Photos by Matthew YarbroughNovember 2015The car stops three hours outside the city of Chiang Mai, coming to rest in a dusty, soft-colored field amid rolling hills. Chuy steps out and makes his way to a wooden-framed thatched hut, his home. The driver of the car, Nik Hjalmarsson, owner of Santai Gym where Chuy trains Muay Thai, follows farther behind. It was a long way to Chuy's village of Kilo-4, population 100 or so, in the mountains of northwestern Thailand, and Nik will relax for a bit before returning to Chiang Mai.
The other villagers smile happily and wave when they see Chuy. He doesn't come home often, just a handful of times a year. He spends most of his time training at Santai Gym, and traveling around the northern Thailand region for fights. This trip home is his break from Muay Thai, following a decisive victory over the previous day's local (and thus favored) opponent at a festival a few provinces away.
Fifteen-year-old Chuy is a promising young fighter, but it's unclear how much Muay Thai success it's possible for him achieve. Despite his gym's support and his respectable reputation, Chuy is not permitted to fight in Bangkok. What's holding him back is his identity, or lack thereof. Chuy has no official identification card."I don't know why I don't have one," he says matter-of-factly as we walk to his home. "When I was young, I just didn't get one.""He's not registered by the Thai government," Nik chimes in.
Born in northwestern Thailand close to the Myanmar border, Chuy is a member of the Karen ethnic group, a hill tribe people who traditionally live a subsistence lifestyle. Chuy has been living in Thailand his whole life, but, like many other Karen people, there are few official records he exists.When I ask Chuy how he feels about this, he admits he is "a little sad." Mostly because it means he can't fight in Bangkok.As we sit on the wooden floors of Chuy's home, chatting about his life and career, a motorbike speeds up the hill and comes to a stop outside. Chuy perks up when he sees Poye, his old friend. They grew up in the same village, and both trained at Santai together. Poye is one year older than Chuy, but carries himself in a confident way that suggests someone beyond adolescence.
Poye had been a good fighter, Nik tells me. But after five years at Santai, he quit just a few months ago, has been spending all his time in quiet Kilo-4 village since. When I ask Poye why he left fighting, something he was good at, the 16-year-old smiles and says, "I don't know," and leaves it at that. Now he lives basically full-time in the village. It's too late for him to register for high school this year, so he's waiting for next year. In the meantime, he works odd jobs in agriculture. I ask him what he might want to do in the future, and he says maybe become a policeman.While Poye and Chuy catch up, Nik whispers to me about Chuy's background. His father died when he was three months old. His mother died just a couple years ago, when he was 13. "So sad," Nik says, shaking his head. "His mom never liked him to fight, but then she liked it more because she started to see he had a future.""What about Poye?" I ask, citing his talent, asking why he didn't see a future in Muay Thai as well.Nik shouts over to Poye, asks him directly. "I think Muay Thai was good for health and for my future, but—" Poye pauses, "but I'm just too lazy.""Everyone here is too lazy to do Muay Thai," Nik says, turning back to me. "Chuy is the only one from this village who stuck with it."
Maybe it's because Chuy has always had a deep personal interest in Muay Thai. His first fight was when he was 12 years old, at a festival near his hometown. No one coached him or taught him technique; he learned from watching the Channel 7 fighters on TV. He found his first fight himself: "I saw them fighting at the festival, and asked if I could fight too."
It's been about four years and 70 fights since then, Chuy estimates. He's been at Santai Gym for the duration of his career. "I went in the summer," he recalls. "The mayor of my village took me to Santai. He wanted kids to go to Santai because he said there was a future there.""We get a lot of new kids at the gym," Nik affirms. "A lot have tried, but only five or ten percent can stick with it. Some start crying for Mom after two days."
Chuy, whose real name is Ratwicha Daoleungsotsai, was one of Santai's few kids who stuck with it. He is a teenager and it's too early to tell which direction he'll take, even if he did have an ID and were able to fight in the capital, but already it's possible to see has enough base talent and good work ethic for Muay Thai success. When asked about his Muay Thai goals, Chuy talks of championships, says he wants to fight professionally for another 15 years, until he's 30 or so. After that, become a trainer.But Chuy knows it will be hard to achieve all he is capable of in Muay Thai without fighting in Bangkok. The missing ID is holding him back, but he's not dissuaded. "Maybe in the future I can fight in Bangkok, after I get an ID card. Maybe it will take me a year to get one. I think I can do it. But it's really, really hard to get an ID."As we talk, other villagers come by to see Chuy. Little kids run up with armfuls of puppies, showing him new litters. Elders greet him in passing and ask for updates on his Muay Thai career. Chuy looks comfortable in his village, like he can breathe easier in the hills where he grew up. He tells me he likes his home, enjoys visiting, and is proud of his roots. He cites the positives: "good friends, good environment, good weather, and lots of nature around here." Chuy has a few days to appreciate his home before the mayor will drive him back to his second home at the gym. He'll be back at training next week.
I seek out Chuy and Poye to say goodbye before we leave, find them sitting at Chuy's home, legs dangling off the wooden porch, watching the puppies play in the grass a few feet away."Anything else you'd like to say in this interview?" I ask.Chuy, a person of few words, is comfortably silent. Poye thinks about it then says animatedly, "I want to say that I love everyone!"
Dusk is still a few hours off as Nik and I head back toward Chiang Mai and Santai Gym, winding along mountain roads for dozens of miles until it gives way to the straighter highways of urbanization. After some small Muay Thai talk, our conversation turns to Chuy, Poye, and their Karen ancestry."There is some racism against the Karen in Thailand because the government just gives them handouts," Nik starts. "When Poye left the gym, the trainers said, 'What did I say? I told you he was going to leave; he's Karen.' Basically, saying 'I told you so.'"In Nik's view, however, Poye's abandonment of Muay Thai and the gym had less to do with him being Karen than the fact of Poye's particular personality. "Chuy is a hard worker; he doesn't have much talent so he has to work for it. Hard work pays off," Nik says. "But Poye was naturally talented, didn't have to work hard. He knows everything, like if you give him a skateboard, the next day he's a pro skater. Some kids are like that."So what you're naturally good at, you might not appreciate. What about his admitted laziness, I ask. What about the fact that he'd rather work for low wages in the fields now than fight Muay Thai?
"He wasn't lazy in training, but sometimes he had a bad attitude, like a superstar attitude. He trained well but sometimes he expected better treatment. Like if he couldn't train with Manasak, he wouldn't train at all. Shit like that."
Nik laughs wryly when he tells me Poye was even known to give some of the foreign fighters attitude. Former Santai fighter Sophia Torkos once told me she remembered his diva-like attitude as somewhat amusing, and referred to him as the Justin Bieber of the gym.Nik sees a clear distinction between Chuy and Poye despite their shared origins in the same Karen community, but other Santai trainers aren't as convinced. "They say Chuy won't last. They say he'll quit because he's Karen, and Karen are used to getting welfare and government handouts."The problem, Nik says, is that there is no business and no industry in the lands inhabited by the Karen people, leading to a cycle of reliance on government assistance. "Thais say the Karens have 'small heart,' meaning that when things get difficult, you just have to go to your village and you'll get welfare."
Poye left, but Chuy stayed. Over the years Chuy has been at Santai, Nik has come to look at him almost as a son. "Chuy is the best kid in the world. I'd take a bullet for him," he says. "He's my kid; I've had him for five years." In his mid adolescence, though, Chuy is displaying classic teenage behavior, waffling between dedication and disinterest. "Sometimes he says he wants to quit; sometimes he goes for it. He's a teenager, so what do you expect?" Nik says with a shrug.
He doesn't know Chuy's official fight record (no surprise; not many Thai fighters themselves know their exact record), but estimates Chuy would probably be ranked around No. 5 in Nothern Thailand by Muay Siam, a prominent boxing publication. He holds local titles, has won and defended stadium belts in Chiang Mai. He lives a clean life, doesn't cause trouble in school, abstains from drinking and smoking. "He's a good boy," Nik says. But the problem with his future development as a fighter lies largely with that missing ID card."When he was born, no one told the government," Nik explains. "And now it's even more difficult to get him registered because his parents are dead, so to get an ID he would need to prove he is new and undocumented. As in, they'd need to test his DNA. He'd need to match with the people who are his relatives. And those relatives themselves would need an ID. He has an uncle who has an ID, so he'd have to test with his uncle." It's a complicated, difficult process. "And it's expensive," Nik adds. "And there's bureaucracy."Chuy is saving money for it now, saving for both himself and his two brothers to get tested and obtain IDs. "His brothers, one of them had a brain tumor, I hear," Nik says.
July 2016Half a year later, I call Nik and ask about Chuy. He tells me Chuy, now 16, is doing well, fighting in the Yamaha Tournament in northern Thailand against strong opponents, and now one of the eight remaining contenders for the 200,000-baht prize money (about US $5,700). "He is just training and fighting, busy with the big team of fighters he is in," Nik says. "He's medium-level in that group, so he's just fighting locally for now."The challenge of fighting in Bangkok rings is still a hopeful glimmer on the horizon. But if he is ever to make his debut in the capital, he must first tackle the daunting challenge of proving his identity to the Thai government. It's something Chuy says he plans to do, maybe after this Yamaha tournament.