Beginning in 2008, years before I ever had the notion to move to Thailand and train full-time, I was a member of World Muay Thai Gym. It was a family business located in my California hometown of Santa Clarita, run by Pongsan Ekyotin, a Thai national, and his American wife Julie. They operated the gym together—he instructed the standard Muay Thai technique and fighting classes for roughly six hours a day, and she led supplementary circuit training and conditioning classes. Their two young children played together or did homework in the gym office after school.
Fast forward to now, six years after I first joined World Muay Thai. It's July 2014 and I'm in my California hometown again, having left my current Bangkok residence for a few weeks to visit my family. I haven't trained with Pong and Julie in a while, maybe three years, but I heard they just moved their gym to a new location. I arrive early at the new gym before class on a Monday morning to catch up with Pong. He greets me warmly despite my long absence. Showing me around the gym's brand-new location, he tells me business is doing well with the better visibility.
The gym has roughly 100 students, about one-fifth of whom are children. Most of the students, however, are not here to be professional fighters, motivated instead by a desire for fitness, self-defense, or recreation. "It's one of the biggest differences between owning a gym in Thailand vs. in the U.S.," Pong explains to me before class begins. "Here in America, a Muay Thai gym is more like an organized business. You invest a lot of money to open a gym, you provide good training, and people pay and sign up. They train and then they go home."
In Pong's view, this business model is opposite from most gyms in Thailand. There, the initial start-up for a gym might be relatively cheap and easy, but a far greater investment of time and energy is required to achieve the goal of producing talented fighters, which are the main currency of Thailand's Muay Thai business. "You have to build a fighter from the ground-up in Thailand," he explains. "The fighters eat and sleep at the gym; you have to 'raise' them and take care of them. You also need strong connections with promoters so you can get good fights. Here in the U.S., you can make a whole business on students who just want to train for fun or fitness. In Thailand, though, each fighter is a long-term investment."
In his 52 years, Pong has been on all sides of the business of Muay Thai, first as a fighter, then as a trainer, a promoter, and finally as a gym-owner. Born in the early 1960s, Pong spent his childhood in northern Thailand's Phetchabun province. At age 13, he moved to Bangkok to train full-time at the now-defunct Ekyotin Gym. Unlike most of his peers, he not only finished high school, but also earned a bachelor's degree in physical education. He enrolled in a Thai police academy and then spent the next few years as a policeman in the southern Thai jungles of Surat Thani province. After leaving Thai law enforcement, he continued to train and fight, while also working side gigs as a fitness coach and bartender in Bangkok's Shangri-La Hotel.
Pong first came to the U.S. in 1996 as a trainer accompanying a Thai fighter for a bout in Las Vegas. Realizing he could break into the burgeoning Muay Thai scene in America, Pong set up shop in southern California. He met an American woman named Julie while working as a trainer, and the couple married soon after. In 2001, Pong opened his first gym in Huntington Park, CA. A couple years later, he and Julie moved themselves, their small son, and their growing business to their current home in Santa Clarita, CA.
Now their son is 14, and their gym has been running nearly as long. "My life is in the U.S. now," Pong says. "I have a wife, children, and a business here." Pong's extended family still lives in Thailand, so far only one of his brothers has ever come to visit him. He cites both the expense of travel, as well as the difficulty of obtaining American visas, as the reasons his family doesn't visit more often. The visa issue hasn't been a problem for Pong in years, though. In fact, he officially passed the exam to become a U.S. citizen last year.
When I ask him what he misses most about his home country, he answers immediately that he misses the Thai culture of respect, especially in a training and fighting context. "Most fighters here in the U.S. don't understand what real Muay Thai is like. They don't know what it's like to train in Thailand, to show respect to the other fighters and the trainers, to have discipline. I try to teach them but some of them don't listen, they're hard-headed."
"What about if you were to move back to Thailand?" I ask. "What would you miss about the U.S.?"
"The economy here," he says right off. "And the police! There's no corruption, at least not compared to Thailand." Now, not only do some of his American students work for law enforcement, but even his wife is a police officer. He keeps his old Thai police hat next to her American police academy cap on a filing cabinet in his gym's office.
"The government is strict in the U.S.," he continues. "Everyone's the same, with equality and human rights. Everything is more organized here." He rattles off other things he enjoys about his adopted country, like well maintained public roads, big open spaces, national parks, and environmental protection. "I love living in the U.S., but I do miss Thailand sometimes. My wife still hasn't been to Thailand with me, but I hope we can save enough money to buy a house in my hometown in Phetchabun and go there for vacations when we retire. It's hard for us to go now because we have a business here, and because it's so expensive to buy plane tickets for ourselves and our children."
He flips through his phone and shows me photos of his son and daughter, now 14 and 8 years old. "They can understand Thai a bit when I talk to them, but they don't really speak Thai," he notes. "They love living here in the U.S., but I hope they'll go to Thailand when they're older and learn about Thai culture."
Like the children of trainers in Thailand, Pong and Julie's kids have grown up in the Muay Thai gym. According to Pong, both American and Thai cultures are very family-oriented, but with some major differences: "In Thailand, it's easy to raise kids and still have your own life because your parents, grandparents, and all your other family can help you take care of the kids. Everyone lives close by and helps out. Here in the U.S., though, most families don't live as close together. You're always busy with family; you have to put in 100% effort to take care of your children yourself. And Thai wives are so different from American wives!" He continues with a chuckle, explaining that in Thai culture, men can be "butterflies," a term used in Thailand to denote a less-than-faithful husband. "Married men have more freedom in Thai culture. It's not the same in this country, with an American wife. You have to be totally devoted and dedicated!"
He draws parallels between devotion to family and devotion to Muay Thai, citing key factors, like dedication and discipline, that determine one's success as a fighter or a family man. According to Pong, natural talent isn't as important as being a hard worker when it comes to fighting successfully, but fighters can't be expected to do it all on their own. "A trainer has to have heart too, just like the fighters," he philosophizes. "Trainers need experience and knowledge of course, but they also have to care."
When I ask him his opinion on gyms in his home country, he answers with the same recommendation he gave me two years ago when I first considered moving to Thailand. "I always tell my students to go to Meenayothin when they say they want to train in Thailand, but that's because I know the people there are solid. There are so many gyms in Thailand, some good and some bad. You have to ask around and do your own investigation to find a good one. You have to see what kind of fighters they build, see how they're organized. Some camps aren't as good; they don't care about discipline or structure. They let the fighters go out and party, especially the foreign fighters. But what good is that unless all you want is a vacation? I like strict gyms, where you're expected to stick to a schedule. Kind of like the military."
Pong walks me over to a corner of the gym and points to two busted-up, faded Thai pads mounted on the wall behind a bag. "You see those? I brought that pair of pads over from Thailand when I first came in 1996 to train my fighter for the match. I keep them now to remember that time."
Aloud, I draw the conclusion that Pong has achieved the "American Dream." He laughs and shrugs, says he can't believe his life. "I never thought I'd end up here, being an American citizen! Crazy, huh? Unbelievable!"
His American students start filing in for the morning class, and he greets them all like old friends.
"What if you could do your life over again, Pong?" I ask him before class officially begins. "Would you still have done Muay Thai and opened a gym?"
He thinks about this for a moment, then smiles and shakes his head. "I always loved the guitar. I listened to classic Thai rock like Carabao when I was growing up, and then I discovered Metallica. Muay Thai is what I've always done, what I'll do forever, and I love it too. But I remember, around the time I started high school, I started thinking I didn't want to be a Muay Thai fighter as much as I wanted to be a musician."
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