(I'm in Thailand writing a piece for OutThere Magazine, hence this off topic post. Enjoy the London weather- Zack)
I'd just spent a happy hour in a mostly-empty bar, drinking Chang beer by the bottle and watching a man and his monkey. He, a Thai local, stood on the adjacent street corner hawking pictures with his furry colleague for 100 baht a pop and business was in rude health. Over and over, the European tourists who swarmed phi phi's hot night-time streets were drawn to the monkey. They stroked his fur, held his hand and laughed when he gamely clambered up their arm and plonked himself on their shoulder, draping a oversized arm around their neck or leaning lazily on their head.
Hard-looking, skinheaded and boozed-up Brits melted into childish gaiety, and for the most part handled the monkey with a sweet gentleness and respect. Meanwhile the Thai man was making about 2,000 baht an hour by my reckoning - around 40 quid.
The monkey, meanwhile, was paid in shoots. This, it occurred to me, was a monkey with a job.
And after considering the philosophical implications of this, as well as calculating the local man's hourly rate against my own in London when factoring in the vastly cheaper cost of living on this beach bar paradise - and pondering the price of a monkey, and drinking more Chang - I decided to move on.
Just across the street was a kickboxing bar. I entered and took in the dissonant decor, for the most part modelled on a fifties American diner or bowling alley, or an impression of one (cobbled together from what? Happy Days repeats ?) but dominated by a kickboxing ring. Raucously drunk tourists were stationed in tiered seating at the rear and plastic chairs at the front. Groups of them sat around buckets of beer, directing their cheers at the morbidly obese man in the Hawaiian shirt and boxing gear, currently doing the robot in the ring.
This guy was a performer.
Alternately popping and locking, encouraging the crowd to keep cheering, or throwing air-punch combos, ducking and bobbing with an agility that mocked his bulk.
I signalled to the waitress for a beer and installed myself on the edge a ringside table.
The bell sounded and what turned out to be the final round commenced. The fat man danced toward his opponent. Each party tossed out cautious jabs, circled around, ducked and bobbed because that's what you do. There was a messy, stumbling clinch which the ref swiftly broke up. More dancing. Then, with a speed that probably surprised him as much as the giddy audience, the big guy threw an out-of-nowhere right cross that landed with slapping impact on his opponents jaw. The smaller man's legs immediately gave up any notion of holding him aloft. He went down like a sniper victim.
The crowd oohed, then applauded, then laughed. We looked around , sharing the absurd moment with our neighbours.
To his credit he was right back on his feet, he'd clearly gone down from the surprise as much as the impact.
But the round was over. The bell rang and after a perfunctory, suspense-free pause, the ref hoisted the big guys arm in the air to deafening applause.
To tell the truth, there hadn't been much skill on display. But considering they were just tourists plucked from the crowd, drunk and inexperienced, they had put on a good show.
There was a lull then while the fighters removed their gear and left the ring. Rap music blared, people bought the big guy beers and slapped him on the back. I did too.
Then a frisson of excitement spread, the next fighters had climbed into the ring, and they were girls.
One just stood there slouching slightly. She was tall and French-looking and didn't look to be taking it too seriously.
The other though, had the bearing of expertise, albeit a dainty kind - as though her training was more in ballet than in boxing. But she had an air of confidence that was lacking in her blithe opponent. She put on her headgear and shin guards with an ease that suggested it was a familiar action, then started to perform various stretches and warm up manoeuvres that looked half practiced and half made up on the spot for something to be doing.
They then backed into their corners. the Thai referee approached each in turn. From his gestures it was clear he was explaining the ground rules. He slammed his elbow into his opposite clasped palm, then waved his index finger in admonishment. No elbows.
He drove his knee into an imaginary set of ribs and issued an identical warning.
Finally he mimed throwing his opponent to the mat, then abruptly turned his palms to the floor and spread his arms apart in a gesture of finality. No hitting when they're down. other than that, we could infer, it was fair game.
The music cut out and the ref summoned the two girls to the centre of the ring. They touched gloves, and we were off.
Unlike the men's fight there was no prancing preamble, none of the wary dancing around that had typified the earlier rounds, where neither guy was quite ready to commit himself to a punch thrown with real, damaging intent. The girls were on eachother immediately with a flailing ferocity, surprising the audience into nervous laughter.
Blond hair flew. Both girls were holding nothing back; they jabbed and grabbed, swung kicks to the knee and ribs and head with an intent to hurt that had been utterly absent in the men's bouts.
Women fighting, properly fighting, is like babies crying. It's upsetting on a gut level. conflicting male prerogatives to intervene and prevent harm on one side, and to never man-handle or be in any way rough with women on the other make a uniquely distressing concoction. The artifice of the setting, it's staging for our putative entertainment, enhanced rather than assuaged these feelings. I put down my drink and headed home.
But the next night I came back. And I got my picture taken with the monkey.