“Balan’, balan’, balan’…” The now-familiar reminder to stay balanced will echo in my head for some time. “Balan’, balan’…punch! Right kick!” As the trainer, Duong, puts the pads up in sequence as targets, I fight to maintain my balance yet apply power to each strike. “Block,” he says, as he casually kicks me in the left rib cage. I missed the block – no balance to bring my leg up – driving home the point: balance before power. Always.
Muay Thai is a form of kickboxing known as the art of eight limbs; your hands, elbows, knees, and feet are used to strike your opponent. Chinnarach (he goes by Chin; fighters always have nicknames) is a former Thai champion – you can find his fights on YouTube if you search for “Chinnarach” – and runs a small crew of trainers at a no-frills gym near the beach on Koh Phangan, Thailand. The gym, which also serves as home for Chin, his wife and kids, and the trainers, is singular in its focus: there are two rings, 10 bags, and some floor space for shadow boxing. There’s no weight-training area or unnecessary accoutrement – the well-worn but well-maintained equipment is there to practice the art of eight limbs and nothing else. The singular focus extends to the training itself, as each session is organized to practice a particular skill; there’s no boot-camp-like circuit training for the sake of exercise.
A typical training session starts with 15 minutes of jump rope, using thick, heavy plastic jump ropes that are a shoulder workout more than anything else. After some stretching, there’s shadow boxing in front of the mirror to practice various strikes. Then the trainers get out the pads and the real meat of the class begins, with 2-3 students in each ring with a trainer for 3 exhausting rounds. A couple days of the week, there is sparring with another student rather than working with the trainer. (One day I sparred with an Italian, Luca, who had boxing gloves tattooed on his calf. Let’s just say I got hit in the face a few times, but I did catch him with a right kick to the head.) The second half of the session focuses on a particular skill, such as grappling, front kicks, or elbows, then it wraps up with another short shadow-boxing round and stretching. The entire session is two hours at a high pace.
Aside from a short boxing class at the Air Force Academy in 2002, I have no boxing or kickboxing experience. I showed up at Chin’s gym without even knowing how to stand properly. (Too tense. Not balanced to strike.) While my week of two-a-days with Chin and his crew certainly didn’t transform me into a Muay Thai master, the relentless focus on balance and technique improved my skills greatly. Over the course of the week, I went from rank beginner to mere novice, able to passably strike with all eight limbs with some balance and power. Learning to strike with each limb is a challenge; it quickly becomes obvious why the Thais begin training in elementary school.
The training also offered a glimpse into a sub-set of Thai culture; Muay Thai is a critical part of the Thai national identity. Two of Chin’s fighters, about 10 and 12 years old, had a fight against kids from another gym while I was there. At an age when we Americans coddle our kids with achievement trophies and padded playgrounds, the Thai kids are fighting in a full-contact Muay Thai match in front of hundreds of spectators. Those kids were tough. The ones that stick with the sport will eventually be fighters like Chin, living and breathing Muay Thai 24/7 as I saw at the gym. Chin also gave us a taste of the ceremony surrounding the sport; one day, we took half of the session to learn the basics of ram muay. Ram muay is a pre-fight ritual, similar to a Native American dance in look and feel. Every fighter has their own slightly different version, performed in the ring just before the start of the match to calm their nerves and show respect. When we, a bunch of Westerners, tried ram muay, we looked like fish out of water. The fighters, though, turn it into the ultimate expression of balance before power, and highlight Muay Thai’s place as a beautiful part of Thai culture.
In all, I enjoyed my week with Chin and his guys. One of my goals for the trip is to learn as many new things as possible, and learning Muay Thai was a rewarding challenge. (Emphasis on challenge: I lost about five pounds in a week training in the heat, despite over-eating as much as possible.) Although the training is relatively expensive by Thai standards, where a hearty street meal is only $3, Chin structures his sessions to make sure that everyone gets individual attention. The week of training cost $95, and I got my money worth. The pace of two sessions per day is difficult – I haven’t worked that hard since lacrosse at the Academy – and I don’t recommend it unless you come in with decent fitness. If you have the time and inclination, a month or more of training would be ideal; I found that I still had a lot that I wanted to learn as we were leaving the island. You can find Chin’s gym online at http://www.muaythaichinnarach.com/.