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.
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.
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.
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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