Note: This is a work of fiction based on the author’s experiences training muay thai in Thailand.
Hollie parks her motorbike outside the restaurant and I jump off the back, relieved I’m still alive. Even with my responsible friend driving, and even being allowed to wear her helmet, I still hate riding on motorbikes. “You just have to use motorbikes if you want to get around in Phuket,” she said. “There isn’t a good public transportation system. Taxis are expensive. They’re run by the mafia.”
A couple cars cut us off on our way to the restaurant. I suppressed a gasp as Hollie swerved to avoid a stray dog. I can’t wait to get back to Bangkok, where buses are cheap and easy and I don’t have to risk my life on a motorbike every time I want to get anywhere.
I check my cell phone as Hollie and I walk past sidewalk food sellers and into the little Isaan restaurant. Three missed calls from Gong, all within the 10 minutes it took us to drive here.
Then the fourth call comes in. I pick it up on the first ring and tell Gong I’m out with my friend Hollie at dinner and will call him later back at my room. I play it off in front of Hollie like it’s no big deal to talk to him. I keep it to myself that if I’d been alone in my room now, I’d be giggling stupidly and telling him how much I miss him. Six months together and we’re still predictably in the honeymoon stage.
We sit down at a table in the back and I put my phone away. “He’s calling you a lot, huh?” Hollie says.
“Yeah, every day,” I say, leaving out how pleased I am. “I’m not used to a boyfriend calling so much. Most of the time though, it’s just to check in for a minute.”
“You’ve never dated a Thai guy before,” she laughs. “They love to call all the time. Get used to it, especially now that you’re away from him.”
“Yeah.” I look over at the other customers: a couple Thai groups of friends, one lone couple in the back, an older Western man and a younger Thai woman. “Gong says he doesn’t want me to be gone more than a week or two at a time, even though he knows it’s for my writing job. He’s pretty funny — he keeps telling me not to hang out with any trainers or fighters from the gyms I’m visiting.”
“He’s probably worried you’re going to cheat on him,” Hollie smirks. “You know the kind of reputation foreign girls have.”
“Like I’d really cheat on Gong,” I scoff. “I’m sure he doesn’t actually think that.”
“You’d be surprised. Cheating is everywhere in Thailand. I’m sure he knows what kinds of people you’re meeting in muay Thai gyms. Either that, or he’s cheating on you himself and projecting it onto you.”
“No, he’s not cheating on me. No way. He’s over at my place every night.”
She shrugs, picks up the menu and leafs through it.
“Hollie, didn’t you used to date a Thai guy?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. “A couple. And I never will again. The first guy was a trainer. Met him at a gym, stopped seeing him once I found out he was married with a kid.”
“I’ve heard that story before. Seems fairly common in the muay Thai world.”
“It is. But you know what the worst part is?” She leans in and lowers her voice. “It’s all the cheating with anyone and everyone. That trainer I dated, he got hepatitis after we broke up. He had a long-term farang girlfriend, was sleeping around behind her back. He infected her and now she’s very sick, back in her home country. This same guy also slept with another Thai woman I know. She had no clue what hepatitis is and was asking me about it–”
“Does no one use condoms?!”
“–Now that girl is going out with yet another trainer who is constantly trying to sleep around with the foreign girls too. It’s bad, Lindsey. You have to be so careful. Everyone cheats and everyone lies. Spreading diseases is the scary part. And I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen a foreign girl get with a Thai trainer who secretly, or not secretly, has a wife at home!”
“Do you think this is just in muay Thai gyms? This cheating? Isn’t anyone faithful?”
“Yes. No… I don’t know,” Hollie laughs wryly. “It’s pretty bad. Anyway, after that guy, I didn’t want to go anywhere near any trainer again. Or any boxer. I thought other Thai guys would be different; I thought maybe it was just a Thai boxing thing. So I started seeing a Thai guy who lived near me, had nothing to do with muay Thai. This was back when I lived in Chiang Mai. We dated for six months. He was my neighbor, fell behind on his bills and ended up living with me, basically just leeching off me. He used to call up other girls all the time, said they were his ‘cousins.’ They were from Isaan and he’d talk to them in their dialect so I couldn’t understand what they were saying.”
“You still in touch with him?”
She shakes her head no. “I changed my phone number and then moved to Phuket. That’s the only way you can really end it with a Thai guy, just run away.”
The waitress comes over to take our order. Hollie rattles off the name of an Isaan dish and asks the waitress in Thai to tweak the recipe a bit. After living and fighting all over Thailand for the better part of the last few years, Hollie has achieved a respectable understanding of Thai language. And apparently Thai dating customs too. She’s been in this country longer than I have, but I can’t imagine Thailand’s courtship and marriage culture is as bleak and fraught with cheating as she claims.
I tell myself these are Hollie’s experiences, not mine. Gong’s not like that. He barely talks to anyone in the gym, much less flirts with the girls, Thais or foreign. But the stories Hollie tells me sit uneasily. She’s not the first person I’ve heard go off on how unfaithful Thai men are, especially muay Thai men. They come from poor backgrounds, they’re generally uneducated, many of them develop drug or alcohol problems. Some of them work around a transient population of foreign fighters, especially in places like Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok. There’s a steady stream of new foreign women arriving at gyms all the time, most of whom stay less than three months.
It’s easy for Thai trainers to meet foreign women in the bubble of a muay Thai gym, it’s a relief to know that it’s all temporary, that most relationships won’t last long enough for problems to arise. And if problems do arise, they’ll go away as soon as the foreign girl goes back to her home country, as she invariably does.
But what about the women who don’t leave? What about long-term, committed relationships kindled in a muay Thai gym? It took Gong and me two months to become something like friends, and a further three months to become faen, boyfriend and girlfriend. Now we’ve been together six months and I’ve come to trust him.
Still, how well do you know someone after dating only six months? I’ve already seen plenty of gym-based cheating in my first year here, so how could I have the hubris, the vanity, to believe it won’t happen to me? “A cultural thing,” they call it. “Relaxed when it comes to monogamy,” or, “It’s just how it is here.” If that’s the case, how different can I expect Gong to be from the supposed majority of his countrymen?
“Hollie,” I start again, “don’t you think there are good, faithful Thai men out there?”
“No,” she says right off. I raise my eyebrows. She pauses, keeps going, “Well, maybe they’ll be faithful to another Thai, but never a farang girl. They think we’re all easy, and if they get the chance to cheat, they will. It’s just acceptable for them to cheat, and the women are just as bad.”
The women… Those two ladies who run the food stalls outside my local 7-11 in Bangkok. Every time I stop to chat with them at night, they titter over their latest illicit love affairs and show me pictures of new men on their smartphones.
But still, what Hollie’s asserting is just too much. “I refuse to believe all of this,” I say. “You can’t actually believe that, right?”
“Okay, okay, you can’t generalize a whole population,” she allows, “and I’m sure some faithful Thai men and women do exist, of course. It’s just that in my experience, in the Muay Thai gyms, I haven’t come across it very much.”
The food arrives and I eat quickly. Hollie and I talk about anything else, her upcoming matches, my research for work, Gong asking me not to fight, how long she and I will stay in Thailand and what we’ll do after we leave. It’s hard for me to focus. Her words. You have to be so careful. Everyone cheats and everyone lies.
It’s something I’ve been worrying about since Gong and I got together six months ago, in my room at the gym in Bangkok. Hell, I’d been worrying about it since before we got together, when I told myself dating in the gym was a horrible idea so just forget you like Gong. But it didn’t stop me from going along with it when it happened. Gong never asked me to be his girlfriend; he told me what I was: You’re not my friend, you’re my girlfriend.
At first I protested: Gong, don’t you already have a girlfriend? That car you drive, I heard you bought it for her.
He said no, said they broke up a few months ago. Wouldn’t give me any details. Didn’t want to talk about it.
I hesitated. I didn’t know what being his faen entailed.
What does “be my girlfriend” mean in a place like a Muay Thai gym, where I’d seen with my own eyes at least five of the other Thai trainers and fighters cheating? Not to mention a few foreign boxers from all over the world, some wearing wedding rings, who laughed about supplementing their time at Thai gyms with trips to bars, brothels, and massage parlors.
In a culture so rife with romantic flexibility, I didn’t expect much from Gong.
“Okay,” I told him, “I’ll be your girlfriend, but first you need to know that I’m leaving next year, in April. You know that, right? I have work in the U.S. that starts in April.”
He counted it on his fingers, seven months. “Yes,” he said, “I know. We have seven months together. We will be faen seven months. Then you go back to the U.S. and I stay here.”
“Yes,” I said, “and I probably won’t come back to Thailand after I leave for work in the U.S., so that’s it, just seven months together, and no more, because I’m leaving.”
“Okay,” he smiled through his straight yellowed teeth and his crinkling genuine eyes. “We are faen, but just for now, just while you’re here with me in Thailand. Sabai sabai, take it easy. I have no one else, just you, Linsee. Really.”
He touched my hair, touched my face, held my hands. This feeling that I was making a mistake, it kept coming up but I pushed it aside, ignored it, squeezed his hands instead, felt his warmth and held on. After so long at the gym, it felt good, comforting, to be touched lovingly, in way that didn’t involve punches or kicks or sweeps. I reminded myself that it took us months of friendship just to reach this point of dating; couldn’t there be some minimal chance that he was sincere when he said he had no one else?
No, I chastised myself, don’t even hope for that. What do I care about his fidelity anyway? This isn’t going anywhere, not really. He’s Thai, I’m American, we can barely speak each other’s language, and I’m leaving in a few months anyway for my REAL LIFE, outside of Thailand. And that’s okay, it’s all fine, because I told Gong that I’m leaving so he knows this relationship or flirtation or fling, whatever this is, he knows it can’t go on very long. Maybe that’s why he wants it. Because it’s a quick side note in his life, just like it is in mine. An exotic romance, a first for both of us. My first Thai boyfriend, his first foreign girlfriend. A terminal relationship, free from the worry of investment, of effort, of hope for a future.
He said goodnight, got up to leave, said we’d train again tomorrow morning and then we’d go out tomorrow night, our first date. We stood and he gave me a small hug, gentle in the shy Thai way, or in the uncertainty of new love.
My arms around him for that brief moment, everything was alight inside me, the flow of giddiness that the attraction is mutual, the relief that it’s finally happening, that the person you loved from afar will now give you the chance to love from up close. But seeping in were shards of unease: He must have another girlfriend, or he’ll find one before I leave next spring. Men don’t have just one faen in Thailand, especially if they’re muay Thai fighters. Why would Gong be any different?
I turned off the lights after he left and lay on my makeshift bed, just a towel and pillow on the tile floor. Staring up at the ceiling, listening to the canal frogs and the passing trains, thinking about what dating my trainer would mean. Four months, I thought to myself. I give it four months until this fizzles out. Four months until he gets bored or I get bored. Four months for us to realize that the language barrier is too much, that it’s just not worth it. Four months before I find out he has a girlfriend in Bangkok or a wife back in his hometown. Four months until one of us walks away.
Hollie stands. “You ready to get going?”
It’s a short road back to the gym. I barely notice the traffic, the cars, the near misses with tuk tuks. My head is down. What did Hollie say. The lies I heard and the cheating I saw from others, does it match up with Gong’s behavior. Finding reasons for or against.
Gong. I told him I’d call him when I get home tonight. What’s he doing now, where is he, what’s he getting up to in Bangkok while I’m off galavanting in Phuket? What does he think I’m getting up to? Last time I left for a research trip to Chiang Mai, he called every night and asked where I was, asked if I was doing okay, said he was worried I was staying with some “foreign boyfriend.” He laughed when he said it, but still ended every conversation with, “I love you, I miss you, no other boyfriends, okay?” I laughed too, reassured him I had no one else. We kept it light, disguising the anxiety.
Hollie pulls up to the gym and lets me off near my room. Goodnight and thank you, I tell her, leaving out the thanks for the seeds of paranoia she’s sown in me.
I dig out my cell phone, no calls from Gong. It’s 10pm, a weeknight, he should be in his room at the gym. I dial his number.
Phone rings. No answer.
Lindsey Newhall first left her home state of California when she was 20, and has since called China, Thailand, and Alaska her home. You can check out more of Lindsey’s writing on Fightland.