“Happy birthday, Jeff. Now watch me kick this guy in the head,” said the Thai boxer as he stepped into the ring

Before I came to Thailand, I found that my birthday is the same day as the Thai new year celebration, Songkran.  My 33rd birthday celebration was a mystery to me seeing that I’d be at my site for less than three weeks and wouldn’t be allowed to travel overnight.  I didn’t expect much for my birthday except a few phone calls and e-mails from friends.  I didn’t advertise it to my Thai neighbors and wasn’t expecting a celebration.

I didn’t get a party specifically for me, but I did experience a birthday unlike any of my other 33.  The day began with a phone call from my parents and it ended watching 12-year old Thai boys doing their best to kick the shit out of each other – good people.

I’d seen Thai boxing on television, but didn’t imagine I’d be able to see it live … especially not a 10-minute walk from my home.  The first time I visited my host parents’ home in Surin, my host father was watching Thai boxing on a Sunday afternoon the same way an American father might catch a few innings of the Mariners/Twins game on Fox Sports North.  He watched with great interest, but lacked obsession.

The setting was strange by American standards – the village temple.  When my associate, Teer-aa-sahn, and I arrived, we each threw 20 baht (about $0.70) in a jar next to a monk.

After wandering through the “midway” where I threw some darts at balloons (side-armed) and won a small bowl that says, “Good Morning”, in English, it was almost time for the fights.  There was also a bingo-type game with Thai letters that was good practice for me.

A friend of Teer-aa-sahn’s was kind enough to give us some space on her blanket she brought.  Within minutes the first two fighters made their way to the ring and many people began standing by the ring, but there were still a lot of room to move.  I felt like I was at a Pearl Jam concert and no one was willing to stand next to the stage.  I thanked the woman who let me sit on her blanket, but excused myself to stand next to the ring.

I was expecting grown men to be fighting.  I was wrong … at first.  The first two fighters were 14-years old.  It was great entertainment.  I kept watching and, as the cocky competitive American I am, wondering how I would defend and fight them.  Any time I thought I could handle myself against someone in my weight class, I had to remind myself that while I was defending the left hook I’d probably leave myself open to be kicked in the face.  Instead of two weapons to fight against, there are four.

The crowd was very much into the strategy (that I wasn’t always understanding) and an obnoxious public address announcer.  He was obnoxious to me, but hilarious to the audience who could understand him.

The second fight was two 12-year olds.  I thought that was far-fetched until a 10-year old girl came to the ring.  I was ready.  She was ready.  Her opponent wasn’t.  She won by forfeit when we learned she had no opponent.  This is where I started to see the differences between Thai and American audiences.  I was upset.  I wanted to see the 10-year old girls duke it out.  I wanted to shout my disappointment the same way I do when the Angels’ manager walks Justin Morneau to get to Jason Kubel.  I was expecting the same from the Thais, but they were cool.  They were jai-yen-yen (cool heart).

I felt the same later in the evening when the 18-year olds were finally going to compete and one of them was taking a long time to get in the ring.

Let’s go!  Get your ass in the ring!  Coward!

That’s what I was thinking.  But the crowd seemed okay with the wait.  It probably helped they could carry on extended conversations with their neighbors and I was relegated to saying things like, “This is fun, isn’t it?  Are you hot?  How old is the fighter?”

I felt a bit of redemption when the fighter who took so long lost the fight by knockout after being punched and kicked numerous times in the head.  It reminded me of waiting for a golfer to take five practice swings before topping the ball into the drink.

By the end of the fourth fight, there was a large group of Thai friends surrounding me who were hoping I’d stay on the temple grounds well past midnight, but unfortunately I’m still staying under my host parents’ rules.  It’s very humbling to tell people on your 33rd birthday, “I can’t stay.  I’d like to, but my mom is waiting for me.”

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