The Fight of Her Life

May 22, 2010 • Features • Views: 1787

by Monica Landy:

A kick to the chest. A punch to the face. The crowd goes wild as Nong Toom sets his foot on his opponent’s thigh, hoists himself into the air, and comes crashing down with both elbows. An instant knockout, made all the sweeter by the expectations that a kathoey—a ‘ladyboy,’ or transvestite—would be the underdog in any Muay Thai ring. Much to the public’s amazement and delight, however, this kathoey enjoyed international celebrity and an extraordinary career of 20 wins out of 22 fights. By his late teens, Toom had earned enough to make a change he had dreamed about for years—in 1999, he officially became a woman.

Thai children strike a Muay Thai pose. (Courtesy Steven Khan)

Sweeping away preconceptions, Toom successfully made a name for herself in Muay Thai, the world’s most violent combat sport. Toom is still celebrated today as a champion of Thailand’s national pastime; as a woman, however, she is banned from the ring. Still, she feels tremendous love for the sport. “If it weren’t for Muay Thai,” she said, “I wouldn’t be who I am today.” Through Muay Thai, she hopes to make a difference in her community. Along with her best friend and business partner, Steven Khan, Toom is striving to create the Parinya Muay Thai boxing camp, a haven for marginalized children, women, and members of the LGBT community (Although most know her as Nong Toom, ‘Parinya Jaroenphon’ is Toom’s formal name).

”I’ve always dreamed of having this camp,” said Toom, who purchased the grounds in Pranburi with prize money from fighting in Bangkok’s Lumphini Stadium when she was 16. “I don’t want to be the sole beneficiary of Muay Thai. I would like to share the art of Muay Thai and to help other people.”

Toom’s altruism is aimed at several groups in need. Throughout Thailand, poor children as young as five are encouraged fight Muay Thai; they bring home bruises and bloody noses as often as they do winnings. The Parinya Muay Thai camp is intended “for children who want to practice the art but who don’t want the pressure or the risk of competition,” said Toom. These children will live, study, train, and receive stipends for their families at Parinya Muay Thai, which will also serve as a school and orphanage. The culmination of their hard work will be exhibition and performance rather than competition.

Women, too, will be welcome to train at the camp, providing them with a revolutionary opportunity to partake in Muay Thai as well as a chance to learn self-defense in a sometimes dangerously patriarchal society. Additionally, the camp will serve as a much-needed sanctuary for the LGBT community. As Khan explained, sexual orientation “is a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of thing” in most camps, but “at our camp, you can be a ladyboy, you can be straight, you can be gay. Everyone has to respect one another.”

Parinya Muay Thai is revolutionary in its scope and ambition, but Toom and Khan must conquer the challenge of funding before their dream can come to fruition. “All the groundwork is there,” said Khan. “We have the land, we have the outer walls, the gate, the permits, the planning. We’re just waiting on the money.”

Ultimately, the camp’s operations will be funded by foreign Muay Thai enthusiasts who will pay for private lessons with Toom, with additional funding from donations, grants, fundraisers, and sponsorship. However, Òuntil we have a boxing ring with people training there, it doesn’t feel real enough for people to make major contributions, lamented Khan.

Despite this obstacle, both Toom and Khan are determined to see this project through. “What’s keeping us going is that Nong Toom and I really believe in what we want to accomplish here, and that hasn’t changed,” said Khan. “Right now, we only have a wall, a gate, the land, and a dream. But we have passion.”

After overcoming imposing obstacles to realize her dreams, Toom is determined to help others do the same. “I want to be an inspiration,” she said. “I want people to learn to pursue their dreams and face their challenges, even if it’s difficult.” Parinya Muay Thai will offer marginalized communities this very opportunity, along with respect, support, and “a big family,” said Toom. All will be equal and united in their love of “Thailand’s greatest treasure.”

Monica Landy ’13 is a French major in Trumbull College. Contact her at monica.landy@yale.edu.

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