I try to force normal range of motion of the pinky finger of my left hand and so visits the memory of how it was lost. The reasoning behind the incident which led to the permanence of my injury is but speculation, an attempt to understand why a teacher should feel the need to assault a student, why a man of significant size, strength and martial skill should feel the need to fracture the bone of a woman.
The situation in question was born on a weekday morning in the heart of Bangkok. It was 2009 and I was training at one of the country’s prestigious muay thai gyms. I had completed my morning run and as I entered the gym, the shirtless trainer immediately informed me he was going to hold pads for me that day. This was unexpected, he had never trained me before.
Our session that morning focused on boxing and was intense. He pushed hard and at times came back at me with quick and heavy handed attacks.
I was still green to the Bangkok muay thai gym experience and thought my defense and my heart were purposely being tested.
I thought the trainer was in pursuit of determining whether or not I was a fighter.
On a number of occasions he slammed the focus mitt on the top of my head rocking my jaw. Later that day I emailed a friend, half in jest that perhaps he had chipped my teeth. My neck was sore from the impact but I believed it to be part of the game. I felt no fear and wasn’t going to back down. If this was a test, I would conquer it.
The afternoon session commenced and again we worked together, with equal if not greater intensity. He was throwing heavy weight into the focus mitts as I threw my weapons. Again we were only working hands. A small crowd of Thai fighters began to watch from the side of the ring. I thought perhaps they were doing so because I was doing well. I had been complimented several times on the strength of my hands during past sessions and I was throwing my weapons hard and as accurately as I could.
A left uppercut escaped me. The trainer snapped his weight heavily down as I snapped mine up and as contact was made, he threw more weight into the motion and the tip of the red mitt curved in direction and clipped the bone leading to my pinky finger in the centre of my hand. My bone snapped under the protection of the red bag gloves and the thickness of my wraps.
I didn’t realize my hand was broken and tried to complete the round. I couldn’t. The fighters came from the side of the ring and after seeing the swelling of my unwrapped hand insisted I seek medical attention. My hand was secured with a cast within the course of the next few days. The wait was partially due to my reluctance to believe it was broken and partially due to the necessity of waiting until someone had the time to escort me across the city to a more reliable hospital than the one which lied across the street.
At the time I believed the incident was a normal and potential risk of training muay thai.
Other fighters approached me, revealing the raised areas of their hands and relaying the combative stories of their breaks. The trainer once glanced at my cast and laughed but neither inquired on the progress of my healing nor offered an apology. He never spoke to me of the incident. Once, perhaps a few times, I caught him staring at me and grinning. He was, in my opinion, a man of unfavorable character, my opinion having been based on the accumulation of various actions and sentiments upon his arrival to the gym, shortly after mine.
Despite my feelings towards the man, at the time I would have thought it inconceivable the breaking of my hand to be an act of intent.
That belief was shattered when a group of fighters informed me otherwise, one evening, near the 7-Eleven we often congregated at in the evenings.
What was spoken to me that night remained silent within me. By this point in time, I was acutely aware of a gym’s hierarchy, which is reflective of Thai culture as a whole. A student or in my case, a boxer never confronts or questions their teacher (trainer) under any circumstance. To do so would reflect poorly on the student despite the severity of circumstances which would lead to the insubordination. The act of doing so alone would be the focus, not the allegation or question. For a student to partake in such an act may cause the teacher, who enjoys a place of higher esteem on the social scale to lose face, and this is inexcusable and often unforgivable.
In addition, I was the only female either Foreign or Thai training at this gym and at the time of the incident, I believe the only Foreigner. I had suspected my allegation to be dismissed at best, particularly without the testimonial of the fighters who couldn’t confront this directly. Lastly, both ambition and pride fueled my silence. I wanted to forget about the situation at hand, heal and continue to train at this renowned gym – no drama. This trainer was but one of many and I wouldn’t be bullied. I chose to simply avoid training with him again. Incidentally, he never approached me to.
That being said, two dominant questions arose inside of me. Had the fighters told me the truth and why would the trainer purposely maim me?
The answer to the first question came in a myriad of ways and via a number of vessels in the years that followed, the most prominent being the testimonials of trainers and fighters from other gyms. After relaying the details of the event of the break, with neither judgment nor questions placed on my part, I was consistently told the fracture was an act of intent. On occasion I would be asked what would provoke the trainer to injure me. On other occasions there would be the simple statement that I must have made him angry, but the questioned that remained was Why.
To this day, almost three years later, I haven’t received an answer and I stopped searching for one long ago. One incident however holds still in my memory.
Perhaps it was the starting point of his discontent, perhaps it was only the starting point of mine.
The following took place within days of his arrival to the gym.
I received a phone call long after the gym’s time of dinner from one of the fighters. I was invited out for a late night meal. I accepted and met the fighter, along with the trainer on the street leading to the gym. We ate at a neighbourhood outdoor restaurant. To best sum up my impressions of the trainer up until the point of time of our dinner together is to say that, he was a grotesque caricature of an out of shape, red-eyed, foul-mouthed scumbag. I had a distaste for him instantly.
Upon our initial introduction days prior he shook my hand and leered at me in an exaggeration of what I suspect most post pubescent women have experienced at least one time in their lives as complete objectification and cum-laced disrespect. He had the demeanor of a man I’d have kept away from children. The trainer had just traveled north from a muay thai gym in the red-light party district of Phuket – Patong. Muay thai gyms in Phuket are often filled with Western women, many who are recreationally training muay thai; they aren’t there to fight professionally.
Phuket is known to be more accepting of Western culture and many vacationing women act as many Western women do – they choose whom they want to have sex with openly and freely. Sometimes they choose multiple partners. This public sexual freedom isn’t always received with respect by local Thais. Foreign women are often viewed as little more than dirty whores and I can often determine if a trainer has spent time in Phuket or other highly trafficked tourist destinations by his demeanor upon our initial meeting. Trainers with little to no experience in these areas are often more respectful and/or extremely shy. It was of no surprise to me that he had just arrived from Patong.
Back to the street.
During our dinner at the roadside restaurant typical of any Thai neighbourhood, the fighter and the trainer were speaking in the Thai Laotian dialect often simply referred to as Lao or Isaan. Intermittently the trainer would ask me a question, eyebrows raised and relay some form of the answer to the fighter sitting beside me. I remember him mentioning that I should open a gym in Canada and have him be employed as one of the trainers.
Despite not understanding Lao, his demeanor, tone in addition to the extreme discomfort of the fighter spoke to me of blatant disrespect. The Thai word Farang (Foreigner) had been spit out too often for my liking, sometimes I had deduced, in regards to Foreigners as a whole and at times used to refer to me. This is common in Thai language and culture. Often a Foreigner will be called simply Farang rather by name. The trainer had done so a number of times during that meeting. It was evident in the way he would tilt his head in my direction when the word was used, sometimes following a question I had answered. The fighter had limited experience with Foreigners.
I simply looked directly into the eyes of the trainer who sat opposite me and politely expressed in Thai:
My name is Laura, not Farang.
I don’t believe he was aware I had working comprehension of Thai, which shares similarities with the version of Lao they had been speaking. The fighter was initially shocked, then a warm smile spread across his face. Later he told me he didn’t like the trainer and the trainer had in fact made him pay for dinner despite being the one who had invited the fighter for dinner (which defies Thai custom). I don’t remember the reaction of the trainer as the incident was of little importance to me prior to the breaking of my hand. Either way, my action caused the trainer to lose face and at the time I had less understanding of Thai social politics than I do now. Essentially, such an act often isn’t forgotten.
Would this alone be enough to plant the seed of whatever it was that later prompted his act of conspicuous violence? Perhaps but I can’t help to think that perhaps it was symptomatic of his nature. Months proceeding the event, a French nak muay / boxer sought my council. He felt that this trainer who had been assigned to him due to his ability to speak (some) English, was intentionally trying to injure him during training. Was this possible? The French nak muay left the gym approximately one month earlier than he had planned due to his doubts.
For those of you planning to train muay thai in Thailand I can offer the following:
A good trainer will push your comfort zone far past what you thought was possible. A good kru preparing you to fight will lead you where you may be afraid to venture alone, only to stop when it’s evident that any further breach will lead to injury. Sometimes you will be pushed to become a better nak muay and a devastating fighter of extreme mental toughness. Sometimes you will be pushed simply to determine if you have heart, if you’re worthy of true muay thai training as opposed to make-the-Farang-tired-and-happy sessions.
I’ve worked in Thailand with trainers of questionable character outside of the gym. Men who drank cheap whiskey deep into most nights, one who openly beat the mother of his children (and who would adamantly attest in a teasing way that she wasn’t his wife, in her presence). These men were often incredible trainers who I feel fortunate for having learned from.
How can you determine the difference between a trainer who is pushing your limits and one who is trying to injure you? If you have time on your side, meaning you’ve had the grace of being able to question your situation with your trainer, as in the case of the French nak muay, value to your intuition. If you don’t trust your trainer or the culture of the gym, often it’s best to leave. Sometimes requesting a new trainer is accepted, sometimes it is viewed as a loss of face, but you won’t be told the latter. Don’t doubt yourself. Read the situation.
Good luck out there.
For Thailand solo travel and safety tips, in addition to Thailand information you won’t find in traditional tourist guides, please visit my post Tips For Women Traveling To Thailand.