The first thing that hits you at Tiger Muay Thai is the noise.
Pads being punched, bags being kicked, trainers shouting instructions, subjects grunting, feet jumping on tires, bodies hitting the ring floor; all offset by a background of rhythmic skipping ropes and trainers padding repetitive circuits around camp. The second thing is the unmistakable smell of sweat and hard work. Sophie and I had arrived at Tiger Muay Thai and MMA training camp for a month of Muay Thai boxing.
Based in Chalong, a 15-minute bus ride out of Phuket Town, the camp boasts an impressive area of boxing rings, training areas and equipment — impressive, and scary as hell. After indulging in delectable Thai food and a few too many buckets, the prospect of intense daily training was daunting. Following check-in, we arrange to meet for 7 a.m. yoga and retire to our respective accommodations. Sophie is staying onsite and I’m a five-minute walk to Forest Bungalows (9,000 Baht for a lovely room with a spacious double bed, air conditioning, minifridge and TV).
A Beginner’s Journey…
After a night of tossing and turning, the alarm sounds at 6 a.m. It’s time to face the music. Like many backpackers, I haven’t seen 6 a.m. too frequently and it’s tough to rise for a gruelling day of exercise. Our nervousness somewhat dissipates on finding a darkened room with soft music and the calming voice of Ocean Bloom, a world-renowned yoga teacher, ex-bodybuilder, fitness instructor and personal trainer. Her power yoga class is top notch. The sweat-inducing class is difficult, but with moves everyone can try, it’s a great start to the day.
There’s no time for a breather. Every level of Muay Thai classes begins immediately following a short break. Finding a space, the nervousness returns as we survey those around us, hoping we aren’t the only ones who might struggle. There are men and women in equal numbers, some larger, some with bulging muscles, but all of them return the same apprehensive smile.
Enter Dang — Mr Miyagi, to us — a small but formidable man who barks at us to start running in a circle. Fifteen minutes pass as I begin feeling like Forrest Gump. Next, we run through some taxing warmup exercises before donning wraps and gloves with the assistance of trainers — finally, a chance to sit down and catch our breath. Large 16-ounce gloves are standard for beginners to avoid hurting opponents, and the extra weight helps tone arms more quickly. Mr Miyagi demonstrates basic Muay Thai moves using punches, kicks and elbows. When a mistake is made, the offender is hauled to the front and shown properly.
The spectacle is a touch intimidating, but it sure makes you concentrate. Stealing a glance at the clock, my stomach sinks slightly to see there’s still another 90 minutes left. But Sophie and I are determined. Breaking off into pairs, we’re then shown how to combine techniques to use against an opponent. It’s a relief to work with Sophie and we start to enjoy ourselves, though we underestimated the amount of sweat one person can produce. The other trainers are a lovely bunch, helping, correcting our moves and making us laugh. Now comes the real show: the ring.
We rotate between sparring in the ring using combinations, sparring with the trainers and using techniques on the punching bags. Each rotation lasts three minutes with 10 pushups at each 60-second interval. This is undoubtedly the toughest part of the class so far. The sound of the bell was sweet relief. Mr Miyagi invites us to take off our gloves, grab a much-needed drink and join him in a circle. After a couple of amusing stories, we take turns introducing ourselves to the 20-strong group. Some people are uncomfortable being in front of a crowd, but training is all about pushing yourself, mentally and physically, and everyone wants each other to succeed.
With only 15 minutes left, we relax with the thought of an early ending. But to our dismay, we’re asked to watch and follow two of the trainers with 100 knees, 100 front kicks, 100 elbow combinations, a one-minute plank, 300 sit-ups and 100 pushups. It’s torturous, especially when the trainers weight our abs with heavy medicine balls. But we’ve finally done it. The feelings of accomplishment are incomparable.
The Price of Accomplishment
The next morning brings aches I’ve never felt before. I can’t sit up and literally roll out of bed. Psyching myself for another day is a mental challenge, but I make it through the next morning Muay Thai session. But I can’t face another 2.5 hours in the afternoon. Thankfully the Tiger offers a variety of class options and times: Western boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Krabi-Krabong (a weapon-based MMA class), Muay Boran (ancient MMA). I’m too nervous to try the technical-looking MMA, sticking with Muay Thai and the fitness classes.
The class offerings seem endless. Body Fit rotates daily between circuit training, running the 5-kilometre hill up to Big Buddha carrying car tires or a beach workout. CrossFit is a short, intense session of repetitions using various equipment. Tough but damn effective. I soon get into a routine of yoga and Muay Thai in the mornings with CrossFit in the afternoons.
Week one is over. I’ve only had to bail out of one class (not eating a substantial dinner makes for low morning energy levels). Sophie and I are damned proud of ourselves, and our bodies already feel stronger and conditioned. The aches are gone. By the end of week two, we can see a difference in our body shape, and we’re finding the classes to be easier.
With the training lifestyle comes two of my favourite things: good food and massages. There are great places to eat along the road. Tony’s and Ja Jas top the list. Our diets become a cycle of protein shakes, eggs, muesli, fruit, curry and generous portions of succulent chicken with amazing sauces and tons of vegetables.
The cheap prices make everything taste even better. During my Southeast Asia trip, massages have easily been my biggest indulgence, and I’ve often argued their necessity versus pampering. At only 250 Baht per hour, I’m a happy girl.
More Than Fitness
There’s a social side to training, too. Although most people focus on getting fit and improving their fighting skills, there’s plenty of time for meeting new people and enjoying ourselves. We clicked instantly with a great group in week one and spent much of our free time together enjoying the beach (Naiharn is highly recommended), browsing around the night markets, celebrating birthdays, visiting temples, attending professional fights at Bangalore stadium and having nights out at the neon-lit chaos of Patong. Tiger also hosts a monthly “BBQ Beatdown,” which is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, eat delicious food, enjoy a few beers and dance. A portion of the evening is dedicated to the much-anticipated amateur fights, which anyone can enter to fight. For most participants, it’s their first fight. Nervous tension melts away amid a positive atmosphere of encouragement and pride.
By week three, we’re fully into the swing of things and most of our class has been promoted to intermediate level. I remain in beginners. I’m assured it’s because the trainers enjoy having a laugh with me. Not sure if that’s true, but I’ll take it.
Almost too soon, our final week arrives. Sophie and I can’t believe how quickly time has flown. During our final meal, we get a little emotional as we reflect on the great friends we’ve made, the sights we’ve seen, how much we’ve laughed, what we’ve learnt and how hard we’ve worked. It’s amazing to discover just how much mental strength and determination you have inside, waiting to be unlocked. Muay Thai is a fantastic sport and a great way to immerse yourself in one aspect of Thailand’s vibrant culture. Go for it, give everything you’ve got, and I dare you not to love it.