The motorbike purred to life as Abigail McCullough got on the vehicle with her adopted son Baipai. The young boy was dressed in his school clothes and sleepiness still clung to his eyes like morning dew on grass. McCullough met his father Thepnimit about ten years ago. Shortly after, she began to care for the young boy. That’s what McCullough does, she cares for people.
The matriarch of Muay Thai has a glow to her like the morning sun. Anyone who has met her will recognize the immediate warmth of her smile and the easy laughter that emits. McCullough is in the hurt business but makes the violence a little gentler with her presence. As the foreign liaison of Sitmonchai Gym, she has parented thousands of foreign Muay Thai enthusiasts along with many young Thai Nak Muays.
Her entry into the world of Muay Thai in Thailand began in 2008 at Ingram Gym in Bangkok. A year later, she was training at 13 Coins in Bangkok when she met Sitmonchai gym fighters Pornsanae and Thepnimit. Sitmonchai was undergoing financial difficulties and had contracted out a couple of their homegrown fighters to 13 Coins for a year. When the fighters returned to the Thamaka gym, Abigail went with them, following her heart, and her love interest, Thepnimit.
When McCullough suggested to the owner of Sitmonchai Gym, Pee A, that he open the gym up to foreigners, she was unaware of the monetary strain he was currently under. Instead, she could see how the daily grind at the gym had become a bit joyless and monotonous, and hoped that westerners would create some excitement.
“Pee A laughed at the idea at first— he didn’t think foreigners would want to come all the way out to Thamaka. We had old rooms with junk in them. Nothing was set up. We didn’t know what we were doing.”
It quickly became apparent that working for the gym would be a full time job. McCullough shifted her focus 100% to the gym. Once the website was finished, a full group of foreigners began to come in. The change in atmosphere was immediate as the foreigners brought a new energy to the gym.
“The Thai guys loved training with other countries. The banal became fun. It was a completely different atmosphere,” McCullough said.
Sitmonchai began to grow in size as foreigners came in by relying on word of mouth. The intimate family atmosphere, semi rural location, and iconic style of hard punches and leg kicks appealed to foreigners. It is now one of the most successful foreigner friendly Muay Thai gyms in Thailand.
McCullough acted as an intermediate between the Thais and the Westerners, taking care of the needs of both. What goes unseen though is the emotional labor and logistics involved.
As a foreign liaison, caring for the foreigners can be taxing. There are a million issues to deal with. People constantly come and go, each with their own set of needs and expectations. Arranging for an airport pick up isn’t as easy as calling an Uber. Instead McCullough must constantly find the balance of Thai culture and western schedules.
Often foreigners arrive with only a limited amount of time. They want to fight, then they don’t. They get sick because they don’t understand they are in a different climate. They aren’t used to the training and easily get injured. The list goes on. Regardless of their ailments, McCullough is there to help them navigate through all things Thailand.
McCullough wandered to the back of the gym mid morning. The sun was high in the sky and the boys were tending to their prized possessions. The Thais keep their small gym of fighting chickens in the back. Rows of baskets covered strong roosters. One of the trainers, a mischievous man, Kongfah, came to borrow some money for kao man gai. Abigail gave Kongfah 100 Baht, knowing full well she wouldn’t be repaid.
“When you’re here in Thailand for a long time you’re part of something bigger. You don’t think about yourself as much. You think about others more. You can’t be selfish when you have all these other people to think about,” McCullough said.
McCullough is highly esteemed in the Muay Thai world, her respect earned through years of selflessness.
Thailand’s is a communal culture; when you help others they will help you in return. McCullough is able to function believing in the greater good, seeing the bigger picture.
When Montien’s, a young Thai fighter at the gym, mother died, it was McCullough who organized a donation drive. The go-fund-me raised over 30,000 baht to help with funeral expenses. McCullough used the money to pay for the cremation and a donation to the temple in the mother’s name. And Montien was able to pay his respects to his recently deceased mother by ordaining as a monk.
By using whatever tools she has access to as a westerner, she can help bring Western money into Thailand. Those additional resources allow the Thais to travel abroad, gain new experiences, and mature. It provides an impetus for great change in their lives and they can pass that on by providing for those around them as well. For McCullough that is the point.
“One thing about what I do, the biggest part, I just try to help the Thai kids. I just want the kids to do well in life. They’re the most important thing to me,” McCullough said.
Later in the day, McCullough picked up Baipai from school. She helped him with homework. She brought one of the young Muay Thai fighters medicine, his cough was getting worse. A foreigner’s visa was almost up, an emergency visa run was organized, and she tended to the many upcoming reservations ahead. It just never really ends, and Abigail never really quits working/caring.
The caring never stops for McCullough. For there are people that need looking after in a harsh world.