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Muay Thai: Muy Violento!

By | Blog Posts, Thailand | No Comments

Kickboxing offers unique glimpse into Thai culture

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The public address announcer was speaking in a heavy accent over a garbled sound system and I couldn’t decipher what he was saying. Then I noticed the crowd began to rise. The announcer repeated himself and the second time I could clearly understand.

Chiang Mai kickboxer

A Thai kickboxer psyches himself up before the first round

“Please stand up to pay respect to the King of Thailand,” he requested.

In a country where King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, is highly revered, about 200 fans and I rose to our feet and stood silently. The Thai national anthem followed.

With the preliminaries out of the way, so began my first up-close look at the Thai national pastime – Muay Thai – a martial art otherwise known as kickboxing. It turned out to be one of the most intense experiences of my three-month stay in Thailand.

It was a Thursday night at the Chiangmai Boxing Stadium, one of two leading venues in Chiang Mai where kickboxing is on display. For about $20, I received a ringside seat, transportation from my hotel to the arena, and a can of Chang beer, my favorite local brew.

Muay Thai, which dates back to the 16th century, was developed by Siamese soldiers who lost their weapons in battle. It is known as “the art of eight limbs” because fighters are allowed to use punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes, thus using eight “points of contact,” as opposed to “two points” (fists) used in regular boxing.

Thai kickboxing

Thai kickboxing dates back to the 16th century

There were seven fights on the bill, with the combatants exhibiting varying size, skill and experience. Indeed, some of the early fights involved teenagers who looked like they barely weighed 100 pounds.

I was told that the fighters at this venue were superior to the other leading boxing arena in the city – Thapae Boxing Stadium, the latter of which is more centrally located and considerably cheaper. In fact, tour operators who sell boxing tickets even hinted that the fights at Thapae were really exhibitions with fixed results staged solely for the entertainment value of the tourists. I wanted to see the real deal, so I paid more for what I hoped would be a far more authentic Muay Thai experience.

From the opening bell of the first fight, I could tell that the fights on display at the Chiangmai Boxing Stadium — undoubtedly – are for real. I was seated so close to the action, I was repeatedly doused by the fighters’ sweat. And I was struck by the sheer force of the blows and how much punishment the participants withstood on all parts of their bodies. At one point, I actually thought I heard a bone crack, when a fighter took a wicked kick to his leg before crumpling to the mat. The referee didn’t even bother counting him out; there was no doubt he wasn’t getting up.

Muay Thai reminded me of cage-fighting, only with traditional boxing ropes rather than a cage. Another difference is that when a fighter goes down, his opponent has to go to a neutral corner, rather than being allowed to pound a fighter on the canvass into submission.

Thai boxing knockout

Every fight ended in a knockout

Other than that, pretty much anything goes in Thai kickboxing – punching, kicking, elbowing, clenching, low blows, cheap shots, even knees to the groin.

In other words, it was like watching a Republican presidential debate.

Not one of the evening’s fights lasted the full five rounds; all resulted in knockouts – with the loser ending up flat on his back surrounded by trainers and medics.

Thai fighters wear no shoes, no padding – other than a protective cup — or headgear. As far as I could tell, none of the losing fighters were seriously hurt, although several of them had to be helped out of the ring by the medical staff. I’m guessing the fighters don’t get paid very much, although those who do well in Chiang Mai have the opportunity to move up the ladder and fight at the country’s largest kickboxing venue in Bangkok, where the purses are larger.

The violence of Muay Thai seems incongruous to the typically polite, calm and passive demeanor of the Thai people. Perhaps it’s an outlet for Thais to let off some steam.

On the drive back to my hotel, I reflected on the night’s event. I was glad I had gone. It had given me an interesting glimpse into Thai culture.

But like the time at a local restaurant when I had ordered khao phat nam phrik narok, which literally translates to “rice fried with chili paste from hell,” I wasn’t all that eager to try it again anytime soon.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Midnight Express prison yard in Malta

Catching the Midnight Express in Malta

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A daring escape from a harrowing Turkish prison

VALLETTA, Malta — When I was a young man, I had three career ambitions:  Professional baseball player, professional tennis player, and international drug smuggler.

Malta's Fort St. Elmo

Malta’s Fort St. Elmo, where “Midnight Express” was filmed

It quickly became apparent that I didn’t have the talent for the first two vocations.  That left the third option as the only viable choice.  It was lucrative and involved a lot of intrigue, travel to exotic places and adventure.  Plus, you didn’t have to hit a curveball.

Then I saw the movie “Midnight Express.”  Suddenly, the prospect of taping blocks of hashish to my chest and trying to sneak past immigration guards at airports in Middle Eastern countries didn’t seem so appealing.

Like Billy Hayes – whose real-life experience as a drug smuggler was depicted in the 1978 movie — I’m not the type who would likely do well in a Turkish prison.

Indeed, that is one of my favorite movies of all-time.  I own exactly two movies on DVD. “Midnight Express” is one of them (“The Godfather” is the other).

So when I had recently visited the Mediterranean island of Malta where “Midnight Express” was filmed, I couldn’t wait to see the place where this iconic movie was shot.

That led me to Fort St. Elmo, located in Malta’s picturesque capital city of Valletta.  The movie’s producers had wanted to film in Istanbul, where the real-life story of Billy Hayes’ imprisonment had taken place.  But they were denied by Turkish authorities, who weren’t too crazy about how the Turks were portrayed in the script.  Malta was chosen as an alternate location and the prison scenes were filmed entirely at Fort St. Elmo.

Midnight Express prison yard

The prison yard depicted in the movie “Midnight Express”

So my friend Henry and I took the bus into Valletta and had no trouble spotting Fort St. Elmo, which dates back to the 1500s and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.

Problem was, the fort is now undergoing a major renovation and is closed to the public (The World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world because of its significant deterioration).

Like Billy Hayes before me, I wasn’t going to let the law – or any construction work — stand in my way.  I found an open gate manned by a security guard and – without asking permission – walked inside the fort and started looking around.

Then I saw it.  There was the prison yard that had doubled as Turkey’s notorious Sağmalcılar Prison.  And it looked just as I had remembered it in the movie.  It was as if I could see Brad Davis, Randy Quaid and John Hurt standing on their second-floor balcony overlooking the yard plotting their escape.  One floor above them, I imagined the sleazy snitch Rifki was peddling his over-priced tea.

Cabinet Room at Clinton Library

The author, after a harrowing escape from prison

I pulled out my camera to take a photo.  Just as I did so, the security guard started yelling.  He was speaking Maltese, but I didn’t have to speak the language to figure out by his tone that he didn’t approve of my presence.  I kept hearing the word “Joey.”  I figured it was either a Maltese profanity, or perhaps I looked like some guy he knew named Joey. (I later asked my hotel clerk, who told me “Joey” is used by the Maltese when they don’t know someone’s name, sort of like Americans would use the name “Buddy.”)

It was at this point when I remembered something a professional photographer had once told me:  “It’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.”

So I stood firm and snapped my photo.  Just like Billy Hayes more than 30 years ago, I had risked everything and thumbed my nose at the local authorities.  Only unlike Billy, I got away with it.  And I didn’t even have to kill a prison warden who was about to rape me. I simply walked out the gate.  Yes, the guard cut loose with a few profanities as I exited the fort.  And I had to deal with Henry teasingly calling me “Joey” the rest of the week.

But my camera was tucked safely away in my pocket.   To me, the digital image of the movie’s set was far more valuable than what 50 kilos of hashish could fetch at an Amsterdam coffee shop.

After a bit of subterfuge and stress, my mission had been accomplished. I had caught the Midnight Express in Malta.

© 2013 Dan Fellner

equator line in ecuador

Will the Real Equator Please Stand Up?

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Mitad Del Mundo; Quito, Ecuador

This is one of the most famous tourist attractions in South America.  It’s a globe-topped monument called Mitad del Mundo – “middle of the Earth” in English.  The yellow line dissecting the complex is supposed to designate the exact spot where the equator passes just a few miles north of Quito, Ecuador.  It’s set in a beautiful park in the Andes Mountains and the entrance fee is a bargain — only $2 (Ecuador has adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency). 

Hundreds of tourists visit the monument each day to have their photos taken straddling the yellow line, with one foot in each hemisphere.  I did the same.

The real Equator in Ecuador

        The so-called real equator, marked with a red line

Actually, though, to quote Conway Twitty, one of my favorite country singers:  “It’s only make believe.”

The monument is located at a site where a French scientist in 1736 calculated the equator to be.  For the technology of his time period, he did a pretty good job.  But with modern GPS technology, we learned a couple of decades ago that he was off by about 600 feet.

But since the monument, museums, restaurants and souvenir shops had already been erected at this location, the Ecuadorean government decided to stick to the party line – literally and figuratively.

The real equator is about a quarter-mile north – or to the right – of where the monument was built.  There, the equator is marked with a red line. 

To see it, visitors must pay $4 to enter a private attraction called the Intinan Solar Museum.  Admission includes a guided tour featuring a number of fun — but fake — science experiments that supposedly demonstrate the powers of the equator’s force.

For instance, our guide set up a portable sink a few feet north of the equator and we watched as the water went down the drain in a counter-clockwise direction.  She then moved the sink south of the red line and sure enough, the water drained clockwise.  It was more of a magic trick than a bonafide experiment, as scientists long ago debunked the urban myth that water drains in different directions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.    

And, after further research, I learned that even the newer “real” equator is now believed to be a bit off the mark.

Yellow or red, it was close enough for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to somewhere in the vicinity of the middle of the Earth.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

Fair and Balanced? Or Asian Porn?

By | Blog Posts, Thailand | No Comments

You never know what will pop up on satellite TV in Thailand

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Mr. Kem, the proprietor of the Vanilla Place Guesthouse in Chiang Mai, led me up to the fifth floor to show me what would be my room for the next three days in this northern Thailand city that is a popular destination for tourists.

Chiang Mai Vanilla Place

Mr. Kem, owner of the Vanilla Place in Chiang Mai

I had booked a room in this small 15-room hotel largely because of Mr. Kem.  TripAdvisor reviews of the hotel itself were so-so.  But what distinguished the Vanilla Place from its competition in Chiang Mai were the glowing accolades heaped upon Mr. Kem for his wisdom and kindness in treating guests at his establishment as if they were his own family.

Need assistance in booking a tour?  Mr. Kem would not only do it, he would waive the commission.  Need some laundry done?  No problem.  Just leave it with Mr. Kem and it’s back the same day, clean and folded at a ridiculously low price.

Mr. Kem even drove me to an interview I had in downtown Chiang Mai because it was on the way to an errand he happened to be running.  “Happy,” his dog, needed to see the vet.

As Mr. Kem showed me the amenities in room 51, I asked him about the television. “Any stations in English?” I wondered.

“Yes,” replied Mr. Kem. Channel 56. “Fuck News.”

I was intrigued. I knew my room tariff of 1,100 Thai baht (about $35) included air conditioning and breakfast.  But Asian porn, too?  This was an unexpected bonus.

I couldn’t wait to see what Channel 56 offered.  As soon as Mr. Kem left the room, I picked up the remote, imagining some sort of Chinese version of Katie Couric doing unspeakable things in a rice paddy.

But no, as you’ve probably guessed by now, Mr. Kem’s English was less than steller.  Channel 56 offered a different type of perverse entertainment — Fox News.  There was Sean Hannity … fully clothed, railing against gun control in the wake of the Connecticut shootings.

Turned out the only naked body I saw on my trip to Chiang Mai belonged to an elephant.

Editor’s update:  I stayed at the Vanilla Place again in 2016 and was sad to learn that Mr. Kem passed away a year-and-a-half ago.  A friend of the Kem family, a capable young woman named Bee, now owns Vanilla Place.  And yes, the hotel still offers Fox News …    

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2016

little rock capitol building

24 hours in Little Rock!

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Visit to Clinton Library, Arkansas State Capitol worth the trip

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Why would an Arizonan hop on a plane and fly more than 1,100 miles at his own expense just to spend 24 hours in Little Rock, Arkansas?

Actually, there are two reasons:  Arkansas is one of just two states that I have not yet visited.  Planting my flag on all 50 states is on my bucket list, and now that I’m in my 50s, I’m starting to attack the list with a greater sense of urgency (I hope to visit my 50th and final state – Idaho — in the near future).

Little Rock Airport

A sign greets visitors at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock

The other reason?  Bill Clinton.

This is a non-partisan blog but I’ll admit that I’ve always been a fan of William Jefferson Clinton.  And his inspiring and critically acclaimed speech this past summer at the Democratic National Convention got me thinking about visiting his presidential library in Little Rock.

With ASU on a two-day fall recess, and some soon-to-expire frequent flyer miles at my disposal, it was a perfect time to make a quick trip to my 49th state.

Technically, Arkansas is considered a Republican or “red” state. But as soon as I got off the plane, I could see how much pride its residents have in a couple of high-profile Democrats.  There, at the top of an escalator heading down to baggage claim, was a sign welcoming me to “Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.”

Turns out, the city renamed the airport after the Clintons earlier this year.

Clinton Library

   Entrance to the Clinton Presidential Library

I headed to a non-descript airport hotel and was up early the following morning for a 15-minute drive into downtown Little Rock for the highlight of my trip – a visit to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library.

This library, which is really more of a museum, is one of only 13 official presidential libraries in the country administered by the National Archives.  The Clinton Library was the 11th; it opened in 2004.  The Nixon Library followed three years later and #13 — the George W. Bush Presidential Library — is scheduled to open next summer in Dallas.

My $7 admission ticket included a tour, so I joined a guide named David and about a dozen other visitors for a 90-minute walk around the three-story facility.

Cabinet Room at Clinton Library

David, our guide, shows us the replica Cabinet Room

On display were 90,000 artifacts from the eight years Clinton was president, including a full-scale reconstruction of the Oval Office during his administration and a replica of the White House Cabinet Room.

There was personal correspondence from world leaders and movie stars, a collection of the president’s saxophones, and even an exhibit devoted to the “first pets” – Buddy and Socks.

Despite all of his accomplishments in office, the first thing that many Americans think of when recalling the Clinton presidency is the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  His self-admitted inappropriate behavior with the White House intern led to only the second presidential impeachment in U.S. history.

I was especially curious about how the library would handle this. Would the scandal even be mentioned at all?  Yes, libraries are supposed to celebrate presidential achievements and triumphs, but what about historical accuracy?

Clinton Library Impeachment Exhibit

Exhibit addressing the Clinton impeachment and Lewinsky scandal

“It has to be here,” said David, when he led our group to an alcove called “The Fight for Power.” He added the National Archives never would have agreed to grant official status to the library had it not addressed the matter, just as the Nixon library was required to deal with Watergate.

Yes, the impeachment was mentioned as part of the one exhibit, but in very little detail. Monica’s name was mentioned a grand total of two times. “The Fight for Power” also briefly recounted the Whitewater real estate scandal and other attacks on the Clinton presidency. The following sentence pretty much sums up the tone of this exhibit:

“The impeachment battle was not about the Constitution or rule of law, but was instead a quest for power that the President’s opponents could not win at the ballot box.”

Lance Armstrong exhibit at Clinton Library

Lance Armstrong jersey and bicycle

One floor above, there was another exhibit involving cheating of a different sort. And it’s also requiring some finesse on the part of museum administrators on how to handle it.

It’s a bicycle and autographed jersey used by Lance Armstrong during one of his seven Tour de France titles. Now that Armstrong has been stripped of his titles amidst doping allegations backed by more than 1,000 pages of evidence, I asked David if he thought the jersey and bike would still be on display two years from now.

“Probably not two months from now,” he said.

I wish I had more time to explore the Clinton Library, but there were only a few hours left before I had to head back to the airport and there was still more of Little Rock I wanted to see.

I walked outside, found myself on President Clinton Ave., and turned right onto the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge. This bridge, built only for pedestrians and cyclists, traverses the Arkansas River and offers wonderful views of the Little Rock skyline.

View of Little Rock skyline

     View of downtown Little Rock from the Clinton Bridge

Then it was time for some serious walking.  I wanted to see the Arkansas State Capitol so – with a map in my back pocket – I started my journey. I walked through a pleasant, touristy area of shops and restaurants called the River Market District.

As I continued to head west, the downtown became a bit rundown and I started wondering if I should have driven instead. Finally, after about an hour, I arrived at the State Capitol. Fortunately, the weather couldn’t have been better – sunny with temps in the mid-70s with a cool breeze blowing off the Arkansas River.

The Arkansas State Capitol, built between 1899-1915 on the site of an old penitentiary, bears a striking resemblance to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Both are built in the Neoclassical style with similar-shaped domes, although the building in Little Rock is only a bit more than half the size of its Washington counterpart.

Arkansas State Capitol

  The Arkansas State Capitol

I enjoy touring state capitols and was pleased to learn that a group of students was coming at 2 p.m. and that I was welcome to join them.

While I waited for the tour to start, I looked around. On the atrium of the second floor, I found a portrait of a very young-looking Bill Clinton. I was surprised to learn that he was first elected governor of Arkansas in 1978 at the age of just 32.

The school group never arrived, so I ended up with a private tour.  A young lady named April took me inside the Governor’s Reception Room, the former Supreme Court Chamber, and the House Chamber. The Arkansas Legislature wasn’t in session – it only meets a few weeks each year — so the building seemed relatively sedate.

Outside the capitol, I found several monuments, including sculptures of the Little Rock Nine.  This was a group of African-American students who courageously helped desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, a seminal event in America’s civil rights movement.

Clinton portrait at Arkansas Capitol

 Portrait of a young Gov. Bill Clinton

It was now time to head back to the airport.  My 24 hours in Little Rock had just about expired.

I wouldn’t have minded spending another day or two in Arkansas, particularly to see nearby Hot Springs National Park, about which I’ve read rave reviews.

But I had accomplished my objectives.  I had learned much more about the man who left the White House with the highest approval rating of any president since World War II.  And I had checked one more state off the list.

Forty-nine down, one to go.

© 2012 Dan Fellner