Amy Birch is lying on her bed munching rice crackers, watching MTV and hoping Craig David's new video will pop up. It's Saturday evening and Amy's chilling before her big night out. In a couple of hours she'll put on her best club clothes - cool satin shorts and a bright red vest top - dance around someone she's probably never met before and hopefully beat them into submission. Amy Birch is a champion Muay Thai fighter. She's 19.
Muay Thai (or Thai boxing) is known as the King of martial arts. Thought to be as old as civilization itself, it was utilized with deadly effect by Thai warriors as a weapon of war. Passed down from generation to generation, today it's an intrinsic part of Thailand's cultural heritage. It's the national sport, it's taught as part of the school curriculum and it's become the country's most successful export. Currently hugely popular in the USA, Australia and Europe, Muay Thai is practiced in 130 countries worldwide. But what's surprised many commentators is the sport's incredible popularity with women. This unexpected twist in the tale is something Thailand is struggling to come to terms with, since Thai women are still expected to be demure, docile and domesticated.
It's 7am on Koh Samui. Whilst the rest of the island has barely stirred, a steady stream of flushed faces trickle into Lamaii gym puffing and panting. Having just completed a five-kilometer run, the next two hours will be spent going through a rigorous training session of skipping, punching bags, kicking pads, practicing Muay Thai moves and sparring. For the truly dedicated, it's the same routine twice a day, every day.
Lamaii gym is one of the 80 odd camps dotted around Thailand that will accept and train women. For the next fortnight the gym will host women from England, Italy, Norway and Australia. Sweat fly sprays the equipment in light showers and early morning light dapples a scuffed concrete floor where a brutal ballet is being played out. Unlike karate which focuses on leg kicks and judo which is centered round using the hands to block and punch, Muay Thai is a close contact sport. Kicks are delivered with the shins. There's elbowing and grappling. Fists, elbows, knees and legs can all be employed in lethal combinations and lightening strikes.
Muay Thai has earned the rather unfair reputation of being a brutish sport. While undoubtedly violent, it's a martial art that has as much to do with mental agility as physical ability. For true disciples of Muay Thai strict self-discipline, gentle behavior, respect, sportsmanship and a pacified state of mind are as important as delivering kicks and receiving blows. Adversaries treat each other with a rather quaint courtesy. Face-offs, macho posturing and verbal violence are an anathema.
In keeping with Thai tradition of respecting one's elders no boxer begins a fight without performing the strangely compelling rituals of Wai Kru - a special dance to pay respects, give thanks and request good blessings from one's trainer - and Ram Muay - where a fighter represents his skills in an intricate dance all designed to gracefully freak out the opponent.
The women go through their paces in quiet concentration, relaxed in surroundings which - although dominated by men stripped to the waist and boxing - has an air of tranquility rather than testosterone. The meditative atmosphere is broken only by the occasional outburst from the trainer who barks orders and growls at his students like a dog worrying sheep. Stephan Fox is a human dynamo who walks, talks and thinks Muay Thai. A former world champion with 124 fights under his belt, he is both nemesis and mentor to his proteges. He is also international co-ordinator for the World Muay Thai Council (WMTC). It's his responsibility to juggle the logistics of a constant stream of female competitors coming over to Thailand.
Despite it's earlier misgivings Thailand is now hosting a series of round robin tournaments for women. The response has been phenomenal. Over 50 countries are taking part. Once the world top ten rankings are established the winners will then go on to take part in the first bona fide Muay Thai title fights for women in the world.
"Thailand was initially extremely reluctant to have anything to do with female Muay Thai," explains Stephan, words tumbling out of his mouth in short sharp jabs. "Women are supposed to look nice, stay at home and have babies. They don't fight. It wasn't until five years that the WMTC got down with the age of emancipation and, all credit to them, allowed women to compete."
Promoters of female Muay Thai had a much trickier adversary to confront: Superstition. In Thai culture it's still believed a woman entering the same ring as a man will jinx it and take away the power instilled in fighters by the rituals of Wai Kru and Ram Muay. To get round the problem women enter the ring a different way from the men. Whilst male fighters can hop confidently over the ropes, female fighters are required to duck submissively under them.
But once they get inside the ring, all pre-conceived notions of femininity are turned upside down. Now they're up and running, female fights have become just as popular as male.
"People have realized these girls really can fight and that some are more skillful than their male counterparts", says Stephan. "Personally speaking I think women are far more aggressive than the men. It's in their nature, but it's just a side of their personality they don't encounter much. So when they get aggressive, they get really aggressive. When you watch male fighters they spend the first two rounds checking each other out. Girls go straight in, full guns blazing. They're fast and furious and much more exciting to watch"
Women who take up Muay Thai defy stereotype. It's Nikki Barber's first time in Thailand. She's the only girl over with a posee of fledgling fighters from the Minotaur Gym in the UK who've come over to experience the culture of Muay Thai first hand. Long blonde hair scraped back into a bun, perfectly manicured purple nails hidden inside a pair of gloves, her tiny frame is swamped in pair of boxer shorts.
"I'm not like most other girls," grins Nikki, "I might take four hours getting ready to go out, but I'm not into going shopping, collecting shoes and handbags, I collect bruises instead."
For Elisabetta Gasparoni and Helene Guldberg, two successful European businesswomen, Muay Thai has developed into something of an obsession. It's the third year in a row they've spent their holidays working out. The suggestion they do Muay Thai merely as a way to keep fit is met with a snort of derision
"Look if I'd wanted just a workout I'd have taken up aerobics, there's far less pain,' says Elisabetta who goes onto to tell the tale of the time she went home to Italy for Christmas sporting a pair of black eyes. "It's not just the fighting it's the whole culture round it. I think it's so beautiful watching people who can do it well, it inspires you."
Amy Birch has been particularly inspiring for many women. For Amy Muay Thai is a way of life. Sparring in a ring among half a dozen boxers who tower over her, Amy looks decidedly out of place among all the brawn and muscle. Her face, impassive and dusted with light freckles, bears no battle scars. She's also stick skinny, with legs that don't look like they could run up the stairs let alone perform Hay Kor Aiyara (break the elephants neck movement, or more simply kneeing your opponent in the face).
Out of the ring, Amy reverts into the guise of shy teenager, text messaging her mates back home in Brisbane on a mobile phone covered in snoopy stickers. Apart from the fact that she fights to earn a living, Amy comes across as a regular 19-year-old. She goes cherry red when asked about boyfriends. She loves going to the movies - 'Charlie's Angels was excellent' - and thinks that they, along with pop diva Pink and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon are what's turning so many women onto martial arts right now. And even Amy has her lazy days
"Sure there's days when I just don't feel like doing anything. I just want to hang out, but I've got to go training and get punched. But in the long run it's all worth it. I gave up a doing a Diploma in Justice so I could fight. I can't do things half-heartedly, it's all or nothing. So when I have those off days I just grin and bear it."
Amy stumbled upon Muay Thai when she was twelve, after watching some boys training at a local gym near where she used to play softball. Despite reservations from her parents and the condition from her local Gym that she 'leave the girl at the gate', Amy was competing by the time she was thirteen. At fourteen she became Australia's youngest ever Muay Thai champion. Five years on and she's being tipped as a top contender for the women's world title, whilst her poise and gamine looks have earned her the nickname 'The Angel'.
"If was walking down the street and someone walked up and hit me, I'd probably turn around and burst into tears, but once I get behind those ropes, I get into a completely different space. I still surprise myself at what comes out "
If Thailand doesn't get it's act together it's going to miss out on all the glory. Despite the elevation of Muay Thai to international status and grand plans to make it an Olympic event by 2008, Stephan thinks it's highly unlikely a Thai woman will reach the top of the world rankings.
"To be honest Thailand doesn't deserve to win. The girls are too lazy, they're too worried about their looks and they don't train hard enough"
Unlike their western counterparts many Thai women who turn to Muay Thai don't have the luxury of taking it up as a hobby. It's a way to escape the poverty trap. For some like Wan, who didn't want to give her last name, it was a way to defend herself from a series of brutal boyfriends and as a single mum, a way to earn cash for her kid's education. She works late nights in a bar to make ends meet and then trains all day.
" My life is working, sleeping, eating and training. I must be strong and train hard every day." She says in faltering English "If I win a fight I get 700 baht (HK $ 140). It's good for me and my children."
However Wan will never be a champion. At 33 she's too old to fight competitively. Instead she wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps.
"I want her to learn Muay Thai, to save herself from bad men. I don't care if she's beautiful and lovely I want her to be strong."
While there's undoubtedly talent out there, such as Rung Arun, one of the first Thai women to take up the sport, and Salita Nakasem, who has been selected for the national team, old prejudices run deep. Many rings are still out of bounds to women who are reduced to fighting in bars and fields at country fares. The sport is blighted by corruption and mis-management. Given that many former male champions die penniless and in obscurity, it's doubly hard for Thai women to get proper representation. Those that are fortunate enough to be adopted by trainers are often ill-prepared for the tough level of competition and often denied their rightful share of the winnings. The most recent bombshell are allegations of sexual harassment leveled by 17 year old Salita Nakasem at her trainer. He's denied the claim and alleged she stole from him and took drugs. It's a messy affair that Stephan says will set the cause for female Thai boxers back 10 years.
For all the arguments for emancipation, feminism and equality, the harsh reality of watching two women fight is something quite different. Call it conditioning but it's a shocking sight to behold women attacking each other in the name of entertainment. Taken out of the context of the gym, all that refined prancing now looks like it could do some serious damage.
Samantha Espee, a 28-year-old accountant from New Zealand who's spent the last three months training in Chiang Mai, looks terrified. It's only her second time in the ring. Her opponent - 14 year old schoolgirl Thida Sosut from Sakorn Nakorn, might be half her age but she has the advantage of long legs, a ninja kick and at least a dozen fights behind her. Despite the scrappy technique the fight goes the full four rounds.
"The rules have been changed a bit for the sport to reach international standards," explains Stephan. "The rounds are shorter to keep the injury rate down and no elbows are allowed After all it doesn't look very good for a girl to get cut in the head and have to get stitched up. We have to keep it safe. Keep the girls looking pretty, not too bloody."
As the female referee drags both girls, back into the center of the ring and lifts a startled Samantha's arm up in triumph, Thida vomits quietly onto the canvas. It's difficult to gauge what the half full, half hearted audience make of it all.
Amy who has fought in front of huge crowds of thirty thousand, seems unperturbed by the lack of vibe. Her opponent, 17 year old Arisara Chichet, is looking resplendent in baby pink shorts and vest, a color chosen not because of it's feminine qualities but because of a Thai belief in it's power. From the outset it's clear these two fighters are worlds apart. Amy ignores convention and skips gracefully over the ropes. Arisara compliantly ducks under them.
The bell rings. Arisara springs into action, grabbing Amy round the neck and the two waltz across the canvas in an awkward fashion. There's a flurry of punches and knees and they both topple to the floor in an ungainly heap. Amy stands up, face flushed and bangs dangling in her eyes. She seems almost embarrassed at the lack of decorum. An imperceptible glance passes between her and Stephan. The look of composure returns and Amy does what she was born to do. Two short jabs and a couple of choice kicks to the ribs and Arisara is on the floor clutching her sides. The fight is over. It's lasted all of two minutes.
Later, kicking back over a can of beer - her first after two weeks of intense training - Amy is ruminating over the event. It's becoming harder and harder to find an opponent of her caliber and she's having to travel further afield to find someone who can match her skills "I just don't think the girl had even trained properly. She was all over the place. I think she'd been told to get in there and try and flatten me as quickly as possible. I tried to draw the fight out but she was being silly." Amy pauses, gives a little sigh and concludes
"And so I had to hit her. Hit her really hard".
And then the Angel of Muay Thai shrugs her shoulders and giggles.
Published on 5/11/01