My foot nearly slips on my own puddle of sweat as I dodge Turbo’s body kick, only to have the Thai’s left hand snap my head back in a lightning quick jab that brings the comfort of sleep for but a fraction of a second. Part of me wants the rest, while a distant part of my mind reminds me that I really should have brought a towel for all of this sweat.
That’s a weird thought to have while getting my ass kicked.
I force myself to focus and block a follow up straight right, left hook combo, back up and throw a push kick to Turbo’s midsection that manages to delay my impending doom. He breaks into a grin that’s notably missing a couple of teeth, then proceeds to pepper me with rapid strikes worthy of his nickname. This is a relationship built on power and the imposition of wills. Respect given and taken in a flowing exchange of controlled violence.
It’s Wednesday, which means it’s sparring day at Charn Chai Muay Thai. In a typical class we start off with three rounds of jump rope and push ups, followed by techniques, pads and heavy bag work. At this point I’m usually covered in a sheen of sweat, the ubiquitous mosquitoes that call Charn Chai’s open air gym home finding few safe places to land. But I digress; we’re not done yet. If we’re lucky we get to do dips and back extensions next. If we’re unlucky we get to push ourselves through an especially unique type of hell dragging tires in a circuit through muddy, lukewarm water home to insects and frogs.
Then it’s a finisher of roundhouse kicks through five trainers, lastly followed by core work and stretching. I’ve done the numbers. In one class we throw at least 140 right kicks, 140 left kicks, 120 knees, 100 push kicks and countless push ups & sit ups.
Two hours a day. Twice a day. Six times a week.
This has become my existence over the last two weeks and there are very few places I would rather be. The first week was the toughest with fatigue quickly setting in and my 35 year old frame screaming at the lack of recovery time. I’ve had to shovel my pride to the side and skip a class or two. No one here at the gym would call me a fighter and my exes wouldn’t say I’m a lover. I’ve never been great at either of those, but what I can do is translate my experiences into words, a language in itself as much as those spoken by the fighters in their harsh guttural tones of power and graceful inflections of speed.
The gym is the great equalizer. No one cares where you came from, with most classes more representative of globalization than a United Nations conference. There’s no judgement on body type or experience, with newbies and avid enthusiasts dropping in from anywhere from a single session to months at a time. Yet, even here an elite exists.
A core group whose aptitude in violence exceed those of the average, differences as apparent as a pride of lions placed next to a herd of gazelle. They live and breath Muay Thai. Maybe even dream it. It’s a sacrifice that us hobbyists don’t have the time to commit to or are simply unwilling to make.
This special breed of killer is precise and efficient in their movements, creating a symphony of violence with fists and elbows striking out in a series of unending percussive impacts, kicks and knees staccato thuds punctuating the air like beating drums.
So, how did I end up here?
Flying into Chiang Mai was surreal, like I was crossing into a city cut from rolling mists and emeralds hills, the rubies and sapphires of colorful roofs saturating the landscape. In a way it it felt like a homecoming.
Let me explain.
I have a history with Thailand. It’s been 14 years since I’ve been here and that wasn’t even my first time around. My first trip here was in 2002, when I got ‘bitten by the travel bug’ on my first solo trip. I was a naive 20 year old kid that knew next to nothing and thought he knew everything, the innocence of ignorance both my strength and my shield.
It turned out to be a life changing experience despite my shortcomings, and one which led me back to Chiang Mai and eventually Pai. I know that Thailand gets a bad rep for being played out and packed with tourists. It seems that everyone I know has their stories of Full Moon parties, white sand beaches, Sangsom buckets and ping pong shows.
As I raced down the narrow Old City streets of Chiang Mai in a familiar yellow tuk tuk with colorful signs blurring by, I couldn’t help but put on my own rose colored glasses and take a nostalgic trip down memory lane, letting the chatter of vendors and scents of spicy foods wafting through open air restaurants assault my senses and take me back to a less complicated time.
Yet, I was dimly aware that sitting in the past wasn’t exactly the best use of one’s time when one was actually in the place one was reminiscing about. I needed to appreciate the present moment and the circumstances that had brought me here. The city’s energy and vibrancy may not have changed, but I was seeing it through eyes that have been educated in the halls of university and the school of life. Eyes matured by responsibilities, expectations, mortgages and steady paychecks.
However, first I had some unfinished business.
Jai Yen Yen. The literal translation to English is ‘cool cool your heart’. I’ve taken the meaning to be more along the lines of being mindful and finding your center. In 2003, a Thai I had met in Haad Yuan once said it to me after I had become visibly frustrated and irritated about an issue, likely something inconsequential given that I can’t even recall what it was about. I had opened up and delved into my history of getting bullied and growing up always having a chip on my shoulder.
A big fucking chip.
I decided then that I was going to get it tattooed on the middle finger of my right hand, the Thai script facing me in a constant reminder of the weakness in insecurity and frustration. I never had it inked back then, my broke ass being down to my last few hundred dollars that was barely enough to get me to South Korea and set up to work English teaching gigs that paid under the table. It was also one of those things that I couldn’t have done anywhere else. It had to be Thailand, even if it meant waiting 14 years. It might not carry the same meaning since I don’t need the reminder as much these days, but it’s value is of even greater significance. I’ve grown beyond the instinctual cave man that needed to look down at his hands to caution against making a mistake. This is a badge of pride. A symbol of slow growth and steady progress. And besides all of that it looks fucking badass.
Oh. So you’re wondering why I would train in Muay Thai if I’m all about a ‘cool cool heart’.
This little adventure isn’t just about learning a set of dangerous skills. This is about ditching those same responsibilities and expectations that had matured me over the years. This is about freeing myself of a steady paycheck that had started to look more like a set of handcuffs rather than a useful tool. And more than anything, this is a return to the childlike enjoyment of something pure.
There is no agenda or schedule. No goals or metrics. There is me and an open air gym full of wiry gladiators to learn from on a daily basis. A martial routine as different as one could imagine from the sedentary office life I had left back in Calgary. My most critical task each day is to get through both classes then figure out what I should have for dinner – a responsibility that me and my teammates take quite seriously.
And so, I find myself here in paradise with new friends and harsh teachers. Training in a pursuit that brings equal amounts of pain and joy, and using my fists, elbows, knees and shins to express my will in a way in which words would never suffice.