The martial art form of Muay Thai in Thailand is a BIG deal; there’s a huge sense of national pride over a skill that is just as recognised and victorious as other martial arts. It’s advertised everywhere, sometimes with booming radio slogans from big trucks shouting, “You see Muay Thai, you see Thailand!” inviting you to attend matches in nearly every big city, from small-scale 400 Bhat matches to world champion competitions with 2,000 Bhat ringside seats. You can even buy yourself a pair of Muay Thai boxing shorts at nearly every market, if you think of yourself as that much of a pro.
It’s so popular that you can even try Muay Thai yourself and whether you are a dedicated amateur boxer or the most unfit person to have landed in Thailand and keen to shed a few pounds, you can put yourself through the gruelling training of champions.
I booked a Muay Thai lesson, and it was not easy.
The closest I’ve ever been to performing Muay Thai was when I thought I could unleash a few Khmer boxing skills on a friend in a bar in Cambodia… slightly drunk and without any former boxing training. The resulting bruises confirmed I wasn’t as good as I thought – my years spent doing ‘combat aerobics’ gave me a great aim and very basic skills, but I couldn’t really defend myself, nor did I have much strength.
It was time to take my curiosity to the next level.
I had considered a week-long Muay Thai course in Chiang Mai, but something at the back of my mind told me I wasn’t quite ready for that yet – I’ve always been into dancing and trekking and this would be a whole new level of fitness I would be putting my body through. In the nearby town of Pai, a relaxing mountain valley haven where there’s more Thai Rasta’s than fighting rivals, I came across the Sor Wisarut Gym and decided to give Muay Thai a try for a four hour afternoon session. After all, training in a beautiful and relaxing town like Pai could only ease the pain, right?
Let’s just call it a very intense introduction.
Training Part 1: Body Conditioning
Within minutes after arriving and being asked whether we preferred running to skipping, my friend and I were out on the road running in the intense heat around the scenic mountain valleys and villages.
Muay Thai, as a full contact sport, focuses a lot on body conditioning, in order to achieve the high levels of fitness needed for competitions. Fighters are also normally stripped of too much bulk and are not muscle pumped, Arnie style. Therefore training regimens include things like running, jumping, skipping and abdominal exercises.
Our 20-minute run was just a small taster of that. It wasn’t a casual, get-the-blood-pumping-while-lapping-up-the-view jog, but a proper run, leaving me lingering far behind my friend and the trainer – a small but fierce Italian champion fighter who, quite frankly, didn’t give a shit. Although disappointed on arrival that I wasn’t going to be trained by a Thai, this guy knows his stuff.
This wasn’t going to be an afternoon full of high-jinx and giggles; it was serious and I had to focus. What had I gotten myself into?
Training Part 2: Learning the Basic Moves
Arriving back at the training area, annoyed that I had been left behind and as a consequence of trying to play catch up, was left looking like a bruised tomato (more purple than red), we had a few minutes to recover and drink lots of water before getting straight into training.
The trainer bandaged our hands with a strong, thick black material that held in place a cushioned covering over our knuckles for protection. This was serious business and I was going to be expected to show some high-impact contact. Once the gloves were on it was time to line up in front of the mirror and get to work.
We were taught how best to balance on our feet and move around while always defending; the correct aims and angles for striking with our fists using jabs, crosses and uppercuts; using our elbows as a form of contact; the various forms of kicking from high kicks (roundhouse kick) to straight kicks to the stomach using the flat of your foot (foot jab); and how to use our shins and knees correctly without breaking any bones. We were then straight onto the heavy bags to put these moves in practice.
Muay Thai is known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” because of the contact used by all these parts of the body. Hands, elbows, legs and knees means using eight points of contact as opposed to two in boxing (hands) and four in other contact sports like kickboxing (hands and legs).
And…it’s VERY tiring – my face says it all!
Training Part 3: In the Ring
After perfecting my moves, it was time to have a one-on-one with the trainer for a session of sparring. With the trainer holding the pads and shouting instructions, I was performing kicks, punches and elbow strike combinations on the pads in set sequences for one-five minutes, testing my new skills and timing over and over until I felt like collapsing.
During the final minute I would cry out in pain while my body gave out and couldn’t give anymore as the instructor shouted at me to continue. “Five more!” sounds like the end of the world at that point. Yet, no matter how exhausted I felt, the adrenalin pumping through me felt incredible, despite the other part of me longing for the end.
While the sparring and pad training really helps you to perfect your technique, it does become the more serious part of the training session. It’s at this point where you really get to learn your strengths and weaknesses and there’s no messing about – when I forgot to defend myself properly, the trainer gave me a light hit on the head to show how quickly you can get taken down. It was a little too hard for my liking, and not the level of contact I was expecting during my first session but I guess that’s just how serious this sport is… even if you are just ‘trying it out’.
The End: Not Just Simple Stretching
If you think a few simple stretches end the session think again. Just when you thought you were done, your body is put through a ‘cool-down’ of intense abdominal exercises and stretches – the kind that are practically impossible when your body is dying and you have nothing left to give – but I knew I had to do it or regret it the next day when I couldn’t move. And then, well… I just rested a little.
Four hours of Muay Thai training certainly took it out of me, but in that short space of time I learnt more than I expected, and really felt it making an impact on my body. While I walked away knowing that, right now, I’m not going to take up a week or more of training, since I don’t feel that motivated or strong enough, I do have a new appreciation about the sheer level of skill and extreme fitness that’s involved in this martial art and can watch it with a bit more insight. Nonetheless, it was an absolutely exhausting but fun afternoon. Just don’t expect me back in the ring anytime soon…
A half-day training session at Sor Wisarut Gym costs around 450 Bhat and lasts approximately four hours. It’s a short 10 minute walk from the main walking street of Pai, where the main office is based.
Many thanks to Sor Wisarut Gym for the opportunity to be their guest and try out Muay Thai for the first time. All opinions, as always, remain my own.