Thursday, February 3, 2011

Getting the Crap Beat Out of You in Thailand: Muay Thai Training Camp.

Guest Post.
This week it is my pleasure to introduce my daughter Elissa, as my guest poster. Elissa is a woman that knows how to look after herself. She's not going to let anyone push her around, and here she tells of almost biting off more than she could chew, but she rose to the challenge and has gone on to competition Muay Thai bouts at home. I think it's marvellous that this sport encourages young women to gain a skill that gives them inner confidence and self esteem.
Needless to say, I don't argue with her anymore....

Arrival. By Elissa McIntosh.

My first moment of arriving at the Muay Thai training camp, Eminent Air Gym, Bangchak, Bangkok, is still vivid in my mind. After many long hours on the plane from Wellington, NZ, I was weary and the heat and humidity was almost unbearable. It was 32 degrees, mid-afternoon, and when we arrived at the gym, the Thai’s were in the middle of their second training session for the day. I don’t think there is anything more intimidating than watching an experienced Muay Thai fighter shadow spa. Muay Thai, like traditional kickboxing, combines kicks and punches, but also uses knees and elbows. To the untrained eye, it may look like a brawl, but for one who knows Muay Thai it is awe-inspiring – all technique and skill. It’s very graceful, almost like dancing, and it takes years to perfect.

We watched this young Thai fighter kick the heavy, leather bag. The way he swung his leg in a roundhouse kick was like a baseball bat – WHACK!! The perfect combination of power, speed, timing and technique. I stood there and wondered to myself – what the hell have I got myself into? My travel partner and I had been studying Muay Thai for about a year, but we both felt completely humbled  watching the Thai’s train that first day. They were a lot fitter and looked a hell of a lot tougher than us, and I had my doubts as to whether we would be able to keep up with them. I started to wonder if I should’ve just headed to Khao San Road and the coco bars instead. Right now I could be drinking cheap cocktails on one of the many beautiful islands…..instead of facing getting my head kicked in!

New type of traveller.
We were part of a new type of traveller heading to Thailand in their droves; bypassing Khao San Road and a drunken fight at full moon parties, and instead heading straight to a fight at a gym. A Muay Thai Gym. The success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has seen a huge resurgence in interest in mixed martial arts (MMA), and it is now the fastest growing sport in the world. Muay Thai is a crucial part of MMA, and if one wants to know Muay Thai – there is no better place to study than its birth place – Thailand.

Muay Thai is Thailand’s national sport. It’s everywhere. There are stadiums all throughout Bangkok and a wealth of gyms to choose from. Some gyms will teach you all elements of MMA, but most will focus solely on Muay Thai. But be mindful - not all gyms have Thai trainers. Because of Muay Thai’s global popularity, many foreigners now teach in Thailand. Personally, I wanted to learn from a Thai, as they start training the moment they can walk. If you want to be good at something, you need to learn from the best.

So I chose Eminent Air Gym, Bangkok. It had a reputation for being an authentic Muay Thai gym with all Thai trainers.

On that first hot afternoon, we were introduced to the owner of the gym, Mr Song Boon, and handed complimentary ice cold cokes. Mr Song Boon tried to make us feel very welcome and soon we started to relax a bit. He introduced us to the trainers, and their families, who also lived at the gym. We were introduced to the handful of foreigners who were training. They were from all over the world, including the USA, Germany, Italy, and England. All were male, but there was one woman, Melissa, from the UK. Melissa had been training in Thailand for over 3 years. We later learned that she was a champion, and had fought many respected Thai fighters. Melissa had also fought on the Queens Birthday, which is a huge honour in Thailand.

Mr Song Boon was very eccentric, but so warm and reassuring – it was soon obvious we would be doted on and taken care of. Mr Song Boon also owns a pool club and a couple of race horses, so there is always plenty to do on the day off (Sundays). Our accommodation was a small, but comfortable cabin a few short metres from the boxing ring. This ensured we were constantly battered with the sounds of the Thai’s training – something which is quite hard to describe. The Thais are completely uninhibited when training, and let loose the strangest growls and blood curdling screams whenever they strike the bags. Inside our room, we had 2 air conditioning units, 2 standalone fans, and 2 ceiling fans. Also, 2 fridges. We were provided with clean towels and room cleaning service daily.

Daily training.
Training commenced at 6.30am each day. We had purchased a package of accommodation, training and food, which meant that our meals arrived promptly at 10am and 5pm. The food was fantastic – traditional Thai food, and always more than enough to go around. The Thai’s had obviously learnt that us foreigners were big eaters, because we never managed to eat all of the food that was put in front of us.

My first training session well. Nervous, I tried to eat as much for breakfast in order to keep my energy up for the day. There is a shopping centre 10 minutes walk from the gym, with everything, including groceries, takeaways, and a pharmacy. We had been there the night before and purchased cereal and yoghurt. The Thai’s usually just roll out of bed and start training on an empty stomach, but I wouldn’t recommend this, especially if you are not used to it.

At 6.30am, the alarm sounded and suddenly the gym sprang into life. It was already very hot outside, but we were eager to prove that we could handle the training. Each morning started with a 6km run, up down the street, dodging stray dogs – some friendly, some not. The morning run is, apparently, optional. But, if you want to train with the Thais and gain some respect, you have to get up and run – every morning. This, as you can imagine, gets harder and harder as your training progresses and the injuries start to accumulate. Melissa advised that a certain Thai trainer had absolutely no time whatsoever for those who didn’t get up and run. Especially foreigners. So we ran. Every morning. No matter how sore and tired we felt.

After that first morning run, we went back to the gym and I had to change my clothes. The heat was so intense, I could literally wring the sweat out of my singlet. That’s why it is essential that one brings powdered rehydration drinks with them – take these during and after training. Also bring plenty of changes of clothes – shorts, singlets, and a good pair of running shoes.An ipod for those 6kms morning and afternoon runs is essential too. A first aid kit is also essential: on our first day, I accidently gave my sparring partner a black eye, so an ice pack is handy. Bring loads of deepheat – you will need it...and plasters....

Then after the run, it was weight training. We did this every second morning, with the other mornings filled with rounds on the Thai pads with trainers. A round of training on the Thai Pads is intensive hard work and a real cardio workout. So weight training is seen as somewhat of a reprieve. We were shown how to do each weight exercise by a Thai trainer who spoke very little English, but was very enthusiastic and attentive. We soon picked up the gist (idea) and were even complemented by the Thais – apparently we were “strong girls”, as interpreted by Melissa.

Completing the weight training, we were delivered fresh tea and coffee. We were told to take a rest, and that the next training session would start at 3pm – which was a relief, because it was apparent that the temperature would get up into the mid 30’s during the afternoon.

Siesta from midday. This would be our routine for the next two weeks: run, train, eat, sleep, run, train, eat sleep..... It’s really too hot during the afternoon to do anything other than sleep and because the training is so intense, you really don’t feel like doing anything else.

After my nap, I was introduced to my trainer. He turned out to be a real character. The first few rounds on the Thai pads, every time I would kick or punch, he would fall backward onto the canvass as if I had knocked him out. It was hysterical! And in between rounds, he would often clinch me, and throw me around the ring. I soon learnt to hold onto him so that we both came crashing down together, careful that I landed on top – this bought cheers from the other Thai trainers. In the Muay Thai clinch, the fighter who ends up on top, often scores the point with the judges! That is what I love about training with the Thais – they make it fun!

We did six rounds on the Thai pads, after which I was shattered, but feeling exhilarated. I had proven that I could train as hard as the Thai’s... well, nearly. After my six rounds, I was ready to call it a day. “You –the bag!” my trainer tells me. So I spent another 3 rounds punching and kicking the leather bags. The leather bags in Thailand are extremely tough compared to your standard gym bags. After that first session, my shins were so bruised I thought I would never be able to kick another bag ever again. My trainer saw me rubbing and cursing the bruises; and although he couldn’t speak much English, he quickly managed to communicate to me that I needed to harden up. I was not to show pain or fear on my face – a good lesson, but a hard one to practice. I limped off to my cabin and smothered my shins in deepheat. Months later, when I finally did step into the ring for my first Muay Thai fight, I recalled this lesson. Your opponent will take advantage if you are looking tired, and will certainly try and end the fight if you are in pain. That’s not to say the Thais don’t look after you – they do. For example, when it got up to 36 degrees one afternoon, they were constantly reminding us to put sunscreen on. They even suggested we run on the treadmills in the shade, as opposed to the street, to keep out of the midday sun.

At night, I hobbled to bed and was lulled to sleep by the sounds of the Thai family next door as they prepared their evening meal. There is always a lot going on at the gym and the gym has a welcoming family vibe to it. I fell asleep listening to the sounds of the Thais singing their hearts out along to MTV – something that they did each night, and would make me giggle. To this day, I miss hearing them sing at night. There are also a myriad of animals that live at the gym (Mr Song Boon’s wife loves animals). There is a beautiful rainbow lorikeet named Tee Gar, which just loves people. I miss waking up to him throwing his toys around his cage and demanding attention.

On your day off, Sunday, there is a wealth of things to choose to do. You can join Mr Song Boon in his pool club, or at the races. You can explore the markets, or take a taxi into Bangkok and spend the night in a luxury hotel. We chose to do the latter, and managed to find a great Thai Massage for just $20NZ an hour. This is complete bliss and a real reward after hard training. We also went to Lumpini Stadium, an absolute MUST for Muay Thai fans. One of our trainers was competing that night and so it was a real honour to see him fight, and win, in front of such a massive audience. Lumpini fighters are the best in the country.

After two weeks of training, my shins had actually toughened up, and I no longer bruised after kicking the Thai bags. And I am proud to say, that I got up and ran every single morning. And every day my trainer taught me something new. Whether it be a new technique; defence move; counter attack; or simply how to pay attention when in a fight (my trainer would suddenly say “LOOK!” and point over my shoulder. Naturally, I would look and then he would slap me around the ears. I soon learnt to never take my eyes off my opponent). We went over and over the same combinations everyday, and soon enough they became like second nature. As my technique improved, my trainer would praise me with a resounding “OOOWAYY!!”. I loved hearing that after each time I nailed a roundhouse kick OOWAAAY!!!!...... OOWAAAYY!!!

Great Sport.
I love this sport – it’s so challenging. I don’t know any other sport that pushes you so hard and, when you compete, where there is so much at stake. Yet it is so much fun to train and I can understand how for some people it is a way of life. It teaches you to be strong – mentally and physicaly. My trainer taught me many valuable lessons, including do not show your fear or pain in your face, never give up or back down, and always have complete faith in yourself. You are completely alone in the ring; you must have complete confidence in your ability. If you let doubt creep in, even an inch, then you will fail. That is why you need great trainers; they will teach give you the tools to face your opponent without any fear. I would highly recommend Eminent Air Gym. The Thai trainers are very skilled and although not all of them speak English, they are all friendly and enthusiastic about teaching foreigners. They make training fun and they cater for anyone from beginners to professionals. The accommodation and meals were fantastic, and the amenities – including a shopping centre, are all close by. There is also free internet access at the gym.
Another dedication to Bonnie. She may realise, I hope she does find her own inner strength.



Papercut Doll said...

I absolutely love this, I'm a Kickboxer myself and I've been contemplating doing something similar but have been hesitant as I hadn't heard of anyone else who had been. This is really encouraging, although I might have to step up on the fitness before I go.

Thank you Elissa for an enlighting and truly interesting insight and thank you Jim for posting it.

Jim said...

Been wanting to post this up for a while now Sarah-Jane. Seemed right to do it now.

Elissa Mcintosh said...

thanks, i'm glad you enjoyed it! i would recommend muay thai to anyone, whatever age or skill level. For example, my training partner is 43 & has two kids and leads a hectic life. But after two years of training she is now a trainer herself and has two fights - both of which she won. It's really inspiring to see her achieve her goals. She had been told she was too old to compete; and that she should be spending more time at home with her kids! She is a great mother & fit as anyone half her age. I think martial arts in general is a great thing to get into - the empathis is on making your body & mind strong. I know that young girls are presented with so many images when growing up about how to look; for example that being thin is the ideal, etc. But with MA's, you are taught to treasure your body, it's your weapon; and being thin isn't the objective: being healthy & strong is! I think more women should give it a try; does wonders for the self esteem.

Jim said...

I'm not gonna argue with that...
Actually, I hope what you are doing Elissa, inspires other women.

sulekkha said...

Loved reading your post Elissa, My favorite lines in your article are,"If you want to be good at something, you need to learn from the best." You are a brave young lady brimming with confidence..I can imagine your Dad being proud of his daughter...super liked.

Rachel Hoyt said...

Very inspiring... though, I'm not sure all women have it in them. :)

Mary Hudak-Collins said...

Jim, I really enjoyed your post. Your daughter sounds like a very motivational person. Back, about 5 yrs or so, I was one test away from obtaining my Tai Kwon Do 2nd degree. Time just got taken up by other demands and I never continued. I do miss it, the strength, skill, discipline. I miss it all. Will I ever go back? Never sure what my life hold for me tomorrow:)

elissa said...

thanks for the kind words about my post! Mary - I think you should definetly get back into TKD. I have often wanted to try it, because there are some amazing kicks that I would like to learn. There are so many MA's I would like to try. And it's never too late to start, girls! before I started MT, i lead a very sedimentary lifestyle: lots of binge drinking, partying, couch potatoe, eating the wrong foods, fatigue etc. I'm about to turn 32 this year & i'm the fittest I've ever been in my life. I'm helping out at our womens class now; trying to motivate other women to achieve their goals: whether it is to fight; lose weight; or just gain some confidence. Now I don't drink; I don't smoke, i eat really well. Everyday I either train or run, which is a far cry from my former self who even a few years ago couldn't run to save herself (lungs charred from years of smoking). So give it a go! If I can do it, anyone can :)

Debra said...

What an adventure and lesson in endurance, Elissa! And so well written that I could feel the heat, the pain, the fatique... it's as though I were right there experiencing every moment.

Sara said...

Elissa, Thanks for the great article and information on Muay Thai. I'm looking forward to attending a similar program when I return to Thailand next fall, but have been nervous about what actually happens at a camp. I love your detailed description. I'm glad to hear that the trainers maintain the Thai tradition of sanook, having fun!

@Alexberger said...

That looks intense! Definitely looks like a lot of fun and a pretty decent challenge.