International correspondent Antonio Graceffo heads to Bangkok in search of the real story behind Ong-Bak star Tony Jaa in this exclusive series! In Part 1, he's granted a rare interview with Jaa's parents.
Just when most moviegoers were ready to abandon all hope that a fresh face would ever appear in martial arts cinema, we got Tony Jaa, star of 2003's Ong-Bak. As an added bonus, he brought with him a deadly new fighting style. In the blink of an eye, the sacred Thai art of pounding a person senseless with the knees and elbows was introduced to the world. Aside from having the most incredible fight scenes ever and showing us Bangkok rather than Hong Kong, Ong-Bak is an important movie for two reasons. It was the first major film to feature muay Thai and the first Thai movie to have wide distribution in the States — all thanks to a high-flying martial artist from the jungles of Southeast Asia. And now Tony Jaa is making the leap from Bangkok to Hollywood thanks to his recent casting in the upcoming Fast & Furious 7, helmed by Saw director James Wan and starring Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker and veteran actor Kurt Russell. Watch a video of Vin Diesel and Tony Jaa training:
TONY JAA VIDEO Tony Jaa and Vin Diesel Train for Fights in the Upcoming Fast & Furious 7
— From the Fast & Furious 7 Fan Channel (unofficial)
And now on to the search for Tony Jaa ...
Tony Jaa's Hometown
Walking down Silom, one of Bangkok's main shopping areas, I see Tony Jaa posters and DVDs of Tony Jaa movies everywhere. Even in remote villages, children wear T-shirts bearing photos of Jaa Pnom, as he's called in Thailand. The locals know that he's been an action hero for 15 years — which prompts my muay Thai instructor to ask, “Why did it take you guys so long to realize how great he is?"
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Being a movie star, Tony Jaa lives in the capital, but my first stop is a village in Surin province, seven hours north of Bangkok. Here, Tony Jaa was born and given the name Pnom Yeerum, which he later changed to Jaa Pnom.
At the bus station, everyone knows Tony Jaa and loves to talk about him. They're proud of the local boy who made it big in America, and they're grateful that he hasn't forgotten his roots. They tell stories of his frequent visits to the region and the money he donates to schools and temples.
A driver agrees to hire out his bus for $25 a day, and he says he'll take me to see Tony Jaa's house. After driving for an hour, we arrive at a beautiful, two-story home surrounded by a brick wall. The driver says this is the mansion that Tony Jaa had built for his parents.
“But they don't answer when people ring the bell," he adds. “Too many reporters come to bother them."
He motions for me to get back on the bus, and I begin suspecting that I've been had. He could have driven to any big house, pointed at it and said it was Tony Jaa's place. I discuss the matter with two Cambodian monks, friends who elected to tag along to translate, when an elderly man and woman come out to greet us.
They're Tony Jaa's parents.
Searching for Tony Jaa: Meeting His Parents
“We don't usually answer the door, but we saw the monks," the mother says, bowing.
As we enter the compound, the father gives me a sly look: “Say 'thank you' to your friends — you would never have gotten in here if it wasn't for them."
Mr. and Mrs. Jaa and I sit barefoot and cross-legged on the floor, drinking ice tea. The monks perch on a bamboo platform above us. Being taller than most Thais, I have to make sure my head isn't higher than the monks' — I don't want to offend the Jaas, who are known to be very religious.
The parents speak at length with the monks. They're curious to know how a foreigner came to be friends with the Cambodians. The monks explain that we met in Cambodia several years ago while I was studying the martial arts there.
The father signals me to start the interview. I compliment them on the beauty of their house. It's strange to see a mansion beside all the tiny two-room affairs. “After he became famous, Tony bought this house for us," the mother says with pride. “It cost 10 million baht."
“Where did you live before?" I ask.
“In that house," she says, pointing.
Upon entering the compound, I noticed a dilapidated wooden shack and wondered why they kept it on the grounds. Now, I understand. “Every day, we look out the window and remember where we came from," Mrs. Jaa says.
Tony Jaa Growing Up
“Tony was always playing sports," the father says. “He liked all sports, including basketball, but he especially loved any kind of martial art. When he was 5, he fell in love with martial arts. He watched Bruce Lee movies and copied the moves. He said that when he grew up, he'd be famous. We never doubted him. Tony taught himself martial arts as a kid. He wanted to be like [martial arts actor] Panna Rittikrai."
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As a teenager, Tony Jaa studied taekwondo and other arts, winning several competitions. His father, a former boxer, also taught him muay Thai. When he was older, he earned a scholarship to study at a sports university. Then he came back and studied with Panna Rittikrai, who helped him get his first work in the movies.
“He's 175 centimeters (5 feet 9 inches) tall and weighs just over 50 kilograms (110 pounds)," the father says.
“He's tall and strong and good looking, with big muscles," his mother adds. “And women go crazy for him."
“Even foreign ladies want to date him," his father quips with a naughty grin.
The Celebrity Status of Tony Jaa vs. His True Roots
Tony Jaa is nearly as big a celebrity in neighboring Cambodia as he is in Thailand. Surin province, his home, was actually part of Cambodia until 250 years ago. As a result, 70 percent of the people here have Khmer blood and speak the Khmer language. The Cambodians all say that Tony Jaa is a Khmer and that the martial art he uses in his films is Khmer bokator.
We've been speaking Thai, but now the conversation switches to Khmer, which Mr. and Mrs. Jaa speak perfectly. Hoping to settle the argument once and for all, I ask if Tony Jaa is Khmer or Thai.
The father shocks us by answering, “We are Kuy!"
The Kuy (Suoy in the Thai language) are a tribe, an ethnic minority that came to Thailand 400 years ago, migrating from India, down through Cambodia and into Thailand. They brought with them their elephants, which the Thai king quickly realized had excellent military applications. He gave the Kuy people Thai citizenship and made them the royal elephant handlers. Today, no matter where you go in Thailand, if you see elephants, the handlers are Kuy.
“I was born in Ban Taklang," the father says, referring to the famous elephant village. “We still keep elephants to this day."
Suddenly, Tony Jaa's second film, Tom Yum Goon (The Protector in the United States), makes sense. The whole movie revolves around the theft of an elephant from Thailand. Once again, Tony Jaa was showing that he's true to his roots.
Tony Jaa's Elephant Obsession
Our next stop is Ban Taklang, where, amid a sea of elephants, we meet Kun Da, an aged Kuy man who knew Jaa and his family when they lived in the village.
“I was born in this village," Kun Da says. “My grandparents and all my ancestors were born here, too. I started living with elephants when I was a boy. Now I am 60 or 70 years old — I don't know for sure — and I live with the elephants. There are some elephants who are older than me.
“I speak Khmer, Thai and Kuy. Kuy doesn't have letters, but I learned it from my parents at home. I know Jaa Pnom. He lived here before. His parents were born here. Then he was born here. Then they went to live near the mountain."
In the village, when a boy is 1 or 2, he's given a baby elephant, and the two grow up together. Elephants have a life span similar to human beings, often living to be 60 years old. The locals give respect to elephants the same way they do to people of the same age. When they get older, the elephants are consulted on family decisions. If a Kuy wants to marry, build a house or move to a new town, he has to ask permission from the elephants.
At a religious shrine, dedicated to the god of the elephant handlers, I meet some child monks. They're all excited because a Buddhist holiday is almost here, a day when people bring food, clothing and money to the monks. Tony Jaa will come home to preside over the festival, the kids say.
Nearby, we enter the forest monastery where Tony Jaa's father was once a monk. The temple is dedicated to the elephants. There are altars with elephant bones and the entire skeleton of a baby pachyderm. Set into stone grottoes and covered in vines are massive statues of the Buddha, the elephant god Ganesh and the monkey god Hanuman. Hanuman is respected throughout Thailand and considered the most intelligent of the animal gods. He practices muay boran, the ancient art Tony Jaa studied, the moves of which are based on the simian.
To be continued ...
About the Author:
Antonio Graceffo is a freelance writer currently based in Asia. His book, Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist Through Asia, is Antonio Graceffo's record of where culture, communication and martial arts meet during his decadelong travels through nine countries, including Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.
Join Antonio Graceffo for a trip around the world in these exciting martial arts travelogue videos:
- Martial Arts in Southeast Asia: Thailand
- Martial Arts in Southeast Asia: Taiwan (part 1)
- Martial Arts in Southeast Asia: Taiwan (part 2)
- Martial Arts in Southeast Asia: Vietnam (part 1)
- Martial Arts in Southeast Asia: Vietnam (part 2)
- Martial Arts in Southeast Asia: Vietnam (part 3)