In January of 2010, Neil Chamberlain left Brooklyn for a three-month tour of Muay Thai boxing camps in Thailand. While abroad he kept an online chronicle of his experiences that was followed voraciously by his family and friends. Neil returned from Thailand in early April; less than two weeks later he was dead at age twenty-eight, killed by a hit-and-run driver. In light of the brute intensities he’d so recently and lovingly chronicled, the cruel and sudden randomness of his passing was impossible to comprehend. Like many others close to him I’ve re-read this often since his accident, missing my friend, lusting after his sentences, wishing desperately that I could read even one more. It’s a great cliché to describe prose as “alive” and I’d be perfectly content if this is the last time I ever do so, but it’s a privilege to say it now, and to share Neil’s words and travels here. -Jack Hamilton
In Koh Samui (February 17, 2010)
I arrive in Koh Samui around noon on a Monday. The airport is tiny, a series of interconnected bamboo pavilions. I want to cash in a traveler’s check, but the lady at the exchange window taps a sign saying they don‘t do that here. Someone from the WMC Gym is supposed to meet me here, and I wait for about fifteen minutes with mounting anxiety before I realize I’m in the wrong spot. He’s where he’s supposed to be, and we get into his van.
Back in Bangkok this morning, Jitti warned me that Koh Samui was full of dangerous men. “They’ll cut you for your money,” he told me. I’ve heard from a few sources of the southern islands’ somewhat sinister reputation, anecdotes I only half-remember now, involving predatory expats and drugged drinks and violence on the beaches at night. We drive towards the gym on a winding dirt road, with thick stands of palm trees on either side and big jungled hills rising up all around us in the distance. I try to gauge the character of the landscape, if there’s anything sinister about it, but it adheres so closely to my notion of an island paradise that I feel like it could be any number of places. Then we turn onto the main road, which rings round the entire island, and most of the flora in the foreground gives way to dirt lots, and little strips of one-story buildings, and roadside stands selling gasoline in 40-oz glass bottles. The hills scroll on behind all this in parallax; every now and then I get a glimpse of ocean on the other side. We turn onto the Lamai beach road.
The beach road is very hectic and fairly long, and probably feels longer for being so repetitive. The buildings are all three stories or under, but that’s tall enough to hide entirely the beach on one side and the jungles on the other. I’d guess that fully half are bars and restaurants; most countries you can name are represented here by at least one bar or one restaurant, however loosely, even Sweden. Money changers and laundromats and massage parlors and sandal/t-shirt/towel shops and Indian tailors and tchotchke stalls and travel agencies and hostels make up the balance. Signs for resorts and driveways leading to resorts appear at regular intervals, though the resorts themselves are set back towards the beach, away from the hubbub. There are quite a few 7-11s, and a couple of Family Marts—a local chain, though whether to all of Thailand or just the island I’m not sure—and also an off-brand general store, which has in addition to groceries and beach supplies a selection of shitty toys and weird clothing and which is home to a very obese golden dog and where on my sixth day I finally find a mirror to shave with: a baby-blue compact that reads “Huggy Bear” on the front, underneath a cartoon drawing of a bear.
Despite being relatively narrow and packed with pedestrians, the beach road is host to heavy motor traffic, made up predominately of the scooters rented out by every third business as a sideline, but also metered cabs and red pick-up truck taxis that shuttle between Lamai and the two other principal beaches, and a big van with pictures of boxers on the side, that drones out a tape loop about upcoming Muay Thai fights in Chaweng. Arbitrary sections of the road are marked off as one-way, but this isn’t reliably observed, in my experience. Long stretches have no sidewalk, and where there is one it’s usually blocked up by stalls selling, among other things, the cheapest and most convincing counterfeit sunglasses I’ve ever come across. So it’s important to watch your step.
There are a lot more men than women among the tourists here, and Thai women in turn greatly outnumber Thai men; the restaurants and bars—and the massage parlors too, obviously—are staffed overwhelmingly by women. This becomes even more apparent at night, when the other sorts of businesses shut down and the girly bars start ramping up their game. In fact most of the local men—or at least the most visible sort—are not Thai but Indian, standing sentry outside the many bespoke tailor operations, approaching passerby at all hours with the vigor of Mormon missionaries. It’s hard to imagine buying a suit in this heat.
Unlike most parts of Thailand, the beach communities on Koh Samui are very tolerant of shirtlessness. There is a lot of skin on display in Lamai—beach and beach road both—and for the most part it looks pretty bad. There is a general shamelessness here which probably comes from knowing that however fat you are, there will be someone within spitting distance who is fatter than you. When I do see somebody fit, seven times out of ten they’re a fighter from the gym. Needless to say, bad-tattoo afficionados will find lots to like here; my favorite so far is the “No Fear” logo, curved around the belly button of guy whose gut must hang at least six inches below the tip of his cock.
I also notice everywhere a kind of suntan that I’ve never seen before, distinct from the classic bronze glow or the uniform wine-colored burn that the pale and persistent can achieve, in lieu of an actual tan, or the radio-orange you see on reality TV: it’s skin tanned brown to the point of purple, darker than a Thai’s skin, a shade that’s no longer reminiscent of skin at all, particularly, but more of burnished wood, like a cigar-store Indian, like something that belongs in a dimly-lit sitting room rather than out in the sun. I don’t have any idea how long it takes to get this tan, though you see it sported mainly on people forty and up—a couple, typically, lounging side by side on daybeds with multiple packs of Gauloises on the table in between—which suggests that it’s a serious undertaking. I have to assume that they’re retired, or at least reside year-round in tropical environs, because that is the only acceptable context for this tan. If you saw this tan in New York, it would stop you in your tracks; it would freak you the fuck out.
I don’t blend in so well among the tourists here, on the beach in particular. I’m gaunt and pale, and I’m bearded—having no mirror to shave by for the first five days—and the veins in my arms and neck have started standing out to where I can see them reflected in shop windows from the across the street. More than that, though, I’m by myself; there are plenty of couples here, and families, and here and there a pair of women on their own, and loads of groups of men; there are very few solitary males, and fewer young ones, and they attract attention. Most places, a man on his own could just be written off as lonely, but Lamai wants to attend to your loneliness the same way it would your hunger, or your need for sandals; and if you persist in being alone, it‘s for your own reasons. Which isn’t to say that the families and the couples look fondly on the pudgy Englishman shuffling alongside a nineteen-year old Thai girl, making monosyllabic attempts at conversation, or none at all, but they can understand him at a glance. I don’t have any signifiers of somebody on vacation, at least to them, and as such maybe I’m a potential disruption; I doubt anyone thinks all this through consciously, but I suspect they intuit something like it. Or maybe they’ve just noticed me judging their bodies and their tans and their bad tattoos. Anyway, all this is before I pick up a deep bruise under my left eye and a nasty scrape on the left side of my nose. I feel disreputable, more so than at any point in my adult life, which is tiring: smiles go unreciprocated; chairs that I try to sit in are claimed occupied, though ten minutes later they’re still empty. Loneliness in the midst of perfect weather and fun can create an echo chamber, where the disparity between the world within you and without grows greater and greater and more toxic. I should mention, though, that amongst Thais my fucked-up face has the opposite effect, at least when coupled with a pair of boxing shorts, which I‘ve been using as swim trunks: someone will point to my shorts, typically, and then to my face, and say “Thai boxing!” And he’ll give me a thumbs-up. One night a waiter gives me a free dish of ice cream. “Boxing boxing!” he says.
And there’s the WMC. The gym proper is a big open-air shed: two rings and floor mats and heavy bags, and sundry equipment, and a reception desk, all under steepled sheet metal thirty feet or so overhead. There are no walls, and the training area goes right up to the street, and tourists gather out front during the afternoon sessions to gawk at the spectacle. Behind the gym is an air-conditioned dormitory, and across the street is a row of little bungalows, without AC, one of which is mine at present.
The gym is situated on the beach road, between a bar and a massage parlor, and it fits in there well enough. Jitti Gym, where I was last, catered to foreigners too, but it‘s much more touristy here; the trainers and all of the staff are Thai, but it’s foreign-owned, and all the students are foreigners. There’s a venality to the whole enterprise; it’s a serious gym, not a scam by any means, but I think they see Muay Thai instruction purely as a service for Ferang, no different from the scooter rentals across the street. This is a little depressing but also sort of a relief; sometimes I felt obscurely beholden to Jitti and his trainers, as they puzzled over what to do with me, and if I skipped a day of training I’d have to explain myself. Here, nobody gives a fuck what I do or don‘t.
But it’s tiring to feel constantly hustled. The facilities at the gym are ferociously shitty. The floors of the two rings are stretched with thin, cheap canvas, like you’d see over the back of an army jeep, and which in both cases is torn to shreds in the center, revealing a thin layer of foam underneath. And the ropes of the rings are dangerously slack. There are only three heavy bags, and one of these has no stuffing whatsoever above the halfway mark. Behind the rings is a mirrored area where exercise equipment should be but isn’t, save for an obscure broken Soviet-era weight machine that you can sort of use to do pull-ups. There’s an affiliated gym across the street, with top-of-the-line equipment, that you can use for an additional fee. Towels are not provided. Water is not provided. Both are for sale. Gloves and shin guards are available, but in a sullen and perfunctory fashion; arrayed along the street-facing side of the gym is an Island of Lost Toys assortment of derelict equipment that you’re free to root through frantically mid-class, just before the sparring is about to start; of the thirty or so shin guards, there are maybe three viable pairs. The contrast between these and the glass-walled shop with its shelves of pristine equipment, neatly stacked, is clearly intentional. Also, all of the equipment for sale is branded with some Asian fighting reality show.
I’m being a little naïve in my comparison of WMC with Jitti Gym, I know. Within fifteen minutes of my arrival, Jitti had strong armed me into buying two T-shirts that I never wore, and that subsequently disappeared in the laundry; on my penultimate night, he wanted me to pay a thousand baht for admission to some after-hours brothel, and proffered a random assortment of British soft-core magazines to illustrate the sort of girls I would meet there. But Jitti also wrapped the blisters on my feet with tape every day, and he would give me sugar-fried eggs sometimes before morning training, and I spent about twelve hours a day with him, and whether or not he liked me we were on fairly intimate terms with one another. That counts for a lot, when somebody is hustling you.
WMC is a big gym, by Thai standards, with some thirty students in residence, and lots more who live elsewhere on the island; and so the faces and bodies tend to run together, at least at first. There are any number of powerfully built, crewcut or shaven-headed young men with sleeve tattoos that bleed down over their pectorals, and quite a few more with just a few tattoos, or none at all. Some of these men are British or Russian; quite a few are from Australia; there are at least two Irishmen, hairless above the waist save for their eyebrows, both very pale despite having resided at the camp for several months. It is a very fit group, for the most part; nearly every belly is rigidly partitioned; even my abdominals are starting to show. I’m the only one with any chest hair, though, except for one very tall guy who also sports the only other beard.
Some afternoons a handful of older men show up, relatively out of shape but very capable boxers, whose tans are so dark as to erase any clue to their ethnicity. There’s something Gallic in their swagger, though. There’s a Czech man in his late forties with a noble, haggard face and a military bearing; he always seems to be nursing some injury or other, and many days will not be not training but just observing. And there are three or four tall, raptorly men with short faux-hawks and sporadic clusters of tattoos all over their bodies, neck especially. All of them are aloof in their interactions with me, and this feels appropriate; they seem to belong to some other, more ferocious species and I am frankly relieved not to have their full attention. One of them is Slavic, which also feels appropriate, but the others are disconcertingly Francophone. Nobody here is American, though of course some people look like they could be, and I forget sometimes, and I’m surprised and a little sad when someone replies to me in a Polish accent.
There are three or four women at the gym as well, all very pretty, phalanxed always by at least three crewcuts. I never even think of talking to them. There is a nine- or ten-year old British prodigy who takes private lessons in the late mornings, and has a rat tail. Shadowboxing, he cuts his limbs through the air in pure, twisting lines like the ribbons of those weird Olympic rhythm gymnasts. If his perpetual sneer and lurking, dickhead father are any indication, he’s well on his way to becoming a really monstrous individual.
There are eight or nine trainers here; some of them are very well known fighters and most of them are friendly and capable enough, but with the size of the gym I haven’t gotten know any of them too well, even by my second week; this is aggravated by four of them being brothers, with essentially identical haircuts; someone suggests going by their various tattoos. They all smoke a lot more than seems normal to me, though, and a few of them are definitely shady. One in particular, Kah, has a sunken face and missing teeth and a build that loiters between sinewy and wasted; his tattoos are just a shade darker than his skin, barely discernable, and when he shrugs on his green fatigue jacket after training he looks a lot like a pirate, the scary modern-day kind. Kah has hit me up for money twice: first while I’m on the back of his scooter, after he insists on giving me a ride to dinner, and then again the next night, on the front porch of my bungalow; I manage to beg off both times. Later I hear that he’s pulled the same thing on two other people, with more success, and then someone tells me he’s addicted to crystal meth. I hadn’t suspected this, exactly, but it had occurred to me, looking at that face.
I first arrive at the gym at about one in the afternoon, in plenty of time for the afternoon session, which begins at five. By that time I’ve discovered the beach, though, and I decide to hold off training until the next morning. Mornings start at eight, but I’m told to show up early if I want to skip rope and stretch and what have you, so I head over at 7:30. The gym’s totally deserted. I pad around awhile, looking for a jump rope, and I’ve just found one when I notice a shiny black dog by the front desk, watching me. His head probably comes up to about my nipples. He’s standing very still, with his mouth closed, and he doesn’t seem aggressive, but I have his full attention. We stare at each other for a little while, and then I start to skip rope, tentatively, and he starts moving forward. I put down the rope and walk out of the gym and cross the street. He stands at the edge of the gym, looking me. Then he starts to cross the road as well, and I go back to my bungalow and read for twenty minutes.
At Jitti, the ratio of students to trainers was almost one to one. Here, with so many more students, the classes are more like those at my gym back in NYC; each session you partner up with someone else, and the trainers guide everyone through various exercises. But the students here are generally much more serious than back home—not surprising, given that we’ve all come to Thailand to study—and the classes reflect this; the technique portion takes up maybe forty minutes in a two-hour session, with the rest given over to sparring: first legs only, then technical (arms and legs, but no elbows and no punches to the head) then Western-style boxing, then grappling, or wrestling. The sparring isn’t broken into rounds; each bit runs for about ten minutes straight, which is a fucking eternity, believe me. After all that, you can loiter around and a trainer will eventually do two rounds of pads with you; it tends to be pretty lackluster on their part, but I don’t mind, by that point.
The thing about a routine like this is, you want someone who’s about as experienced as you, and most of the people here are either a lot better than me, or a lot bigger, or both. There’s one guy who’s just about a perfect match; he outweighs me some, but it’s mostly fat, and we both have a good session whenever we’re paired. But he drinks too much, and only comes in every second day at most, so the balance is off, usually, in one direction or the other. Some days I might work with Alexander, a lanky Australian who looks like Saint-Exupéry’s little prince, whose form is fine but who locks up when he’s sparring; it’s like kicking a heavy bag who shuffles around. Other days it’ll be someone like Sergei, about my height but with thirty-something pounds on me, all muscle, and a handsome, implacable face whose eyes never unlock from mine, and a mind so hopelessly quick that it doesn’t matter how slowly he moves, it’s never slow enough for me.
In boxing, like most one-on-one sports, even a relatively small disparity between opponents can make real competition untenable. There’s things to learn from sparring someone who’s much better than you, but it’s fucking exhausting as well, especially in long stretches like these. When I fall for every feint, and everything I try is disdainfully parried or else pulls me into some painful and compromised new position, a learned helplessness will set in at some point, and then I’m just marking time. And worse is that underneath it all I’m aware of what he’s holding back, his capabilities, like a dog on a tether, and I feel sheepish about that being necessary, because he’s come across the world for this, just like me. And also I know that it’ll come untethered at some point, inevitably, if just for a second, and he’ll throw me to the ground, hard, or kick me in the solar plexus, and I won’t begrudge him that, at least in retrospect, because I’ve been on the other side of it, and I know how at some point it just becomes irresistible, like finally scratching an itch. But it still stresses me out, and training is stressful enough at the best of times. So far every class here has ultimately felt worthwhile, but I don’t like the everyday uncertainty. I’m worried I’ll get hurt eventually; I spend my whole first week training through the bruised ribs I got back in Bangkok, so the essential frailty of my body feels close to the surface.
That said, the days here have a lull to them that’s not at all unpleasant. Living so close to the beach, it seems to have imposed its rhythms on me. I wake up, then I train, then I sit on the beach. Then I train, then I sit on the beach, then I sleep. It would be easy to spend a year here, or more, and lots of people seem to. I read voraciously, on the beach; by the second day I’ve finished all the books I’ve brought, but I find a good used book shop. The radio there is always playing word-for-word covers of American rap songs. I’m in there practically every day. First I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s history of California cum memoir, then The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, which is a pretty much perfect thing to read in a slightly sinister tropical milieu. Next is Jack Maggs, by Peter Carey; it starts off great but then I leave it in the bathroom of a safari park. That same day I pick up The Colour of Blood, a Cold War political thriller by the Irish author Brian Moore, cited by Graham Greene on the back cover as his “favorite living novelist.” It’s just okay. Then it’s Arthur Dressler, by Steven Millhauser, which is fine but if you have read any of his numerous short stories concerning some series of increasingly ornate and mystical department stores or amusement parks, then it won’t hold many surprises for you. And then On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan: I had read a long excerpt of this already in the New Yorker and so held off buying it at first, because the novel itself is pretty short. But it’s a flat-out miracle and I’d recommend it to anybody. At present I’m reading Longitude, which is a pop history of the marine chronometer. It’s pretty good.
If I go on about the books it’s because the beach with the jungles rising behind it all looks like a postcard; it seems pointless to describe, except that like so much else here it’s scribbled with cluster on cluster of parasoled daybeds and sets of bamboo chairs and tables belonging to various resorts and cafes. But whatever, it’s gorgeous; the water is eerily warm. I eat every meal on the beach, or just about. You have to buy something to sit in the shady chairs, so I drink a lot of Diet Coke. It’s more crowded during the day, but quieter; at night all the restaurants turn on their sound systems, and they overlap. The peddlers put away their ice cream and wind-up birds and trot out barrels full of fireworks: serious fireworks, four or five feet long, like they use on the Fourth of July. People will set them off just fifty feet away from where I’m eating, and they’ll explode right overhead; I’ve never seen fireworks so close before. They also sell “lucky balloons,” which are like miniature hot air balloons made of white cloth, with a can of Sterno or something in the bottom. They float up to about a hundred feet and then linger, glowing in the sky, spirit-like. It’s breath-taking the first time you see it, and like the fireworks, and the ocean and the jungle, you never get entirely inured to it.