The sign on the roof above the ring says "Pechrungreang Top King Boxing Stadium [and] Thai Boxing School" in large, easy-to-read blue and red letters. Above that in slightly obscured, small curved black letters is "Kosin Muay Thai." I had no website or street address to guide me here, but at least there's a sign.
Though touted as both a gym and a stadium, it doesn't look like much of a stadium to me. Generally, I think of a "stadium" as something indoors. Here in the open air at at Kosin, instead of walls, there are tarps strung up on fences, and red plastic chairs placed neatly in rows around the ring. The chairs are pretty nice, though.
Mr. Kosin, the gym's owner and namesake, greets me with a smile as I walk into the compound during the end of afternoon training. He shows me around the gym and introduces me to Trainer Pui, accompanied by his constant companion, a mottled dog named "Tiger," whose jaw clenches and slackens repeatedly due to previous nerve damage.
The gym is located in plain view along the main road of Thong Sala, Koh Phangan's largest town and main administrative center. Just outside the fence, hundreds of westerners enjoying their island vacation stroll past every day. Inside the compound though, it's 100% Thai. At least from this Friday afternoon session I'm observing today.
Mr. Kosin and Trainer Pui sit down with me to answer some of my questions about running a gym on an island inundated with western tourists. They tell me that the population of the gym fluctuates with the season, but currently there are five trainers and about 25 Thai fighters. Some of them are locals from southern provinces, while others are from as far away as Thailand's eastern region of Isaan.
"We have a few Bangkok stadium fighters training here," Mr. Kosin notes. "Some of them still fight in Bangkok, though not too often. The cost of travel isn't always worth it. Generally, our fighters compete here on this island, or nearby on Koh Samui or the mainland. I've been a promoter for five years now, and I find fighters from all over this area."
"How do you advertise for the fight nights here?" I ask. "And what's your audience like?"
"Well…" he starts slowly, "for the fight nights, we have a billboard truck that drives around advertising the fights. We hand out flyers too. Sometimes it's hard to bring in a big audience because most people visit this island to party or just relax on the beach, not to watch Muay Thai."
"It's the same with foreign fighters," Trainer Pui adds. "We don't have too many foreigners training here consistently because they usually don't stay on the island more than a week. A lot of them will come for a few days just to try Muay Thai for the first time. Sometimes whole families will come, and it's just part of their vacation."
Koh Phangan does have a healthy number of foreigners here specifically to train Muay Thai long-term, but so far Kosin Gym has not managed to attract many serious foreign customers. "Our problem is that we don't have a website yet," Mr. Kosin speculates. "I'd guess that nowadays, probably 90% of the people who come here for Muay Thai find a gym through the internet. It's been hard for me to market my gym because our website isn't finished yet, and I don't write English well."
Mr. Kosin informs me that so far, only a handful of foreigners have trained here long-term. "We've had a couple Japanese fighters, a Frenchman... A few others here and there, but in the two years this gym has been open in this location, it's always been mostly Thai."
While Mr. Kosin is talking, my mind starts wandering back to posts I see in Muay Thai forums online about Thailand first-timers wanting to find a gym that's "authentic," "Thai," and not "overrun with farang." In follow-up comments, however, often these same posters reveal that they're also looking for a gym with wifi, air-conditioning, and other creature comforts. Kosin Gym, full of active Thai fighters of all ages and sizes, though set in the foreigner-friendly island of Koh Phangan, might be ideal. You've got your Thais, your lack of foreigners, and your wifi all in one spot. You've even got postcard-worthy beaches. It's the perfect solution, at least until their website is finished.
During the end of training, Pui leads me over to the ring to watch a senior fighter hold pads for one of the younger boys. Another fighter walks by, and Pui calls him over to introduce him to me. His name is Giang, and through a bit of prodding because he seems somewhat shy, I learn that he is 22 years old, a recent arrival from Isaan.
"I haven't been here long," Giang says, "but so far, Koh Phangan is pretty nice. There are a lot of westerners everywhere, though."
Pui, who has been working as a trainer in tourist-heavy gyms for the past few years, explains that many of Kosin's fighters come from Isaan and thus are not necessarily used to speaking English or relating to foreigners. "I was shy around foreigners when I first started working on this island, like many of these boys," Pui admits. "I think a lot of them like island life, though. They go out diving for crabs, then cook them for dinner here at the gym."
When the pair in the ring concludes their padwork, the padman approaches Giang, Pui, and me. He tells me his name is Baobiao and he's 29, from Isaan like Giang. But unlike the slightly reserved Giang, Baobiao is all about making friends with foreigners, or at least foreign women. He realizes right away that I can speak conversational Thai, so I never learn if he can speak English. Within the first minute of conversation, however, he asks me if I'm single and if I want to train with him at the gym. I casually evade his advances but he keeps up his flirtatious attitude a bit longer, earning a dirty look from Pui and a mumble of something like, "Knock it off."
From what I can tell, many of the fighters live on-site in a couple large rooms that house multiple bunk beds. Baobiao is only too happy to show me their rooms when I express an interest. I peer inside from the safety of the doorway, and Baobiao pulls out a pile of Muay Thai shorts, various pictures, and other fight-related memorabilia to show me.
"You're staying to watch the fights tonight, right?" he asks me enthusiastically, then tells me all about his past as a big stadium fighter in Bangkok, which seems plausible.
"I'm still a fighter in Bangkok," he assures me, "but tonight I'll be fighting here. How about if I win by a KO, elbow? It'll be just for you, sweetheart!"
I manage a polite reply of, "Thank you and good luck."
Soon another Thai teenager pushes past Baobiao into their room. He's wearing a uniform sporting the Makro logo from the huge Costco-style food store next door. His name is Jae Jae, and he's a full-time fighter for Kosin in addition to his job at Makro.
"Are you staying for the the fights tonight?" he asks.
"She sure is!" Baobiao answers for me.
I hold up my camera and say, "Yes, I'll be taking pictures."
"Cool, I'm fighting tonight," Jae Jae says. "And then tomorrow at Jungle Experience. You going to that too?"
Baobiao, who has developed some sort of large affection for me over the last 10 minutes, looks at me expectantly and grins widely after I say yes. He adds that he'll be fighting tomorrow as well, twice in one night at two different venues.
"Twice in one night?" I ask him, a bit surprised. "Isn't that a bit much?"
"Sweetheart, it's a piece of cake," he croons. "I've been doing this my whole life!"
My first instinct would be to dismiss Baobiao as playing it up just to impress a girl, but after spending time in Isaan recently and seeing glimpses of what his childhood there might have been like, I believe him.
Fighters like Baobiao and Giang might have had dreams of titles, might even have won championships themselves, but unlike many of the foreign fighters Kosin Gym is hoping to attract, their biggest reason for fighting is money. Big paychecks from stadium fights in Bangkok are great, but so is the steady stream of small purses earned through constantly fighting on Koh Phangan.
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