Photos by Tinnakorn Nukul
The spaces outside the rows of bars are populated by chain-smoking sex tourists, lurking in the neon light cascading down from the wall signs and marquees near the ring. Faux-friendly bar girls serve overpriced alcohol and L & M Blues to men with jaundiced eyes and vulgar mouths. Some sit and converse amongst themselves, the skin on their left ring fingers several shades lighter. The wedding bands jingle in pockets filled with baht coins or rest within briefcases or on desks in hotels, out of sight of the scores of potential mistresses that buzz around, looking for a boyfriend for an hour or two.
It is a Tuesday night after 10 p.m., and in the centre of the Loi Kroh bar complex and Muay Thai stadium two boxers stand toe to toe, throwing volleys of intentionally ineffective punches, kicks and knees at each other near the ropes of the ring. The fights that occur every day except Wednesdays are "show" fights; the participants make light contact during the matches for tips from tourists who drink bottles of Chang and Leo like famished babies at their mother's tit. On this night, some spectators laugh and point to the ring, some sit at their tables smirking. Others hover at ringside, giggling while their point and shoot cameras record video of a middle-aged man fighting Acum "Tia" Wermae, a tattooed 19-year-old Akha tribesman who has the physique of a Greek God. A Greek God who stands one metre tall and has a mohawk.
Tia is an achondroplastic dwarf and is fighting a man more than twice his size. His nickname means "short" in Thai. He bobs and weaves as punches, knees and kicks rocket down from above, creating a blur of perilous motion around him. Most connect, yet do little apparent damage. After each volley he counters with punches to his opponent's stomach, jumping to ensure the punches connect above the groin. With each punch he bellows a loud cry, a cry laced with bass yet truncated like a yelp. His muscles are defined and the sinew shifts into new mountainous formations with his every move. Tia kicks his opponent's shins, then moves his arms in front of his face to defend himself, endures each punch and issues several in turn.
The spectacle goes on for three rounds, after which Tia's opponent is names the winner, his lanky arm hoisted high above by the referee as the sparse crowd claps in appreciation of the show. Tia embraces his opponent, bows to the crowd then exits through the bottom rope. He picks up the tip box besides the ring and makes his rounds, collecting change and baht notes from the crowd, some of whom give their point and shoot cameras to friends and pose for pictures with him. He raises his fists and smiles, flanked by giants soused in cheap beer and toxic whiskey. After the last tourist is approached, he counts the money, divides the tips with his opponent and walks to the makeshift locker room adjacent to a bar heaving with ladyboys.
He emerges in a tank top and shorts, rings adorned with crosses and skulls on his swollen fingers. He briskly walks back to the Small World Bar, several metres from the ring, to resume his work as bar back and bar enforcer. Once within the bar he walks to the rear and arranges the small balls on the small pool table into a small triangle. He takes a truncated pool cue from the wall and lines up his shot, then strikes. The sound of the colliding balls echoes through the diminutive bar, a microcosm of the debauched community outside the four walls. Tia eyes the settled balls, paces and takes another shot, sinking a small ball into a petite pocket within a bar short on class but rich with irony.
Tia was born in Chiang Rai, the middle child in a family of six. His parents are farmers. When he was old enough to work he fixed motorbikes in a mechanic's shop. He tired of the life in a mid-sized town and decided to move to Chiang Mai, a slightly larger mid-sized town, to make more money to help pay for his aging parent's expenses.
"I got a job as a flower boy, selling bundles of roses to farang. I worked from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., and did not earn a lot. I had to buy all the materials, which lowered the money that I made," Tia said.
While selling roses on Loi Kroh, Tia caught the eye of Tum, his current employer and trainer. Tum is around 170 centimetres tall, with spiked black hair atop his deeply lined visage. He is from Bangkok and looks weathered, with the eyes and demeanour of a man keen on prospering at all costs. His hands and arms are completely masked by tattoos of various sizes and colours.
Tum saw Tia, at that time 16 years old, and decided to take him in. He gave him a job as a bar back at Small World, filling ice containers and replenishing beers in the refrigerator. He spoke to the organiser of the nightly fights in the boxing stadium, and trained Tia to box in the nightly "show" matches. For one hour each day for the past three years, Tum and Tia jump rope, lift weights and hit heavy bags to keep in shape and minimise the possibility of Tia getting hurt in the ring. Tum even gave Tia an apartment, fully subsidised and a mere block from his daily workplace.
Every day, Tia opens the bar at 10 in the morning. He cleans, organises and ensures that all items necessary for the functioning of the bar for the day are in place. He trains around 1 p.m., then hangs out at the bar, waiting for the evening. Waiting for the droves of tourist and businessmen to sit and drink until their old troubles turn into new ones. The sky darkens and the girls come in, holding mirrors and adjusting their make-up while chatting. A Korean tourist walks in and the girls immediately become bubbly, screeching greetings and hugging and rubbing and looking with mock affection into his eyes as Tia and Tum joke around behind the bar. The man sits at a front table and is immediately surrounded by the women. He eyes them wolfishly, then orders a round of tequila shots. Tia pours the shots and delivers them to the table. The shots are imbibed and the process repeats.
Tia keeps an eye on the group while cleaning counters and washing glasses. The fifth round goes down and the man begins to pinch, grope and rub the breasts and thighs of the women around him. The table devolves into a slow motion orgy of slurred come-on lines, laughter and dry heaving. It becomes obvious that the girls are too drunk to stand, speak, suck or gyrate without vomiting. The tourist is so inebriated and surrounded by vice that he will likely forget to pay. Tia walks to the table and gives the man the bill. He stands stoic as the customer fumbles for his wallet, then fumbles for a nipple, then eventually pays and swaggers away. The girls are left a mess, the tequila too strong for their bloodstream, the ground too fluid to walk upon.
Tia cleans the table then disappears behind the bar. When he emerges a minute later he is dressed only in navy blue boxing shorts. He grabs a towel from behind the bar and walks in a hurried pace to the ring. All matches this evening are full contact fights, the combatants truly trying to knock each other out. All fights except the one that is about to begin: the "blindfold match."
The seats around the ring are all occupied. The dozens of tourist drink iced beer, chat, fidget and flirt with each other and with bar girls as Tia enters the ring. Two men stand there, both blindfolded with their gloved hands held in front of their six pack-sheathed stomachs. The announcer introduces the three fighters and leaves the ring. A bell is struck and the spectacle begins. Tia dances around the sightless men, and strikes them while they errantly swing at each other, and at him. He easily dodges their blows and laughs as the crowd cheers at the absurd spectacle, akin to an episode of The Three Stooges colliding with several scenes of the film Ong Bak, within a tattered boxing ring, within a mediocre brothel.
The three men fall onto the floor with Tia atop, repeatedly striking his opponents and squirming and grinning and kicking and striking again. Minutes pass and the bell rings, heralding the end of the match. The crowd cheers as the men raise their hands high in mock triumph. They exit the ring and take the wooden tip box from table to table, shaking hands and posing for pictures while politely asking for money from each and every person who laid eyes upon their display of comedic combat. Tia poses for one last photo, divides the night's winnings with his fellow boxers, then walks down the long lane leading to Small World, to dress and resume his work within this strange pageant of vice, debauchery and flesh, pummeled, pinched, or both.