Elephant’s Leg


2015: BOXING RINGS, ENGAGEMENT RINGS, TRAVEL AND TRAGEDY

As with the previous year, 2015 was largely a positive one, especially on the personal front, but I also lost two people I was very fond of.  But one positive side of death is when cherished people are remembered warmly, and even though they may be of scant use to the deceased, tributes are a comfort to those they left behind, and my two friends who passed away were very dear souls. But I will start with the good news…

PERSONAL

Fai and I in Krabi, post-engagement

Fai and I in Krabi, post-engagement

The biggest and best news came in October, when my girlfriend Fai agreed to marry me after I proposed to her  in the sea off Koh Phi Phi. We’d been together for about two and a half years, and in that time I have learned she shared most of my ideas about what we want in life, and on top of that she is very easy to get on with. Being in a relationship in which there is almost never a fight or major disagreement is a state of affairs worth holding on to, and so I am very glad she said ‘yes’.

Our engagement came roughly a month after we started living together . That was another big step, and not just for the act of cohabiting itself, but also because it meant leaving the place in which I had lived for the longest consecutive time since childhood – the Elephant Tower, after which this blog is named. Nevertheless, the move has been good, as we now live in a bigger place than my previous one, and Fai is an excellent flatmate.

Work continued to go well, now a year and a half into my tenure as foreign news editor. However it was a bad year financially for the wider company, suggesting Thailand’s position as one of the few countries to still consume print media to a profitable degree is under threat. Certainly the sight of 80% of train passengers glued to their smartphones is not an encouraging sight.

BOXING

My year in boxing was a rich and varied one, highlighted by competing at the annual Operation Smile Fight Night. I have been trying to get a spot on the bill for years and it finally came to fruition in October, as I faced off against Tony Wrigley. You can watch the full fight here:

The Op Smile Fight Night is always a spectacular affair, with hundreds of people turning out in style for a very glamorous evening’s entertainment and raising a heap of cash for a very worthy charity. Operation Smile has had a long association with the Bangkok boxing scene, and everybody who’s been involved with it in some form or other has fallen in love with the cause. A lot of charities are very corporate, but Op Smile is one where the results of fundraising are entirely tangible, and lives literally are changed in minutes. The money raised pays for operations for poor children affected with cleft lips and palates. The surgery is quick and the results permanent. I hope to join one of the Op Smile missions this year to see for myself the good work being done.

Hamze after winning in January

Hamze after winning in January

I also added to my experiences outside the ropes with several firsts. In January, and then again in May, I worked in the corner of a professional boxer for the first time. I seconded Mohamadreza Hamze, helping dispense some English-language instructions alongside his Iranian compatriots. This combination worked because they spoke his native language, while Hamze valued my knowledge of the sport. He – I like to say “we”! – won both times, first a knockout against Kwanpichit Twinsgym and then a unanimous decision over Komsak Niusuk, the latter time on TV. They were both very rewarding experiences, albeit very nerve-wracking ones given that the stakes are that much higher at pro level.

I later tried my hand at judging, as I was one of the three ringside arbiters at the second edition of King of the Pride, Lion’s Head Boxing‘s white collar boxing series. It was a privilege to sit ringside and have one of the final says in the outcomes, and again a bit stressful to be one of the three guys to hold the boxers’ fates in our hands. Several of the fights were very close but I believe we found the right winners, as none of the verdicts were met with disapproval from either the crowd or the fighters themselves.

View from ringside at Amnat v Zou

View from ringside at Amnat v Zou

While I’ve written about boxing since 2000, most notably for British magazine Boxing News, I’d never covered a true superfight before. In March, I returned to Macau to report on Amnat Ruenroeng versus Zou Shiming for both BN and the Bangkok Post. Those names might not be A-listers in the west, but believe me they are Asian superstars – especially Zou, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and flagship boxer of promoter Bob Arum’s drive to crack the potentially massive Chinese market. The sheer size of China’s population alone meant this might have been the most-watched boxing match of all time, with an estimated billion viewers tuning in. And I was reporting from ringside at The Venetian, enjoying the pomp and prestige of an HBO-televised casino show. It was just as grand as anything you’d see in Las Vegas, and it was a pleasure to be a part of it. Unfortunately for Chinese fans, the Thai champion retained his IBF flyweight belt, putting a large dent in Macau’s plans to supplant Vegas as a new boxing mecca.

DEATHS

One of the friends I lost in 2015 was also a big part of my boxing life. Massimo Bettarelli had been a regular training partner of mine, a friend outside the gym, and a competitor at the aforementioned King of the Pride 2, where I was a judge. His fight with Richard Malpeli (see below) was a dramatic brawl. Massimo loved the experience and buzzed off boxing training. He was preparing for another match, in December, when he was shockingly taken from us by a heart attack at the age of just 37. That is a terribly young age to die under any circumstances, and even more so of a heart attack. Add also the fact he was a competition-fit athlete, and you can see why Massimo’s death was such a blow to all his friends and the Bangkok boxing community.

More important than his place in boxing was the place Massimo held in everyone’s hearts. This is not just posthumous schmaltz – he really was liked by everyone who met him. He was affable, funny, gregarious and talented; he was a filmmaker as well as a boxer, and was working on a movie project when he died. His death sent shockwaves far and wide, but it truly was an honour to know him.

Bangkok's best cabbie

Bangkok’s best cabbie

While Massimo was pretty well known, the death of an “ordinary” man saddened me deeply, but again it was someone who made a hugely positive impact on my life.

Rungsan Chintanawong was not a sportsman, nor a filmmaker. He was not an expat, nor a traveller. He was neither rich, nor famous. In a city of 10 million people, he was just another everyday guy scraping a living, unnoticed by almost everybody. I was one of the few who did notice him, and who had the pleasure of becoming his friend.

Rungsan was a taxi driver, one of the 60,000 in Bangkok. I’ve met hundreds of taxi drivers here, but none of them made an impression on me like he did. Perhaps it was fate, but Rungsan was actually the very first taxi driver I met when I moved here, running me from the airport to my first accommodation. We hit it off immediately, and soon became friends. He actually died in 2014, but I didn’t learn about it until last year. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear upon learning of his death.

No, Rungsan was not a well-known man, but he unwittingly left a legacy with me and my relatives and friend who he met. I’m grateful that the Bangkok Post allowed me to write an obituary of sorts for this ordinary, yet remarkable, man. As archived Post content is for subscribers only, I have provided a screengrab of the page rather than a link to the article (click the image for a bigger view).

rungsan

TRAVEL

While I ventured overseas three times, including to one new country, and to several domestic destination, again including a new one, the highlight of my year in travel was actually going home in April – because accompanying me was Fai, who was not only seeing my homeland for the first time, but actually making her first ever trip abroad.

Many people travel to nearby countries first and then cast their nets wider as they gain more experience, but Fai’s maiden voyage outside Thailand was halfway across the world to a very different culture and climate – and she loved it.

A touch of the white stuff on the Cairngorms

A touch of the white stuff on the Cairngorms

My main worry was how she would fare with Britain’s notoriously inclement weather, but we were very lucky in that in only rained once during our entire two-week trip. And as for the cold, that actually worked to our advantage, as it snowed when we drove over the tops of the Cairngorms in Scotland. It was April, so very late in the year for snow, even in Scotland, so what a stroke of luck for Fai to experience that. We stopped the car so she could get out and experience what a lot of Thais can only dream about. The fact it was cold was a mere afterthought for her.

We did the usual circuit of visiting family in England, Wales and Scotland, plus took a day trip to London, so Fai got to experience a great cross-section of the UK. We did most of it by car, too, so she saw a lot more than if we’d used trains or planes.

My other overseas trips consisted of one return trip, and one new destination. The new one was a three-night visit with Fai in Ho Chi Minh City for New Year; the first time I’d been to Vietnam. The first thing that struck me was what strikes most people they arrive there – the motorbikes! The constant stream of motion, seemingly chaotic but somehow effective, makes Bangkok’s traffic seem calm. And if you’ve ever seen it for yourself, just imagine how much more intense it is when people are scrambling to get downtown for the new year fireworks, and then the scrum to leave afterwards.

Given the short-hop nature of the trip, we stuck to the usual tourist sights – a walking tour of the city taking in the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, a water puppets show and Ben Thanh Market, followed by day trips; one a tour of four river islands in the Mekong delta, and another to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, where Viet Cong sympathisers in the south lived underground in unimaginably tight conditions.

Vietnamese water puppets in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnamese water puppets in Ho Chi Minh City

The highlights were the water puppets, the Mekong trip (to see some of rural Vietnam), the tunnels, and of course the food. The war museum was grimly compelling, albeit a little one-sided in its presentation. However, it is now accepted that the United States’ role in the war was dubious to say the least so it was interesting to see the conflict presented through a different lens to that which I’m used to. On the other hand, the tour guides were southerners and therefore largely pro-US, and were quite free in their criticisms of Hanoi. They both assured me they wouldn’t – or couldn’t – be similarly forthright in front of fellow Vietnamese, as there is a fear of spies. One of our guides was almost spitting as he denounced the Reunification Palace and implored his customers not to go. Too late for us, but it was a reminder of how there are two sides to any war, and thus two ways a war is remembered. To Hanoi, the north, and communist sympathisers, the palace is a celebration of the “liberation” of Saigon; to southerners and more democratic-minded types, it is a symbol of defeat.

My return to Macau was for the aforementioned work purposes, and was only for a couple of nights. I didn’t get a chance to see anything I missed first time around (in November 2014) but it is a very pleasant city which I’d happily visit again. Perhaps I will combine it with Hong Kong, to where a former colleague recently moved.

Domestically, I went to a couple of new spots with Fai. First was a visit to Yasothon, her childhood home in the northeast, to visit her grandma and other family members. The local scenes were charming and bucolic, and her relatives cooked up a marvellous barbecued feast.

At the same time, we spent a night in Ubon Ratchathani, a bigger city with an airport a couple of hours’ drive from Yasothon, where we took in the annual Wax Festival. It was one of the most spectacular cultural sights I have seen in Thailand, with sculptures ranging in size from human body shapes to so big that they were transported on lorries. All were intricately carved and some even had moving parts!

Koh Larn

Koh Larn

For New Year 2015, we went to Koh Larn, an island not far off Pattaya. The islands itself looked delightful, with numerous beaches and vivid blue seas, but it was very busy given it was a holiday period. It was also interesting how the beaches seemed to be “segregated” – one was full of Chinese tourists, another seemed to have mostly Russians, another was popular with Thais, and so on.

In October was the trip to Krabi and the successful proposition to Fai. While it was not expressly the destination I had in mind for popping the question, it was the time I intended to do it, as we had planned that trip in advance anyway. Ultimately, there was a certain poetry to the location, as I visited Krabi on my very first trip to Thailand back in 2004, and was utterly enchanted by the region. Ao Nang, the province’s mainland beach hub, is spreading at a rapid rate and dwarfs the one I found 11+ years ago, but its scenery remains just as striking as ever.

Finally, a long-awaited visit by an old friend from home was a great reminder of how enchanting this country is to the first-timer. Nick Ellis took advantage of a recent breakup to book some R&R here. He arrived shortly before my Op Smile boxing match and helped corner me in that. Then, it was full-on sightseeing mode – first, the obvious sites in Bangkok such as Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, muay Thai at Ratchadamnoen, and so on, and then we hit the beach with a few days in Koh Chang. A longer account of Nick’s time here was posted earlier on this blog.

 



2014: MY YEAR IN REVIEW

The past 12 months have been some of the most fulfilling of my life. I made great strides both personally and professionally, and while death did intervene on a couple of occasions, and threaten on another, 2014 was by far a positive year overall.

The most interesting point, as far as I’m concerned, was my long-awaited return to competitive boxing. Also long-awaited was a promotion I secured in work. My relationship with Fai continued to progress and deepen, and I travelled overseas three times. On a sadder note, I lost two friends, and nearly lost a dear family member.

BOXING

(Mis-spelled) poster for my second 2014 fight

(Mis-spelled) poster for my second 2014 fight

In June, I finally returned to competitive boxing – a mere 17 years after my last match! To put that into perspective, it was a hiatus seven years longer than that which preceded George Foreman‘s famous comeback.

I had been training consistently for a couple of years but for various reasons had not secured a match. But last year, western amateur boxing really took off in Bangkok. Previously, foreign boxers in Thailand had two options – fight in muay Thai, or turn pro and get fed to the lions. Neither option appealed to me, and there has been no obvious amateur programme open to foreigners, so when The Lab organised its inaugural boxing show in June and offered me a spot on the card, I jumped at the chance.

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SIX OF THE BEST: BOXING EVENTS IN THAILAND

Continuing my “Six of the best” series marking my six years in Thailand, I present my pick of boxing matches and events I have experienced while living here (in date order).

1. PONGSAKLEK WONJONGKAM v SURIYAN SOR RUNGVISAI (October 8, 2010)

Pongsaklek and Suriyan have a domestic

Pongsaklek and Suriyan have a domestic

This rare all-Thai derby unfolded in deepest rural Si Sa Ket, with established legend Pongsaklek fending off a ferociously dogged challenge from young upstart Suriyan. It was expected to be a comfortable afternoon’s work for the massively more experienced WBC flyweight champion Pongsaklek, but Suriyan – little-known at the time, and fighting as Suriyan Por Chokchai – fought his heart out, pushing the older boxer to the brink over 12 exhausting rounds. Such was the level of desire exhibited by Suriyan – just 21 at the time – that when his body verged on collapse to the point that he vomited in the ring – and over Pongsaklek – in the midst of a draining 10th round, he took only the slightest of pauses before waging back into battle.

At the time, the feeling was that Pongsaklek must have past his peak to have been pushed so hard by the unheralded youngster, but in fact he would go on to score one of the signature wins of his career (see No. 2), while Suriyan would refine his crudely effective aggression and end up winning a world title of his own. Continue reading



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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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