Article by Jimmy Reid
If you’re reading this I’m assuming you probably, like me, enjoy living in Xi’an. However there is no denying that the winters are long and bleak. Outdoor restaurants are quickly replaced with coughing, complaining and face masks. Are you one of the lucky few who has a contract break coming up? Does the idea of a beach and blue skies appeal to you? Are you flabby, pasty, or both? If you fit these criteria I have successfully established the shoddy premise for my article and you might want to consider a stay in a Muay Thai camp in Thailand.
Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand. ‘The art of eight limbs’ is a form of kickboxing incorporating elbow and knee strikes, and clinching. Nak Muay, practitioners of Muay Thai, are famous for their iron shins and incredible toughness. Western boxing has seen a decline in popularity in recent years. The rise of other combat sports, with fighters like Anderson SIlva successfully utilising Muay Thai in the increasingly popular UFC, has seen the growth of Muay Thai training camps in Thailand. These cater to farang (Thai word for foreigner) who want to combine a holiday with their passion or just an incredibly effective method of weight loss.
After many hours perusing the internet I chose to train at Diamond Muay Thai on the Thai island of Koh Phangan, Koh Samui’s smaller neighbour. Much less developed than Koh Samui, Koh Phangan is famous for its monthly Full Moon Party, the epicentre of Southeast Asian backpacker hedonism. A veritable smorgasbord of drugs, alcohol, UV paint and public urination. Despite this, the rest of the island is a relatively quiet, hippyish haven with many stunning beaches. The gym at first appears quaint, the killers it produces hidden in plain sight. I opted to stay on camp with an all-inclusive deal, two meals a day provided. Sometimes I would sleep in, woken by the sound of skipping. I would try my best to slip in undetected, but was usually greeted with a kick in the arse.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about training in Thailand is the trainers. Thailand is known as the land of smiles, and the trainers are no exception, a far cry from my university boxing coach. Each of them are friendly, humble, approachable men of extreme talent. The highest accolade in Thailand is to win a belt at one of two stadiums in Bangkok, Lumpinee or Rajadarmnern. Chok, for example, is a former Rajadarmnern champion, receiving a prestigious yellow jacket for ten straight wins at the stadium. In Thai boxing terms, he’s a rock star. Nim, a potbellied, extremely well natured trainer, will walk through the gym and nonchalantly kick the metal support beam with his shin, making my stomach turn in the process. He’ll then shoot me a cheeky smile adding to my sense of unease.
Training is two hours, twice a day. A normal session will consist of skipping, stretching, shadow boxing, bag work, technique, sparring and countless pushups and sit ups. Most newcomers are full of optimism and dive straight into this rigorous regime. However the next few days tend to provide a blunt reality check. People’s calves burn and ache from the skipping, the soles of their feet stripped bare and blistered from pivoting whilst kicking, and their legs black and blue from checking leg kicks.
Some of us are content with the steady improvement in our fitness. Others have more competitive desires. Dave, a fresh graduate from the UK came here with the sole intention of training to fight. Koh Phangan is a tourist island and many of them indulge in a Muay Thai event, the sound of bone colliding soothing their hangovers. A westerner fighting a local usually proves to be a big draw so naturally Dave was given top billing on one such card.
Dave’s fight was the night before the Full Moon Party, so the island was packed. Ten of us crammed in the back of the gyms pickup to go support him. Mon, the head trainer and the closest person to Yoda I have ever met, drove us to the fight through Koh Phangan’s weaving and winding roads, navigating the hordes of Europeans bumbling about on the roads, likely their first time on a scooter. When we arrived at the arena the poster had gotten Dave’s nationality wrong, proclaiming him to be Swedish, the producer of said poster probably duped by Dave’s blonde hair and blue eyes. When Dave entered the ring I felt a rush of adrenaline, despite not competing myself. Living vicariously through Dave I felt every kick and punch. Unfortunately Dave came up short, but made it through all five rounds without being stopped, an amazing achievement. I asked him after the fight if any sense of achievement had set in or not. “I’ll probably feel more proud when the Tramadol kicks in,” he replied.
My trip back to Xi’an will be a long one. I am dreading the ferry off the island. It will likely be heaving with hungover backpackers, discussing their exploits at the full moon party, stinking of Hong Thong, the local Thai tipple. My body will be battered after my last day of training. The bus to Bangkok will be hot and crowded. The plane to Xi’an will be on a no frills airline. I am already planning my next trip back.