What Did You Do on Your Sum­mer Va­ca­tion?

Black Belt - - SCREEN SHOTS - ● ABOUT THE AU­THOR: Richard Lu­cas is a free­lance writer based in France.

O ne of the most pop­u­lar com­bat sports to emerge dur­ing the mar­tial arts boom of the 1980s was muay Thai, and it’s re­mained pop­u­lar in the West ever since. We now have kick­box­ing fed­er­a­tions in most coun­tries with com­pe­ti­tions tak­ing place on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. Be­cause of the art’s rep­u­ta­tion for ef­fec­tive­ness, it’s com­mon nowa­days for mar­tial artists out to im­prove their full-con­tact skills to train in Thai­land.

For most of us, how­ever, packing up and re­lo­cat­ing to South­east Asia just isn’t re­al­is­tic. For­tu­nately, you can ac­quire vast amounts of knowl­edge and skill from a short so­journ — say, the kind you’d ex­pe­ri­ence on a sum­mer va­ca­tion.

Know the His­tory

Muay Thai is the na­tional sport of Thai­land and has been prac­ticed here for hun­dreds of years. It’s part of the Thai psy­che, the fod­der of myths and leg­ends that stretch back to the 1600s when the na­tion was known as Siam. At the time, Siam was at war with neigh­bor­ing Burma and Cam­bo­dia, and muay Thai was an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of the mil­i­tary train­ing of Thai troops.

Later, muay Thai evolved into a fight sport that be­came pop­u­lar with the lower strata of so­ci­ety. Not sur­pris­ingly, it ap­pealed to count­less young­sters who dreamed of be­com­ing cham­pi­ons and gain­ing fame and for­tune — not un­like boxing in Western na­tions. Nowa­days, muay Thai is also trea­sured as a means of get­ting fit, as well as a sys­tem of self-de­fense, both of which make it at­trac­tive to peo­ple who have no in­ter­est in com­pe­ti­tion.

The good news is that in the past 10 years, Thai-boxing gyms have pro­lif­er­ated in Bangkok and other ma­jor ci­ties, and they’re draw­ing in­creas­ing num­bers of for­eign­ers, called farang in the Thai lan­guage. Many of those trainees are ca­sual prac­ti­tion­ers who may or may not have trained in other mar­tial arts. Nev­er­the­less, they ben­e­fit im­mensely from the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Those who hap­pen to be com­peti­tors — per­haps in muay Thai, kick­box­ing or MMA — also come here, usu­ally to pol­ish their ring skills or to fight in tour­na­ments to gain ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s led to a pop­u­la­tion of for­eign­ers who par­tic­i­pate at the high­est lev­els of the sport, which has prompted pro­mot­ers to match them against tal­ented lo­cals. Need- less to say, the bouts that re­sult have a true in­ter­na­tional fla­vor.

Know What to Ex­pect

Most train­ing ses­sions in Thai­land run about two hours. The work­outs tend to be sim­i­lar at the gyms that ac­cept farang, but they can dif­fer in in­ten­sity and in the tech­ni­cal as­pects that are em­pha­sized. Much of the pro­gram at the cen­ter you wind up in will de­pend on your level. Of­ten, it will be­gin with a warm-up and some stretch­ing, fol­lowed by shad­ow­box­ing. Af­ter that may come one- on- one pad work with an in­struc­tor, a ses­sion on the heavy bag, a few rounds of spar­ring, clinch work, tech­nique train­ing and a cool- down.

Don’t let any of that scare you off. The warm-up — jump­ing rope, run­ning in place and so on — and the stretch­ing will be sim­i­lar to what you’re used to at home. One thing you may not be fa­mil­iar with is the truck tires you of­ten see here. Thai mar­tial artists like to bounce on tires while shad­ow­box­ing be­cause it lim­bers up the legs and builds bal­ance. Stand­ing on the edge while mov­ing makes the ex­er­cise ideal for learn­ing how to keep your feet in proper po­si­tion at all times.

An­other odd train­ing method you might en­counter en­tails us­ing a skate­board. Many coaches will have you stand on one while shad-

ow­box­ing or hit­ting pads, claim­ing it hones your bal­ance and abil­ity to fight in the clinch.

As you can see from what I’ve al­ready men­tioned, shad­ow­box­ing is com­mon in Thai train­ing camps. It fos­ters smooth com­bi­na­tions and good pos­ture. Your in­struc­tor might have you do this in a group or in­di­vid­u­ally in front of a mir­ror. You may do it as part of your warmup and pos­si­bly as a re­cu­per­a­tion break be­tween more stren­u­ous phases of train­ing.

The spar­ring that most for­eign­ers en­gage in is fairly light, with no real con­tact. How­ever, if you hap­pen to be an ex­pe­ri­enced mar­tial artist, the camps will ac­com­mo­date you with pro­tec­tive gear and a wor­thy oppo- nent. In gen­eral, that more ad­vanced train­ing won’t in­clude clinch­ing, the “ground and pound” of muay Thai in which knees and el­bows come into play. At the gyms I vis­ited, clinch­ing is re­served for the best kick­box­ers, peo­ple who are ac­tu­ally pre­par­ing for fights.

A large part of your train­ing here will be ded­i­cated to pad work and the heavy bag. Ex­pe­ri­ence has taught Thai in­struc­tors that hit­ting pads is great for de­vel­op­ing power and speed while al­low­ing you to prac­tice com­bi­na­tions ac­cord­ing to com­mands. Chances are your trainer will cor­rect you dur­ing your work­out, point­ing out de­fen­sive prob­lems and fo­cus­ing on any weak­nesses he spots in your skill set.

Know Where to Go

To help Black Belt read­ers de­ter­mine which Thai gym might be best for fine-tun­ing their skills, I vis­ited some of the most prom­i­nent fa­cil­i­ties in Bangkok and worked out with the lo­cals. The fol­low­ing are among the most ac­com­mo­dat­ing ones I found.

ÃYOKKAO TRAIN­ING CEN­TER

This cen­trally lo­cated gym is one of the most pop­u­lar in Bangkok, in part be­cause it shares a name with a lead­ing maker of muay Thai prod­ucts and ap­parel. Yokkao is one of the more up­scale clubs, mean­ing it’s new, clean and well-equipped, and its staff knows how to cater to for­eign­ers who are be­gin­ners or in­ter­me­di­atelevel mar­tial artists. The train­ing is directed by Saen­chai, a liv­ing leg­end in the muay Thai world who has more than 300 vic­to­ries in the ring.

Sev­eral top Thai box­ers are spon­sored by Yokkao, and they train here along­side vis­it­ing for­eign­ers. That guar­an­tees that the coaches are top-notch, which ben­e­fits stu­dents of all lev­els.

This is ÁELITE FIGHT CLUB an­other unique gym in Bangkok; it’s lo­cated on the 10th-floor roof ter­race of the Water­ford Di­a­mond Tower. From its ring, you’ll have an out­stand­ing view of the city be­low. Con­tribut­ing to its unique­ness is its own­er­ship: Elite Fight Club is one of the few train­ing cen­ters in Thai­land owned and op­er­ated by a for­eigner.

A French­man named Cedric Gau­tier came to Thai­land five years ago and fell in love with the coun­try and its na­tional sport. Since then, he’s fought in sev­eral pro­fes­sional bouts and be­come in­volved in the Thai-boxing scene. In 2017 he took over Elite and put to­gether a pro­gram that’s tai­lored to for­eign­ers who al­ready have a cer­tain level of ex­per­tise in the art and who come to Thai­land to pol­ish their skills and pos­si­bly com­pete. It has an am­biance of friendliness, and even though it’s ca­sual, it will push you hard.

This is one of Ã96 PE­NANG GYM the grit­ti­est muay Thai clubs you’ll find in Bangkok — or any­where else. It sits in the seedy, semi-in­dus­trial slum of Kh­long Toei in the south­east­ern part of the city. Here, you’ll be far from the flow­ing foun­tains, lush gar­dens and bright lights of down­town. The side­walks are dirty, and the lots are filled with piles of scrap metal and build­ing ma­te­rial. The gym is sand­wiched be­tween an auto-re­pair shop and a truck­sal­vage op­er­a­tion.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the at­mos­phere at 96 Pe­nang Gym is a lit­tle fore­bod­ing. It’s dark and dusty with only a cou­ple of neon lights above the ring. One thing you’ll see here that you won’t find in the up­scale gyms is a kitchen and a line of ta­bles and chairs. Why? Be­cause 96 Pe­nang fol­lows the tra­di­tional Thai prac­tice of ac­cept­ing promis­ing kids and mold­ing them into Thai box­ers, and those kids eat and sleep on the premises. By the time they’re 12 or 13, they’re ready to en­ter the ring. By the time they’re 18, they’re ready to be full-fledged pro­fes­sion­als.

Only re­cently has this gym started ac­cept­ing for­eign­ers. Sev­eral who train here told me they’re to­tally sat­is­fied with the ex­pe­ri­ence. I also learned that a few farang have opted to im­merse them­selves in Thai boxing and elected to eat and sleep at the fa­cil­ity with their Thai com­pa­tri­ots. I didn’t get to meet them, how­ever, be­cause when I vis­ited 96 Pe­nang, it was af­ter a week­end of sta­dium fights and a hol­i­day, which meant most of the fight­ers were tak­ing some time off. Know What You’ll Spend If this data dump has piqued your in­ter­est, you’ll be pleased to learn that Thai­land is one of the more af­ford­able va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tions in the world. It’s also easy to get around here be­cause so many lo­cals speak English with ac­cept­able flu­ency.

With re­spect to food and lodg­ing, you’ll be in for a pleas­ant sur­prise. Thai­land is the world’s cap­i­tal of “street food.” Just about any­where you go, you’ll find a kiosk or push cart where you can buy any­thing from fresh fruit and juice to grilled meat and rice. In the evening, you’ll watch as empty side­walks turn into open- air restau­rants where you can share a ta­ble with lo­cals and en­joy the de­li­cious lo­cal cui­sine. A meal in this kind of rus­tic set­ting will cost $ 2 or $ 3. At a more tra­di­tional restau­rant, you’ll spend twice that. Over­all, you can eat well on $ 10 a day.

Plenty of cheap ho­tels ex­ist all over Thai­land, al­though Bangkok tends to be a bit more ex­pen­sive. Ex­pect to pay be­tween $12 and $ 20 a night in es­tab­lish­ments that range from sim­ple-but-ad­e­quate to lux­u­ri­ous. Hos­tels and dor­mi­to­ries are also avail­able — and cheaper. Per­haps the best ap­proach to find­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions is to in­quire at the muay Thai club at which you’ll be train­ing. Note that some gyms of­fer lodg­ing as well as lessons.

In your off time, you’ll prob­a­bly want to see the sights. The good news is travel in Thai­land is not ex­pen­sive. You can hop on a train, bus or plane to get from one city to an­other. Within Bangkok, you’ll en­joy the ex­cel­lent mass-tran­sit sys­tem. The Skytrain from the air­port to down­town takes 45 min­utes and costs just $ 3. The three-hour bus ride from Bangkok to Pat­taya, a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion, is only $ 8.

As far as tu­ition goes, ex­pect to pay $ 15 per day for muay Thai lessons. Com­mit to a month, and the av­er­age rate drops to $ 250 for two work­outs a day six days a week. Check the gym’s web­site for spe­cific rates and sched­ules.

When you’re ready for a dif­fer­ent kind of learn­ing, take in some muay Thai matches. Con­tests are held at venues in most ci­ties. If you’re in Bangkok, you can opt for Ra­jadamn­ern or Lumpini, the two largest sta­di­ums. They host events sev­eral times a week. Pro tip: MX Muay Xtreme is a lo­cal TV stu­dio where you can watch top-level bouts ev­ery Fri­day for free. The stu­dio also broad­casts matches daily on tele­vi­sion, mean­ing you can spec­tate in bars and restau­rants for the price of a beer or a meal. Know Your­self So why should you travel to Thai­land to train when you can save money and take your reg­u­lar lessons at your reg­u­lar dojo? Well, if you com­pete in full con­tact, be it kick­box­ing or MMA, there’s no bet­ter place to per­fect your strikes. If you train for self­de­fense, there’s no bet­ter place to learn how to gen­er­ate knock­out power. If you have a ca­sual in­ter­est in the arts, there’s no bet­ter place to ex­pand your hori­zons while en­joy­ing an ex­otic va­ca­tion.

My ad­vice is to jump on the in­ter­net and do some re­search. There’s no need to com­mit to a train­ing fa­cil­ity be­fore you go. Just col­lect in­for­ma­tion on sev­eral clubs and then visit them in per­son. Most of­fer daily, weekly and monthly rates, which means you can train for as long or as short a time as you wish. If you’re still hav­ing trou­ble mak­ing up your mind, talk to a few for­eign fight­ers who work out at each gym to de­ter­mine which is the best fit for you. Most ex­pe­ri­enced farang have trained at sev­eral fa­cil­i­ties and can of­fer valu­able in­sights.

What­ever your level or goals, train­ing in Thai­land is a bucket-list ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s also a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to im­merse your­self in an an­cient cul­ture while get­ting to know its ul­tra-ef­fec­tive mar­tial art.

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