing ferang built as small as I am; Tiger is known for MMA—a sport that is much more forgiving to fat people—as well as Muay Thai, so the students here tend to be larger than at the other gyms. I think also that Thai men tend to be impressed by height; I saw something similar in India with my friend Derek, who is about 6’3” and couldn’t walk down the street without being approached solicitously by some soldier or policeman or local politician. It’s annoying. On my second morning they sequester me off from the other guys during Western boxing, and pair me up with a curly-haired Australian girl. She doesn’t really know how to box and I don’t like the precedent it sets. I bully her around the ring with light, incessant jabs until they break us up and put me with one of the Thais. Half his punches are too fast for me to see but he’s at least ten years older than me, and his body’s halfway hollowed out from the thousand fights I’m sure he’s had. I keep pushing at him for three full rounds, and by the end he’s more exhausted than I am. It’s better after that.
I settle into a routine here, quicker and more deeply than at any of the places before. I train six days a week, four or five hours most days. The gym is isolated, which makes it easier; the only places of interest within walking distance are the various bungalow hotels and their restaurants, which are all more or less identical. The closest beach, Na Han, (or Nai Han, or Nai Harn; Roman-alphabet spellings tend to mutate as you move about the island) is a twenty minute drive.
Most of the people training at Tiger get around by scooter, but I don’t. I rode one for a couple of days back in Koh Samui, against my better instincts, shamed into it by their ubiquity amongst even the very young and old. The appeal is obvious: they’re fast and fun and easy to ride, and gliding along past the shanties and the jungles behind them I felt like I belonged in the landscape, the way I do back home riding my bike through lower Manhattan. But at the gym in Samui injuries from scooters outnumbered those from fighting by a solid margin. And one day I saw a scooter overturned on the road side, and the driver picking gravel out of a rough red expanse across his bicep, and his friend kneeling and picking more gravel from another patch on the driver’s upper thigh. And the traffic here is much more hectic than in Samui.
But I have gotten around the island some. One afternoon I take a scooter taxi to Nai Harn, and from there hop on open-air busses to Phuket Town and then Patong. Patong’s a big beach town, like Lamai back in Samui but larger by an order of magnitude; I literally get lost in the canyon-like parking area of a seaside hotel, trying to find the ocean. But while the scale is large—big cliffs in the distance, hangar-sized massage parlors, multi-floor open-air gogo bars—the place feels limited and claustrophobic, like Kubrick’s backlot Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket; the streets all snake back around to the same few epileptic strips. Still, the bustle is a nice change at first from the hushed jungle suburbs I’ve been living in. They have crosswalks here, but solely to make tourists feel at home; motorists do not abide them in any way. I watch an unnaturally dark-skinned man stand at one for about five minutes, growing progressively more furious at the traffic’s failure to yield; it’s odd, because he seems tan enough to know how things work here by now.
I’m thrilled to see a big modern shopping mall, with air-conditioning and a cinema. I’ve come to cherish malls for their lack of ambiguity; you always know how to act there, and everybody acts the same, Thai or ferang. They are almost like nature that way. I order a large fries from a Burger King. I order an iced Americano from Starbucks. I hear Lady Gaga playing over the speakers in the bathroom and start to cry, briefly, from homesickness.
I find a place off the main beach road like a self-storage lot crossed with a half-assembled carnival midway: little octagonal booths punctuating rows of concrete garage-style units, which at night roll up their doors to host I don’t know what.
One interesting T-shirt I see in Patong reads, “No God, Only Content.” Another one: “I fuck on the first date.”
If you can divorce yourself from the danger of it—usually the best thing to do once you’ve committed to something you can’t control—one of the best parts about Patong is the scooter ride back: weaving out of the bright city into the darkened sprawl, curving up endless and vertiginous hills and then switchbacking down again, with the lights of the whole island spread out below you, surrounded by the black ocean. And then the road levels out and the lights and the buildings and traffic fall away, til it’s just two empty lanes with the hills on either side, silhouetted. The stars seem very low. Everything is silent except for the engine, which by this point you’ve ceased to hear. The headlight shining through the basket casts a net of shadow on the road eight feet wide.
But on the whole I don’t go out much. My time’s spent at the gym or in my bungalow, or on the stretch of road between them, three-hundred meters or so. It’s a lovely walk in the mornings. On a green hill in the distance you can see the Big Buddha statue who oversees the island, one hundred and fifty feet tall. Roosters crow all around me, some of them strutting free, out in the road, others in cages that look like upturned laundry baskets made of concrete. Most of the front yards have shrines set up, clusters of small blue and red pagodas with plates of food laid out in front of them. Every day I pass the same frog, rolled flat by a truck tire and sun-dried til he looks like an air freshener you’d hang on your rearview mirror. And there are a lot of dogs, obviously, though along with the standard third-world model (lean body, long snout, dust-colored fur, sores) there are a couple of pugs in the neighborhood too, and some ratty toy poodles. Dogs in Thailand don’t seem to bark much. There are rabbits also, as big as the pugs and as unhurried.
My room here is much more posh than I’m used to. It has air conditioning, and wireless internet, and a bathroom with hot water and a proper countertop and mirror. There is a television also; I’ve never lived anywhere with a TV in view of the bed, and I take to it immediately. This is the first room I’ve had in Thailand that is actually pleasant to be in. I’m struck by how much of an impact that has on the shape of my days.
Every morning save Sunday, I wake at 6:30 and head over to the gym. There are a couple of different classes at seven to get you warmed up for fighting, which starts at eight. The most popular is a martial-arts oriented yoga class, taught by an absurdly dashing Englishman named Simon. He’s small and wiry, with cascading brown hair which he pulls back into a pony tail. In addition to being a yogi and an expert Thai boxer, he is a renowned swordsman and speaks about nine languages. His manner is unflaggingly beatific, though I’ve heard a story about him flying into a rage at a Thai trainer who was disrespecting a female student. And once you’ve told him your name, he’ll use it every time he sees you, which seems to me like a conscious Habit of a Highly Effective Person, but I appreciate it anyway.
Most mornings I opt for breakfast instead of yoga, but I’ve taken it a few times. Simon is there before anyone else, seated full lotus, playing a long wooden flute. People arrive one by one and lie down on their yoga mats and listen; this goes on about ten minutes, and it‘s nice. Then there is some yoga. Some of the simpler poses I can manage fine, and some of the more advanced are unsurprisingly beyond me. But a few of the simple ones are beyond me as well; though I’ve gotten much more flexible since I came to Thailand, a few areas around my crotch remain geriatrically stubborn. I think they might be permanently deformed from all those hours on my bike.
I‘ve done very little yoga, so I don’t have much basis for comparison. But I know most yoga classes do not conclude with ten minutes of violent guided imagery. “You’re in the ring,” Simon tells us, as we lie back with our eyes closed. “ Picture the ring. Picture your opponent. You are working your favorite combinations. Jab cross hook. Hook jab, low kick. Jab, jab, right elbow. If you are fighting MMA, then maybe a scissor heel. Maybe an arm bar. Your strikes are landing. Picture them landing. Your opponent is coming forward. Beat him back. You are beating him back.”
I train at eight and then again at four. The classes here run about three hours, and they’re tightly structured; there are a few pockets where you can melt into the group and slack off, but they keep you busy for the most part. In the afternoons, the heat can turn things into a bit of a death march. Every day we listen to the same mix-CD on repeat, which has about six songs: one of them is a Flo-Rida remix of “Applebottom” by Nelly, and one is by the Pussycat dolls, and another is a house jam with a cooing, pornographic refrain. I know all these songs by heart, and they play for awhile in my head most nights, unbidden. I eat about six times a day, some combination of chicken, eggs and brown rice, and bananas and whey protein and Snickers bars. Sometimes when I’m not eating or training I’ll go get a massage or read by the pool, but mostly I lie in bed and watch TV.
The TV gets about fifty channels, but most of them are in Thai, and their novelty doesn’t last long. There are a few English-language stations, though. Channel 3 is an African station that shows mostly American police and hospital and lifeguard dramas, and also the Ellen Degeneres show. Channel 4 is all British reality shows, concerning either confidence scams or deformed children. During the day, Channel 5 shows American cartoons from the eighties dubbed into Thai; sometimes at night they have English-language movies, but they tend to switch mid-stream without warning, so caveat emptor. There are two other movie channels, 14 and 20. They show good movies on the whole, except they don’t start on the hour or the half-hour or with any logic I’ve perceived so far. I have to watch the last part of one so I can get in on the ground floor of the next one. 44 is all golf, which is good to have in a pinch.
I‘d have been put off, I think, back in New York, if I’d had some premonition of whole afternoons spent in bed watching golf with the blinds drawn. And maybe I’ll feel sheepish later on, but it doesn’t bother me now. I’m aware that my life has grown progressively circumscribed, going from Bangkok to Samui to Phuket. And this is the most boring of the gyms I’ve been to, clean and institutional and safe where the others were ragged and strange. That’s fine with me. I’ve been in Thailand for awhile now, and I don’t have the energy to sustain that charged connection a tourist has to his surroundings; I don’t understand Thailand by any means, but I feel like I live here, because I’m too tired not to. I came here to box, and for better or worse that’s pretty much all I do.
Training twice a day can be exhausting, like my body’s held together by naproxen and Tiger Balm. But this seems like the only way it can be right now. Sometimes I feel like I‘m bored by everything but training, or else emotionally overwhelmed by it; other times I feel like if I’m exhausted and in pain, then this can’t be a vacation, which is good, because a two-month vacation would be frivolous. Because if this is a vacation, then I would feel pressure to be having fun. I would be on a failed fucking vacation, which is the most depressing thing I can imagine.
But it goes deeper than that, for sure. A couple people have asked me about what it is I like about boxing. It’s a subject I’ve sort of avoided up to now. I don’t feel particularly qualified, and I don’t know where to begin; I have pages of scattershot notes, lots of them contradictory. There is also an intimidating body of boxing literature already extant. Lately I’ve been reading “On Boxing,” by Joyce Carol Oates, which casts a long shadow in two directions: every insight I’ve ever had about boxing is in there, better articulated than I ever could have managed, alongside a lot of vaguely embarrassing things like “the triumphant boxer is Satan transmogrified as Christ.” I think there is a lot about fighting that is elusive, that is true until it’s spoken or even thought through, at which point it becomes sentimental or romantic or just wrong. And then there is this, also from Oates:
”That no other sport can elicit such theoretical anxiety lies at the heart of boxing’s fascination for the writer…. The writer contemplates his opposite in the boxer, who is all public display, all risk and, ideally, improvisation: he will know his limit in a way that the writer, like all artists, never quite knows his limit—for we who write live in a kaleidoscopic world of ever-shifting assessments and judgments, unable to determine whether it is revelation or supreme self-delusion that fuels our most crucial efforts…the boxer’s world is not an ambiguous one.”
I can relate to this. In boxing, even failure is something that you can hold on to; alongside that, blog entries feel like a chore, irrelevant. As time goes on I find that the three roles I‘ve been playing here—tourist, writer and boxer—are increasingly at odds with one another.
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