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



ANOTHER YEAR IN PARADISE

Sorry to use a cliché, but the past 12 months have continued to be spent in tropical Thailand, and while Bangkok lacks the beaches and tranquility that most would associate with an earthly Eden, it has, for the most part, been a year that was good to me.

What a shame that the country’s political scene is once again threatening to spoil 2014 almost as soon as it starts, but for now my focus is on what did happen, rather than what might, as I sum up 2013.

FAMILY

Grandma taking a break from one of our treks

Grandma taking a break from one of our treks

Thankfully, all my loved ones remained fit and well last year, including my three 80-something grandparents. Most importantly, my Scottish Grandma, who has always been full of vigour, has remained so since the death of Grandpa in 2012. If anything, she has thrived, having now been freed from the duties of caring for him virtually full time in the decade or so before he passed away. She has travelled, met her great-grandchildren and been busier than ever in her community. On top of this, when I visited her in June, we enjoyed some brisk walks amid the glorious Highland scenery and she set a pace that would put many people half her age to shame. Long may this continue!

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MY BOOK DEBUT: TO THAILAND WITH LOVE
To Thailand With Love

To Thailand With Love

Having been published in newspapers and magazines, I have now, with the release of To Thailand With Love, completed the trinity of print media.

I have been referring to it as “my book debut”, rather than “my book”, as I am just one of several contributors to TTWL. It is the latest in the “With Love” series, edited by Nabanita Dutt and published by Things Asian Press of San Francisco, which combines travel writing with guidebook-style pointers and listings. Typically, the writers provide features on travel experiences in the country and append info for the reader to visit the destination for themselves, should they wish to. Previous “With Love” books have focused on Burma, Cambodia, Japan, Vietnam and North India, while a Nepal edition was published concurrently with the Thailand release.

Quite apart from my involvement, I would recommend any of these books if you plan to travel to one of the countries covered, or if you generally have an interest in them. The “With Love” entries offer a slew of out-of-the-ordinary stories and ideas which you might not find in more traditional guidebooks, nor hear from “ordinary” tourists.

I have three stories in the Thailand book, covering a wander around Khlong Toey Market (a totally authentic fresh market with lots of weird sights and smells), a trip to Bangkok’s Middle Eastern quarter (you can be transported to Arabia for three Sukhumvit sois and eat some things you won’t find elsewhere in Thailand, including sheep’s testicles), and dinner at a “jungle food” restaurant in Phatum Thani (crocodile, cobra and much more is on the menu).

There’s plenty more to digest from the other writers too, divided into chapters covering food, must-see attractions, spirituality, hidden treasures, shopping, remote destinations and tips on local life, volunteering and more. Complementing all this is some quite charming photography by Marc Schultz.

To Thailand With Love is available at Dasa Book Cafe in Bangkok, from Barnes & Noble in the United States, and can be shipped worldwide from Amazon. If you would prefer to order a copy from a bookstore of your choice, the ISBN numbers are ISBN-13: 978-1-934159-11-8 and ISBN-10: 1-934159-11-5.



5 FOREIGN FOODS THAT THAILAND DOES VERY BADLY
Yuck!

Yuck!

Thailand justifiably has a reputation for producing some of the world’s best food, and as with any national cuisine, the best Thai food can be found in the country itself. Thais who travel will often bemoan the inferior quality of Thai food overseas, while foreigners who have visited here will never look at another country’s green curry in quite the same way again. Hell, I once had the misfortune of ordering a plate of pad Thai in Manchester and finding they substituted tamarind sauce for tomato ketchup!

Yet exactly the same logic can be applied in Thailand – if you’re looking for good foreign food, you might be best off going to the country in question. Just because the local food in Thailand can be mind-blowing, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the kitchens of the Land of Smiles can perform similar culinary feats with dishes from abroad.

People who grow up with a certain type of food know it best. Add in the scarcity of certain ingredients in certain countries, plus how relatively new some foreign food is to Thailand, and stir in some peculiar local twists, tastes and takes on foreign dishes, and you have…

5 FOREIGN FOODS THAT THAILAND DOES VERY BADLY

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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



KO LANTA – NATURAL BEAUTY RUINED BY UGLY PEOPLE

Island-hopping fun in Ko Lanta

If it’s the people that make a place, then Ko Lanta’s beauty is merely superficial.

An Andaman Sea island district in Krabi province, inevitably it boasts clean, warm sea water, miles of beaches, countless palm trees and a laidback atmosphere that attracts many visitors.

However, such assets lose their allure once a visitor experiences human failings on Lanta that range from merely unprofessional through to dangerous and even criminal.

I love Krabi. In fact, I’d probably rank it my favourite Thai province outside of Bangkok. So I will doubtless return, although I’ll lose no sleep if I never set foot on Lanta again after a shambolic final day which involved worry, danger, frustration, anger and eventually the police.

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RUNGSAN AND THE REWARD FOR HONESTY

Rungsan and Jamie

“Hey, where you go?” “How much you pay?” “Meter not work.” Phrases that are all-too familiar for anybody who has been to  Bangkok, beginning as soon as you leave the arrivals area of the airport and following you all along downtown,  around the visitor attractions and surrounding your hotel.  Yes, it’s the hawking call of the notorious Bangkok taxi driver.

There are an estimated 60,000 of them in the city, and to be fair, the majority of them are reasonable enough. It’s just the majority of them do not congregate at the airport, the tourist traps, the nightspots, the malls and the big hotels. It is the unscrupulous few who dominate these places, who can spot a freshly arrived holidaymaker at a hundred paces, who can speak enough English to negotiate a con, and who foster the negative image many visitors take home of the corrupt cabbie.

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