Tucked under an overpass in Bangkok's infamous Klong Toey slums is 96 Penang Gym. I'd heard the area was seedy and dangerous, and certainly it's low-income, but the children playing around the unused train tracks, the fruit-cart vendors walking the alleys, and the families sitting outside their snack shops all remind me of what I see in more affluent neighborhoods in Thailand every day.
Children with athletic promise and heart from the local neighborhood join other kids scouted from poor locales around the country. For those with dedication and talent, Muay Thai could become their way out of poverty.
Recently, 96 Penang has opened its doors to foreigners, specifically those who don't mind training in less-than-spotless conditions. Most of the foreigner fighters live outside the gym. Only one of the four I met, a young Swede, stayed with the Thai fighters in the camp, sleeping on a thin futon just as basic as those of the Thais.
My Canadian friend Jordon comes with me to try a session here. At the end of class, the head trainer approaches him. "Your kicks are pretty bad," he tells my friend in Thai. "How long have you been training?" I help interpret.
"About four months maybe."
The trainer tells me in Thai how long it would take for him to get Jordon's kicks on line. Jordon listens in and picks up the Thai word for "three." "What did he say? How long would it take him to help me with my kicks? Three months?"
"No," I tell Jordon. "He says he can get you kicking properly in three days."
Jordon laughs. "I don't know… That's a pretty ambitious goal."
Slum dogs cool off under the ring during hot Thai afternoons.
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