The morning light trickles in through gaps in the drapes and dances across the orange stained glass of my front door, synchronized to the crowing of the roosters behind my hut signaling another dawn. My pillow is matted with sweat from the thick heat seeping through the fissures between the wood siding of my hut, promising a sweltering morning training session. I reach for my phone only to pull my hand back as if given an electric shock. Facebook, Instagram and the rest of the world can wait. A yellow dappled gecko tentatively peeks its head above the crossbeam dividing my room from the toilet to say hello, a welcome visitor when compared to the cockroach that dropped onto my bed the previous night and the spiders crawling over my balcony. For a second my mind wanders to unproductive thoughts of poisonous bites and travel insurance. I find my center and breathe deeply through my nose for a three count, letting tendrils of warm jungle air ease through my body and slowly leak out between my barely open lips. Time seems to slow down with the rising and falling of my chest, closed eyes straining to pierce the haze of dreams gone by.
The cacophony of crowing roosters and buzzing insects fades into the background as I grasp at the images slipping through my mind’s grasp, as if my hands were clutching a handful of sand and each grain a minuscule part of the whole disappearing into a golden sea of time.
A few weeks ago I had a long talk with my Aussie friend Alex that I had met at a guesthouse in Chiang Mai. Alex is one of those few kindred spirits that I could talk to for hours about anything and everything. This particular conversation centered around first thoughts in the morning and what our natural routines were. I was ashamed to say that the first thing my waking mind grasped for in its semi-comatose state was a tiny black box with a bright screen, hopefully containing messages from the outside world. I had fallen into a pattern of checking social media and messaging platforms as my first waking actions instead of reflecting on the previous day and appreciating the extremely cool activities I had lined up for the next 24 hours. Much of that can be blamed on travel and the disconnect of being away from the familiar, but I know that it’s something me and many others struggle with back home. These devices have become part and parcel of our identity, our lives defined as much by our Facebook profiles as by the conversations we have in daily life.
Pai was having the intended effect I had in mind before coming here. Its mesmerizing scenery, relaxed vibes and rigorous training was slowing me down and distilling my thoughts, changing me one simple breath at a time.
I’m winded and gulping down air, sweat glistening off of every inch of my dark skin. Hamish throws a hard push kick that I parry and return with a roundhouse kick. It’s going better than the last time we had sparred three weeks ago. He had dropped me with that very same push kick to my liver, bringing me to my knees as the world grew dim in a cocoon of sharp pain. Later that evening we would cross paths at his hostel; I hadn’t recognized him and he introduced himself as ‘the guy that kicked your ass this morning’, with me laughing at his joke and pretending that I didn’t think he was an asshole. But all of that was in the past and now I finally had my chance to settle up. It turned out to be an even match, and even more importantly Hamish turned out to be a quality human that I spent time hanging out with.
Controlled and mutually agreed upon violence can make for fast friends.
One minute and a rushed gulp of water later and I was facing Daniel, a broad Korean-Dutch trainer that had a defense straight out of The Matrix. We make for quite the contrast, him barely breaking a sweat and me looking like I had just hiked through the impenetrable undergrowth surrounding the gym and fell into a jungle river on the way in. I throw a left kick to his lead leg, hoping to use it to get inside and land a left jab, overhand right combo. My gambit is over almost before it starts, Daniel knocking my pathetic kick to the side with a leg block and using the momentum to extend that same leg into my stomach. I’m rocked backwards as he advances, relentless and implacable as a force of nature, his fists and feet lashing out in combinations of lightning and thunder. I retaliate, but it’s like raising a fist to a hurricane. My shins are sore and my shoulders feel like they’re on fire from keeping my hands high. I’ve become a friend of frustration. An example of embarrassment. The minutes seem to drag by as I go into survival mode, waiting for the round to end with gloves glued to my head.
Two weeks on and I’m still not a fighter, but I’m settling well into the realization. Guys like Daniel have studied Muay Thai for most of their lives, adapting their bodies to the daily grind of a warrior’s existence. They are masters of violence, combining timing, precision, strength, speed, conditioning and knowledge into a fluid dance that has become as instinctual as brewing a morning coffee.
They flow seamlessly from one strike to the next, while I’m busy wondering if my ability to create metaphors and personify inanimate objects will suffer from the last head kick I just absorbed.
I’m learning despite these hurdles. The butterflies at strapping on gloves and shin guards before a sparring session have been replaced by an iron resolve. I move with an economy of effort, hammering away thoughts with snapping limbs in serpentine strikes where before I was ponderously lashing out. Things are coming together like a well oiled machine, greased by sweat, tears and sometimes blood. If I were trying to become a professional Muay Thai fighter like Daniel then this would be an exercise in futility. As it is we’re both artists in our own right, me painting by numbers and he crafting a masterpiece. Yet, how else would we push our boundaries without these types of challenges?
This was a true test of my physical and emotional limitations: rolling out of bed and making my way to Charn Chai twice a day, six times a week to get my ass handed to me. Inane things that mattered at home have fallen by the wayside, like getting worked up about a caustic email from a colleague or being stuck in traffic for an extra fifteen minutes. Was it really just a year ago that I was sitting at home mapping out a future with a girlfriend that I knew deep down I had no business being with? It seems more like a lifetime ago, during a time when the expectations of family, friends and society provided the guidelines of how a man in his mid 30s should live.
It was a warped, parallel universe where I was shopping for a Chevrolet Corvette and other junk I didn’t need, attempting to fill an empty void with inanimate objects that could help glaze over an existence where I felt more spectator than participant. Maybe it was entertaining. Maybe it was lucrative. Maybe it was even fulfilling, in the same way that a McDonald’s double cheeseburger sates hunger after a night of drinking when tomorrow is just a fleeting thought. But that life was never fully mine.
This is something else entirely. I’m where I want to be, in my element learning a new skill set and crafting a leaner body, both of which are merely the cool side effects of the accelerated growth that can be generated by fighting and being humbled in paradise.
The mountains loom over Pai, clouds of mist rolling down the lush jungle and disappearing as if they were an ephemeral breath from the gods watching over the emerald land. It’s an early morning at my crew’s favorite restaurant. We’ve decided to skip morning training for thick coffee shakes, kombucha tea, plates piled high with eggs & veggies, and rich slices of chocolate & carrot cake. Food has come to define our existence as much as Muay Thai, and somehow we’ve managed to strike the perfect balance between the rigors of training and indulgence. Our favorite food stalls dot a kilometer long stretch of walking street, a culinary Eden of black bean buns, savory & sweet crepes, chive cakes, coconut balls, stuffed curry puffs, pad Thai, mango sticky rice, veggie rolls, avocado & tomato bruschetta, springs rolls, thin crust pizzas, barbecued skewers and steaming cups of chai masala.
Abs are definitely not made on Pai’s walking street.
It’s coming up on our time to leave. I could easily stay in Pai, its relaxed vibes, friendly locals and delicious food a trap that beckons to the mind, heart and stomach. I’ve made many friends here, with two of the closest ones having left earlier this week. My heart feels stuck in my throat at these goodbyes and I almost want to avoid them altogether hoping that it would make things easier. Sincerity and camaraderie have become unwavering features of our crew, brought on by the knowledge that our time together is precious and limited, and further tempered by the heat and hammer that is Charn Chai Muay Thai.
Boris and Gigi, wandering aficionados of violence are off for more training down south. Jess is heading to Vietnam for a quick stop before going home to continue her studies, and Marica can barely contain her excitement at getting to see her boyfriend back in Sweden in less than a week. Maik, Felix, Sam and Claudio are sticking around to hone their skills a while longer, as is Jordan, a professional fighter who has a match coming up in two weeks. Frida and Nettie, long time fixtures at the gym also have fights coming up. Meanwhile Jack, Lina and I are off to Myanmar for a ten day Vispassana silent meditation course free of technology, books and socializing – an experience that promises to work our minds just as we’ve worked our bodies.
It’s been barely a month here, but this mere blink of an eye in my existence will shape my decisions in the years to come. Time moves forward inexorably like the sun marching across the azure skies, burning away any transitory fog of melancholy. We must march forward with it or be marooned in the past. Yet, I’ll forever miss my new friends and Pai all the same.