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Muay Thai in Koh Samui

Ten days of intensive Thai boxing is a great holiday. But in Thailand, it is a livelihood and a business.

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Topics Politics

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Elisabetta and Helene in fighting mood

Spending an evening at the Chaweng Stadium in Koh Samui watching a number of Thai boxing (or ‘Muay Thai’, as it is called in Thailand) fights, we marvelled not only at Muay Thai’s elegance and gracefulness, but also at its devastating force and vigour – and potentially lethal finish.

The steady rhythm of the fighters’ movements, accompanied by the sound of drums, Javanese clarinets and cymbals, is punctuated by bursts of activity: involving punches, kicks, knees and elbows.

Muay Thai is one of the oldest, and, according to Stephan Fox, a director of the World Muay Thai Council, one of the most ‘complete’ of the martial arts. ‘It has the best weapons for fighting. Not only fists, as in boxing, but also kicks, knees and elbows: eight weapons in total.’

To achieve anything near the strength, power, fitness, agility and speed that the fighters exhibit, intensive training, perseverance – and a lot of blood, sweat and tears – are needed. We were introduced to Muay Thai through the KO club in London (1) which also teaches kickboxing, a discipline that developed from Muay Thai in the USA in the 1970s.

Because it prohibits the use of knees, elbows and low kicks, kickboxing is generally seen as a more acceptable sport in the Western world. But our hearts were always with Muay Thai.

Reading about the World Muay Thai Council camp in Koh Samui – a small tropical island on the south-eastern coast of Thailand – we were instantly sold. ‘Make your dream come true’, it tempts. ‘Every martial artist dreams about a perfect training environment. How would you feel if you could run on white powdered beaches on one of the world’s most fascinating islands surrounded by blue water. Train with the world’s best instructors in the best Muay Thai camps in Thailand, experience true Thai culture, relax, party, recharge your batteries from everyday life.’ (2) Who could say no?

Apart from agriculture (Koh Samui, we were told, has more coconut trees per inhabitant than anywhere in the world), the island thrives on tourism. The training camp is situated in Lamai, in the south of the island, in the shade of towering palm trees. Muay Thai enthusiasts travel there from all over the world – although mainly from Australia, France, England and Germany – to learn the art of Muay Thai from the masters and to train alongside Thai fighters.

Our first experience of the camp was a shock to the system. The island had everything the promotion had promised, but we were just not prepared for the intensity of the training. The endless stretches of white sandy beaches, deep-blue South China Sea and majestic palm trees could not take away from the hard work and sweltering heat (even at seven o’clock in the morning).

The twice-daily training sessions started with a run along the beach – which may sound idyllic, but gave the demoralising sensation of running and running and not getting anywhere very fast. We did not have the stamina, strength, power, flexibility or technique to keep up, neither with the run nor with the post ‘warm-up’ training. And we suffered the humiliation of training alongside the Muay Thai champions, who could punch, elbow, knee and kick the punchbags until they nearly flew off their hinges.

Our jabs and crosses hardly dented the bags, and our elbowing, kneeing and kicking did more damage to our bodies than the bags – covering us in ugly, large (albeit very superficial) bruises.

After the first few days of training, we had open sores under our feet from burst blisters, every muscle in our bodies was aching, and we were covered in large swollen mosquito-bites. To give our bodies some sorely needed relief, we decided to try the famous Thai massage – having been pestered every day by women offering us massages on the way to our post-training swim (or float) in the sea. Little did we know that the massages would intensify, not alleviate, the pain. Despite covering our bodies in soothing menthol-smelling liniment, being pulled, pinched and punched for a whole hour was almost unbearable. We had to crawl the last few metres of the short walk back to our bungalows.

Initially, we had started to doubt that we would survive our first stay on the island. But by the time our stay had come to an end, our fitness and skills had vastly improved. The patience, knowledge and teaching skills of our instructors had given us the confidence to persevere and to start enjoying Muay Thai, not just as spectators, but as Thai boxers. We felt much more relaxed, fit and healthy, and vowed to return a year later, after more regular training throughout the year.

And it paid off. This year we returned, and despite nearly being sick after our first 4km run along the beach, we had no blisters and managed to keep up with the rest. We even managed several five-minute rounds of skipping after most of the ‘warm-up’ runs. Our jabs, crosses, hooks and upper-cuts, as well as our elbows, kicks and knees, had improved. We were even singled out to do some pad work in the ring, with our Muay Thai instructor, while the male ‘novices’ were left (outside the ring) practising their kicks on the punchbags. The 10-day intensive training – despite the blood, sweat and tears – was, on the whole, just as the World Muay Thai Council website had promised: a dream come true.

But 10 days of intensive training is one thing. Training day in, day out, year after year, is quite another. Tens of thousands of Thai boys subject themselves to the hard training we went through on a daily basis, often from as young as six or seven years of age, in hundreds of camps around Thailand. Why? What motivates them?

According to our instructor, Hanarong, ‘It is because Muay Thai is our national sport. Everybody loves Muay Thai. But, also, maybe most importantly, it is a source of living’. In fact, many Thais were slightly bemused as to why we were training so religiously when we were not (at the moment anyway) planning to fight. To them, there are no half measures: you train to fight for a living, or you don’t train at all.

One of the masters we met, referred to as Papa (he has taken dozens of boys under his wing over the years) explained that 95 percent of the boys who train in camps around Thailand come from very poor families. ‘Parents finding it difficult to make ends meet – who have sons with interests and abilities in Muay Thai – will often bring them to me. I train the boys and provide them with food, a home, education and any medical attention they need. In return I get 50 percent of the money that they win when fighting.’

When seeing a couple of boys, one as young as 10, being knocked out in the ring at Chaweng Stadium, it made us feel a little squeamish about what they were being put through. But then again, what alternative do they have? A life in poverty, not enough food in their bellies, and little hope for an ambitious future. At least as fighters they have a source of living and the possibility of one day fighting in the Lumpini Stadium in Bangkok, where the big money is.

Stephan Fox, who runs the camp we trained at in Koh Samui, emphasises the differences between what motivates young Thais to take up Muay Thai and what motivates the rest of the world. ‘In Thailand Muay Thai is a business. In the Western world it is different: most take it up because of the hard training, to get fit and to build self-confidence.’

Until a decade ago, Muay Thai was mainly confined to Thailand, with some fighters emerging out of Holland and Australia. Now, even if it is nowhere as extensive as in its country of origin, it is gaining in popularity around the world. The increasing recognition world-wide of Muay Thai is, according to our instructor Hanarong, ‘because it is the ultimate martial art. It is more popular because it is more complete’.

But Muay Thai is still a long way from being internationally recognised. It is difficult to imagine, in our safety-conscious times – when even boxing is increasingly frowned upon – that Muay Thai is going to take off. Hanarong jumps to its defence. ‘Of course, it is a rough sport, but there is much more to it than that. It requires discipline and willpower.’

Stephan Fox is hopeful that Muay Thai will spread beyond the borders of Thailand. ‘Muay Thai does not belong to the Thais any more despite being their national sport. The world is catching up. Many countries – France, Holland, Russia and more – are training as hard, if not harder, than the Thais. Also they teach differently – with more boxing, for instance.’

We did not come across many Thais who were concerned about the possibility that Thailand may not dominate the sport in the future. They are fiercely passionate and proud of their national sport, but not necessarily nationalistic. In fact, they would like to see Muay Thai promoted around the world, even if that means other nations winning more world championships than Thailand.

However, some are concerned that the internationalisation of Muay Thai may change the style of the sport itself. As Papa warned, ‘Many Westerners don’t understand Muay Thai, they don’t know how to win’. He is concerned that the Western style of fighting concentrates too much on boxing – and that the rhythm and gracefulness of the Thai style may be lost.

Although Muay Thai is dominated by Thai males, it is increasingly being taken up by Thai females as well. In Thailand, there are more than 60 camps that train women. But according to Stephan Fox, Thai women are even more unlikely to dominate on the world stage, as Western women tend to be trained harder. Thai women are also at a disadvantage because of the strong gender roles in Thailand – with the emphasis on Thai women being feminine, not muscular or aggressive. Even to get into the ring they are not supposed to jump over the ropes, as the men do, but bend down apologetically under the ropes.

However, despite being female Muay Thai boxers, we were greeted by locals with enthusiasm and constant enquiries about how our training was going. We found no disapproval for wearing the distinctive Muay Thai shorts, boxing gloves, shinguards and gumshields, nor for entering the ring.

Much had changed in the year since the first time we visited Koh Samui. There were many more restaurants, bars and hotels being built, and the island had a brand new stadium in Chaweng – looking more like a sophisticated London nightclub (with spotlights and a sound system) rather than the makeshift, minimalist stadium that we visited the year before. But we also saw some Thai women train in the gym at the camp.

Maybe next year we will have some Thai women training alongside us.

(1) KO club website

(2) World Muay Thai Council website

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Topics Politics

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