Every night in Vang Vieng, we walked past a fairground that had flashing lights and cars and locals streaming in. We always walked by, but one night after dinner, Alice decided to go in while I went back to the hotel. As soon as I got in the room, I got a text from her: “Boxing! I’m going to stay and watch.”
So I ran down with my camera. It turns out that we were down the street from a Laos New Year fair, and as part of the festivities, they’d set up a Muay Lao competition for youth from all around the area. They had little kids fighting – maybe seven or eight years old – and older teenagers.
It was tough to watch, especially the bouts with small kids, because they were being egged on to beat each other mercilessly. At least one little kid was knocked out cold; nobody watching seemed to think that there might be negative, life-long consequences, and I wasn’t about to ask if they’d read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent piece on brain damage from contact sports. But there was also a strong community feel; there was no bad blood between the fighters, no posturing, no anger. Most of them seemed to be friends, just there to compete, have a good time, play the game, and then hang out with their friends. Muay Lao is on the rise; the Laos don’t have the same money being thrown at their fights as the Thai fighters, or the same resources or training, but they have a love of the sport, and the heart, and some of the better fighters are being invited to Thailand to fight.
And then there was this little girl, who wanted to spend time with her daddy, who was probably tired – it was 9:30 at night – but also excited by the lights, the screams, the hopes and the fears, the smell of beer and sweat, and, at this moment, the sweets counter in the back, full of things more interesting to her than two guys punching and kicking each other.