Friday, 28 October 2011

Apres le deluge, mud

This was published in the South China Morning Post today as part of their Thailand flood coverage. One man's sad and soggy odyssey. I didn't post any of my pix because I've put them on facebook already and they just depress me.

As I sit writing this from a friend's Bangkok condominium on the sixteenth floor, I don’t think I have ever been quite so grateful to be high and blissfully dry.
     However, as the vast volume of water from Thailand’s central plains draws its oozing noose ever tighter around the capital, I find it hard to share the panicked trepidation of the city’s residents. The worst, you see, has already befallen me. I’m homeless, shoeless and feeling pretty hopeless. My new house is under more than two metres of water. I’ve been living on the kindness of friends. And as the soggy veteran of three separate evacuations in the space of the week, I might also look into being accorded some sort of recognition from the people at the Guinness Book of World Records.
  The first and worst ordeal was the long march out of my house in Nontaburi’s Sai Noi district, a sleepy backwater to the capital’s north-west where villages nestle amid verdant rice fields and somnolent klongs, or canals. However, as the northern run-off swelled against sluice gates, earthen dykes and hastily erected sandbag walls, those klongs began to run high and fast.
    Don’t worry, the locals in my village said. It’s never flooded here before – a big selling point when we bought the place, having made the mistake of living once before in a street that flooded every time it even looked like raining. They were still smiling when the closest klong was mere centimetres from the hastily erected earthern dyke lining its banks. But those smiles were gone the next morning, when we awoke to half a metre of water sloshing around our streets.
     The night before I had moved everything I cared about upstairs. And when a major dyke in neighbouring Pathum Thani failed, I was glad I had. Suddenly the waters began to surge. From lapping at my front gate early in the morning, by midday they were hovering ominously at my front doorstep. In the time it took to sling my hastily packed bags over my shoulders and unlock the front gate, the waters had risen two inches and covered my floor.
     In my front yard, now a roiling brown soup, centipedes, rats, snakes and other refugees frantically clawed and slithered in search of higher ground. As I slogged more than 3km to dry land, the water rose from my knee to my thigh to almost my waist in places. I saw cars ruined, pets stranded, and homes submerged to their eaves. But in adversity, I also witnessed a new sense of community. One fellow with a boat walked over a kilometer with me to ferry my bags. In a minimart, a smiling toothless auntie handed me a free beer.
    I escaped to a friend’s house in the northern Bangkok suburb of Rangsit. But the waters were on their inexorable way. And within days, I was wading through swelling floodwaters again. My wife had been holed up on our farm in nearby Nakhon Nayok with our two dogs, but when armed troops ordered local farmers to open a sluice gate, the water rose dangerously fast yesterday. And so it was back into the filthy fray once more, an odyssey of buses, army trucks, motorbikes and finally a boat, to help them to dry land.
     Now, as I sit in as yet mostly dry Bangkok, the relief at not being wet is tinged with a growing anger that my house and thousands like it were sacrificed in a bid to keep the capital dry. As the floods drew near, Bangkok slammed down her sluices and piled on the sandbags, meaning the run-off couldn’t find its way to sea and piled up in districts like mine like some slow-motion tsunami.
     I’m not sure when I will be able to get back to my home to assess the damage. I’m uncertain about what the future holds. My forecast? Fear and floating and lost wages.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The vice man cometh

Here's my latest piece for the South China Morning Post's Postmagazine. Say what you will about Chuwit ... he gives good quote. Pix by the talented Mr Cedric Arnold.

Super Pimp casts a long shadow over Bangkok. Wherever you turn, there he is, on televisions, newspapers, laptops, billboards, beetroot face contorted into its trademark twisted rictus, moustache aquiver with indignation and finger jabbing at some imagined outrage, ready to launch his next blow against corruption and injustice. One can almost imagine him swooping down from out of the sun, pimp cape flapping, patrolling the phalanx of fleshpots he built then disowned, eyes peeled for fresh perps.
    Every metropolis gets the superhero it deserves. For the City of Angels, a town built on graft and grease and dirt and deals, on tortuous alliances and labyrinthine loyalties, internecine squabbles, snout-in-trough sweeteners and baht pro quo backscratching, who could be more suitable to step forward and save the day than the flawed, fabulously entertaining and batshit crazy crusader that is Chuwit Kamolvisit?
    Thailand’s former massage parlour king and self-professed pimp turned Member of Parliament is reveling in his role as thorn in the government’s side, whistleblower and stirrer in chief, elephant in the room and motor-mouth maverick. After winning four seats in the recent election - a result that shocked many but revealed a deep-seated disgust amongst Bangkok’s middle class with the two big parties, the defeated Democrats, still headed up by faded poster boy Abhisit Vejajiva, and the governing Pheu Thai party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, savior and stooge – Chuwit is still riding high in popularity polls. And with a deep-seated fear abroad that the blood-soaked belligerence of the red-shirts and yellow-shirts may not yet be consigned to history’s dustbin, locals are lapping up the comparatively light relief of the Chuwit sideshow while it lasts.
     The pimp tag is not something that bothers him; rather, he has embraced it. “It’s OK. I was a pimp,’’ he says. “I did what I did in the past, I owned a lot of massage parlours. Of course I sold them all, but I can’t complain if people still want to call me pimp.
    “Anyway, a politician is worse than a pimp, worse than a whore. I adore the whore. The whore trades something that she owns, her body, while the politician trades the country and what belongs to the people. So I say, go head, call me a pimp. I am Chuwit, Superpimp. Just don’t call me a politician."
      It’s tempting to suggest he invest in a superfly mink-lined cape, perhaps a natty purple fedora and diamond-studded cane. As it is, his one concession to ghetto fabulous is his bull terrier, Motomoto, who was a prominent part of Chuwit’s election efforts and featured on the most entertaining of his talk-of-the-town campaign posters.  “I used my dog as a symbol of honesty, loyalty, everything you can’t get from the politician,’’ he says.
      His Lazarus-like return to politics surprised some, who had written him off after his last run at Bangkok governor ended in ignominy and bruised knuckles. Chuwit lost his temper on live television and punched and kicked a popular television anchor who had questioned his manliness.
    His continued existence amazes many, who believe it’s a miracle that he hasn’t already been helped on to his next life by a hitman, given the fuming coterie of top cops, army generals and political powerbrokers he has embarrassed and cost large amounts of money. Now, his latest mission to expose Bangkok’s thriving illegal casinos – including threats this week to reveal a massive new establishment with an alleged key Hong Kong backer – has the entire city transfixed.
    Chuwit, leader of the Rak Thailand Party, a month ago upstaged PM Yingluck’s maiden policy speech with his video-backed bombshell about a huge and professionally run casino in Bankgok’s Suttisan district operating a stone’s throw from a major police station. The fallout was extensive, provoking a frenzy of buck-passing and butt-covering, and eventually costing the police commissioner his job.
      Now he’s at it again. This week, Chuwit said he would divulge details of a new mega-casino in Huay Kwang’s Mengjai district, which he claims is a joint venture between a former cabinet minister and a wealthy Hong Kong investor.
    The key Hong Kong connection was a shadowy casino specialist he would only name as "Mr Tee" who had extensive experience in Macau and also at the casinos in the Cambodian border town of Poipet. The main local partner was reportedly a former cabinet minister, Chuwit said.
     His latest claims are backed by the deputy prime minister and new Thai government vice tsar, Chalerm Yoobamrung, who said the government was keeping a close eye on illegal casinos under construction. He said the government was aware of a "significant" Hong Kong investment in Thailand's illegal gambling underworld.
   "It's like a joint venture," Chuwit explains. "This guy Mr Tee, he has the international casino connections and the expertise. The local partner secures the premises and deals with the police and other officials. Mr Tee makes sure the security system, the computer and gaming technology, the lighting, the equipment and most importantly the croupiers, dealers, counters, cashiers and other key staff are all experienced casino employees. Because they know very well, if you have staff you can't trust they will rob you blind."
    "To fit out one of these casinos takes up to two months and costs around 100 million baht [HK$25 million]," Chuwit said. "But ... they make a nightly profit of around 10 million baht. Police are getting fat off them and it looks like I'm the only one with enough guts to tell it like it is," he said. "You've got high rollers, roulette, baccarat, blackjack, bok dang, croupiers in uniforms, computerised equipment, money counters ... but to police it's obviously all invisible."
     The new casino was located about 500 metres from the Meng Jai intersection in Huay Kwang district - ironically the same district where many of Chuwit's former massage parlours were located. He said the casino was ready to start operating. It was one of at least four being developed with Hong Kong backing.
     When Chuwit told Parliament last month about a big illegal casino in Suttisan Road, Bang Sue district the disclosure led to the transfer of three senior police officers to inactive posts, a city-wide crackdown and a political firestorm, which claimed the scalp of National police chief Wichean Potephosree.
     This week, acting national police chief Priewpan Damapong said police had searched the area and could find no gambling facility or evidence of one under construction. When apprised of this, Chuwit goes into paroxysms of laughter over the telephone. “Of course they are going to say that. These are the same cops who couldn’t see the Suttisan casino that was operating a couple of doors down from a major police station.’’
    In what may be a warning shot over Chuwit’s bows, however, the Supreme Court this week ruled to seize Bt3.4 million from the MP in connection to his suspected involvement in a prostitution ring. A lower court and subsequent appellate review had previously ruled in Chuwit’s favour, but the high court took the view that he had failed to verify how the assets in question were acquired.
     While Chuwit’s defence team argued that massage parlours were a legitimate business, the high court ruled there was enough evidence to support the parlours being used as a front for the sex trade, as evidenced by company records showing Bt 112,559 spent on condoms alone in 2002.

When I meet Chuwit on a drizzling Bangkok afternoon in the park that bears his name in Sukhumvit Soi 10, he is riding high on his first salvo about the illegal casinos but yet to launch his second strike. He has a gruff and affable charm but you sense a mercurial temper is simmering somewhere close to the surface.
    It’s clear he gets a kick out of owning such a valuable piece of real estate and using it mainly as a private playground for his dog. “Yes, it’s true. You could say Motomoto is the owner here. One day I might do something here, but this is the last real prime undeveloped Sukhumvit Rd site. So I am happy to sit on it for a while.’’
     Chuwit says he was surprised to win as many as four seats in the election, but not surprised that he himself was comfortably elected. “In my campaign, I presented myself as boring. Thai politicians play politics too much. They talk, talk, talk, but never do anything.’’
     Fighting corruption was Chuwit’s main campaign promise. “Corruption in Thailand is supported by the officials, the politicians, the police, the system. Nobody wants to talk. It’s a big issue in this country.’’ Which might seem a bit rich coming from a man who gleefully detailed the staggering amount of bribes in cash and other largesse he paid to all manner of Thai officials to facilitate his business in its heyday.

     Chuwit strokes his moustache and looks to the heavens. “Look, have you seen the movie ‘Catch Me If You Can? You’re not going to catch a crook by using a good guy. I am the one who knows the (corruption) process better than anyone. So I can make myself useful now to expose corruption. ‘’ It takes a thief to catch a thief? “Exactly!’’
      Can one man really accomplish anything? “Corruption is so strong in Thailand I don’t think it will ever change. I’m not saying I can do anything. But I have vowed to try.’’
    The last time Chuwit was making these kind of waves was in 2004, where he kept Bangkok on the edge of its seats with lurid revelations of police corruption relating to his massage parlour business. The sensationally sordid saga of sex, bribes and videotape hit the front pages when Chuwit revealed that he was paying senior police from four of Bangkok’s biggest police districts over 12 million baht in bribes per month (not a bad sweetener when you consider the average constable’s salary barely breaks four figures). Chuwit also spoke of how he showered the officers with trays of Rolex watches shipped in from Hong Kong and crates of the finest French vintages.
      He didn’t name names, but said he had a list prepared to do just that in the event of his untimely demise, not to mention lurid details of the peculiar sexual proclivities of some of the city’s top cops, some reportedly captured on camera. His tirade was prompted by what he deemed a betrayal by men he had made extremely wealthy and who he paid to protect him. This followed the infamous January 2004 midnight raid in which armed thugs reduced to rubble a motley collection of beer bars and small businesses in what used to be known as Sukhumvit Square. The raid shocked Bangkok, embarrassed the police and angered the government. Chuwit had recently bought the land in question, although he denied authorising the raid and claimed it was orchestrated by a man he had agreed to lease the land to. (Later, in the face of a mounting furore, he magnanimously decided not to develop the land but to turn it into a public park).
    A warrant was issued for Chuwit’s arrest, and he found himself dragged off to spend a month in jail pending formal charges. At the same time, he was also charged with employing three underage girls at one of the six massage parlours operated by his Davis Group.
    “Of course I felt betrayed,’’ says Chuwit. “I felt crazy and frustrated. All the money I have paid to police and then they stabbed me in the back. So I decided to do what no one has dared before, to tell the Thai public what really goes on.’’
    Things took their first weird twist when Chuwit went missing days after his initial revelations. Debate raged as to whether he was already dead or had fled the country. Three days later, a wild-eyed Chuwit called a press conference in his pyjamas in a Bangkok hospital, shouting and rambling as he claimed he had been kidnapped, drugged and held hostage by masked men.
    Then National police chief Sant Sarutanont, before even beginning to investigate the claims, declared that he didn’t for a minute believe the tale and said Chuwit had staged the event to gain public sympathy. He also set up a fact-finding panel which within a matter of days found there was no substance to the claims of massive bribe-taking by officers at Huay Kwang, Makkasan, Suttisan and Wang Thonglang police stations.
   But Chuwit was just getting warmed up. He produced hundreds of pages of signatures which he said belonged to police who received free services at his parlours, prompting then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a former policeman himself, to call for the entire Huay Kwang station to be transferred. Thaksin promised that he’d clean up the force within six months. A new panel was set up to probe police corruption, headed by Noppadol Somboonsup, director general of the recently-formed Special Investigation Department, the Thai version of America’s FBI.
   Chuwit then began to feed the press with a daily diet of teasers and stunts. He released the initials of senior officers who got the biggest bribes, prompting flurries of speculation. He then revealed a detailed list of bribes paid by rank, ranging from 80,000 baht per month for Superintendents down to 2,000 for deputy chief inspectors. He claimed he had paid 300,000 in bribes to prison staff while incarcerated, including 5,000 baht for fried rice and 10,000 baht for a proper shower.
     He donated 13 coffins to a Bangkok charity and dedicated them to “bad bribe-takers who don’t accept the truth’’. He appeared in one mass circulation newspaper bare-chested and lifting dumbbells, to “get in shape for the battle’’. He tried and failed to present a list to the Prime Minister with the names of 1,000 allegedly corrupt Bangkok police officers. And he took the press on a tour of “Suite Five’’ at his Copacabana parlour, a Roccoco riot of marble and gilt which could accommodate 15 guests and cost millions of baht to decorate. “I lose hundreds of thousands a night on this suite alone,’’ he complained. “It’s always full of police, who want free drinks and free girls.’’
     If the figurative spotlight wasn’t enough, Chuwit then took to the boards for a one-night talk show at the Bangkok Playhouse, which was an instant sell-out despite it’s somewhat self-pitying title: "Chuwit: Alone and Shabby''. He penned a quickie book, “The Golden Bath: the Origin of Sex and Every Scandalous Thing'', in which he reminisced about his younger years as a playboy, trying to spend as much of his family’s textile fortune as he could while fancying himself the Thai Hugh Hefner.
system had malfunctioned on the night in question.

“Yes, I was a playboy,’’ Chuwit chuckles, as we stroll the lush manicured paths of his park. His father was born in Hong Kong and his mother was Thai. After returning from San Diego, California with a Master of Business Administration, Chuwit was eager to put his new business theories into practice. “I was 30 years old. I wanted to be surrounded with girls. What’s wrong? Making big money. So what?
    “I liked massage parlours, but the old ones here used to be done in a very old fashioned way. It was all rush rush, like going to McDonalds. Maybe men don’t want McDonalds. Maybe they want a Chinese banquet. To relax, listen to music, have a drink, take your time. So I changed the whole idea to make the massage parlours more of an entertainment venue.’’ He laughs. “My places were better than anything you’d get in Vegas. I went to a lap dancing place in Las Vegas once. You had to listen to a 10 minute speech on the rules, you cannot touch the body, you cannot do this or that. You can drink though. And tip. I thought it was ridiculous.
    “So all I did was give men what they want.’’ He fixes me with his most steely superhero squint from beneath famously furrowed brow. “The sex business is not wrong. People are wrong.’’
     Chuwit made a modest fortune in real estate in Bangkok after returning from his US studies, and bought his first massage parlour licence in the late 1980s. “It was good for 106 rooms. I had the land, I had the licence, so I opened Victoria’s Secret, around Ratchadaphisek and Rama 9 roads. Boy, did I start making money. Do you believe it? I was making a million baht in cash every night. And from the first day, the police were there with their hands out.’’
    He opened Emmanuelle, then Honolulu, then Copacabana, all of them sumptuous exercises in nouveau riche excess, where some of Thailand’s most beautiful women sat wearing numbers behind glass walls waiting to be chosen by the rich and powerful. “Is it prostitution? Of course. I provide the classy place, the beautiful girls, the booze, the atmosphere. When someone goes to a room, you can’t stop them having sex. But prostitution is illegal, so none of it works without the cops looking after you.’’
      An astute political animal, Chuwit goes out on quite a limb by predicting that Thaksin will be back in Thailand by the end of the year. “Look at them all now,’’ he says, referring to the Pheu Thai party movers and shakers. “They are moving all the pieces around the board now, getting the right people into place to force an amnesty and secure his return.’’
     Chuwit swears that he no longer has any interest, financial or moral, in the flesh trade and says his only business these days is his Davis Hotel group and his real estate holdings. Last time I interviewed him, seven years ago, the Anti-Money Laundering Office had just frozen his assets. This time, it’s the court order – although 3.5 million baht is chump change to someone with a fortune estimated at around 250 million baht.
     We continue to wander about the park. Joggers, strollers and office refugees beam and rush up to say hello, we love you, we voted for you, keep the bastards honest. It’s bizarre in the extreme given his history as a virtuoso corruptor but there’s no denying he has tapped a nerve. His macho image and undeniable charisma probably don’t hurt either. As he chats with another admirer, I glance around the gardens and wonder if he has some souped up superhero-mobile in an underground garage, or a pole to slide down to a graft-busting nerve centre.
      So what is the next crusade for Superpimp once all the illegal casinos have been exposed? “I’m not superman. I’m not a hero,’’ he says. “People think I can do something but really, all I can do is speak up. Talk about the things other people are scared to. In Thailand, everybody knows, but nobody talks. There are lots of issues for me to talk about. Corruption. Drugs.
     “But it’s all about timing and balance. I can’t be in the news every day. People will get sick of me. So I will pick my battles and know when it’s time to speak and when it’s time to stop.’’
     Chuwit turned 50 in August and he admits it was a milestone. “You do stop and think about life. See over there on that table? There is a catalogue of yachts. I look at it every day. One day, I will buy the yacht. That is my goal. That’s happiness. There is no happiness in politics.’’
     Perhaps not, except for the fact that politics may be all that’s keeping him alive. “Yes it’s true, I’m in the spotlight now and to an extent my high profile protects me. When I’m not in that spotlight, I will have to leave Thailand. It will be too risky here. Life is cheap, and I have too many enemies. You can hire a hitman for 200,000 baht. So I have to be focused all the time. It’s the only way to survive. If you lose that focus, you die.’’
     It’s hard out there for a pimp.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The great shark hunt

When Hong Kong was terrorised by an alleged tiger shark back in 1992, there seemed only one thing for it: summon Vic Hislop, shark-hunter and all round ocker nutjob. The chaos that ensued became the talk of the town ...

Shortly after taking up residence in Hong Kong, I awake one morning to find Vic Hislop, notorious Australian shark hunter, in my bed. Fortunately, I am on the sofa.

In happier times: Hislop catches
 the world's biggest great white
He staggers out into the living room; short, stocky, smelling vaguely of stingray and absent-mindedly scratching his nuts. Vic has just flown in from Queensland, and we’ve put him up for the night in the house my friends and I have rented in Sai Kung, a fishing village and expat hangout in the New Territories.

Nearby Clearwater Bay has been terrorised by a spate of shark attacks and The Hong Kong Standard newspaper, on a brilliant wheeze from my flatmate and uber-journo Hedley Thomas, has hired Hislop to catch the suspected tiger shark. The night he arrives, we dine on the Sai Kung waterfront as he regales us with tales of monsters pursued and killed. It becomes apparent at once that he is quite mad, possessed of a monomaniacal hatred of sharks not far short of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale. What sticks in my mind from the evening’s conversation, however, is not so much the gorily graphic accounts of maneaters hooked and shot and clubbed and knifed, but an encounter with a pitbull terrier in a friend’s backyard.

Ball tearier
“Shit mate, yeah, this bastard dog just comes out of nowhere, eh,’’ he recounts in a nasal ocker whine. “And he’s coming right for me. I look around, but there’s nothing I can pick up to defend meself. I know I’ll never make it to the fence if I run. So as the fucker jumps at me, I get under him and grab him by the balls. And he lets out this yelp like he’s just been shot. He’s trying to bite me, the bastard, but I start swinging him around faster and faster, and then I let him go. And that does the trick, eh, he just lies there looking at me, and I jump over the fence.’’

From there, it’s all downhill. In short order, a lurid logo is whipped up, featuring a gaping man-eater that would do a Peter Benchley novel proud, under the rubric “The Standard’s Great Shark Hunt’’. While the snobs at the South China Morning Post, the Standard's tonier cousin, turn their noses up, the stunt becomes the talk of the town. We procure a junk – the Great Shark Hunt Mothership – and arm Vic with all manner of fearsome hooks and lines and sinkers. We scour the wet markets of Sai Kung for suitable tiger shark bait; stingrays and groupers. We print t-shirts that will go on to become collectors' items. From this point on, Vic, thankfully; will sleep on the mothership as we begin a futile and ill-fated two-week search for the shark.

Fangs for the memories 
I am charged with penning his daily dispatches and succumb to a creeping lunacy, inventing all sorts of wild rubbish to keep the story going. As I milk the Ahab angle, Vic falls ill with a virulent flu. After a couple of days, he begins to question what’s being written about his efforts. So I take to hiding his glasses so he can’t read the paper.

Hong Kong’s piranha-like pack of Chinese newspapers gets hold of the story and soon the hills of Clearwater Bay bristle with telephoto lenses as the waters around the mothership are buzzed by reporter-laden motorboats. We dole out access to Vic like jealous parents.

It soon becomes apparent that the shark has left town. Despite Vic’s best and increasingly desperate efforts, the stinking, rotten stingrays are left unmolested, the groupers ungutted, and eventually the circus leaves town too. Vic is sick and defeated, whimpering like a bull-terrier with crushed nuts, as we stick a cheque in his pocket and push him onto a plane.

Bee-el-zee-bub has a devil
put aside for meeeee
Back at the Press Club in the seething heart of Wan Chai, bathed in blinking neon from the short time hotel on the floor above, toilets awash with acrid eddies of urine, the story has taken on a delirious life of its own. The Standard’s sub-editors, a notoriously louche and drunken bunch, won’t let the thing die. For months afterwards, when sufficient brews and shots have been quaffed, they run up and down the length of the bar, hands held aloft like dorsal fins, shouting “SHARK! SHARK!’’

Hislop, however, from reports received, has never been quite the same since. The great destroyer of great whites, the tigerish killer of tiger sharks and macho crusher of pitbull balls, is a sad, bewildered and broken man, hoist on his own reeking petard, lashed to the mast of failure. The ultimate victim of the Great Shark Hunt, ironically, is the great white hunter himself.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Blood lust on the border

Photo: Palani Mohan 
It’s only halfway through round three, but the fighters are nearly spent. ‘Super Op’, the Thai, sucks at the searing air, wipes blood from his eyes with his forearm, then launches a vicious assault, swinging haymakers with both hemp-wrapped hands. One connects, and as his Burmese opponent crumples, the Thai brings a lightning knee up into his face, pulling the other man’s head down to maximise the impact.

There’s a sickening crack of bone on bone, a geyser of blood, then a slow-motion teeter to the canvas. As the Burmese twitches, prone, a pool of bright vermillion spreads from his shattered nose, subsuming the older rust-coloured stains on the canvas. It’s a palate of carnage; the grisly record of an animosity that has spanned millennia. Super Op runs to his opponent’s corner, eyes clouded with red mist, and screams at the crowd. His primal howl is the sound any man might make, having just prevailed in one of the oldest and rawest forms of unarmed combat - Muay Haad Chuak, the ancient bareknuckle version of modern Thai kickboxing.

The Burmese segment of the crowd, half-mad with heat and cheap whiskey, press closer to the makeshift ring and scream back. A blistering sun beats down on the corrugated iron roof, making it so hot it’s hard to breathe. The larger throng of Thais send up puffs of dust as they dance victory jigs. Money furtively changes hands as bets are settled. Super Op runs back to his corner, then his legs buckle and he drops to his stool. The adrenalin overload begins to subside. Claret drips from a gaping gash above his left eye into a circular steel tray under his stool, blending with the water and ice. The sight of this gory soup stirs something in those pressed closest to the ring; they too begin to bay with demented bloodlust. The Burmese fighter is dragged from the ring by his irate handlers. ‘You stupid donkey,’ someone shouts. His head lolls, he’s missing a tooth, and his eyes seem dangerously glazed. The leakage from his shattered nose mingles with sweat and coconut oil, lending his teakwood torso an infernal sheen.  

Photo: Palani Mohan
Bareknuckle boxing has been banned in Thailand for almost 90 years, but that doesn't seem to bother anyone in the wild border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province, a stone’s throw across a shallow river from the equally lawless Burmese settlement of Myawaddy. The inhabitants of these freewheeling twin towns include illegal loggers, drug barons, human traffickers, gem smugglers, rebels, pimps, drifters, over-stayers and assorted other flotsam, all with a healthy appetite for blood sport. And so each April, during the Thai New Year festival of Songkran, authorities look the other way as fighters from the feuding nations take off their gloves and climb into the ring to settle old scores.

Photo: Palani Mohan
In 1774, after being captured by the Burmese during the sacking of the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthya, the legendary kickboxer Nai Khanom Tom won his freedom by stomping a dozen of the invader's top fighters in a row. ‘Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom,’ pronounced King Mangra, as he watched his men drop like ninepins. The story of Nai Khanom Tom dispatching the bogeymen from Burma is one of the first history lessons taught to every young Thai. The ancient Burmese armies would pass close to Mae Sot on their various incursions on their way to the famous Three Pagoda Pass, which perhaps explains why the sport – and the fierce cross-border rivalry – still thrives here.

The rules have changed a little - now there are rounds and referees, and the ring ropes and knuckles are not sprinkled with broken glass - but the fights are still nasty, brutish and short. Eye gouges and groin strikes are forbidden (if not unknown) but pretty much anything else goes. Head butts are popular. Gloves are discarded for tightly wrapped strips of hemp, which makes the knuckles rock hard. Bouts are scheduled for five rounds, but seldom go the distance. Victory is by knockout or awarded when one fighter can’t continue. If both men remain standing after five rounds, a draw is declared.

It’s a hard way to make a living, considering the very real risk to life and limb: winners take home about US$200. Losers get jeers and pain. The organisers, a coterie of Mae Sot businessmen, soldiers and police, refuse to comment on deaths in the ring, but one veteran of the sport says at least five fighters have died in the past decade. ‘Maybe more,’ he says. ‘They take a beating, but seem OK. Then they go back home and a few days later their livers or kidneys give out. It’s not something people here talk about, because a lot of money gets wagered on these fights.’

Photo: Palani Mohan
A day earlier, in a professional-standard ring by the main road, surrounded by sponsors’ banners and television cameras, seven bareknuckle bouts between more polished and experienced fighters are scheduled. There’s an expectant buzz in the crowd, who have just learned that for the first time four foreigners will be fighting alongside the Thais and Burmese. This introduces a new dynamic, as neither the Thais or Burmese want these upstarts from America to win. In the preceding weeks, the White House has been particularly vocal in its criticism of Burma’s regime, and some sections of the Burmese crowd are shouting about arrogant Americans and demanding a butt whooping. The visiting Americans train with Master Toddy, a burly chap with faded movie star looks, who left Thailand 20 years ago and now runs one of the biggest Muay Thai gyms in the United States, amidst the bright lights of Las Vegas.

‘This is a great test of courage for my men, to come here to the very home of bareknuckle fighting and prove themselves,’ says Master Toddy. His fighters – Kit Cope, Ben Garcia, Anthony Brown and Sol Mitchell – are battle-hardened veterans of American bloodsport contests like Ultimate Fighting and King of the Cage. Cope and Garcia have both been world champions in their weight classes. They’re accompanied by an MTV crew, who are filming a piece on mixed martial arts.

Not everyone is happy, though. Chavalit Kitsakdaparp, who runs Mae Sot’s Tuptimtong training camp, scours Burma for talented fighters to come and fight for him, and is complaining to anyone who’ll listen that two of his fighters are seriously outweighed by the Americans they’ve been matched with. ‘My men are tough,’ he says. ‘But this is not fair.’ Even here, it seems a good big man will beat a good little man. It’s touch and go for a few hours as to whether the fights will go ahead, but eventually Chavalit relents. ‘Everyone wants to see the farang fight,’ he grumbles, ‘so let them fight.’

Photo: Palani Mohan
Before the Americans get in the ring, there are three Thai versus Burma bouts, the first featuring Super Op’s older brother, ‘Super O’. The fighting ‘Supers’ are the sons of Chanchay Oranorong, a local legend, who fought bareknuckle for nearly 15 years and remained undefeated. Both brothers are short, nugget types with legs like tree trunks. Super O’s fight is a gruelling affair that lasts the full five rounds, an out-and-out slugfest in which he gets the better of his Burmese opponent, Jeleong Pagan, but can’t deliver the knock-out blow.

Cope is first of the Americans up, and he dances through the crowd in a bright red robe, waving and shaking his fists. He’s up against a tall, rangy Burmese named Mojo Myawaddy, and the first round is close. Not long into the second round, however, Cope delivers a lightning uppercut followed by a scything elbow strike, and it’s all over. The Burmese crumples to the canvas, dazed. The American does a back-flip for good measure, and dances back to the dressing room.

Photo: Palani Mohan
‘That was incredible,’ he exalts. ‘Did you hear the crowd? I kicked ass out there.’ The crowd has gone strangely silent, however, by the time the tall, wiry Ben Garcia emerges. It’s clear no one was expecting an American victory. When the bell sounds, the shouts and screams begin again, louder than ever. Garcia takes a beating for three rounds from a ferocious looking fellow named Josoor Rangoon. He looks to be done, when he unleashes an elbow strike seemingly from nowhere. Josoor falls twitching to the floor in the corner nearest where I’m standing, spattering my notebook with blood.

Local pride is only somewhat salvaged in the last fight of the day. Sol Mitchell is the least impressive physically of the Americans, but at 64kg, at least he’s exactly the same weight as his opponent, Tonton Rangoon. The bell sounds, as the musicians wind up into their familiar demented fugue, snake charmers on speed. Tonton leaps in with sweeping low kicks and a flurry of blows. Mitchell tries to defend, but with seconds left in the round, and gouts of blood issuing from his nose, he goes down and doesn’t bother getting back up. He peers into the lens of an MTV camera, and gives a twisted red smile.

The fighting finished, I follow Chanchay and his super sons back to his house. His mouth is bright red – from chewing betel, not blood – and he’s downing shots of whiskey like there’s no tomorrow. It’s been a good two days for his family. Two victories, $400 in prizemoney, and at least five times that in gambling winnings. It’s clear this toughest of sports has been kind to him. He has all his faculties and barely a mark on his broad, flat face. He lives in what passes for high style in Mae Sot, in a big rough-hewn teak house, with a St Bernard dog, a shiny new pickup truck and a glistening chrome hog.

Photo: Palani Mohan
‘Good boys,’ he says to his sons. Both are sporting black eyes and shy smiles. Both are preening in front of the mirror, getting ready for a night on the tiles. I ask Super O if his father makes him fight. ‘No, it’s my choice,’ he says. ‘What else would I do around here?’ Super Op smiles through fat lips and says it’s fun. ‘Winning is the greatest feeling in the world. And it doesn’t hurt when you go looking for girls.’ The brothers, too, are undefeated, having inherited their father’s lightning speed, vicious kicks and ring savvy. They’ll get a week off training now as their bruises and cuts heal. Then it will be back into it.

In a dusty ring next to the house, the fighters of tomorrow are going through their paces. Terrible tykes smashing legs into heavy bags and peppering each other with kicks and slaps. Chanchay takes another pull of whiskey, and looks out the window at the action. ‘Some talent there, I think.’ He spits a stream of betel juice out the window, and in the glow of whiskey and victory, waxes philosophical. ‘It’s a funny thing about fighting,’ he says. ‘It never hurts as long as you win.’

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Musical interlude

Here's a little thing I threw together ... funky house and breakbeat, with some new tunes and some classics