It’s a short yet choppy boat ride along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river to the Wat Muay Thai Training Camp, but the change of temperature from my air-conditioned suite at The Siam causes beads of sweat to drip down my forehead. As the phut-phut of the engine dies, our brightly-coloured long boat sidles up to the dock, a Buddhist monk in orange robes appears smiling and I bow my head in customary recognition before quickly clambering onto the jetty.
In front of me stands the temple of Wat Wimutayarama, but I’m not here to admire golden buddhas or ornate gables — my destination is an unremarkable corrugated-roof gym tucked around the corner. I’m on a journey to discover why my husband is so obsessed with the martial arts; and why a growing number of farangs (foreigners) are taking up the national sport, Muay Thai — Thai kick boxing.
Although one side of the building consists merely of wire mesh, open to the cooling breeze from the river, the children inside are covered in sweat. While some relentlessly punch or kick boxing bags, others spar in a full-sized boxing ring, gently tapping each other when the other drops their guard. I step inside, over a sleeping stray dog, and, sensing an audience, they attempt to drop each other to the floor. Eager to impress, one ducks a punch, grins and performs a cartwheel, much to the amusement of his friends.
While the training regime is tough — daily jogs before and after school, plus two hours on the pads or bags — the atmosphere is light-hearted and jovial. Aged from around six upwards, most of the children are skinny with more protruding ribs than muscles, but from the sound of the thud of shins on the pads, it’s clear they can pack a punch double their body weight.
The training camp was established around nine years ago when a local Thai man asked the monks if they would donate a small plot of land to start a makeshift gym for the local community. Like hundreds of Muay Thai centres around the country, his aim is to get impoverished children off the street and teach them a discipline that could keep them out of trouble and, for the talented ones, provide a ticket out of poverty. While some kids live locally, turning up daily for sessions, around 10 boys call this camp their home, sleeping on mattresses on the floor in a tiny adjacent room.
As most Thais are Buddhists and believe their good deeds will lead to everlasting happiness, charitable acts are commonplace. Kru Keng, who now manages the camp, tells me several Muay Thai trainers donate their time to teach the kids while the villagers donate food. The equipment and other necessities are paid for with the money the children earn by competing in Muay Thai matches around the country — they get to keep 50% of it, some of them sending money back to their families in the countryside. The more fights they win, the more they will get paid to compete with higher prize money as a bonus, Kru Keng says, pointing proudly at his 10-year-old son, who has won 150 fights and was recently crowned national champion in his 21kg weight class.
Most young fighters dream of one thing — competing at the country’s most prestigious stadiums: Lumpinee and Rajadamnern. While some of the young boys might fight for around 6,000 baht (£110), the top fighters can get 100,000 baht (more than £1,850), minus the cuts that their gym takes.
Getting there, however, is not easy. There are serious risks. I’m told the ‘art of eight limbs’ — where combatants can use their elbows in addition to their fists, knees and shins — can be a brutal sport with broken ribs and concussion just a few of the common injuries.
Bowing to Buddha
There’s only one way to see for myself. I head further out of the city, catching a cab crawling through Bangkok’s ubiquitous traffic to the new Lumpinee stadium where foreigners can watch live fights around three evenings a week from around 2,000 baht (£60). While the old Lumpini stadium in the centre of the city was a delightfully dilapidated affair, the new one on Ramintra Road is more cavernous and clinical, but the roar of the crowd — it has a 5,000 capacity — is enthralling. While the more expensive ringside seats are typically reserved for foreigners who sit in comfortable plastic chairs sipping Thai beer, the locals pay far less to stand crammed into one of the gallery sections shouting at the fighters and placing bets using a complex system of frantic hand signals. Betting is ‘officially’ illegal, but it’s openly entered into here and large sums are wagered.
During the first of five two-minute rounds, fighters ‘test each other out’, looking for a weakness in their opponent, but as the clock ticks on, the stakes rise and the tension mounts. Three musicians playing traditional flute instruments step up the tempo, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the frenzy. The young man (little more than a boy) that we wager will win, briefly drops his guard. An accurate, well-timed elbow smacks into his jaw sending him to the ground — it’s a knockout. I wince as the boy is stretchered off but no one looks concerned. The next two contestants are already in the ring, and before the bell goes they must perform the ritual Wai Kru Ram Muay dance, paying respect to their trainer and bowing to Buddha for protection and an honourable fight.
It’s believed that while Muay Thai developed during the wars of the Sukhothai era (1238-1438) when hand-to-hand combat was commonplace, it soon became a national sport practised by both commoners and royalty alike, with some kings, such as Rama V, becoming avid fans and actively setting up training centres around the country.
Today, Bangkok has numerous top training camps, which are seeing an influx in foreigners spurred on by the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Proclaimed as the fastest growing sport in the world, MMA encompasses Muay Thai and a mixture of other martial arts. But not everyone — including me — wants to fight, and now even the more luxurious hotels are beginning to offer tuition for those that want a more sanitised introduction alongside their creature comforts in order to get fit and lose weight.
The boutique Siam Hotel (an all-suite, super-deluxe, two-storey property) is the first to install a ring in its gym and guests can sign up for an ad hoc class or a complete three- or five-day boxing programme, training once or twice a day. After punishing sessions, guests can swim in the lap pool overlooking the river or head to the serene basement spa for a special Muay Thai massage where therapists combine Swedish and Thai style moves to stretch and release tight muscles. The hotel’s acclaimed chef will even devise a special menu for those who really want to get in shape.
Bee, the hotel’s fitness instructor, gives me a 90-minute Muay Thai induction, working his way methodically through the art of eight limbs, incorporating tradition and more modern techniques. As I’ve previously had some kick-boxing lessons, he concentrates on correcting my kick. “The point of contact is your shin rather than the ankle as in kick boxing. As Muay Thai is an ancient form of combat used in battle, it’s important not to damage your ankle as you need it to walk or run away,” Bee laughs. “Your shin is like an axe — it will really hurt your opponent if you use it the right way!”
I also learn how to use my elbows — unique to Muay Thai — to defend and attack and how to block, although I find this more difficult. “Look at my chest, not my face. If you look at my chest you can see any movement in your opponent’s shoulders and hips, and be ready to block.” I try it and find it’s easier, but I’m clearly slow, my brain moving like a plodding barge on the Chao Praya river outside.
Beach boot camp
While anyone interested in Muay Thai should visit Bangkok, Phuket is a magnet for those who want to train in the sun by the sea. The somewhat seedy seaside resort of Patong has a stadium and, while nothing on the scale of Bangkok, it certainly draws a crowd, with famous training centres, such as Tiger, lying nearby. I chose instead to head far from the throng to the quiet peninsula of Cape Panwa, where the luxurious hotel Sri Panwa installed a full-sized ring in its gym late last year. Like The Siam, such luxuries as immaculate sarongs, gloves and head guards, together with a fridge of Gatorade and masseuses are on hand to pamper and rejuvenate, post-workout.
While the hotel’s fitness manager Koon offers Muay Thai fitness, staff will also commission local ex-champion, Wan Mai, from a local village for those who are really serious. ‘Wan Mai Never Die’ holds no prisoners and after checking that my husband and I know the basics, he takes me through a couple of two-minute rounds punching and kicking on demand.
Khun Wan Vorasit Issara, Sri Panwa’s 33-year-old resort owner/MD joins me for a round. Engaging and affable, like many Thais, he clearly likes to entertain. “Make me look good and my punches sound harder,” he whispers to Wan Mai. Wan lasts the two minutes, then falls on the floor feigning exhaustion. For many wealthy men, Muay Thai, which uses your entire body, is an enjoyable form of exercise and stress release. Indeed, this hotel is a city slicker’s dream retreat — an exotic mix of Miami and Ibiza with the essential Thai ingredient: indubitable hospitality.
For those who fancy sparring alongside other fans (and don’t mind training in open-air rings without AC), the hotel can arrange trips to local camps where there’s basic accommodation at a snip of the price. A 20-minute drive away in Chalong, the Manop Gym has opened recently — testament to the fact that Muay Thai remains as popular as ever. While Manop caters for a range of levels (the manager, Max, says some people come purely to lose weight), a group of Brazilian fighters have journeyed here to practise with six trainers, including a three-times world champion. For the fighters, each day begins with a 10k run, while beginners are let off with a mere 3k. That’s on top of the hour or so gym training in the morning and afternoon. And after an hour with Simon ‘The Tree’ (no one can knock him down), I’m eager to return to Sri Panwa for some pampering. Even pad work takes its toll and I book in for a massage and yoga session in my villa. It’s a far cry from the training camp in Bangkok where the boys box with little other than sips of water to replenish them.
While I’m totally hooked on Muay Thai, I don’t have the skill or bravery to fight, but some Brits do make it on the Muay Thai scene, and Wan Mai says that with some work, my husband could try a fight. Thankfully, we’re not around long enough for it to be arranged, but I chat to 36-year-old British expat Melissa Ray to find out how she became a professional fighter. Melissa tells me she began training when she was studying for her PhD in neuroscience and simply wanted to lose some weight, but it soon became an obsession — one that resulted in her winning two WMPF world titles (126lbs), an S1 belt (126lbs), and a WMA title (57 kilos).
Achievements aside, one of the main benefits for Melissa is the ability to become immersed in Thai culture. “A Muay Thai gym is like a family — being involved in the sport has enabled me to get close to Thai people and to understand more about the language and culture,” she says.
Like Melissa, I was initially persuaded to try Muay Thai by my husband, for the weight loss benefits and just for the fun of it. But my brief foray has allowed me to get to know Thai people far better than I would have on a traditional Thai beach break (and I’m not just talking about the clinching). I’m now truly addicted to the sport. But I think I’ll just stick to the sparring.
Thai Airways, British Airways and EVA Airways all fly from Heathrow to Bangkok. Thai Airways offers internal flights to Phuket and other islands, while Thomson Airways flies direct from Gatwick to Phuket. thaiairways.com ba.com evaair.com thomsonfly.com
The Siam: Boutique property in Bangkok with private pool villas, a boxing ring and training. Excursions to a local Muay Thai training camp and Lumpinee Stadium. thesiamhotel.com
Sri Panwa: All-villa suite property in Phuket with private plunge pools and views of the sea. Has a full-size gym, plus on-site and visiting Muay Thai instructors. sripanwa.com
Manop Gym: New Muay Thai gym in Phuket, welcoming all levels of boxers for classes. Limited basic accommodation available. manopboxinggym.com
Lumpinee Stadium: Hosts top fights. muaythailumpinee.net
Others closer to Bangkok include Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium on Ratchadamnoen Nok Rd, rajadamnern.com and Channel 7 Stadium, 998/1 Soi Raumsirimit.
United Kingdom Muaythai Federation: ukmtf.com
World Muaythai Council: This is a good place to read up on its history. wmcmuaythai.org
Thai Boxing Store: If you prefer to buy your own gloves before you travel. thaiboxing.co.uk
Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)