Dor. Pewlawpakdee: The Gym in the Rice Fields


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Dor. Pewlawpakdee: The Gym in the Rice Fields

More than a dozen miles from the nearest 7-11, a little gym in the rice paddies of Thailand's northeastern region is quietly raising up small children to become champions.

Photos by Matthew Yarbrough

Leave the pulsing capital of Bangkok. Get out of Buriram City or Khorat. Leave a city or settlement of any notable size, and drive into the rice fields of rural northeastern Thailand. Bump along highways of uneven pavement, cross into a dirt-road region, pass through little villages miles from the nearest 7-11.

Come to a curve in the road, another tiny village. Keep the sprawling rice fields on your right. Smile at the local lady with the pet monkey, and stop next door at the dusty, weather-worn house with the ring in the front yard.


Walk into Dor. Pewlawpakdee Gym.

It's a tiny gym with cracked bags and a couple faded photos of past and present champions, covered in a thin layer of dust. A hen and her chicks peck around the dirt floor, finding morsels among the stacked car tires used in training. Dogs laze about, sluggishly raising their noses to sniff passers-by.

But the gym comes to life when the kids start training. Na, the head trainer, sends them out on warm-up runs up and down the road outside. He points to the tires and they dutifully strap them around their waists, dragging them on the pavement. The kids run past the lady with the monkey, past herds of buffalo, past other children playing on bikes or in the rice fields.

Na is young for a head trainer, only 28. The kids call him Uncle Na, and he's related by blood to three of the five children, brothers Moo, Leklaa, and Pupa. The boys' parents own the gym, and Uncle Na, the three brothers, and their parents all live in the house behind the ring. While the brothers warm up with road work, their parents sit out back, in view of the rice fields, and play cards or gamble with other local villagers. Uncle Na busies himself capturing selfies for Facebook or chatting with internet friends.

When the boys return to training, though, Na changes. He turns off his phone, straps on Thai pads, and becomes a man to respect. The children look up to him, follow him, listen to his instructions. Na was the one who raised them in Muay Thai. He built each fighter from nothing. He is known in the community as a selfless trainer, someone who gives up much of his personal life to train the young fighters who rely on him day in, day out.


Na's devotion has had tangible results. He built 14-year-old fighter Moo from the ground up and led him to multiple titles, including the Muay Siam Isaan Championship.

Under Uncle Na's guidance, Moo's little brother Pupa is following the same path, having won a regional title and already a veteran of over 100 fights, all by his current age of nine.

Moo, Pupa, Leklaa, and two other local boys are part of Uncle Na's growing legacy, young fighters making a name for their tiny gym around Isaan. Dor. Pewlawpakdee may be isolated from the cities and larger villages, but by virtue of its location in Buriram Province, there is no shortage of temple fairs or stadium fight opportunities for these young boxers. Buriram Province is known for producing the most fighters and the most champions in the country, according to the Sports Authority of Thailand. All the fighters at Dor. Pewlawpakdee, even nine-year-old, newly minted champion Pupa, are professionals who contribute substantially to their family's meager income.

At the relatively young age of 28, a time when many fighters are still supporting themselves through fighting, Na is relegated to training others. Once a fine fighter himself, Na retired early from Muay Thai due to a chronic condition sustained from a rib injury. He never realized his potential as a fighter, but through his young champions, he is reaching the top as a trainer. Dor. Pewlawpakdee's boxers are still young, just starting their fighting lives, but all of them have a potential life-long career in Muay Thai. Na is their living, breathing example of what's possible.