Fighting Tourists for Booze in Thailand
Thailand is a bit of an anomaly in South East Asia in that it’s the only nation in the area to have never been colonised. This was due to a series of able rulers in the early 20th Century, back when the country was still called Siam. And perhaps because of that, it’s been the most stable nation in the region, which isn’t hard when you look at the macabre recent histories of Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, just to name a few. Yes, Thailand has had recent political turmoil, but that’s been relatively bloodless, and its strength in exporting and its flourishing tourism industry have helped it remain an economic anchor for the continent and a middle power globally.
So it was my first day in Thailand, right, and I was totally fucked – like, proper off-my-nut ‘drinking loudly in the sun till I’m sunburnt then carrying on drinking slightly less loudly in the shade’ kind of pissed. You know the kind – the taste of metal filling your mouth, words bouncing off each as they flounder out of your face to whoever is in a two-metre radius, annoying, boorish, fucking…drunk.
I’d flown into Phuket that morning and was already on a boat towards the “legendary” island of Koh Phi Phi, which exploded into the tourist consciousness in the early 2000s by way of being near the beach from The Beach, which, if you’re like me, is a film you fucking hate and wish everyone who’s been inspired to travel by watching it would shut the fuck up about it and stop fucking playing that guitar near me ‘cos honest to god if I fucking hear another breathy acoustic cover of Daft Punk or some shit I’m going to go mental.
I leer into the hostel and dash my stuff in the room which, like most tourist hostels, smells like moist socks, hormones and loneliness. I was told of a place there called the Reggae Reggae Bar that, despite instilling a more laidback immediate impression with its name, was a place tourists could go to have three-round Muay Thai fights for the ultimate prize of a free bucket of alcohol.
Now if I’m honest, I really quite enjoy fighting and drinking, so I was happy to take part. Happiness is actually a strange thing when you think about it. Am I really happy in the moment of having a scrap – with its starter of pure, surging anxiety; its main course of frantic thrashing served with large erratic dollops of pain; and its dessert of slight confusion yet mostly relief that the relentless hurting and physical exhaustion had stopped? No, of course I’m not happy; I’m terrified, alone, reduced to desolate animal instinct.
Happiness, maybe, is a purely retrospective condition we apply to moments when our bodies have told us we deserve it, when those freewheeling chemicals reward our brains with fleeting moments of clarity, zen, enlightenment, inner peace, whatever you want to call it – when we finally become unthinking beings as opposed to considered projections. That is really what is happening when you fight. The only thing you experience phenomenologically is the task at hand, and in those swirling, morphing moments, you are free from the everyday blocks that plague your mind: ennui, sadness, embarrassment, shame, pride, boredom. You are just, for once, living, inhaling, hurting, winning or losing, in the moment.
So anyway, this dude I had to fight was this quite hench-looking white Australian with dreadlocks. My instant reaction was How embarrassing it would be for me to lose to a white guy with dreadlocks, but as I checked him out (YES MEN DO IT TOO), I saw he looked like he could probably handle himself. Suddenly, my cocky male assurance was replaced with a beautifully familiar fear of public shame. We were told to put on our shorts, shin guards and gloves to the side of the ring, and we both did so in stunning silence.
For a place that called itself the Reggae Reggae Bar, it had an unnerving propensity to play sub David Guetta-esque EDM, and that’s what we were introduced to. I noticed, in my drunken stupor, or maybe I felt, in that stupor (it’s hard to tell retrospectively) that Thailand had finally gone fully meta on its tourist population. There we were two burly white dudes, both smelling of alcohol, ready to fight, for the entertainment of, well, mostly burly white dudes who smelt of alcohol. We were the tourist attraction. We’d become what we both paid money to notice with detached aloofness, i.e. cheap entertainment.
To be honest, I fucking rated it. Not only did I enjoy the fight for reasons pretentiously detailed above, but I loved the fact that Thai tourism had noted a western tourist inclination to enjoy absolute shithousery and set up the perfect conditions to make money from it.
The Australian dreadlocks guy basically battered me. I was trying to use my limited boxing skills, but the guy had obviously done Muay Thai before. I knew that because my shins hurt within five seconds, and then my thighs were blazing with searing pain in 10. But I persisted, and connected with a few punches, and in the end we both drew the match, which meant a bucket of alcohol each. Huzzah!
What did I learn from this experience?
Nothing. But Thailand is a great country.
Photos by the author