Thailand

Muay Thai in Krabi

There can’t be any cooler national sport than Muay Thai. Graceful and artistic, yet also savagely brutal, it encapsulates the proud, tough people whom it represents. As somebody who likes combat sports in general, Muay Thai has long held an interest for me. However, in my two previous visits to Thailand I hadn’t managed to see a serious fight. Unless you count watching pissed up backpackers at a “reggae bar” on Ko Phi Phi. Which I most certainly don’t. Therefore, in December, on my third visit to Thailand I resolved that I had to go to a proper Muay Thai fight night.

Unsurprisingly, the best places to see top notch competitive bouts are Bangkok and Chiang Mai. As Janey, my travelling partner and better half, is definitely not a fan of the noble arts, this posed a problem. When I watch pugilism I like someone to discuss the impact of the blow with. Fortunately, we were due to spend time in the south of Thailand with two friends who were actually on their honeymoon. And what honeymoon is complete without spending time in a sweaty Thai boxing stadium?! I found a venue in Krabi and then contacted Tom who swiftly and enthusiastically agreed. Janey and Tom’s new wife Flis could go and drink cocktails together whilst we could watch fists, knees and elbows being thrown. Perfect planning.

Ao Nang stadium is located a couple of kilometres outside Ao Nang beach, a popular tourist destination in Krabi state. Fights are held every Monday and Friday and entrance costs 800 Baht for an arena seat or 1200 Baht for a “comfortable ringside sofa seat.” Each fight night consists of nine fights, each comprising five three minute rounds. On the night of our visit we arrived slightly late for the first bout and were pretty shocked by what we saw. There were two young kids in the ring! I’ve sat ringside at a boxing world title fight and witnessed some pretty sickening knockouts so I’m hardly sensitive, but I certainly didn’t want to watch violence involving children. Had all this been a very expensive mistake? Thankfully not, as the kids bout concluded fairly quickly and the proceeding bouts moved swiftly up in age group categories. This enabled us to relax and take in our surroundings. The arena was ramshackle and grimy and reeked of sweat. It was everything I wanted it to be. No less enthralling was the pure theatricality of the pugilists’ pre fight routines. Each fighter made an elaborate show of bowing to every corner of the ring before paying the appropriate tribute to Buddha. It’s one of the glorious paradoxes of Thailand that Buddhism and Muay Thai are so pivotal to the national identity.

As the contests progressed and the Singhas continued to flow, Tom and I wagered 50 Baht on each fight. I was 3-0 up and 150 Baht to the good before making a shockingly bad call. The red corner fighter’s routine was so flamboyantly choreographed that I figured he must be all braggadocio. Not in the slightest. He was like a teenage Thai Tyson and brutally demolished his opponent within a round. The end came as he rained down six unanswered roundhouse kicks to the same spot on his opponent’s leg. The rest of the flights blended into one alcohol fuelled haze. The only one that sticks in the mind was due to an appalling refereeing decision. As one fighter was picking himself up from the deck the referee called fight on meaning that the poor, valiant contestant made a very quick return to where he had came from. Tom and I agreed that we didn’t rate the ref’s chances of advancing up the ladder to officiate big money fights in Bangkok. The vociferous local crowd certainly weren’t shy about voicing their disapproval either. Bizarrely, after the seventh fight, two young boys appeared in the ring again. We, along with many others took this as our cue to depart. At 800 Baht it may have been pricey, and it certainly wasn’t a very high standard, but it was enough to satisfy me. If I ever go back to Thailand, I’m going to go to big stadium fight. Now that would be amazing.

TRAVEL TIPS

Songthaews drive up and down the main strip in Ao Nang picking up tourists to take to the stadium. Alternatively, take a tuk-tuk. It shouldn’t be more than about 80 Baht.

Categories: Asia, Muay Thai in Krabi, Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Beach” – Phi Phi Ley

“The Beach” by Alex Garland is one of my favourite ever books. I was given a copy of it as a Christmas present when I was seventeen years old, and it enraptured me so much I had finished all 450 pages by Boxing Day. Reading the book’s enticing and evocative tales of overnight train journeys to Surat Thani and island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand awakened my own wanderlust. Not much more than a year later I went travelling to India and South East Asia, and I’ve been sating my voracious appetite for travel ever since then. A short time after I read the book, the film version was released. Although I’ve since grown to like it, at the time I hated it. Far too many changes were made to the storyline (Richard is ENGLISH not American!!) and one very important character was completely omitted. One thing that the filmmakers did get right though was their choice of locations. The idyllic Maya Bay on the island of Phi Phi Ley, in the Andaman Sea was an inspired choice for the principal location. Since the release of the film, Maya Bay has become one of southern Thailand’s most visited spots.631

Prior to December, I’d visited Thailand twice before but hadn’t managed to visit Maya Bay. In 2007 I made it as far as Ko Phi Phi, only for it to rain the entire time I was there, making a trip across the bay impossible. In late 2013 an opportunity arose to return. Janey and I decided to spend Christmas on Ko Phi Phi, as the culmination of our three week trip around Laos and Thailand. As Christmas Day was spent relaxing hard on the beach, we decided we would head to Maya Bay on Boxing Day, which seemed very apt. Fate had other ideas though. Boxing Day came around and I found myself bedridden with a nasty bout of food poisoning. As we were due to leave for Krabi the next day, I cursed my luck. As beautiful as Ko Phi-Phi is, as third visit seemed distinctly unlikely. However, the next day I was sufficiently recovered to attempt to get to Phi Phi Ley in the morning in time to get back for the afternoon ferry to Krabi. So, nothing risky about that then……

Most visitors to Maya Bay choose to take one of the big tourist boats, for a fee of about 400 Baht, which takes them to Maya Beach, amongst a number of other locations. However, due to our time constraints, we decided to pay a local fisherman to take us on his long tail boat. There are loads of these guys scattered round Ko Phi Phi. We just had to find the dodgy one! The fact that he lit up a massive joint, just after embarking on the voyage probably should have told us that this wasn’t the most reputable of tour operators. In hindsight then, it wasn’t too surprising when, a few minutes out to sea, the engine gave a cough and a splutter and breathed it’s last. For about twenty minutes the stoned fisherman tried to fix the engine with his tool of choice; a machete, naturally. It didn’t take long for us to get a bit aggravated. Not only were we definitely not going to make it, we were adrift, with no guarantee of catching our ferry back to Krabi. Mercifully though, we managed to hail down another boat, to tow us back to land, where the stoner’s mate offered to take us back to Maya Bay. After rigorously inspecting the boat, and judging his level of intoxication we deemed it worth the risk. As we rounded the headland, and got our first view of Maya Bay, all the travails instantly seemed worth it. Despite the hordes of tourist craft, Maya Bay took our breath away. If it was this stunning in 2013, how must it have looked when the, presumably awestruck, location scout had first laid eyes on it?

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After we disembarked, we only had an hour and a half to enjoy the island. Fortunately this was enough. After the obligatory face down on the sand photo, we quickly hiked up to a viewpoint where I ran into a friend of my brother. As one always does on islands in the middle of the Andaman Sea. The rest of the time was spent swimming in the impossibly blue water, thankful that we had finally made it to a place that I’d wanted to visit for years.

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Like many such places, Maya Bay is a victim of it’s own success. It is crowded 365 days a year, mostly it seems by Russians taking glamorous / borderline erotic selfies. Furthermore, sadly a lot of the coral around the island has died out. It’s also true to say that there are more beautiful beaches in Thailand (Rai Leh Beach in Krabi is far superior) but if you’re a fan of the book or film, it is definitely worth putting the effort, and indeed a lot of it in our case, in to visit. You won’t regret it.

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TRAVEL TIPS

The restaurant where I got food poisoning, is called Ton Sai seafood. Avoid it like the plague.

Categories: Asia, Maya Bay, Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai

Janey, my better half, loves elephants. She tells me this on a pretty much daily basis. Thus, when I was planning our three week December trip around Laos and Thailand, the constant refrain that I heard was “I don’t care where we go as long as we see some elephants.” Laos, our first port of call, has the wonderfully evocative, but also extremely inaccurate, nickname of the land of a million elephants. In our entire eight days there we didn’t manage to see a single one. Therefore, by the time we crossed the Thai border and arrived in Chiang Mai, Janey was starting to get a little nervous that our trip might be depressingly free of pachyderms. She needn’t have worried. Chiang Mai has a plethora of options available for tourists to meet and interact with elephants. The challenge is choosing the right one.
Most companies offer a choice between working elephant shows and elephant riding. Watching elephants move logs around that would then be put back in the same place the next day never seemed that attractive, and after careful research Janey concluded that she didn’t want to ride the elephants either. The reason for this is that in some cases the elephants are grotesquely mistreated by the mahouts to ensure their acquiescence. As we didn’t want to endorse any potential mistreatment this left one other option. The Elephant Nature Park, which is situated about 60km north of Chiang Mai, is a sanctuary for elephants that have been rescued from a variety of dire situations. It’s a lot more expensive than other options at 2500 Baht and normally requires an advanced reservation, but luckily we were able to book at short notice, due to a cancellation.


On the journey to the park, we watched a short film that told the story of the park’s formation by a Thai lady named Lek Chailert. She set up the park in 1994, as a refuge for elephants that had fallen into misfortune due to Thailand’s ban on working elephants in 1989. When it opened the park had just three elephants. Now it is home to over seventy, which makes feeding and caring for them an extremely expensive operation. It was for this reason that the park first opened its doors to tourists. Upon arrival, we were taken to an elevated platform where buckets of watermelon and pumpkin had been placed in preparation for feeding time. We didn’t have to wait too long until the first batch of elephants arrived and we were allowed the wonderful experience of feeding these great beasts. I don’t think it would actually be humanly possible to not enjoy this. Be prepared for your arms to be liberally covered in slobber though!


After feeding time, our excellent guide Andy, took our group for a walk around the park and regaled us with background information about some of the elephants. Sadly, many of these stories were quite depressing. One had been blinded by a vicious mahouts, another had lost half a paw to a landmine. This added a touch of sobriety to what was an otherwise uplifting experience. After an excellent buffet lunch, we enjoyed what is the highlight for the majority of visitors; elephant bath time. For a few short minutes we were allowed to go in the river and douse the appreciative elephants with water. As it was winter, this was quite a brief activity as the elephants didn’t need much cooling down. Janey didn’t partake but instead appeared to be deep in conversation with an elderly female elephant, who had obviously decided that the water was a bit too cold for her that day.


The final activity of the day was the most interactive. A mass feeding time, this time not from a platform, but down on the ground amongst the elephants. It also featured the arrival of the park’s star attraction; a four month old baby that was born in the park. This resulted in a bit of a scrum for photos but looking at these, can you really blame us?! All too soon, the day was over and we had to return to Chiang Mai. All the people on our minibus agreed that it had been worth every single Baht. I’ll leave the final word to Janey though. When I asked her if it had lived up to her expectations her response was “Yes, I loved every minute, I really love them and I think they like me too.” Quite so.

TRAVEL TIPS

As well as day visits the Elephant Nature Park also has volunteer opportunities. You can find out more  at http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/.

Categories: Asia, Elephant Nature Park, Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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