Muay Thai Training Part 2: Friends, Food and Fighting in Paradise

Pai, Thailand:

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.

 

Muay Thai Training Part 1: I’m a Writer, not a Fighter

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.

Charn Chai Muay Thai - Tire Dragging / Tire Runs

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.

Charn Chai Muay Thai - Technique Work

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. 

Charn Chai Muay Thai - Pad Work

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?

***
Chiang Mai

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.

Chiang Mai - The Best Tattoo Studio

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.

***
Pai

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. 

Pai lunch time

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.