What Did You Do on Your Summer Vacation?
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.