It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest

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January 18th 2012
Published: January 25th 2012
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Yeah....I’m a bit tipsy. Big woop, wanna fight about it? Just drank a Chang, one can of Chang but I don’t drink too often these days so like a child one sip obliterates me leaving my head light and my physical reactions somewhat delayed. But I just had to write about tonight. I’m not in to violence, it gets my heart racing and I am certain the more times it beats the quicker I will wear it out. So, I try to steer clear of unnecessary acts of aggression but I continually find a way to it more often than not.

Boxing? Chang? Clearly I am in Thailand. My heart and head told me Sapa could wait until we got some fundraising behind us. There was no need for me to be there but not going back meant I let people down and the guilt I felt wrapped itself tightly around me like a noose around my neck squeezing out many tears. But, this is MY year out and I have to be selfish sometimes. Don’t I? We forget this as decent human beings who care too much about others and their judgements when in reality I can be of more help to Sapa in the future than right now but I convinced myself otherwise. As it was, my heart felt a lot calmer being here in Bangkok and the excitement of travel gently crept back in to me. Or am I just trying to make excuses for my behaviour?

I did end up going back to Hanoi as planned, collected my bag and flew to Bangkok the next day. The only things of any worth in there were my two camera lenses which I have barely used the entire time I have travelled. I arrived in the evening on an empty plane feeling tired and emotional yet my shoulders felt considerably lighter. I breathed in the Bangkok air, chocking on the fumes but loving it. This is just a stop-gap to watch Chinese New Year and wait for a visa to Myanmar. I trundled in to the female dorm, emptied the basics in to my locker then shoved my overly heavy bag in the gap between my bed and the wall. I went downstairs as quick as I could to load Skype and speak to my mother. Still feeling sensitive and edgy, I feigned all was OK but my Mum knew better. I am OK, just fragile and vulnerable. I will be OK. I always am. Still, I slept badly that night and woke early in pain. Thirty minutes later after downing tablets and water the pain subsided and I could fall back to sleep. I woke wretched. After a refreshing shower I got chatting to Natalie, a well spoken English girl who had been travelling Asia and Oceania for the last few months. Immediately we hit it off. Then she invited me out for Thai boxing, something I have never seen or never thought much about. Well I couldn’t just sit in moping now could I?

We arrived early hoping to get good seats like the English do. Only, there were no seats unless we wanted to pay £40 for the privilege. We grunted at the ticket seller and after a quick discussion we convinced ourselves we could get them cheaper after we had filled our stomachs with delicious street food. We couldn’t, so we settled on third class tickets which cost us £15 and although a little distance from the stage, it wasn’t too far nor was it too crowded. But we did get there early, as they say; the early bird catches the worms – we got good standing positions.

We hung eagerly over the bars swinging our cameras about taking photos of the crowd jeering at each other desperately trying to be heard by the bookies. After each round these men would decide which opponent to support, which was stronger, more agile and more skilful. Ultimately, they wanted to bet on the winning man. Hands in the crowd were flung up in the air and their hands would make funny gestures at the bookies who in turn would seemingly remember the bet and the face. I did not see any paper, no notation, and no board on an easel telling the gamblers the odds, or money changing hands it all seemed to be done by memory and it was fascinating to watch. I have been horseracing and I love the moment in the courtyard in front of the race track where the bookies and their odds are displayed just before the gun sounds. There is a desperate electricity which flows through everyone whether they be gambler or bookie; it’s the taste of money and the excitement of possibility; making a quick buck or in some cases a loss. Worlds away, yet the feelings are the same.

There were five or six fights. They all started the same though some were much more thrilling to watch than others. The first round was what I call the ‘summing up’ where each opponent would regard their match and decipher how they were going to play this game. They would dance on the tips of their toes leaning side to side feigning attack. The second round saw a few punches and kicks being thrown, maybe a shove in to the ring sides but no real appetite was shown for winning. The third round got everyone going. The boxers angry with being made to look foolish in round two were now out for a bit of blood. Exhausted they would fling themselves in to the corners during the break between each round whilst two men would rub their muscles, throw water on them and spray water in to their mouths. This is when the crowd went mad, desperate to start gambling and support one man or the other. Round four was electric, men had now put hard earned cash on to one of the boys and had something to lose or win. The crowd would gasp, or scream or howl in chorus when each punch or kick landed in to the body of the other. The groups of close supporters standing at the ring side in the blue corner or the red corner would encourage their fighter screaming advice. They would punch the air trying to get their man on stage to do the same. It is of course far easier to give advice from the side. Round four and five would see anger, desperation, exhaustion, passion, skill and wit flow around the ring as punches and kicks flew in to each rival. At times a hint of instinct for survival flared through the trained men. The winner was decided by how many successful punches or kicks had landed. As the bell chimed the two men knew who had or had not won and punched the air with tired fists. Sometimes we witnessed the failure in the eyes of the men before the bell sounded or in their downward sloping shoulders. The harder I watched the more I saw it: the blow of confidence, the internalisation of failure. They continued to play ‘the game’ but the hunger had evaporated consumed by the eagerness of the better man opposite.

I have seen fighting on TV or in films but am fully aware it is a choreographed dance rather than real lust for blood and survival. I used to watch WWF with my older brother Gareth when I was younger and I would cry thinking these barbaric men would actually end up killing each other. Little did I know the whole thing was a phoney show centred on glamour and acting than any real skill of agility or instinct. Since then I have had very little to do with violence and certainly do not watch it on TV as I believe it to me mindless and unworthy of my time; my heart can’t take the pressure and I leave a cinema anxious and fingernail-less. The snob in me still likes to think all this aggression is beneath me but I cannot deny that I enjoyed the boxing today. I caught myself engrossed, supporting one side over the other, the excitement and thrill flowed in to me as it did every other person in the stadium. It was an experience, an enjoyable one, especially when blood was spilt: caught in the moment I forgot I was a decent human being who claims to hate violence. Oops.

Would I go see it again? Hell yes I would. These men have made the choice to box and are trained to be skilful in the ring, there is an intelligence underlying every move and every step. They are not forced in to it, so I don’t feel bad about watching them beat each other up. It was far more enjoyable than I thought it would be and I guess this is based on my horrific childhood memories of WWF (thanks Gaz) which I remember seeing huge heavy men dressed in leotards climbing up the sides of the ring whilst their enemy lies collapsed in a bloody heap on the floor of the ring seemingly dying before they fling themselves on top of their opponents’ unsuspecting head. I enjoyed the matches much more than I thought I would or wanted to let myself. The atmosphere is infectious and it is hard not to take pleasure in that alone. I guess I could compare it to the time I went to a bull fight in Spain when I was twelve years old. I knew it was wrong to hurt an animal, but there in the centre of the ring a graceful man in matador regalia toyed with the fierce animal slowly destroying the beast through trickery and sharp edged knives. Captivated by the final moments, I watched the bull breathe its last breath as it gazed peacefully in to its killers eyes. I stood sickened but struck by the awesome beauty of how valuable life is and how quickly it can be taken away. I was shaken from those young philosophical thoughts as the bull’s ear begun spinning in my direction – my sister caught it and decided she should keep it. Parts of the bull were cut up and thrown in to the blood thirsty crowd before it was taken off by truck to the local butchers to be sliced up and sold on.

As brutal as boxing, bull fighting and any other game might be, it is the electrical force we feel, a connectedness when in congregation with others. Almost a single organism; we see the same event, we feel the same event and we share an experience together that makes it impossible to remove yourself from such connectedness. Those notions of right and wrong we construct previous to or after the event are forgotten during the action.

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