27 April, 2016

Started From the Bottom, Now We’re Here

Michele McDonald was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. She recently graduated from the University of Dayton with a B.S. in Adolescent to Young Adult Social Studies Education and minors in German and History. Michele is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Rachprachanukroh 8 School in the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat.
In her free time, Michele loves to explore Thailand 
and eat as much delicious Thai food as she can. 
She also enjoys exercise and practises several martial arts, including Muay Thai and Kung Fu. In the future, Michele hopes to work as a journalist in order to continue to travel and learn more about the world. She also plans to continue her journey as a lifelong martial artist.

To say I love martial arts is an understatement; it is an addiction. I have been practicing martial arts for almost six years now, earning a first degree black belt in Shaolin Do Kung Fu, and also more recently beginning my journey in the world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. Naturally, Muay Thai was one of my primary reasons for applying to teach English in Thailand. I wanted the opportunity to live and train in a culture where a martial art is the national sport. While teaching, I have had little to no time to train and immerse myself in Muay Thai as I would like. Luckily, our Fulbright in Thailand grants us a unique opportunity to pursue an internship of our own personal or professional choosing for five weeks during our school’s summer vacation. I obviously wanted to do something with Muay Thai and, after a referral from a previous Fulbright researcher, I ended up in the province of Buriram, which is located in Isaan (the name of northeast Thailand) working at Wor. Watthana, a nonprofit Muay Thai gym.

Muay Thai, or more affectionately known as “The Art of Eight Limbs,” is similar to Western Kickboxing; however, it allows the use of knees and elbows (hence the eight limbs), and also utilizes a clinch, which is more or less standing grappling. Just like baseball, basketball, or football is to America, Muay Thai is to Thailand; turn on the TV on a weekend afternoon or evening and you can find Muay Thai fights easily. While Bangkok is considered the Mecca of Muay Thai, with the giant Lumpinee Stadium and dozens of famous gyms and fighters, a majority of these fighters come from Isaan, the poorest and most undeveloped area of Thailand. This trend is very similar to American boxing; much like the young Mike Tyson’s and Bernard Hopkins’ growing up in the projects, these future Muay Thai fighters have little to nothing. The grittiness and durability that can only develop from living in extreme poverty easily translates into the world of Muay Thai. For many of these children, Muay Thai is a way to escape the cycle of poverty and also a means to provide for their families.

Pictures of the gym

Wor. Watthana was started in January of 2015 by Boom and Frances Watthanaya. Boom was born in Thailand and the gym itself is actually located in front of the house he grew up in. Frances is Canadian, but came to Thailand to train in Muay Thai, which consequently was how the couple met. Although they had been living in Canada with their young daughter for several years, they moved back to Thailand a few years ago in order to take care of Boom’s father. They had no intentions of starting a gym, and when I asked Frances about it, she describes it almost as an “accident.” When her and her husband started training at her father-in-law’s house, kids just started showing up and working out with them. Thus, Wor. Watthana was born. It started out with them and the kids training in the dirt, but through monthly sponsors and donations, they now have a boxing ring, heavy bags, kickboxing gear, and a roof over their heads. I have some pictures of the facility below. From a Western perspective, the gym looks very meager, but this Muay Thai gym actually has substantially more equipment than an average gym in Isaan.

My initial goal for my internship (other than train Muay Thai) was to teach English to fighters at the gym, as well as other members of the community who were interested. Learning English is crucial for Muay Thai fighters because it opens up international opportunities as a trainer in countries all over the world. These fighters do not need to be these amazing, undefeated champions to work abroad (although that definitely helps!); they just need to know English so they can properly teach. Although I did spend the bulk of my time tutoring fighters at the gym and also volunteering at a local school, my internship evolved into something more complex. As a martial arts enthusiast, I knew a lot about Muay Thai and Thai culture from a Western perspective; however, I knew little to nothing about the Muay Thai world in Thailand, which is exceedingly more intricate than one would think, especially when coupled with the corruption of the surrounding community. As I was training and interacting with Boom, Frances, and the rest of the fighters at the gym, I was being exposed to a darker side of Thailand that was leaving me very disillusioned and frustrated with not only my original perception of the country, but also my purpose over here as a whole. Why was I here? Am I actually making a difference? Am I actually helping these kids learn English? These questions were buzzing in my head for weeks until I finally decided to redirect the goal of my internship to researching the positive impacts of Muay Thai on an impoverished community.

The three female fighters at the gym, Min, Namning, and Eap, after sparring.

With the help of Boom and Frances, I conducted a series of interviews with the kids at the gym (ranging from ages 9 to 14), as well as members of their families, to see how Wor. Watthana and Muay Thai in general has had a positive impact on their lives. These children and their families have nothing; they are in some of the lowest forms of poverty I have ever seen and, when you tack on the low-quality education and problems within the village itself, there is no escape. Muay Thai, however, lets these children break the cycle of poverty that they have unwillingly been sucked into. Fighting gives these kids the opportunity to succeed, dream, and provide a better life for themselves and their families. I would like to make it clear that I am not trying to paint Thailand in a negative light; that being said, there are problems and issues that need to be acknowledged. These are things that I have witnessed and was told in my interviews. This is the reality these people live in on a daily basis, and Wor. Watthana Muay Thai gym has provided a hope for a better life.

One of the first questions I asked the fighters and their families was to describe their living conditions, as well as the problems that they encounter on a daily basis. The fighters were pretty much in consensus with one major problem: gang fights. There are no extracurricular activities whatsoever for these kids in the village, so many older kids form gangs purely for something to do. In the words of Frances, boredom is deadly. They drink, do drugs, and start fights. It is important to note that these are not fights like we would see in schools in the U.S., where they just throw some punches and then break it up. These gangs stab, stomp, and try to hurt with the intention of killing. There have been numerous times where adolescents have been beaten to death or to the point of mental retardation. The worst part is that these fights are a common occurrence, According to Dee, an aunt to one of the top fighters at the gym, things like this happen on almost a daily basis and the local government makes absolutely no attempts to stop it. In her opinion, they do not care. They do not care if people die. They do not care about the villagers. They do not care about improving the quality of life for these people whatsoever. I can personally attest to this through my own observations also. There is a complete lack of basic infrastructure, with dirt roads or roads only half paved and full of potholes, which make for dangerous driving and many motorcycle accidents. There is also garbage everywhere; it is one of the most polluted environments I have ever seen.

Another enormous economic and social issue in Isaan is exodus of both parents to find work in Bangkok. Because Isaan is so poor and it is very difficult to find work that will provide a substantial wage, one or even both parents will migrate to Bangkok in order to pick up menial labor and send back wages to their families. In a recent article by the Bangkok Post (link listed at the end of the article), this leaves villages with almost no working adults. Children are living with grandparents and because there is an absence of either one or both parental figures, these children are suffering from malnourishment and development/behavior issues. The grandparents don’t have the energy to properly care for young children or provide them with proper food and care. Children have less success in school because they do not have a parent to teach them how to read or write and have problems developing social and emotional skills. This situation is very common for the fighters at the gym. Many of them do not have a parental figure in their life and, if they do have a parent in the village, most likely they are an alcoholic.

You also see situations where the child is completely abandoned by their parents. Bpaet, one of the top prospects at Wor. Watthana, is this child. He does not remember his mother and his father migrated for work when he was young, forcing Bpaet to move in with his aunt, Dee. He only visited maybe once or twice a year and sent back money now and then. Once his father remarried, he cut off all contact with Bpaet and stopped sending money. He only very recently tried to reconnect with Bpaet, but this is only because Bpaet is now twelve years old and considered “old enough to work.” This is a horrible story, but unfortunately a common one for children in this area of Thailand.

So what drew these kids to Muay Thai? For many of them, including Bpaet, it was just something to do after school since there are no extracurricular activities. When they are at the gym, they are away from all the negativity that surrounds them in the village: violence, drugs, and alcohol. Wor. Watthana is a safe space for them to exercise and to be part of a positive community. Another reason is self-defense. The girls, Min and Namning, said they wanted to learn how to protect themselves if they were attacked. To Min, there was also the appeal of participating in a cultural sport. As the national sport of Thailand, it was important to her to preserve the sport as the country evolves and transforms through outside influences. The final, and probably the most obvious reason for fighting, is money. According to Frances, Muay Thai fighters will earn a minimum of 300 baht (about 9-10 USD) for one fight (win or lose), which is equal to one days’ wages working menial labor in Bangkok. Ten minutes in a ring versus hours of exhausting and tedious work; I think the choice is clear. All of the kids and their families have benefited from the additional income they earn through the fights they take. They can provide food and clothes for themselves and their families. And with the more fights they have and the more skilled they become, they can earn considerably larger purses and opportunities to fight at the big shows, like in Bangkok.

My final question was about Wor. Watthana itself: how has the gym had a positive impact on the fighters and the community? While interviewing Boom, the owner/trainer of the gym, he said the main goals for the gym was to keep kids away from alcohol, drugs, and all the other negativity in the village. The gym itself was to be a safe space and community center to give the kids something to do after school or in the summer. It can be for people who love Muay Thai and want to fight, or people looking to stay fit and healthy; it is open to fighters and non-fighters alike. Most importantly, according to Boom, the gym and Muay Thai gives these kids a chance to dream. It presents them with an opportunity to be successful and escape poverty. Even if they struggle in school or do not have the connections for government jobs, learning Muay Thai at Wor. Watthana allows them to pursue future careers as Muay Thai trainers abroad. They can learn English through Boom and Frances, as well as from the other foreigners who visit the gym (like myself), which opens even more doors for employment. Overall, the gym and its owners, Boom and Frances, are here for the kids; they are not trying to profit off of them and their successes in the ring. They want these kids to succeed not only just in Muay Thai, but in life as well.

With these goals in mind and based on the other interviews I conducted, I would say Wor. Watthana has been very successful with the positive impact it has had on the kids and the community. Every single fighter told me the main benefit of the gym was that it kept them away from drugs, alcohol, and gang violence. Bpaet was very adamant to point out that this is the only place in the entire village that makes an attempt to do this; there are no government or school programs designed to keep kids out of these detrimental activities. Gael, the mother of two fighters at the gym, also noted that Wor. Watthana provides the community with a sense of pride and accomplishment that previously was not there. The villagers are proud knowing that there is a successful Muay Thai gym in the area where their children can learn a cultural sport and earn an income from it. Even though the local government and school do not support the gym or the kids that pursue it, the village has greatly benefitted from its presence.

As I reflect on the past five weeks of working at Wor. Watthana and teaching English to the fighters, my main takeaway is that this gym absolutely NEEDS to be here. The effect it has had on the kids and their families is immeasurable. Not only do they have a way of earning money, but the discipline, confidence, and pride they take in themselves and their training is evident. The kids do not have to worry about gangs, drugs, or alcohol; they have martial art that they can now dedicate themselves to and make a career in, if they choose to do so. Uncle Don, one of the key supporters and assistant trainers at the gym, made a significant comment at the end of his interview. “Muay Thai is a way for people with nothing to make money and improve their lives. You can train hard and go far in this sport. It is an escape.” The kids at Wor. Watthana are truly taking advantage of this. They started from the bottom with nothing; now they are here with everything to gain.

Group photo of the trainers and fighters at Wor Watthana

Wor. Watthana is a nonprofit Muay Thai gym in Nakhon Ratchasima province. It is important to note that they are 100% Western funded through individual and corporate sponsors because they take little to no money from their fighters. They need donations and funding to remain an active gym in this village. If you are interested in making a donation or know someone who would be interested in making a donation, please go to http://www.worwatthana.com/ for more information. I can promise you this is a worthy cause!


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for visiting Michele! We hope to have you back again!