During the two years that I lived in Thailand, I trained at and fought for a handful of gyms, and I never felt like the trainers treated me much differently than the boys. I did notice, however, that not all women were given the same treatment, and that as a woman, there were several different ways you could expect to be treated depending on how you presented yourself. Muay Thai has become a popular sport in Thailand and elsewhere as an exercise, attracting people—both men and women—who just want the workout and have no interest in actually fighting. Many women show up for a martial arts workout wearing tight yoga pants or spandex shorts, leave their earrings in and makeup on, and they are immediately put into a different category by the trainers and gym boys. These women are doted upon and flirted with. Their training is playful, and they are rarely yelled at or hit with sticks, or pushed to mental collapse. If she spars with a trainer, he will be gentle instead of ruthless. Women who want to fight, on the other hand, who avoid tight spandex and exude, to varying degrees, a certain level of masculinity, are trained with the same rigor and seriousness as the boys.
In Thailand, if someone is a fighter and living a fighting lifestyle, people will look at them and say, “He is Muay Thai,” or even, “She is Muay Thai,” acknowledging that Muay Thai is both that person’s lifestyle and their identity. A Muay Thai person is someone who trains hard, fights often, and embodies the fighter spirit, traditions, and mentality. Whether man or woman, they are treated basically the same in the gym—as a fighter. Becoming “Muay Thai” allows women fighters, in a way, to transcend their often imposed gender roles and avoid being sexualized or harassed.
One day after work I drove to the Muay Thai gym where I trained every day without returning home to change my clothes first. I was working at the time teaching English at a technological university where I was required to wear a dress or skirt. I parked my motorbike and strode into the m wearing a flowered dress and dangling earrings. Everyone who was sitting or milling around the gym immediately stopped what they were doing and stared, open mouthed.
“Kawneow!” Kru Bum, our head trainer, exclaimed. “You’re a girl!” I was embarrassed by the attention and hurried to the bathroom , where I quickly donned boxing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. When I came out of the bathroom, relieved that I’d shed my ‘girly’ attire, Kru Bum looked disappointed. “Why did you change?” he asked. “I wanted to take a picture!”
All of the stadia in Chiang Mai, Thailand, host female fights at nearly every event, and the gamblers and promotors follow and critique these fighters as avidly as they do the men, if not more so. The local gamblers watch Muay Thai nearly every night, and always have the latest digs on who-beat-who, which fighters have been on a winning or losing streak, and which fighters have been slacking off at training. These gamblers, both men and women, often approach fighters before their fight and ply them with questions in order to inform their own betting decisions. The gamblers are especially affectionate towards us girls. I think this extra affection is partly due to the comparatively small number of nakmuay ying, women fighters, but it could also be because they know we had to fight just to be here; we had more to prove and more to fight for than the boys, and perhaps because of all this we trained harder, took our fights more seriously, and fought more passionately.
Before our fights, the gamblers like to stand very close to us. While we warming up they breathe their sour beer breath into our faces, assessing our musculature, deciding whether to place a bet on us, or on our opponents. Have you been training hard? They ask, peering intently at our faces and bodies, scrutinizing, maybe squeezing a bicep or two. How do you feel? Do you hurt? When did you fight last? If you are a fighter they have seen before and like, they might even offer you some ‘secret’ advice about your opponent in an effort to ensure your victory, and some cash in their own pockets. This girl has powerful knees, they say in a familiar and conspiratorial air, pointing overtly at your opponent standing and stretching nearby; but she’s bad at blocking punches. That girl kicks hard, but her stomach is soft. That girl is too tall, you can’t reach her face! You’ve got to punch her in the boobs!The gamblers sometimes demonstrate what they think you should do, leaning in close and punching the air with their bare fists in quick little motions. Are you going to win? They ask.
Women have not always been so enthusiastically welcomed in the fighting circuit, however. Less fifty years ago, women were rarely allowed to train in Muay Thai camps or gyms, much less compete in stadiums. By 1996, women were finally allowed to train in gyms, but it was still years before any stadia in Thailand allowed women to fight in their rings, due to some complicated superstitions regarding the blessing placed on these rings when they were built. Many boxing rings in Thailand were constructed before it became legal for women to fight. According to Thai custom, these rings were blessed by Buddhist monks as soon as construction was complete. But Thai people believe that the particular type of blessing used back then would turn into a curse if it came into contact with woman and her woman-juju. If a women were to enter the blessed ring, the blessing would turn into a curse, which would cause serious and dangerous bad luck upon any men who fought in that ring thereafter. This largely prevented women from fighting until new rings were built and blessed with a modified blessing—one which would not become a curse when its boundaries were crossed by a woman’s body. The one stipulation is that she must never cross over the top rope. Currently, all but a few of the oldest, most renowned stadia in Thailand allow women to crawl under their ropes and fight.
Her legs are bare and brown below her white satin shorts with the blue fringe, and they are as thick as tree trunks. But her waist is slim, and her hair, which I’ve always admired, is thick and black, held away from her face in narrow corn rows which stop halfway to her ponytail in neon pink and yellow bands. I’ve fought this girl before, Nampet Petungpoon is her fight name. Water Diamond of Petungpoon Gym. We’re facing off tonight at a festival an hour outside of the city on temple grounds, in a ring assembled just a few meters from where the monks sleep. The monks aren’t sleeping tonight. They’re speckled among the other spectators, sitting on white plastic lawn chairs or wandering through the crowd, observing and enjoying the party in their quit way. It’s not that you would normally see Buddhist monks at a Muay Thai fight—they rarely come to the boozy, smoke filled stadiums in the city—but this is a festival fight to celebrate a minor religious holiday, and takes place in their back yard.
The referee pulls us together in the center of the ring, and we touch our gloves together, hers blue and mine red. The ref says something in Thai which I don’t understand, but I cock my head as if I’m listening intently and nod when she does. We retreat to our respective corners and our trainers give us our last drink of water, which we spray-spit onto our legs. They slip in our mouth plastic mouth guards and recite a Buddhist prayer over our bent heads before removing the Munkhorn—a band of blessed and sacred amulets—from our heads. We turn back to the center of the ring, and the music starts.
It’s late already, well past nine. This temple is in a small village in the midst of farmlands and rice fields, away from the lights and the sounds of motorcycles and their firecracker mufflers. There are hundreds of people here, drifting, milling, plastic cups and meaty snacks in their hands, faces red and exuberant with cheap whiskey and country air. Bright lights illuminate the various activities, venders and spectacles crowded around the temple grounds; there are venders selling meat balls, sausages, flattened smoked fish on sticks, whole coconuts, steaming heaps of greasy fried noodles, grilled pork intestines with spicy sauces and skewered chicken tails. There is an abundance of tables with coolers full of 40 oz. bottles of Leo, Singha, and Chang beer, as well as an assortment of cheap Thai whiskey more like rubbing alcohol than Jim Beam—I drank it once and felt the lining of my stomach burning for hours after. There are giant pink and orange teddy bears dangling from the ceiling of several tents—prizes for the winners of the games they offer inside.
Just beyond the stretch of venders and game tents is a stage filled with pretty girls dancing and singing in feathery headdresses and sequined skirts. They are all Thai, and have long, slender legs and impossibly narrow waists. Another stage showcases traditional Thai dance, where the women twirl and bend their long, curved fingers in impossible mudras while lifting their feet in slow, deliberate movements that merge stillness with movement, meditation with action.The women one these stages seem to embody the Thai standard of beauty—dainty, graceful, charming. I’ve always been fascinated by the slow, undulating movements of Thai dance, and I’ve thought that I would like to try it, but I knew that if I suggested it, my Thai friends would laugh me up and down.
The boxing ring has been erected away from the commotion and noise of the rest of the festival, in an area ringed with trees on one side and a thick throng of gamblers on the other. It’s dark here save for a bright light hanging over the ring, illuminating our faces which are shiny and sleek with Vaseline to help the punches slide off and keep the skin over our eyebrows from splitting open. Our eyes lock briefly and we smile, silently sharing our secret; for these fifteen minutes, it is just her and I alone in the world.
The first round is slow and reserved. In Thailand, all fights are scheduled for a full five rounds. Usually, round one is a feeler round—you get to know your opponent and test them out a little, getting a taste for her personal style and a sense of how your two styles work together. We throw a few soft kicks at each other’s legs and ribs to see how quickly the other girl can get her shin up to block. We trade playful jabs, circling each other slowly, rocking our weight from one foot to the other, letting our bodies relax and pulse internally to the eerie beat of the drums and atonal droning of the Javanese oboe, which together sound the melodies traditional to a Muay Thai match. We focus our eyes on each other’s chests, the central point from which you can see and anticipate any weapon coming—a punch, elbow, kick or knee—and respond accordingly.
But really, this round is just for show, for tradition. I know her style, and she knows mine. I know that she will aim for my legs when she kicks because mine are so much smaller than hers. I know that she will retreat slowly until her back is against the ropes and from there she will try to keep me from advancing by throwing a straight kick, or tibe, at my stomach or chest. I know she will rarely punch me, and that we are equals in the clinch. I have beaten her, and she has beaten me.
By round two, we are warmed up and loose and ready to begin. I feel good. Better than usual. Prior to this match, Kru Aey, the new trainer at our gym, had brought me close to tears nearly every day at training. During practice, he had yelled at me incessantly about my left kick. “You need to twist your hip!” He scolded. “Why aren’t you twisting!” When I kicked incorrectly, he would swat the back of my leg with a tiny stick. At the end of practice, after running three miles, skipping rope for twenty minutes, five rounds of bag work and three rounds of pad work with him or another trainer, Kru Aey would hold the heavy bag in place for me and tell me to kick it fifty times ‘correctly’. Each time that I failed to rotate my hip enough, or rise onto the ball of my foot, or protect my head, I had to do the kick over again. Sometimes I kicked more than ten times before we even made it to the second counted kick. Every day Kru Aey would bring me to a point of total physical collapse—a sudden overwhelming inability to raise my arms, to draw a breath, to move—but he wouldn’t let me stop there, and that extra push is where it moves from the accustomed and tolerable physical pain to a much more intolerable and psychological one.
Tonight, Nampet thinks I’m going to advance with my fists. She’s waiting for it. But all those hours of incessant kicking with Kru Aey have switched something in my brain, and instead of sending a heavy left cross, I kick the soft place between her hip and ribs. I hear my trainers and friends from where they stand near my corner yelling and cheering, smacking the canvas floor with their hands as I land one kick after the other, hitting her ribs, legs, and stomach. In the fourth round I can tell Nampet is getting tired. Her breathing is heavy and when she kicks my thighs, her leg is slow in returning. Her fists drop low after she punches and they swim slowly back through the air to guard her face.
The opening comes sometime before the bell sounds the end of the fourth round. We are wrapped together in the clinch with our arms around each other’s shoulders and necks. We trade knees to each other’s stomach and ribs, but mine are harder. She stumbles back a half step, and suddenly I see that her chin is exposed. I drop slightly into my knees and lift up again, bringing my weight and my elbow into her jaw from below.
The thud of her body hitting the floor is loud, and the sudden impact causes the ring to tremor and the metal joints to squeak. After the referee twirls me around by the wrist, I kneel beside her and say thank you, and sorry, trying awkwardly to hide my complete, ecstatic happiness. My knees are shaking when I crouch down to leave the ring. A couple of the gym boys hold up the bottom ropes for me to crawl under. Although women have been allowed to fight in Thailand since the 1970s, they are still not allowed to jump over the top ropes to enter or to exit the ring like their male counterparts, and win or lose, must crawl under the bottom ropes, flattening their bodies to the wet canvas. The stairs leading to the ground are steep, and there’s a crowd of people waiting at the bottom. Our gym owner and boss, Kru Bum, is there with his handful of happy, young men, and my best friend Ning—still wet and oily from her fight just before mine. My American friend RJ is there too, oiled and lubed up with Vaseline and waiting to climb into the ring after me. Kru Bum claps me on the back. His voice is the pitch and cheerfulness that comes only after a few glasses of HongTong whiskey with soda water and ice. He’s grinning wildly, having surely just made loads of money from gambling on my fight—much more than the tiny purse I’ll take home. Kru Aey grabs my hands and starts unwinding the beige packing tape covering the laces of my gloves. When the gloves are off, somebody else unwinds the tape and gauze wrapping my knuckles, and I wince when they tear the tape from my wrists, taking a wide swathe of hair along.
Ning and I head back to our gym’s woven plastic mat on the ground to put t-shirts over our wet tank tops. To get there, we have to skirt the crowd by sticking to the thick line of trees behind the ring. On our way, we pass Nampet and her team. Nampet is sitting in a lawn chair with her coach and the on-sight medic bent over her, stitching a cut over her eye that must have come from an elbow I don’t remember landing. Her teammates look up and smile at us as we go by. Nampet glowers. Ning and I bob our heads respectfully and move on.
Adjacent to the boxing ring, about one hundred meters and many beer and snack tables away, stands a tall stage with an elevated, fenced in dance floor. The crowd is bouncing with enthusiasm, hips and shoulders writhing to the music. People are laughing and singing along with the popular Thai rock hits. Someone from our gym drags Ning, RJ and I onto the dance floor, and we bob our heads to the beat, tired but high on adrenaline, hearts racing and minds reeling in a state of subtle post-fight euphoria.
I see Nampet in the crowd. She’s wearing a white V-neck t-shirt and has a big white bandage above her right eye. She’s with some of the other girls from her gym, many of whom either Ning or I have fought before. Pretty soon their little gang weaves and bobs its way through the crowd until they are in our midst. Nampet glares at me accusingly. “Kaowneow!” She calls me by my Thai name and the corners of her lips twitch into something between a smile and a grimace. She punches me lightly on the arm, and my smile is huge and goofy. I wrap my arms around her shoulders. She smiles again and pushes me off. The other girls smile and wave, and their little posse dances off.
When I finally left Thailand and returned to my first gym in my hometown, I noticed how differently the men reacted to me. In the gym, there had always been a kind of division between men and women, as well as between newbies and Muay Thai veterans. Girls were never treated poorly, it’s just that the ‘veterans,’ mostly boys, would rarely train with us girls unless the particular drill or exercise forced them too. As a result, our groups rarely mixed. When they did, the boys were polite and respectful, but they obviously assumed the role of the teachers, taking time out of their own training to help us girls along. When I came home after nearly two years in Thailand, I had become a sort of local Muay Thai superstar. I marveled at how, suddenly, I was welcomed into the VIP group. Two-hundred pound men actually wanted to spar with me, to hear about Thai training techniques, to compare injuries and just chew the fat. I felt excited and proud to be part of the boy’s club, and to be asked to lead the occasional drill or exercise. “Boxing gyms aren’t sexist at all!” I told a friend once before realizing that this wasn’t inherently true. My coaches and teammates were respectful and accepting, it’s true, but I also realized just how much harder I had had to work—traveling all the way to the Muay Thai motherland and back—to gain admittance to the veteran’s club and finally be treated as an equal.
Kalil Zender is currently working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at Northern Michigan University where she also teaches first-year composition. Kalil has recently returned to the cold Midwest after several years spent teaching ESL and fighting Muay Thai in northern Thailand.