Thai Culture in a Muay Thai Boxing Ring
Niamh Griffin postfight at Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
The supermarket parking lot had been transformed into a boxing arena with lights strung from the walls, and a makeshift gate where the trolleys usually sat. The competitors were all Thai—except for me. The crowd was all Thai—apart for a few friends of mine. We were as far from the backpacker vision of beaches and cheap shopping as you could get without actually leaving Thailand completely.
Thailand used to be the Mecca for alternative travelers, but busy airports and charter flights full of tourists have convinced many that it has little-to-nothing to offer anymore. Yet it is still possible to see how wrong that image is the minute you step away from the guesthouse scene populated by foreigners which permeates much of the country.
Like many foreigners who love Thailand I had started my life there as a teacher. But I had been frustrated by the gap between the new culture I was being exposed to and my inability to adapt; not speaking the language was a barrier for any real communication. Then I was randomly introduced to a Thai boxing gym. Such a discovery was bound to happen in a country where boxing stadiums are as common as basketball courts are in America.
History of Muay Thai Boxing
Muay Thai is one of the world’s oldest martial arts. Written records have been found dating the art back 2,000 years. Fighters use their knees and elbows as well as their hands and legs to score points during 20 minutes of brutal competition. Known as one the toughest ring sports practiced, films such “Beautiful Boxer’” and “Ong Bak” have opened Western eyes to this previously unknown sport.
Although I did not know this at the time, most gyms are home to professional fighters and do not allow tourists to wander in. Luckily I had been taken to a foreigner-friendly gym—you can find more of these nowadays in Bangkok and on larger islands such as Koh Samui or Phuket.
Who You Can Meet
Staying near the gym and training for a few days or even longer is one of the best ways to break out of the tourist box. Instead of only talking to taxi-drivers or hotel receptionists, you are learning from people who are really excited you love their sport. The gyms are usually filled with kids, trainers’ wives and general hangers-on: mostly happy to talk to you and answer questions about Thai culture or food—especially food!
My first session was painful but resulted in a healthy addiction that is still going strong 11 years later. I would be lying if I said I was not nervous and even a little scared at first, but those feelings soon disappeared. Trainers laugh and joke as you try to copy their effortless moves. While you might be afraid of getting hurt, I soon discovered that the heat was the biggest concern.
At first the language barrier still caused problems for me, but when you are having fun with people you find a way to communicate. And slowly, as they convinced me to train more, and then to compete, I found that I was making friends and carving out a life completely at odds with the typical life of a foreigner in Thailand.
Colorful Muay Thai boxing clothes after a wash.
What You Can Learn Boxing in Thailand
Of course not every tourist who steps into a gym will decide to swap their old way of life for a new one. But if you are taking a trip to Thailand and you want to do something more meaningful or physically adventurous than sipping whiskey from a bucket, boxing could be the way to go. Most of the gyms that welcome foreigners do not expect you to stay more than a day or two. If you are lucky you will get to attend a show if someone from the gym is competing. This might be in the local town or could involve a nighttime dash in an open truck flying down the highway to a makeshift stadium standing in rice fields.
Listening to Thai people talk about boxing gives you an idea of the inherent contradictions in their character and a chance to move past the stereotype that all Thais are happy all the time and never have any worries. Their ability to approach this tough sport with grace and serenity never ceases to amaze me. The contrast between how we treat boxing in the West with all the hype, the aggression, and the drama—as opposed to the professional, low-key approach in Thailand—is a good lesson in how different cultures can be.
You will also learn more by having dinner with the people you meet at the gym than from a dozen books on Thai culture.
Where You Can Learn More about Muay Thai
This is the world body governing Muay Thai. Their sites offer more detail on the historical background of the sport, and information on the practice of the sport in your own country of origin.
This camp is on Koh Samui down South – a good example of Thai culture surviving in the middle of the tourist mayhem. Accommodations are provided or you can stay on a nearby beach and walk to the gym.
This gym is in Chiang Mai – more remote, fewer tourists, and a Hill Camp where you can really get away from it all and experience life was it was before mass tourism.
This gym is just outside Bangkok – over the river in a suburb that the Lonely Planet would not rate, yet a great place to meet people and relax while you train.
All of these gyms have instructors who speak English, and they are used to working with students who are maybe not as fit as they would like to be!