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Fishing in Bangkok

Update: Following a 2 week meditation in the intense heat of Calcutta, Kristin and I spent a month traveling through Bali, and the Gili Islands of Indonesia, before landing in Bangkok on August 3. Many stories to tell, but we’ll begin again in Bangkok:

The first night in Bangkok, an hour after landing, I got spat on by a snarling dog that was hiding in one of the hundreds of alleyways lining the main streets. It hurled itself against my leg, but quickly backed off when Kristin brandished a Thai water bottle, ready to counterattack. Following an epic journey through India, Nepal and Indonesia, Thailand conceptually seemed like one more appendage on a many-limbed Shiva. We quickly realized it needed to be put on a short leash.

Seeking relief, we sought out a late-night dinner in the expat safe-haven of Khao San Road. The food we found however, was authentically Thai as the Olive Garden is Italian – the pad thai we attempted, at a joint named ironically, ‘Pad Thai’, was limpid, drowning in a sea of oil and spicelessness.

Khao San is haunted by the ghosts of hippie-past, which now appear to be a United Nations of 21 year old backpacking Spring Breakers. The latest craze is a fish massage, where you stick your feet in a tepid pool of backpacker stew, and hundreds of small fish nibble on the dead skin of your feet, creating a ‘massage-like’ feeling. One backpacker with open wounds, scabs and a few haphazardly placed band-aids, dangled her legs in the water, the fish nibbling away at her pressure points.

Khao San Road

Khao San Road

Street meat

Street meat

Thai Fish Massage

Thai Fish Massage

We escaped Khao San and hailed a hot pink taxi as fuschias and lime greens drove by, a fleet of cars on acid. By our luck, our driver happened to be an ex-Thai boxing champion, Mr. Kumron Sawatdipol, with a record of 110-47, and a stack of boxing magazines strewn across the back ledge of his taxi window. After learning about his background - he couldn’t remember much about his fights, but had a jagged scar above his left eye - it became obvious we needed to see a fight with him. Once Kristin began to converse with him in Thai he started to swoon and promptly offered to take us to Lumphini Stadium, the premier Muay Thai venue in Thailand.

The stadium was electric, the crowd a burly kind of Thai stock exchange, raising hands and yelling bets as the fighters warily eyed each other. Kristin and I took our seats ringside, separated from the second and third tier by a chain-linked fence. The crowd above hurled themselves against the barriers, yelling ‘Ohh, Ayy’ with each landed kick, spittle flying from their mouths.

San Chai, the main event and holder of the champion belt, and his challenger Kuncho began the match by performing the Muay Thai ritual of Ram Muay, a complex and weaving dance of veneration for their masters. They executed a series of elaborate bows, several times facing the crowd and gracefully flapping their arms in unison, balancing on one foot like ribbon-clad flamingoes. Kristin tried to get up-close to snap some photos next to a male fan videotaping the pre-match drama, only to be pushed back by a bouncer pointing to a small placard on the canvas mat stating, “WOMEN are NOT ALLOWED on stage”. She didn’t take it lightly.

Muay Thai embrace

Muay Thai embrace

Men only

Men only

Find Kristin in the crowd

Find Kristin in the crowd

As the fighters came together, San Chai’s opening salvo was a long, graceful kick, easily ducked by Kuncho. We were propelled out of our seats, now with enthusiasm, up as close to the ring as we could get, next to the friends and family of the challenger. As the challenger, Kuncho began to assert himself, his grandmother grabbed Kristin’s hand and began shaking it in both of hers while screaming her grandsons name and smiling at her. San Chai began to lose ground, each kick echoed by the increasingly unruly crowd, which sensed an upheaval in the works. The grandmother became ecstatic, and as the closing bell rang and the challenger was declared the winner, Kristin and the grandmother did a victory dance, the crowd roaring in approval.

Our taxi driver, happy to be immersed in his old sport, led us away, ending the night with a midnight drive through the flower market, a nocturnal array of greens and shimmering golds. When San Chai fell, it was obvious the crowd loved an underdog, and in retrospect so did we. Mighty Bangkok has its share of shadowy streets, and sordid back alleys; the tourists and kids come here in the thousands, nibbling away like massage-fish at whatever the city has to offer, but there is always the the elegant, graceful side full of tradition, that offers a counter.

Next stop, onto the southern islands of Thailand - Ko Tao and Ko Samui..

323 comments to Fishing in Bangkok

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