when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Archive for the ‘Southeast Asia’ Category

From the BXP photo archive: Muay Thai in Thailand, 2003

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Fighter waits for his bout at Ratchadamnoen Stadium, Bangkok, 2002

Fighter waits for his bout at Ratchadamnoen Stadium, Bangkok, 2002

I saw my first muay Thai—Thai boxing—bout in Bangkok in 1987 as the guest of Apichart Sears, guesthouse owner, ping pong champion, man about town, and friend. We sat in the cheap seats at Lumphini Stadium. The fighters’ intensity and stamina in the ring fascinated me; their ability to absorb withering punches, kicks, elbows, and knees shocked me. (I learned later that most professional fighters have been so punished physically they must hang up the gloves in their early to mid-20s.)

I started photographing muay Thai in 1998, in Thailand and the U.S., and continued for another five years. It struck me as brutal, yet courtly. None of the trashtalk, peacock-strutting, and booming hip-hop/heavy metal soundtracks of American boxing. There was humility and, like karate or taekwondo, a deep respect for tradition and lineage. Fighters perform the wai kru, a prefight Buddhist ritual, in the ring with absolute solemnity. But then, of course competitors set about hammering and thwacking each other—with martial precision and utter stoicism—until a KO or the final bell.

Muay Thai, a distilled form of actual and ancient military hand-to-hand combat, had been popular among martial artists internationally for years. But the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts (MMA) in the U.S. in the late 1990s and early aughts transformed this relatively obscure fighting school into a must-learn discipline for anyone hoping to earn real money as a professional martial artist. MMA is where the cash is.

MMA borrowed muay Thai‘s rigorous and effective “stand-up”— fighting done while on one’s feet—because it incorporates strikes with knees, elbows, and shins as well as the more mundane punches of boxing and kicks of karate, and adapted it to bloodier ends. When a muay Thai fighter slips or gets knocked to the mat, the referee steps in. Fighting resumes only when both competitors are standing, just like boxing or karate. MMA, which was also called “no-holds barred” fighting in its early days, however, is about domination and “submission.” The real fighting—read, bloodletting—starts when fighters hit the mat. They resort to grappling, wrestling, and jiu jitsu techniques. The goal isn’t to score technique points but to tie up your opponent in a hold, then bash him/her in the ribs and face until he/she “submits,” or taps out. This makes MMA particularly ugly, brutal, and soulless. And also extremely popular here in the United States and in many other countries—the U.K, Japan, Algeria, Denmark, France, Russia….

But that’s another story—and another photo essay.

UK fighter trains at Sor Vorapin Gym (formerly Jitti's Gym, Banglamphu, Bangkok, 2002

British fighter trains at Sor Vorapin Gym (formerly Jitti’s Gym), Banglamphu, Bangkok, 2002

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From the BXP photo archives: 1996 & 1999

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Gulou (Drum Tower), Beijing, October 26, 1996

Gulou (Drum Tower), Beijing, October 26, 1996

When I wasn’t piloting my desk during my time in China as US News and World Report‘s Beijing Bureau Chief, I would wander streets and hutongs.

Photographing what I found dragged me out of the editorial and bureaucratic pool I steeped in most days—Beijing and Washington’s genuine conflicts and diplomatic spats; China’s labyrinthine officialdom; and the stress of being under (or believing I was under) the scrutiny of the Public Security (cops) and State Security (secret police) Bureaus.

The photo above, from the Gulou (Drum Tower) section of Beijing, is the result of such wanderings. The second picture is from the tailend of an interview of bus driver Wei Guiying (not pictured), who had been selected as a model worker by her work unit, in Hunan province’s Sansi Village. Wang Chunlei, my friend and office manager/editorial adviser also acted as translator, because we knew I would have difficulty understanding Wei’s Hunanese-flavored Mandarin. And I most certainly did.

I barely remember the interview; lunch, however, I recall vividly. Chunlei told me the family must have blown a month’s wages on the tableful of meat, vegetables—corn, greens, potatoes—and buns that they laid before us. I did my duty, good waiguo ren (foreigner) that I am, and devoured all that was scooped into my bowl.

Wei’s stepmother was housebound; her grandson was most definitely not.

Family of Wei Guiying (not pictured), Sansi Village, Hunan Province, China, December 26, 1996

Family of Wei Guiying (not pictured), Sansi Village, Hunan Province, China, December 26, 1996

Pak Ou Caves, Luang Prabang, Laos, November 1999

Pak Ou Caves, Luang Prabang, Laos, November 1999

This last photo is from a published story I did while working at Fortune magazine. I traveled to Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos, to write/photograph a travel piece.

Is there a theme—or themes— that unites and animates these photos? Escape? Encounter? I try to strike a balance between the literal and the lyrical, to see and photograph as an open, humble, compassionate, yet still critical observer and sometime participant.

Yes, more to come.