I've been hearing about Chuwattana since the very beginning of my Muay Thai life. They call it a "champion factory," full of high-level Thais holding titles from all the big-name stadia. It's a city-gym hidden away in a corner of Bangkok's historic Chinatown district, near the bars, clubs, and brothels that sections of Bangkok are notorious for. My own Kiatphonthip trainer Gong, a former champion himself, was a Chuwattana fighter in his early 20s, a time when, by his own admission, he was a less-than-perfect "bad boy," whatever that means in a Muay Thai context. Chuwattana is highly respected among most Thai fighters and top foreign contenders, but so far has not made it to the prominent consciousness of foreign Muay Thai tourists.
It's not surprising Chuwattana has a relatively low population of foreign fighters—there's no website and it's incredibly hard to find. You have to be a bit intrepid and adventurous even to locate the gym in the first place. I found a website with instructions on how to find it, illustrative pictures included, but still my Canadian friend Jordon and I manage to get ourselves lost in the twisting back alleys of Bangkok's Chinatown. We follow the lead of a pixie-like local girl, too excited about showing the foreigners where the gym is to heed her mother's commands to stay put in their corner yarn shop.
"Here it is! Come here!" she squeals, pointing into an unassuming, unmarked doorway. We step through the door and enter a short "hall o' champions" featuring larger-than-life posters of four of Chuwattana's past and present title-holders.
"Hey!" I nudge Jordon and point to a poster of the massively-belted champion Lamsongkram Chuwattana, "I know that guy! That's Lam. He's one of the trainers I met at Tiger a couple months ago. But… he doesn't look like this in real life anymore." In the Chuwattana poster, Lam is a clean-cut fighter weighed down with a pile of belts. The Lam I met at Tiger looked like a funky Thai hippie with a bunch of tattoos and long-ass hair covered by a bandana all the time, thus earning him the nickname "Pirate."
As soon as we enter the training space, I spot one of the other champion poster boys across the mats. It's Jomthong Chuwattana, in the flesh. He still looks like his poster-self, maybe because he's still training at Chuwattana, not a casualty of the island life in Phuket like his fighter-brother Lam. Jomthong is lightly hitting a bag, surrounded in training by a half dozen other Thai fighters, all seeming to be over 18. Well, they look like they're adult men, but the way they pull pranks on each other for the duration of this session makes me wonder.
My friend Jordon pays for his lesson and starts training with the rest of the group. He joins the opening activities of skipping rope, wrapping, and shadowboxing. Once on a bag, he practices his kicks. Resident champion fighter Jomthong drifts over to Jordon's side, folds his arms, and studies Jordon's technique. Any natural optimism Jordon might have had that Jomthong was satisfied with his kicks is quickly squashed when Jomthong waves his hands and says, "No no no!" He scoots Jordon out of the way and calls over another Thai fighter, who steps in to demonstrate proper form. Jomthong points out the differences between the form of the professional, and Jordon's clumsy beginner kicks. Jordon then kicks a few times to Jomthong's satisfaction, and the champion walks away smiling, having helped another beginner be just a little less lousy.
Halfway through the session, a few of the Thai boys set up a bench in the middle of the gym for some sort of soap-and-water bath for one of the fighters. Three of them soap up and rub down a fourth, rinsing him off with buckets of water that splash freely onto the concrete floor.
I ask one of the trainers what they're doing, but the only explanation he gives is, "The kid is fighting soon."
One of the fighters doing the washing notices I'm watching the whole process, and mischievously sticks his hand down the shorts of the guy on the bath-bench.
"Stop! Stop!" he yells, squirming to push his friend's hand away. "There's a girl watching!"
The washing process is oddly hypnotic, but I turn away so as not to come off as a creeper.
Jordon, meanwhile, is hitting pads held by a friendly, middle-aged trainer with a portrait of an older Thai couple tattooed on his shoulder. Maybe they're his parents.
"This is great," Jordon huffs, trying to catch his breath during a water break. "Pads are good. Buddy is doing his best to help me not suck." For Jordon, anything would be an improvement over yesterday's session at Meenayothin, where all he was allowed to do was "Muay Thai walk."
After padwork, clinch practice begins in the ring. There are all of six foreigners at training today: Jordon, three fierce, compact Japanese fighters, an Italian woman, and her Spanish boyfriend. Jordon and Antonio, the Spaniard, take turns clinching with one of the Japanese boys up in the ring.
The two remaining Japanese boys are instructed to practice some neck-strengthening exercises with each other instead of straight-up clinching. A grinning Jomthong comes over and jovially explains that one fighter is to pull down on the head of the other fighter, who will keep his hands behind his back, using only his neck muscles to counteract the pull.
They commence the exercise, but Jomthong is unimpressed with their dedication. He pushes one of them out of the way and says, "No, like this!" while jerking down on the head of the Japanese guy with bleached-blond hair. Another Thai trainer comes over and helpfully performs the same exercise on the other man.
Jomthong and the trainer look like they're having a great time; the Japanese boys, however, do not. Blondie cries out in pain, then slams his mouth shut as if embarrassed at his outburst. Soon he gives up on decorum and just openly bleats with each new, violent pull by the Thais. This goes on for what seems like at least 10 minutes. After the violent, "helpful" neck training is over, the two Japanese men walk away rubbing their necks and muttering to each other under their breath.
This entire time, Italian Valentina, the only female fighter currently at the gym, has been clinching on the mats with the friendly older trainer sporting the parents tattoo. Chuwattana Gym sits on the fence of Muay Thai traditionalism when it comes to female fighters—women are welcome to train here but with limitations, such as not being allowed to train in the ring.
After her clinching session wraps up, I ask Valentina if she's okay with not being allowed in the ring.
"Oh, it's perfect!" she enthuses in her enticing Italian accent. "That's actually why I picked this gym, because it's traditional. I prefer this to the farang (foreigner) rules."
She calls it an "immersion" camp: an old-school gym with old-school rules that accepts foreigners as a complement to, not a priority over, the stable of Thai fighters. Chuwattana's few foreign fighters live in the same building as the Thais, use the same showers, and eat meals in the same space. "My boyfriend Antonio and I have been to many gyms in this country," she says, "and gyms like this are getting harder to find."
Antonio and Valentina have been training and fighting around Thailand for the past six months, bouncing around gyms in Koh Samui, Chiang Mai, and now Bangkok. Chuwattana is the third gym they've tried in this city alone.
"We weren't happy at the other gyms," Valentina continues. "They were all least 70% foreigners, only two or three Thais fighting, even the ones in Bangkok. We never sparred or clinched with the Thais. But here we can train with the Thais every day." Now her plan is to return to Spain with Antonio, work multiple jobs and save a cushion of cash, then move back to Thailand long-term to train and fight together. They'll be coming back to Chuwattana specifically, she says.
After training, the owners invite Jordon and me to eat dinner at the gym. The three Japanese boys share a table and keep to themselves while our group of four westerners sits on the side of the ring, a table full of home-cooked Thai cuisine and fresh fruit in front of us. The Thais trickle down the stairs slowly, arriving to eat just as we're gluttonously finishing up.
I could see myself staying here long-term. The training is doubtlessly first-rate, and living a couple floors up from the gym area is certainly convenient. But mostly, I'd want to stay here long-term because they feed me. I love gyms that feed me. I don't even mind the occasional rat.
After dinner, Jordon and I take the long way home to western Bangkok on public transportation. "So," I start, "you liked training today?"
"Oh, it was great. The gym is legit. It's in downtown Bangkok, and everyone's kind of my age. I'd love to train there long-term. And the champ even took some time to help a kid out."
"The champ… You mean Jomthong?"
"What kid did he help out?"
"Me! I'm basically at the level of a 5-year-old when it comes to Muay Thai."
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