A Month of Muay Thai

Muay Thai, the art of the eight limbs.  Before coming to Thailand I didn’t know much about muay Thai besides it coming from Thailand.  I’d seen clips of muay Thai fights on YouTube and I’d seen MMA knockouts using Muay Thai techniques but I had no interest in it.

Then one day in Korea, while I was getting over a break up and having trouble at work, I Skyped with a friend of mine who had left Korea to go backpacking and was now in northern Thailand in a town called Pai doing a month of Muay Thai training.  Intrigued, I asked to know more about it and everything he told me just made me want to go there and do it myself.  I’d been doing ultimate frisbee to stay active but I knew it would not compare in the slightest to the intensity of muay Thai.  I thereafter decided that this was a challenge I wanted and that could help to rebuild my confidence, get fit, make new friends, and hopefully enable me to defend myself on my travels.  This post is about my experience and what you should expect from attending a month long intensive muay Thai camp.

Who goes to a muay Thai camp in Thailand?

I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity in people who were at the camp I chose to go to.  There were people like me; a complete newbie to the sport but choosing to better one’s self after a trying personal ordeal, professionals who had dozens of fights under their belt, backpackers who’d come for a day or two just for the experience, people who had weight or fitness issues and looked to the intensity of muay Thai as an answer, and those who wanted to train intensely for a few months before culminating in a fight to test themselves.  Anyone can go to a muay Thai camp and enjoy it, ladies included.  Don’t be discouraged from going there and fearing that you might be surrounded by hardcore fitness fanatics who will make your efforts look pathetic, the truth is everyone goes to a camp with their own goals and I found the atmosphere very friendly and inclusive.

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What camp to choose?

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of muay Thai camps all over Thailand to choose from.  Choices range from the most basic of camps out in the middle of nowhere and limited to a few fighters, all the way up to a place like the Tiger Muay Thai & MMA gym in Phuket and now Chiang Mai where the equipment and trainers are world class but prices are at a premium.

I followed my friend’s recommendation and went to Charnchai Muay Thai in the beautiful little town of Pai.  It was perfect for me.  The trainers, led by Bee the owner, really make you feel a part of the family while you train there and create a fun, positive atmosphere for the students.  The gym itself has more of an old school vibe to it, like the gyms seen in Rocky, but they put more emphasis on technique, hard work, and preservation than fancy equipment.  I also really liked that Charnchai is well priced, meals can be included, and there are special rates for accommodations nearby for muay Thai students.  All in, I paid 15,000THB ($435USD) which is a real bargain compared to the gyms down south where prices can be in excess of $1,000USD and not include meals or accommodation.  If you’re thinking I went to this gym because it is cheap, you should taken into consideration Charnchai has featured in VICE articles in the past and most recently an article was written about the head trainer and owner, Bee, who was a champion in his time as a fighter and works hard to make new students feel welcome and enjoy their stay.  You gotta be doing something right for a major media outlet to notice you.

A typical session at Charnchai

Routines vary camp to camp but most train 6 days a week with a morning and afternoon session.   I think my experience at Charnchai was a good example of what to expect.

7:30am: Wake up, get ready, have a light snack, head over to the gym.

7:45-8:00am: Bike for 15mins or skip rope to start at 8am.  Others more dedicated than me went for runs to warm up.

8:00-8:15am: Start the day with group stretching.

8:15-8:45am: Trainers instruct students about techniques and are taken aside to work one on one with other trainers to do 3 3minute rounds of pad work.  20 push ups between each round is also expected during the one minute break between rounds.

8:45-9:15am: Bag work.  At Charnchai we did a few kicking drills then followed that up with 50 kicks for each leg followed by 100 knees.

9:15-9:30am: You find a partner and do 30 raises and sit ups on the edge of the ring.

9:30-9:45am: Clinching.  Trainers demonstrate techniques, then students practice them on each other.

9:45-10:00am: Group core exercises.  Everyone sits in a big circle and follows the trainer’s lead.  They start off with one exercise, count up to 10, then the student to their right counts up to 10, and this goes on until it has reached back to the trainer. Then the trainer switches to the next exercise.  This is arguably the most exhausting part of the workout but it feels good to see even the fittest of students sweating it out just like you.

The times and activities vary a little day by day but I’d say this is what you can expect at a typical Charnchai session.  Wednesdays and Saturdays are special as they are devoted to sparring and the first hour in the morning session is taken up by a 7km temple run through the town and up a mountain to the big white Buddha, then you head back down and run to the gym.

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How hard can it be?

VERY.  But that is what makes it worth it.  You’re not going to a muay Thai camp to have an easy time, you’re there to be pushed to your physical limits.  Personally, a few weeks before I was set to go to Pai to train I was sitting in a bar in Vang Vieng, Laos, while it absolutely bucketed outside raining, surrounded by empty beer bottles and clouds of marijuana smoke watching a muay Thai fight, and I panicked.  I thought to myself ‘I am in no shape to do this’.  But later on that evening I decided to fuck it and go anyway.  The whole point of going to a muay Thai camp for me was to be test myself and push myself further than I’d been in my whole life.

The hardest session was the first.  Feeling that there was no way I could do this twice a day, 6 days a week, for an entire month.  But I did.  I think the hardest part not physically but mentally.  You can slow down, you take a break, you don’t have to do all the work. But what you do have to do, is to keep going, to remind yourself that the pain is to get you to a better place.  Once you’ve gotten that through your mind, it gets so much easier.

After each session I felt aches, exhaustion, irritation from new mosquito bites, thirst, and hunger.  But when I sat down for the post-training meal with the other students I felt the warm feeling of satisfaction of having completed the training, of not giving up, of persevering through the pain and exhaustion.  It really wasn’t that bad when I look back at it now.

What will you gain?

Everyone has their own motivation for trying out muay Thai or committing to it completely but the gains are the same.  You will feel happier with yourself and sense of worth, you will learn discipline and determination, you will make new friends with your fellow students and trainers, you will have new stories to tell, you will gain a new appreciation for the Thai people and culture, and above all you will get fit.  What I like about doing muay Thai, or any martial art, is that it gets you active and moving while taking part in a group which I think is a better overall experience than going to a gym and lifting weights by yourself blasting music in your ears.

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I have never been a person who goes to the gym lots or have taken my fitness very serious but muay Thai has given me a sport that I thoroughly enjoy and will continue to practice.  Right now where I live in Chanthanaburi I go to a gym that has muay Thai 3-5 times a week.  It makes me happy and gives me a sense of accomplishment and is a great way to finish a day after the stresses of work.  So, I thoroughly recommend you give it a try if you’re backpacking through Thailand and even just want to give it a go for a day, it might just change your life!

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The Angkor Wat Experience

Back in December 2014 on Boxing Day I flew from China early in the morning and promptly went to my hostel to get changed, meet up with my friend, and head on out to Angkor Wat.  Here are some logistics on getting there, getting around, what to see, and after Angkor Wat.

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Getting to Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the closest city to Angkor Wat so most people choose to stay here for their visit to Ankor Wat.  Siem Reap is easily accessible to the outside world via air, land, and even water!

Air: Siem Reap International Airport is the second largest in the country and is accessible by direct international flights from many Asian countries.  It is also possible to fly from Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

Land: Buses and minivans can be caught from Phnom Penh for $6-10+USD. The journey is at least  five and  half hours and it is advisable to take the minivan company Cambodia Post VIP Van at $8 and is more comfortable while stopping less often and  driving responsibly.  Taxis can be caught from Phnom Penh for $60-80+.   If you’re coming from Sihanoukville buses typically cost $20+ and I would definitely recommend taking a night bus.

Water: Fasts boats from Phnom Penh to Tonle Lake near Siem Reap run daily through most of the year depending on water levels.  Tickets are $35 and some people question the safety of these boats but the rewards are great; getting to see the real Cambodian interior and rural life on the waterway.

Getting about Angkor Wat

First off, a one day Angkor Pass to the park is $20USD and $40 for three days.  There are multi day and longer tickets on sale as well.  Most visitors to Angkor Wat hire a tuktuk for the day and split the cost between friends or groups from their hostel.  My friend and I paid $20 for the tuktuk driver to take us to and from Ankor Wat, as well as around the Angkor Wat national park to whichever site we wanted to see.  Plus a tip is recommended.  It is also cheaper to get a tuktuk from Siem Reap than getting one at Angkor Wat.  Bicycles can be rented for a day for a few dollars and Angkor Wat is only 7.5km from Siem Reap for those who choose to save a bit of money and get a day of exercise while surrounded by the marvels of the Angkor Wat national park.

Which sites to see?

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Angkor Wat: The main event. The big tamale. Angkor Wat is the central structure of the national park named after it.  The UNESCO site is simply a breathtaking experience to behold once you first lay eyes upon it.  The Khmers are so proud of it they use the image of Angkor Wat on just about everything, including their national.  Be sure to visit in time for the sunrise and sunsets as those times make for some magical pictures.

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The Bayon: One of the more visited temples and is famous for the many faced towers that look out over the walls.  Not quite the hall of the Many-Faced God, but still a spectacular example of classical Khmer architecture currently being restored by a team of Japanese conservationists.

Ta Prohm: The Tomb Raider temple.  It is among the favorites because of the massive trees growing out of the centuries old crumbling structures that really lend to the feeling this place was lost in time.  This is regrettably one of the temples I missed, all the more reason to go back!

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The Elephant Terrace: A viewing platform for King Jayavarman VII on which to preside over official ceremonies, such as after harvests and battles.  Lots of people flock to get up close to the elephant carvings.  I personally just had the tuktuk driver slow down to get a few pictures.

East Mebon: Completed in 943AD, the temple is actually built on an artificial island that once sat in the middle of a vast water reservoir.  Nowadays it is hard to imagine but it is food for thought as your reach the top and look on out over what the land would have looked like over a millennia ago.  It also has distinctive 2 meter tall elephant sculptures that make for a great picture, just be sure to not climb on them.

After the Angkor Wat

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Siem Reap is a bustling backpacker town with an abundance of things to do besides just see Angkor Wat.  The two biggest things that backpackers do in Siem Reap is to visit the night market street and the famous pub street.  In and around these areas you can find just about anything you need to buy or eat, ranging from budget to more upscale establishments.  Pub street particular is a great place to meet new people after a day out trekking through Angkor Wat.  You can also visit the landmine museum, go to a firing range, go ATVing, a day trip to Tonle Sap lake, take a nature and wildlife tour, have your feet massaged by fish while you sip on a beer, and a whole lot more.

I hope this post helps inspire those thinking of making the pilgrimage here to make it a reality.  I’m not a religious person at all but being there was a religious experience.  I felt very calm and relaxed at the park, especially when I was within the walls of Angkor Wat itself.  Going to Angkor Wat was one of my bucket list items and it was everything and more than I ever hoped it would be in terms of the sense of awe at the architecture, natural surroundings, and what I felt was an abundance of positive spiritual energy.  I want to return one day after having read more on the site and Buddhism to get an even better understanding of this truly awesome place. Safe travels, friends!

The Best Way to Teach in Thailand

Cut the middle man out

If you’re coming to Thailand to teach, or just backpacking and looking to teach for a semester to save up a bit of money to extend your travels, chances are you will find a teaching job through an agency.  Having had repeated and ongoing issues with teaching agencies here in Thailand I thought I would make the case for current and future teachers wanting to work here in Thailand why you should just go directly to the schools and cut out the agencies.  I will admit that I’m currently working with an agency but having weighed up the pros and cons I would not do so again, which led me to write this post.

Why not to work with an agency

  • MORE MONEY: Agencies regularly low ball teachers with 30,000baht a month offers but in reality the school is probably willing to pay the teacher up to 40,000 baht. This means that the agency is taking up to a quarter of your salary!!!  Agencies won’t mention to you how much they’re taking, or even that they’re actually getting money from the school as part of your salary but they are.
  • They OWN you: Not literally, but pretty close to legally, they do. Many of these agencies insert clauses in contracts that prevent teachers from working with the school once your current contract is over for a period of up to 3 years, meaning you can’t just go straight to the school and work for them. They can also insert clauses that prohibit you from communicating to the school about a problem you have with the agency, e.g. not getting paid, by making it grounds for the immediate termination of the contract.  Another way they limit your freedom is by preventing you from taking extra classes or tutoring.
  • Minimal services offered: What do agencies do?  They post job ads online, interview teachers, arrange for your visa and work permit, and then take your money without even mentioning it.  All of those services can be done by the school but is easier for them to outsource teacher recruitment and legalization of their teachers.  It literally doesn’t cost the school anything because they are sending the teacher’s salary to the agency, which then keeps a significant portion of the money for very little in return.
  • They don’t work for you: They work for the school; schools want a supply of teachers while not having to lift a finger. If you have a problem with the school, do you think the agency which is taking your money from the school is going to go out of its way to endanger a profitable relationship? I seriously doubt it.  As there are so many agencies working in Thailand, competition is fierce to provide schools with teachers and so it is prudent business sense to acquire as many clients (schools) as possible and cultivate relationships, often personal, so as to keep back the competition.  At the school in Trat I briefly worked at, the agent and the director were as thick as thieves.  The director didn’t even bother to come to me about an issue; she just talked to her friend the agent who told me I was being let go without warning.  This agent demonstrated what I mentioned earlier: agents put their long-term economic interests ahead of the short-term (you).
  • Scammers: You may see an ad posted by an agency but in reality is just an opportunist presenting themselves as an agency.  At my last school in Trat I quickly became aware that something was amiss when I went to sign the contract I saw that the contract was actually directly with the school and made no mention of an agency, or more importantly, any obligation to pay one.  This person, that I mentioned was close with the director, was simply processing visas and work permits for teachers while collecting 8,000+ baht a month for doing very little else.  The story goes on from there but as you can imagine it had a big impact on my remaining time at that school and decision to leave.

How to go direct?

  • The old fashion way; pound the pavement and drop off some resumes. I guarantee you that some of the schools will ask you to wait while they get the foreign language department director who will do a short interview.  They may even offer you the job on the spot!  If you go this route, be sure to bring your documents with you and references if you have any.  You could also offer to do a demo lesson which might really impress them.  Admittedly this way is more labor intensive and is more suited to bigger cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and a handful of other places but it can be very effective in putting you ahead of other candidates and getting a job quickly.
  • Browse the usual Facebook groups and websites like Ajarn.com, looking for ads that explicitly mention that it is the school itself posting the ad. Good indicators include the email address belonging to the school English department or the English program director.
  • Post in expat groups asking local teachers if they know of any job openings as most fellow teaching expats are more than happy to help out. You can also ask them their honest opinion about the school, teaching conditions, salary expectations, holidays, the director, etc. Talking to a current teacher is always a smart thing to do before you make a decision to sign on at any school.
  • If you are already working at a school and are on good terms with your Thai teachers or even better, your director, you can ask them if they know a teacher or director at a school in the area you want to go teach next. I’ve personally seen this done and if I choose to continue working in Thailand after my current contract expires, I would use this route in addition to the other methods I listed above.

I hope this helps and has opened your eyes a little to see the truth behind working for an agency.  That is not to say all agencies in Thailand are bad, my first job here in Thailand was with Mediakids and I would recommend them, but overall it simply makes more sense to work directly and can save you a lot of hassle down the road.  Let me know of your agency horror stories and any other ways you know how to find jobs directly with the school.

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