[Ed. note: For more than a year, Lindsey Newhall has been living at a Muay Thai camp outside Bangkok, training for hours a day and soaking in local traditions. We asked her to keep a journal of her experiences.]
Late January, 2014
It's Friday afternoon in northern Thailand and I'm clinging fearfully onto the back of a Canadian nak muay, screaming, "Slow down, John! Slow down!" as he weaves his motorbike at what he calls a pathetically slow speed around parked cars and asphalt-bursting tree roots. My train just arrived in Chiang Mai from Bangkok, and we're now on our perilous way to his gym in the neighboring district.
My friend who currently has my life in his hands is John Douglas. Originally from Canada, he has been training for the last four months at Santai Muay Thai Gym in San Kamphaeng, just outside Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. I've been meaning to visit him since he passed through my Bangkok home gym in September. It's taken me until now, late January, to get my act together.
John drives me down a maze of side streets and eventually we turn into a compound consisting of a large dorm building next to an L-shaped gym area: Santai Muay Thai. I finally made it.
I spent months trying to decide on a gym in Thailand before I arrived, and at one point, Santai was one of my top three considerations. I wanted to go to Chiang Mai or Pai in the north, or some cheap place down south. The only place I knew I didn't want to go was Bangkok.
And so of course, in the grand tradition of never being able to predict anything in Thailand with any sort of accuracy, I ended up in Bangkok.
John parks his motorbike and shows me around the gym, which looks huge to me. The only gym I've ever known this past year in Thailand is Kiatphontip, and it's barely half this size. Santai has two rings, for god's sake! What kind of crazy gym needs two rings? Apparently this one, because it's crowded as hell. On a packed day at Kiatphontip, I'm feeling slightly agoraphobic if there are more than a dozen foreigners training with our 10 Thai boys and five Thai trainers. Here at Santai, I count something like 25 foreigners. And a mass of trainers, too. Good God, like nearly 10 of them, double what we have at my home gym. But wait, where are all the Thai boys? All I see are two. Isn't every gym supposed to have a stable of Thai boys?
John and I sit down at the gym's central table and I meet Nik and Ood, the Swedish and Thai couple who run this place. I tell Nik I can't believe how many people are training here. "Yeah," he says, "sometimes it gets to the point that I have to turn people away because if the gym is too full, training starts suffering."
It's so crowded, in fact, that some of the trainers are tasked with laying out interlocking mats in the parking lot to increase floor space. I watch as some pairs do pad-work out there in the soft evening sun. Santai has a decent number of active fighters, but my friend John tells me quite a few here are relative beginners. "Like those two," he says, pointing to the two white men training with Thais in the parking lot. "They both started Muay Thai just a few weeks ago. I remember when they got here and they couldn't kick worth shit."
They can definitely kick worth shit now. I've been training for a few years now and my trainers are still constantly on my case about my roundhouse kicks, but these "beginners" I see in the parking lot are actually arcing their kicks with relative fluidity and a surprising lack of awkwardness. Good job, Santai beginners. You've successfully made me feel inadequate today.
"Chiang Mai isn't like Bangkok," Nik tells me. "A lot of beginners start in Chiang Mai, so the trainers here are used to teaching basics. Most of the foreigners who go to Bangkok already have a really solid foundation." This is true. Many of the foreigners I've seen train at my Bangkok gym are pretty impressive to watch. However, we do get the occasional newbie clearly in over his or her head. I like them the most because I can actually relate to them on a "what the hell am I doing here" level.
During a break in the training, some of the fighters come over and chat with Nik and John, making plans for the weekend or talking about last night's fights. Everyone is so damn friendly and chummy with one another. Most of them live in the gym's adjacent Nak Muay House, kind of like a dorm for fighters. Couple the full-time training with the dorms right next door and you got yourself a little University of Muay Thai here. All they need now is a printed course catalog, a hipster coffee shop, and some idealistic student activists.
Soon a few European fighters strike up a conversation with me. "Wow, you train in Bangkok?" one of them says. "You must be so hardcore!"
Common mistake, my European friend.
The other guy launches into all the differences between fighting in Bangkok, and fighting everywhere else in Thailand. "Up here in the north, it's like amateur hour," he says. "No comparison to the caliber of fighters you get down in Bangkok."
The first guy nods then tells me that's why he decided to train here, citing how much easier it is to get well-matched fights at his level. He brings me over to a whiteboard mounted on the wall and shows me a long list of upcoming matches for Santai fighters, both Thai and foreign, and proudly points to his own name.
Afternoon training winds up just as the sky is beginning to darken, and John and I head back to his apartment in the nearby town of Bo Sang, a couple of miles from the gym. There's a charming umbrella festival on the main street, and I walk around resisting the urge to buy adorable trinkets to feed my hoarder tendencies. In honor of being two North Americans in Thailand, John and I decide to eat at a place that serves "Mexican" food. The questionably authentic burrito is only 60 baht, about US $2. Northern Thailand prices? Big thumbs up.
I ask John over dinner if he's glad he picked Santai.
"Oh definitely," he says. "The people are cool, and the trainers actually give a shit. What'd you think of it?"
"It looked fun, but for me, seeing it was kind of a trip. I almost picked Santai. That could have been my home this past year, instead of Kiatphontip."
"Yeah, you'd be hanging around Chiang Mai and maybe you'd be fighting in the northern Thailand circuit. Your life would be totally different. You ever wonder about that? About how you could've lived all these different lives if you'd made different choices?"
"Yeah, all the time. Doesn't everyone?"
I say goodbye to John on Sunday morning. Back to Bangkok I go, just in time for training on Monday. From the sidewalk, I wave down a songthaew headed toward the Chiang Mai train station. Seated across from me are a row of Thais and one lone handsome foreigner. He must train at Santai, or else why would he be way out here in San Kamphaeng? Turns out my assumption is correct--he introduces himself as Alessio, a new arrival from Italy who is training at Santai for the next month.
"But I will stay here for three months in Thailand!" he says in his singsong Italian accent. "Next month I go to train at gyms in Koh Samui and Koh Phangan and Koh Tao!"
I ask him why he's going so many places.
"I just want to travel and train Muay Thai," he says. "I save my money and I want to see places of the country that most people don't see. Like San Kamphaeng, where Santai is. If I didn't come for Muay Thai, I never would come here to this small place." He's talking so excitedly and with such passion that I stop noticing the bumpy road and the obnoxious sounds of traffic outside our songthaew. He pauses for a moment, as if searching for the right words. Finally, "I want to see Thailand, and I want to see it through Muay Thai."
See Thailand through Muay Thai. Why didn't I think of that?
Alessio will see more regions of Thailand in his three-month trip than I have in the past year here. I've barely been outside my quiet little town on the border of Bangkok. Santai is the only other gym I've seen. I like Bangkok and I love my home gym, but it's been a year, and I'm getting characteristically restless again. Domestic travel is cheap here, and I speak enough Thai now to get by, to feel confident going nearly anywhere in this country.
Alessio is talking about Thailand and his life back in Italy, but I can barely focus on his words. My mind is whirling with snapshots of imagined gyms set amid Thai scenery I've so far only seen in postcards. Gyms on beaches, in jungles, among rural rice paddies, on the outskirts of industrial cities. Mega-gyms with flashy tourist-friendly Web sites, backwoods gyms you can find only by word-of-mouth.
"So, where are you going today?" Alessio asks, pulling me back from my far-flung Muay Thai daydream.
"Uh…." I stall. I'm supposed to be going back to Bangkok today, but why? I don't have a fight coming up that I have to train for. My fella will understand if I tell him I decided to extend my trip another week or so. And from Chiang Mai, I'm so close to that hippie-rich town up north I've always heard about, just a three-hour, five-dollar bus ride away from here.
"I'm going to Pai," I tell Alessio. "I'm going to travel around and check out some gyms too, just like what you're doing."
A few minutes later, the songthaew announces the stop for the Chiang Mai train station. I wish Alessio safe travels and hop out into the street. The train station is right around the corner, but I turn and head in the opposite direction to the bus terminal.
One year already in Bangkok, now time to see the rest of the country. Through Muay Thai.
First stop: Pai, Mae Hong Son Province.
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