A Muay Thai Thailand: Beat, Upbeat, and off the Beaten Track.
“When your body is hurting, your lungs are gasping, and you have absolutely nothing left in the tank…”
A holiday trip to the Land of Smiles usually constitutes cocktails, pristine beaches and sunset dinners. However, such conventional holidays often mean missing out on authenticity and the opportunity to experience the true nature of a place and its people. Instead of receiving artificial friendliness in exchange for my Baht at a beachside hotel, I wanted to delve a little deeper and experience true camaraderie with the locals, and in the process make some friends for life.
If you’ve read any of my other ramblings you’ll know that I’m in a phase in my life where I’m taking any time I can to try and break away from the daily routine, often decided upon while spontaneously flicking through skyscanner on my depressing commute. You could kind of call it an early-life crisis. This time I flew to Thailand to live at a small Muay Thai training camp on the outskirts of Bangkok. The plan was to live, eat, train and sleep like a Thai fighter. I’m not exactly new to the world of Muay Thai, having trained for over 6 years, so I was long overdue an opportunity to see how the best of the best live and train. Even so, those who have crossed the rusty train tracks and made the journey down the dusty dirt road to Kiatphontip before, would know just how unprepared anyone would be for what awaits.
There are a lot of Muay Thai camps in Thailand catering to tourists and holiday-makers looking to sweat out the vodka buckets from the night before. Kiatphonitp, however, couldn’t be anything further from those. The camp, in the small village of Sala Thammasop, is well hidden, in a tucked away corner surrounded by rivers, swamps, banana forests and rice fields. Only an hour’s drive away, the tranquil surroundings here are an incredible contrast to busy, bustling Bankok. I immediately knew that I’d come to the right place in my pursuit for authenticity. Wedged between a swamp and a river, inside the charm was just as truthful. The bags were blistered and discoloured from countless strikes, the mats soaked in sweat from the morning’s training, and a stray dog was stalking an unsuspecting rooster near the outdoor cooking area. I was greeted by King, a Thai living and working at the camp, who showed me my room and informed me that training started at 3pm.
Being used to the concept of predetermined, timed rounds, usually 3 or 4 minutes each, my first hit out on the pads nearly killed me. Yod, my first opponent, had a utilitarian attitude towards training, namely that you would get a break when and if he saw fit. Getting used to this style of training, in 35 degree heat and 90 per cent humidity was extremely difficult. After my first three-hour training session I was questioning whether I really had outdone myself this time. How on earth was I going to make it through 3 weeks here? An endeavour which would involve a 10km run every morning, followed by 3 hours morning training, and 3 hours afternoon training. I sucked it up, dispelling my worries for the evening and tucking into the amazing fresh cooked Thai dinner with the other fighters in a small home-style dining room with a noisy overhead fan.
The following morning, and every morning after for the next three weeks, I slid out of my bed, took a big drink of water, tied my laces and ran together with the Thais and foreign fighters, along the train tracks, over a makeshift plank-bridge crossing a swamp, and along a 10km river, dodging fishermen and stray dogs before returning back for morning’s training. It’s impossible not to admire the drive, focus and determination of the fighters. Some as young as 10, with over 30 or 40 fights already to their name, have given their lives to the sport. The concept of over-training is to them as foreign as my blonde hair and blue eyes. The skill, speed and fitness of these Thai fighters is unmatched; born with gloves on their hands and a Mongkong resting on their brow. And still, these killing machines, raised for the single purpose to fight, to inflict pain onto another person, were the most respectful, kind, and courteous people I have ever met. There really is beauty in authenticity.
There’s something sacred about living this kind of lifestyle, pushing your body to the extreme, resting only to wake up and do it again. It doesn’t only make your body strong, but your mind grows stronger too. It’s a form of meditation. When your body is hurting, your lungs are gasping, and you have absolutely nothing left in the tank, your mind is racing: “When will it stop…”, “I need a break…”, and yet somehow you keep pushing through. In my final few days, although my body was at breaking point, my mind was completely blank, not looking for escape, just pushing through the pain with mindless precision.
“The mind-set at the camp was always positive… there’s a strong sense of togetherness, a real team atmosphere.”
Our single rest day of the week, Sunday, would usually involve a long sleep-in followed by a trip to “The Lady Over The Wall”, an inspiring local entrepreneur who had placed a step ladder beside her concrete wall, which would allow a customer to step over and yell out an order for a delicious, home-cooked Thai meal. Perhaps then followed by a walk along the Salaya train tracks to the local market, where you could buy anything from wriggling eels to deliciously blended fresh fruit smoothies.
The mind-set at the camp was always positive. A fighter might return from the city with an air of despondency hanging over him, but the whole camp would immediately cheer him up. Although it is a one-man sport, there’s a strong sense of togetherness, a real team atmosphere. Even the foreigners, once they have earned the respect of the Thais, are embraced and included.
After my last kick was thrown, and my shorts wringed of sweat for the final time, I was quite proud of what I’d achieved. I knew this really was the real deal: the real Thailand, and I had fallen in love with it. Kiatphontip is a gym that produces champions, it’s one of the best in the world. If you can stand the bruised shins, clobbered arms and dehydration, you walk away a changed person. Stronger in mind, and in the fittest shape of your life. So no, it wasn’t a conventional holiday. The only tan you get are t-shirt lines from your morning run, the friends you make aren’t met on drunk nights out on Koh San, waking up to forget their names, but rather made through respect and companionship. I understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it was one of the best experiences of my life.