The road from Chiang Mai is notorious for making travelers car sick as it winds through tropical hills with break-neck switchbacks and slick corners that teeter off down sheer cliffs. In the front seat of one of the many public vans that make the circuit every day, I try to focus on not throwing up as our driver negotiates blind corners at 60 km/h. (Here's a good post on the road from Chiang Mai
and its wonderful turns!) It's my second time in Thailand, and I've returned in hopes of training at one of the most isolated Muay Thai camps
, conveniently located in the small village of Pai.
I've just finished a month long pilgrimage in Japan, but I've always had Muay Thai on my bucket list and I'm equally excited and nervous. The ancient Thai martial art
has been one of the country's best kept secrets, and only really fallen into the public eye with the debut of movies like Ong Bak and The Protector that featured the fighting style. Although I've dabbled in Kung Fu
when I was earlier, Muay Thai has always appealed to me – in part because of the spiritual component, which has come out of a predominantly Buddhist tradition and in part because of the hard physical aspect. Arriving in Pai, I'm surprised to find the main street filled with tourists. At the same time, everything seems very liberal. Stalls sell vegetarian food, long haired hippies in dreadlocks are selling hand-made crafts, and everything feels very laid back. I stop in a café for a bite to eat before looking for the gym, and while I'm waiting for my pad thai, an older Australian man catches my eye and sits down next to me, introducing himself as Carl. "Been here 10 years already", he says proudly. "People who end up coming here either love it or hate it. And those who love it have a hard time leaving."
When he asks why I've come, I tell him about wanting to learn Muay Thai in Pai. He looks me up and down and rolls his eyes. "Good luck, mate", Carl says and I don't like the tone in his voice. "I hope you know what you're getting into. That gym is just up the road – but the same thing applies. Either people love it or they hate it. Personally, I lasted one day and almost died." His Australian twang gets on my nerves and when my pad thai comes I eat quickly in order to avoid his company. Granted, I'm a lightweight at the best of times – traveling for the last eight months has taken a toll of almost 10 kilograms. But in the back of my mind, Carl's warning sticks with me. What have I gotten myself into, I wonder.
Muay Thai Training Camp
The Muay Thai gym is located just past the hospital (something I remember to keep in mind) and is an open air gym. Under a massive steel roof and framework is a full boxing ring, weight training set, and rows of punching bags. The owner, Bee, greets me and shakes my hand lightly. He's got a truck driver's beard and both arms are heavily tattooed, and even under his T-shirt I can tell he's a tempered fighter. He started learning to fight at the age of 9 and was ranked number one in his division for a number of years with over 300 fights to his name. Although having retired at the age of 29, he's still a formidable opponent, and my nervousness comes back when I see him eyeing me up the same way Carl had done. No doubt Bee is better at it. "Tomorrow, bring shoes", he says, "Early start, 7 am, ok?"
For 4500 Baht a month – roughly $125 – I check into my own bungalow less than a minute walk from the gym. It's small, but I have my own bathroom, and a small fan on the wall swivels back and forth. My home for the next month. Several of the other tenants are also training at the gym, including a large German named Andrew. It doesn't take me long to figure out that most of the people training here are the same sort of people you'd expect to see in gyms back home: they're all built, and at least twice as big as me. Again, that warning comes into my mind: What have I gotten myself into? Bright and early at 7 I arrive at the gym among a small group of other backpackers. Most of the fighters here are from overseas and have come because Muay Thai in Pai
has become infamous for training some of the most notable world champions. Warm-up consists of a 5-kilometer jog through Pai to the other side of town, across the bridge, and up the steep hillside to Mae Yen temple. Even from the gym I can make out the giant white Buddha perched amidst the green jungle, high up on the mountainside. Panting, I somehow manage to keep up with a few of the veteran fighters, but as soon as we reach the near-vertical staircase leading to the Buddha my lungs give out. The average temperature, even this early in the morning, hovers around 25 degrees Celsius, and all of us are soaked through with sweat. Then it's back down the mountain to the gym where actual training starts. Being a newcomer, I get all the basics: the proper posture and stance, various punches (straight, uppercuts, etc.) and kicks, and a few blocks. The most unique thing here – aside from its incredible staff, which are all veterans of the Muay Thai scene – is the emphasis on one-on-one sparring practice. "Right, left, right, uppercut! Kick, kick, kick! Knee!", he shouts, issuing one command after another. In no time at all I'm sweating again and breathing hard. But Turbo doesn't relent. "Ten pushups, drop! Now, again... kick, kick!"
After four 5 minute rounds of this I can barely stand, much less lift my arms, but Turbo smiles and comments on my progress. Next it's all about conditioning. For the remaining hour, the rest of the fighters and I will practice our kicks on punching bags and do rigorous exercises to improve our core strength. At the end of each session, we form a circle and stretch out our aching muscles. The smell of sweat is pungent in the air, and I feel a rush of endorphins as I towel off. I've never had so much hardcore exercise pushed into a two hour session, and am relieved it's finally over. Then I realize this was just the morning session. The afternoon session begins at 3 p.m. That leaves me just enough time to take a nap and wonder again: What have I gotten myself into?
Making friends and breaking Ribs
Although the skinniest and least experienced at the gym, I manage to stick with it through the first week, and things start to get easier. Each day I get back from a session there are new bruises on my arms and legs, and one foot seems permanently swollen, but I'm starting to notice myself getting stronger. Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about my experiences so far. I'm very fortunate to be able to work with local Thais, who have been doing this their whole life, and they pull no punches during the training periods (more than a few of the bruises are from one of their kicks or punches I wasn't able to block or dodge). But the spiritual component I was hoping to find is absent. Bee and the others have adopted the 'sporting' style of Muay Thai, which while comprehensive, doesn't leave a lot of room for the more mental elements I was looking for.
One of the other Canadians I've met here, a bald bronze-skinned man that comes up to my shoulders and could flatten me with his pinkie, shares my sentiments. I'm shocked to discover he's been training here for almost 15 months! I've come just at the end of the monsoon season when things start to get drier, and there's a festival on the second weekend – his first fight is scheduled at an informal boxing round, and he's a bit nervous. "I've been doing yoga for years, so I thought Muay Thai would be a great way to get exercise and also meditate", he says, "but here it's more focused on the sporting type of fighting. For money. Muay Thai in Pai, anywhere really, is big business. I think if you wanted to find a more balanced gym, you'd have to know Muay Thai already and at least speak the language." Therein lies my problem. I only have a month, and between all the other languages I've been trying to keep up with in my travels, Thai has not taken priority. Adding to my troubles, the next morning things take a turn for the worse. While 'clinching' with the giant German Andrew – close quarter grappling that involves driving your knees into the side of your opponent – he gets a little too carried away. His knee comes up hard into my chest and I hear something pop. There's a weird pressure on my side, but in the middle of sparring I don't pay it any mind. It isn't until I get home and collapse on my cabana that I realize something's wrong. It hurts a lot to take in a deep breath, and there's a massive bruise along my intercostal ribs. Part of me already known they're broken, but there's another part of me that doesn't want to admit it – I've already paid for the whole month and come all this way, and idea of having to quit now because of some silly accidental injury is heartbreaking. That afternoon during the second sessions I try to keep up with the others, but the pain has gotten worse. Limping after practice, I make my way to the adjacent hospital down the road, and my suspicions are confirmed. A small fracture, but luckily there are no bone chips and no other injuries. However, Muay Thai is out.
Back in the bungalow I put a heat back on my side and go over my options. Obviously there's no way to continue Muay Thai training, but I want to wait for the weekend at least so I can watch Eric's fight. Even though I'm out of commission I feel like I owe it to my team to support them. Then it dawns on me that whatever I was hoping to learn, on a deeper and personal level, with Muay Thai may have ended up taking on a different form. For 6 days out of the week, all of us at the gym suffer through physical and mental stress, constantly pushing ourselves. A sort of camaraderie and kinship has come out it, regardless of how strong or conditioned we each are individually – the gym is the great equalizer.
Saying Goodbye and the Harvest Festival
On my last weekend, the population of Pai seemed to double overnight. The market across from the hospital is turned into a children's playground complete with an inflatable slide and castle, trampolines, and even a tiny Ferris wheel jerry-rigged to car batteries. It's basic, at best. But the smiles from the kids are so honest it makes me smile, too. Vendors and stalls selling everything from fried chicken to mango shakes to papaya salad seem to multiply along the streets and music drifts in from several stages set up at intersections. Families from out in the countryside arrive in droves in the backs of pickup trucks. I catch up with Eric before his fight and he is noticeably nervous, even though it's an informal match. A new ring has been set up in the field behind the main temple, and it's already packed. Halogen lights burn brightly on mounted scaffolds, flooding the crowd below. The last week leading up to the harvest festival Bee and Turbo have been pushing Eric even harder, but he looks ready. Near one side of the ring I spot Andrew and some other fighters and step in beside them as a Thai referee shouts something into his microphone and prerecorded music of pipes and drums erupts. Eric's opponent is about the same size, a fiery looking Thai kid with a flat nose and a headband. The first exchange of punches and kicks takes Eric off guard, and he seems to be struggling. At one point the other fighter manages to hit him with the back of his elbow, and for a moment Eric staggers back. Everyone in the crowd makes the same ooooh sound at the same time.
Somehow he perseveres. Through the next three rounds both fighters manage to get in some lucky strikes, but neither knocks the other one out. Finally, it's over, and we wait patiently for the referee to announce the winner. The crowd is exuberant when Eric's name is mentioned, and with his hand held high he can't help but beam. At one corner of the ring watching the fight, Bee has both arms crossed and nods approvingly – this is a friendly match, and both he and Eric seem pleased by the outcome. Afterwards, all of us head back to one of the local expat bars to celebrate and Erics leans in at one point. "I can't believe I actually won", he admits, "when I first found out I was going to fight my mind went blank. I don't think it actually hit me what I was doing until I was there in the ring." I tell him about the recurring mantra I kept saying to myself when I first arrived for Muay Thai in Pai
: what the hell have I gotten myself into. Eric smiles and laughs and clinks his beer against mine. Maybe that's part of the fighting mentality, something that you can't really teach: a restrained disbelief.
"It wasn't until I was in the ring", he repeats, shaking his head, "that's when everything else falls away. I wasn't thinking about the past or the future, just now. Like, totally in the present."
I don't say it out loud, but it feels like his sentence carries something of that spiritual sense of things – calmness, focus, tranquility – we've both been looking for. And that Eric, after more than a year of tempering his body and mind, has found some small measure of it. What did YOU think of Muay Thai? Share your thoughts in the comments below! Here are some other awesome things to experience in Pai: Cave trekking in PaiHiking with Hill tribesKung Fu immersion