Elephant’s Leg


FINAL BELL TOLLS FOR LUMPINEE BOXING STADIUM
The infamous "bear pit" inside Lumpinee Stadium

The infamous “bear pit” atmosphere inside Lumpinee Stadium

One of the world’s most iconic sports venues closed last Friday, with the ringing of the final bell for Bangkok’s Lumpinee Boxing Stadium.

It was to muay Thai what Madison Square Garden is to boxing and wrestling – a venue steeped in history that fans would make pilgrimages to and competitors would dream of fighting in.

Opened in 1956, Lumpinee would go on to rival the older Rajadamnern Stadium in terms of prestige, both as a venue and a championship (the championships of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums are among the most respected in the sport).  However, I always preferred Lumpinee. My first visit there remains one of the most vivid cultural memories I have had.

Back in 2005, while backpacking with my step-brother Andy, we attended a Lumpinee fight card just days into our two-month stint in Thailand. On a budget, we opted for the cheapest tickets, the so-called third-class section, and we were so glad we did.

A year prior, I had made my inaugural visit to Thailand, a more traditional two-week, city-then-beach affair, with my friend Liam. We watched muay Thai at Rajadamnern and splashed out on the comfort of ringside seats. It was fine, but the difference between ringside and the upper tier experience is as stark as that between the First World and Third World.

Down at ringside, you sit on comfy chairs, have beer brought to you (at three times the price) and watch the action up close mostly in the company of fellow tourists, who are mostly there to watch out of curiosity or to tick one of the to-do boxes on a Thailand itinerary. Few of them actually follow the sport, so have no emotional investment in it, and apart from the occasional gasp at particularly hard blows or flamboyant manouevres, it’s a rather tame crowd.

As in many places in Thailand, though, it’s upstairs where the truly eye-opening stuff goes on.

Upstairs held the best crowd action

Upstairs held the best crowd action

In Lumpinee, the third-class “seats” were either haphazardly arranged wooden planks or unforgiving concrete blocks. The plank seats had to clambered over and along to get where you wanted to go, and negotiating them was precarious, sometimes with precipitous drops. If you sat right at the back of the tier, chances are that the gaps beneath your feet would look down into the boxers’ dressing room, so you could watch the pre-fight routines or have the aroma of tiger balm waft up from post-match massages.

Above you, ceiling fans would oscillate dizzily, seemingly hanging by a thread, their breeze being insufficient to deter the mosquitoes. Stray cats, having made a comfortable home in the nooks and crannies of the dilapidated building, would occasionally come out for a stroll, and housed in the ceiling were even a few bats, which now and then would set off on their trademark giddy flight patterns towards the ring lights.

On the night Andy and I went, this same ceiling was leaking as a tropical monsoon thundered down on the rusty iron roof. We had to reposition ourselves several times to avoid the dripping rainwater, and the noise was tremendous. The storm lasted a good two hours, and several times we remarked “it’s actually raining harder!” as the elements thrashed the stadium with such force that even the crowd and the screeching drum and flute fight music was at times drowned out.

Come main event time, though, and nothing would exceed the noise levels of the crowd. Away from the sterile ringside section, the locals yelled bets at each other as the action tipped one way, then the other, the prices changing by the minute. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, but you wouldn’t think it when seeing men with fistfuls of 1,000-baht bills and waving raised digits openly and vociferously placing stakes with one another. Even those without money riding on the outcome made a racket, chanting names, yelling along with the impacts of the blows, stamping their feet and banging on the steel cage material that separated the ticket classes and added to the bear-pit feel of the place.

I returned to Lumpinee several times since I moved here, especially when I had visitors, and always impressed on them why it was better to opt for the cheap seats. Some of them were initially discomfited at the ramshackle sight presented to them upon ascending the stairs to the upper tier, but by the end of the night they had invariably been excited, fascinated and absorbed by the authentic cultural experience they had witnessed.

Saenchai

Saenchai

It was a must that I attended the last-ever show at Lumpinee. On top of the unfolding history, it was a cracker of a card. Modern legend Saenchai  PK Saenchaimuaythaigym (formerly, and best, known as Saenchai Sor Kingstar) was a fitting main-event star, even if he is starting to show the wear and tear of more than 300 contests and dropped a close decision to WBC top-ranked lightweight Petchboonchu Porplaboonchu. Saenchai was nevertheless a consummate showman and naturally the crowd favourite.

Speaking of crowd favourites, the audience got firmly behind huge underdog Singtongnoi Por Telakul as he pulled out of a big upset against Petmorakot Vor Sangprapai. There was barely a pundit in the land predicting a win for Singhtongnoi, but he built momentum as the fight wore on and, with chants of “Singtong! Singtong” shaking the building and the weight of history pushing him on, he charged to a famous decision win.

In the walk-out bout of the 12-fight showcase, Chanachai Nuantongsnooker scored a third-round TKO over Yod ET PTT Tongtavee. Lumpinee nights usually end with a contest between young, relatively unknown novices that normally would be of relatively little significance, but what a feather in the cap of young Chanachai to be able to say that not only did he fight and win in the last ever bout held in Lumpinee Stadium, but that he scored a stoppage.

While the nearly 58-year-old stadium is to be demolished, the name and the championship lineage will continue at the new Lumpinee Boxing Stadium Ram Intra, in suburban Bang Khen district.

The new venue looks clean, modern and orderly, which will be welcomed by some. For me, though, I will always associate the Lumpinee name with wild nights of leaking ceilings, haphazard seating, cats, bats and cages. A wonderfully atmospheric part of “old Thailand” is gone, but I’m glad I was there at the final bell.

NB: The Bangkok Post has further coverage, and a poignant video, at http://www.bangkokpost.com/lifestyle/interview/394516/farewell-fights



BALI HAIS AND LOWS – 5 DAYS IN INDONESIA’S TOURIST HAVEN
Balinese Hindu architecture

Balinese Hindu architecture

Last month I travelled to Bali, Indonesia, in what was primarily a social visit, as I have a friend who lives and works there. It hadn’t really occurred to me to visit Bali before, being that is an uber-touristy destination, but I figured that I would see more than beaches and bars with the combination of a local friend and my own inquisitive style of travelling. And so it was. As expected, the main tourist area of Kuta didn’t hold my attention, but some other parts of the island – unfortunately time constraints limited me to the south – were charming.

My thoughts on what I saw of Bali are as follows. It is not a chronological travelogue; more like a scrapbook of impressions and recommendations. Continue reading



THE VALUE OF VAGINAS
An acceptable way to wear fur

An acceptable way to wear fur

The amazing response to my last post was quite an eye-opener. Initially, my blog was just a way to share my general musings with friends and family back home after I moved to Thailand. I wasn’t bothered about page views, although I’d had some good critical feedback on some past pieces. Even so, the most views my site had had in a day previously was a little over 200. But my “10 ways expats can avoid being mistaken for tourists” post has now picked up more than 3,300 views!

Since I’d only posted it on my own Facebook page and sent an email to a few people I already knew, I was very pleasantly surprised by this. It was my own experience of something going “viral”, and while 3,300+ views is a pretty modest stat in modern internet terms, it was achieved through the branch of “shares” on Facebook, Twitter and the link being posted on various forums. While technology has changed a lot in recent years, the adage remains that the best kind of advertising is a recommendation, so for my work to be publicised by people I don’t know whatsoever is a nice seal of approval.

As I hadn’t had particularly big numbers before, I hadn’t looked much at the referrers, search engine terms, and so on, but when I got the huge spike in views, I had a look at the WordPress stats page to see how people were finding their way to the site. I had a few surprises and laughs at some of the search engine terms that had directed people here, but one word in particular stood out because it cropped up over and over again.

Vagina. Continue reading



10 WAYS EXPATS CAN AVOID BEING MISTAKEN FOR TOURISTS
Nice tan!

Nice tan!

Everybody needs somebody… to look down on, and few lifeforms get less respect than the lowly tourist. In Bangkok, they are easy to spot – bright pink skin, dripping in sweat, wearing a Chang Beer T-shirt and scratching their heads over folding maps and the BTS ticketing system. Tourists are naïve, vulnerable, confused and trusting – everything that the noble expat is not! But to the average Thai conman and opportunist, every foreigner is a potential tourist, and to every tourist, anyone of their same colour is likely one of their kin. But the resident farang is a wiser, nobler and all-round higher class of foreigner, and we must flaunt our status with our behaviour and habits. However, this is something that can only be cultivated over time, with experience – unless you consult my handy guide to…

10 WAYS EXPATS CAN AVOID BEING MISTAKEN FOR TOURISTS

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MOMENTS, EVENTS AND PEOPLE THAT DEFINED 2012

As the end of last year approached and people started talking resolutions and fresh starts, and so on, I thought I didn’t really have much to report from 2012. My work had remained much the same, I had no new love interests, I continued to live in the same place, I had only one visitor and I’d only taken one foreign holiday. However, I had a browse through my Facebook friends list and phone contacts to jog my memory and it turns out 2012 was actually pretty packed, albeit mostly with small moments, but perhaps a long list of different – and mostly happy – moments is a good year after all. On that note, in no particular order, I present the people, places and things that shaped the past year for me. Continue reading



THE THAI SMILE: LOST IN BANGKOK, FOUND IN KO SICHANG

Ko Sichang offers Thai countryside atmosphere and attitudes by the sea

Thailand’s image needs all the help it can get right now. Last month’s dramatic footage of bomb sites and gun fights across Bangkok played out internationally and many countries have yet to lift their travel warnings to the erstwhile Land of Smiles.

For sure, confidence has been rocked, and even beyond the photos of war on the streets, the reputation of Thai people as gentle, benevolent Buddhists has been tarnished by displays of downright ugly behaviour during such fractious times.

Whether the protesters promising – and almost succeeding – to turn Bangkok into a “sea of fire”, or their opponents cheering and swearing as the death toll neared a hundred, there was precious little positive humanity on display.

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THE LEO BEER CALENDAR CONTROVERSY: NO SEX (OR BEER) PLEASE, WE’RE THAI

It is often assumed that the people who complain loudest about something have the most to hide. That’s the prevailing logic about homophobia – that those who hate gays do so because they are seeking to deny something about themselves.
And it is certainly the case with the recent controversy over the Leo Beer 2010 calendar launched here in Thailand last week – and promptly banned from sale or distribution by the government.

The reason for the ban was two-fold. First of all, alcohol advertising laws in Thailand forbid the linking of alcohol with fun. Secondly, nudity is forbidden in the media. As this was a calendar promoting beer through the use of body-painted (so, officially nude in that they weren’t actually clothed, even though they were at least visually covered) models, it was always likely to offend someone in a position of power.

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TRAVEL WRITING: BUTARITARI ISLAND, KIRIBATI

Butaritari, Kiribati

As far as desirable jobs go, travel writer must be up there with sports reporter, beer taster or porn star – in other words, what could be better than to be paid for doing something you love?

So you can imagine how pleased I am to finally get published as a travel writer, in yesterday’s South China Morning Post. The piece covers a wonderful adventure I had on the remote island of Butaritari in the Republic of Kiribati.

It was a real buzz when I got the message that they had bought my article, and even more so when it was printed yesterday. While I have never (not yet?) been a porn star, and while my beer-tasting experience is extensive but never recompensed, I have done my fair share of sports reporting, namely in boxing, which is a sport I love. There was a big buzz when I made my paid-for boxing writing debut, too, but travel writing is an even bigger deal.

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A WEEK IN MALAYSIA PART 2: LANGKAWI

I spent last week in Malaysia wth my girlfriend, Waew. It was our first proper holiday together and my first proper trip to Malaysia (I did a brief border hop from Brunei in 2005 but that was essentially just to tick another country off the list). It was also my first proper holiday in South East Asia since moving to Thailand last year, having so far failed to live up to my promise to myself to see as much of the region as possible while living here.We flew in and out of Penang, where we spent half of the week. The other half we spent in Langkawi. It proved a decent mix of city and countryside, culture and relaxation, with stays in three locations.

Back to Part 1: Penang

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Thrills and refreshment at Langkawi’s Seven Wells

CENANG

The morning ferry from Penang to Langkawi necessitated a pre-dawn wakening in order to drive from Batu Ferringhi to Georgetown, drop off the hire car and walk to the port (no taxis being available at that time) in time for check-in 45 minutes before departure. Consequently we got to drive through a pretty sunrise and negotiate a sleepy Georgetown before the city and its inhabitants fully woke.

Continue reading



A TASTE OF THE UK AS CHAOS REIGNS ON THE RAILS
Half and half

Half and half

Ah, a taste of home. And no, I don’t mean a jar of Marmite or a pint of bitter. I mean a newspaper headline that will be all-too familiar to anyone who is from or has lived in Britain. “4,000 stranded in rail chaos” was splashed on the front page of today’s Bangkok Post.

Rail chaos. Words that are so familiar to the Brit, they’re almost like the lyrics from a favourite childhood song. Nostalgic, even.

The story is that strike action forced the cancellation of the majority of services in, to and from the southern province of Surat Thani, with passengers left stranded or to find alternative means of transport.

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