Anupong Pornlakun, known to his friends as Bpaet, is one of the thousands of child fighters in Thailand. He’s been fighting professionally for the past two years but doesn’t know his record, nor how many fights he’s had.
Depending on the season, Bpaet will fight between one to five times a month. During the monsoons and Buddhist Lent he’ll fight less frequently, and during annual festivals like Songkran, and Loi Krathong, he’ll fight multiple times in a week.
The money he makes from fighting goes to help support his elderly aunt who is currently caring for four other school aged children; Bpaet’s Dad hasn’t sent money home in over three years and he doesn’t know where his mum is.
His aunt works odd jobs in and around the village. She’ll go fishing, make and sell food at the market, and plant rice. As it stands now, Bpaet is making more money monthly than his aunt does.
Bpaet’s story is neither extraordinary nor unique. He’s one among a countless number of other child fighters from Isaan, the impoverished northeast region of Thailand. The area that produces the most fighters and subsequently the most champions in all of Thailand.
The area’s main economy is rice. The work is hard and the payout minimal with many farmers complaining that the only compensation they receive to produce Thailand’s number one export is merely rice to eat.
High costs to farm, including tractor rental and fertilizer leave many of the farmers in debt. Additionally, lacking irrigation, they rely solely on rainfall and are only able to harvest one crop a year.
Those able and willing to work flock to the cities to part take in careers as menial labourers; left behind are the children and elderly. Many parents send money home to help with expenses, many do not.
With the area lacking the infrastructure and development that is common in other areas of Thailand, kids are also left lacking athletic and educational opportunity. Born into poverty, generation after generation, kids must fight their fate.
A Way Out
Drugs, alcohol and gang violence are all too common there, but rarely make the news. Fighting offers kids like Bpaet not only a path out of poverty but a chance to make something of themselves beyond the village. Gyms are considered safe spaces and act as extended families.
While caring for four other children, it’s understandable that Bpaet’s auntie doesn’t have much time to watch over him. Now that he’s part of the gym, it’s one less mouth for her to feed, and one less body to worry about at night.
The money Bpaet contributes to the household helps put food on the table for his cousins, and with his gym covering all his expenses, he’s able to save the rest. Life at a gym is often a lot better than what the kids have waiting for them at home.
LIFE AT A GYM IS OFTEN A LOT BETTER THAN WHAT THE KIDS HAVE WAITING FOR THEM AT HOME.
They are surrounded by other athletes in a like minded environment where they can flourish. With the basic necessities like food, water, and shelter being covered the kids are able to better focus on their careers in Muay Thai.
Gyms are also responsible for the education of their fighters. In addition to covering school fees, they make sure the kids keep up with their studies and get to school on time. Being a communal environment, the burden is not solely on the gym owners. The trainers and senior fighters will help look after and guide the younger children.
While the thought of children fighting may be difficult for some to grasp, Muay Thai is part of Thailand’s cultural heritage.
It goes way back to the 17th Century and the legend of Nai Khanom Tom — a Muay Thai fighter and a national hero. In the 19th Century the sport was popularised and formalised during the reign of King Rama V and has evolved since then.
In today’s era, it is a sport of immense financial and nontraditional academic opportunity for its practitioners. Children as young as eight will begin to compete regularly, and some even younger will jump in the ring to try it out.
Fighting however is not for everyone, and after a few fights it’s fairly obvious whether certain kids have a future in the sport or not.
Most kids in Thailand are willing to give it a try, but only those who really love it end up sticking with it. Saenchai, Buakaw, and Yodsanklai, all got their start fighting at festivals in Isaan and now, in addition to being household names, are also international superstars.
For those still living amongst the rice fields, like Bpaet, they fill the space as role models that these kids so desperately need.
Bpaet, like many other children fighters, has dreams of one day fighting on TV, abroad, or in the elite stadia of Bangkok. But it’s the dedication to the daily grind that benefits him the most.
The gym is probably the safest place for him during adolescence. He’s making money and easing the financial burden for his family while at the same time becoming more and more self-sufficient. The skills he learns via the art of eight limbs goes far beyond what you see in the ring.
He’s learning about proper nutrition, leading a healthy lifestyle, and how to manage his own money while at the same time paying homage to his his homeland. His dedication won’t go to waste.
With Muay Thai having been granted provisional Olympic status by the IOC, the sport is growing at an exponential level. While a spot on the national team might be a little too far fetched for a fighter like Bpaet, a career abroad as a trainer is not.
At the end of the day, it’s a lot better than farming rice or working menial labour like his father.