Small towns in Thailand all have their yearly festival, and it usually involves boat races. These are traditionally long boats paddled by teams, but some towns have adapted and use motors. I once participated in a hilarious race where we had to paddle with bamboo poles, basically a paddle with no blade. In the town of Tha Prik (ท่าพริก) in Trat (ตราด) province, the boat race is fairly traditional, but there are plenty of other fun games, and the highlight of them is muay talay (มวยทะเล) – literally ‘sea boxing’. Two contestants strap on boxing gloves, climb onto a horizontal tree trunk suspended above water, and try to knock each other off.
I ended up at Tha Prik’s boat race, and being the only foreigner there, the whiskey started flowing quickly in my direction. I was in the cheering section for the yellow team and had a great time watching the races. I was invited to compete in the muay talay competition, and I accepted with only the vaguest Idea of what it entailed.
As you probably gathered from my description, it’s a pretty straightforward thing so after seeing a few fights, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for. When my turn came, I scrambled down the steep river bank and was helped into my gloves which were totally waterlogged and quite heavy. My fellow gladiator and I were pushed out in a small rowboat, and we mounted the beam. We touched gloves, the referee’s whistle blew, and it was on.
If you’ve ever seen Muay Thai, you know it’s a violent spectacle. Muay talay is not; it’s just for fun and you’re not meant to try and hurt each other. I figured out a strategy that would play to my advantage, namely having longer arms than anyone I’d be fighting. I decided throwing straight jabs would give me a spacing advantage, and also keep my center of gravity over the beam. I’d seen other fighters try throwing hooks and crosses only to have the momentum of the heavy gloves take them straight off into the water.
My first opponent and I got straight to it. He was around my age and not much smaller than me so it seemed to be a fair fight. I threw my jabs and was surprised by how even those almost made me lose my balance. He threw one back at me but came up short, and as he was pulling his arm back, I hit his glove from the side. It wasn’t hard but it was enough. The weight of the glove took him straight down into the water. A 10 second KO, that one was easy.
My second adversary was nearly old enough to be my grandfather. I saw him sizing me up and mentally measuring my arm length, and when the fight started, he put his scouting report to use. My jabs were coming withing a fingertip of his face and he barely flinched. This guy had clearly boxed before. Unfortunately for him, his balance was terrible and he went down quickly from his own punch. Unfortunately for me, what he lacked in balance he more than made up for in grip and tenacity.
He hung there under the beam clinging on with his arms and legs, and when I tried to get close to break his grip, he’d grab my legs and try to pull me under. He succeeded at this twice forcing a redo. The third round both of us were exhausted, and I quickly got him under the beam again. This time I moved back as far from him as I could and went down onto my chest. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally pried his arms loose and he dropped into the water. I could only lie there trying to catch my breath, but I was through to the final round.
During all the fights, the whole village is pretty much out there watching, and an announcer provides play-by-play over a loudspeaker. The atmosphere built to a crescendo for the final fight. This kid’s balance was a bit better but I got him down under the beam too. Like the old timer before him, he had the strong grip, but there was something he lacked too – the protection of old age. With him, I could go beyond just trying to pry open his arms.
I didn’t want to leave bruises or anything, so I started lightly hitting him in the face by just letting the weight of the gloves fall. Over and over again I punched. “Sai sai sai sai!” bellowed from the PA system as I threw one left after another until he moved his head round to the other side of the beam. “Qua qua qua qua!” as I rained down rights. The crowd was loving it. To his credit, my tenacious opponent didn’t drop, and even managed to force a redo when a desperate swing took my legs out and I joined him under the beam. I finally beat him in the next go and I became village champion.
I spent my 800 baht ($24) winnings on a few bottles of whiskey for the party that night. I was basking in the glory of victory until they cut me down to size by forcing me to murder a few songs on the karaoke mic. I woke up the next morning with one hell of a hangover, and a sore ass and inner thighs that wouldn’t go away for a week, but it was worth it. I’m ever-grateful to the kind people of Tha Prik for welcoming me at their festival, plying me with food and drink, and inviting me to compete in Muay Talay. It was one of those days that reminds me of just why I love living in Thailand so much.