The best places to learn Muay Thai kickboxing in Thailand
Iâm lying face down on the floor of a Thai boxing ring in Bangkok when Iâm reminded of âRembrandtâ. That was the nickname of a tough old boy in a boxing gym back in London. Iâd always thought he was called that out of respect, because he was an Old Master, or maybe because he was considered an artist in the ring. âNah,â my coach told me. âItâs because he spends so much time on the canvas.â
I could write an entire travel guide to the various canvases of Thailand: at the Muay Thai Institute itâs springy but smelly; at Fight Lab itâs soft but non-absorbent; in Koh Samui it has the best views down to the ocean; and at The Siam, it feels like velvet.
Twenty years ago â" the last time I was in Thailand â" most of my fellow UK travellers were rich kids gazing at the cashmere lint in their navels, squaddies on benders and creepy Radio 1 DJ types. Back then you avoided the few oddballs who came to learn Muay Thai: weedy kids whoâd watched too many Van Damme films and thought rat-infested accommodation and one-handed press-ups were character building.
All that has changed. The country has gone from seedy to upscale; from party animals at Full M oon raves to Downward Dog at sunrise. Thailand is now a top destination for fitness holidays, yoga retreats and spa breaks.
The fight scene has changed radically too. Iâm in Thailand on a week-long tour of all the top Muay Thai schools, looking for somewhere to spend a few months training next year. I'm amazed by the evolution. Vast, air-conditioned martial palaces with state-of-the-art gyms, nutritionists and paleo-cafes are par for the course since the explosion of MMA (mixed martial arts) and resurgence in boxing took fighting mainstream. Itâs the go-to sport for the beautiful people. On my travels I spot a football star in one camp and have a Victoriaâs Secret model as a neighbour in another. In 2016, Idris Elba spent months in Thailand training for his first professional kickb oxing fight. He won.
Nowhere defines this better than The Siam in Bangkok. Itâs a hotel thatâs famous for its beautiful design, priceless collection of antiquities and â" somewhat incongruously â" Muay Thai. The star of the show is Yin. Heâs an Olympic coach and counts the Thai princesses as clients.
Like a lot of legends heâs smaller than you expect, but still a towering presence when viewed from the canvas. Thereâs an inverse rule-of-thumb in martial arts: the more lethal the fighter, the more friendly they tend to be. Yin is very friendly indeed. Even his broken English makes his deadly art sound delightful. âI hit and make you very sleepy,â refers to a knock-out punch. âYou go to bed with wheels!â He means a hospital trolley.
What I enjoy most is learning about the Wai Khru. Itâs a short Thai ritual set to music that every fighter performs before a bout. Iâll admit, I wasnât massively interested at first â" I wanted to fight not Morris Dance â" but Yin explains itâs about giving thanks and showing respect to your country, the land, your parents and teachers. Itâs good for stretching too. Thereâs also a bit where you mimic shooting an arrow three times at your enemy. You pretend to miss twice but you persevere and eventually hit your target. Sure, itâs a bit âif at first you donât succeed, try, try againâ translated into dance, but one of the joys of travel is hearing home truths in foreign tongues and seeing them afresh. And if mantras and words-to-live-by are your thing, The Siam has its own tattooist who does magical-religious Sak Yan designs (think of the mystical diagrams gracing the shoulders of Angelina Jolie and Cara Delevingne).
If you want MMA then head for Bangkok Fight Lab. Itâs run by Morgan Perkins, a softly spoken Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt from Utah who has lived in Bangkok for over a decade. The place is like an aircraft hanger â" it has a Muay Thai ring, a caged octagon, lots of mats to roll on and endless punchbags. At one end, scores of men and women climb up and down very long, heavy ropes beneath a ceiling fan the size of a helicopter rotor. Itâs like a scene from James Bond or Austin Powers, with n injas training inside the baddyâs secret base.
I decide to take a brief break from getting my arse kicked and check out the pros at Lumpinee Stadium. It turns out to be exceptionally cheap to get front-row seats to some amazing fights. I take time to watch the crowd too, observe the trainers and their fighters, and breathe in the Tiger Balm-laced air â" this is Muay Thai.
Next Iâm off to Koh Samui, where I go to train with Ralph Beale at La Mai Muay Thai Camp. âHal f Thai, half Cockney,â Ralph is a humble man with an incredible passion for Muay Thai. People travel from all over the world to train with him, around half of them women. Kelly Hayes, a British fighter, is there at the same time as me, training for one of her big bouts while her boyfriend goes sightseeing.
Although Iâm training at an intense camp, I opt for a little more luxury with my hotel choice and stay at the Four Seasons, which has villas scattered across a lush green hill that slopes steeply down to the beach. Impeccable staff scoot around in golf buggies ferrying guests between massages, scrubs, facials on the beach and yoga in the treetops; thereâs even a Muay Thai boxing ring perched on top of the hill.
Beach holidays, infinity pools and feel-good therapies usually bore me senseless; this time, I love it. Having released my Tyler Durden Iâm more than happy to embrace my inner snowflake. Yoga? Itâs great for those high-kicks. Spas? Pop another cucumber on my swollen eye, please. They even offer a Muay Thai Recovery massage with herbal steam.
Later â" kale, spirulina and lemongrass smoothie in hand â" I get all reflective in my private infinity pool and realise just how insufferable Iâve become. But I donât beat myself up too much. Itâs much more fun to hire someone to do it for you.
An eight-night trip to Thailand with Abercrombie & Kent costs from Â£3,450 per person, B&B. This includes three nights at The Siam Bangkok and five nights at The Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui in a one-bedroom villa, plus a five-day Muay Thai tour, international and internal flights and private transfers.Source: Google News Thailand | Netizen 24 Thailand