"How I became a Muay Thai boxing fan in Phuket..."
For centuries, seasoned fighters and enthusiastic novices have flocked to Thailand to learn the sport of Muay Thai. Patong proves to be the perfect place to learn the captivating “art of eight limbs”.
- October 2019
“One!” he shouts. I make a left jab. “One two!” Left jab, right hook. “One two!” Left-right again. I drop my hands. Gotta keep them up – “Block!” A kick… but my brain doesn’t register in time and I’m gently knocked in my lower left ribs. Were the kick not coming from my benevolent trainer I’d be a goner. He laughs as I wipe my face with a ringside towel.
“Let’s go again,” I say with determination. “That’s the last kick you land.” Gloves on. Jab. Hook. Jab. A kick…Blocked. I did it! I blocked him. But, a second later, another one comes. My trainer, 33-year-old Kamphol Jitbumrung, is like a 178-centimetre Thai spider. Smooth in his movements, unpredictable and quick to take advantage of my weak left guard. Muay Thai isn’t known as the art of eight limbs for nothing.
Developed centuries ago, this close-combat martial art uses all parts of the body as both weapon and shield and is Thailand’s national sport. Although calling it a sport seems to take away from the cultural and historical significance of Muay Thai. It’s a proud tradition and a seamless blending of art, passion, physicality and self-expression.
It’s the hope of discovering why Muay Thai plays a significant role in Thailand’s national identity that has brought me to Patong, on the west coast of Phuket. The island, 850 kilometres south of Bangkok, is a favourite destination among international tourists who are drawn to its long stretches of white sand coast, quaint villages and numerous beach resorts.
At the end of my training session, I climb out of the ring and gaze onto the streets as I dry my sweaty hair with an already damp towel. The panoramic view from the top-floor gym at the newly opened Hotel Indigo Phuket Patong is inspiring. With its chic neon-lit design, lush greenery and a spectacular rooftop pool, it makes for a soothing retreat in the heart of the hustle and bustle of Patong, though you can make it less restful by booking a session in the Muay Thai boxing ring with a professional trainer at the hotel’s state-of-the-art gym.
A few hours later, I kick-off my night close to home at the hotel’s Pots, Pints & Tikis – a modern bar where the young, hip crowd like to start the evening with cocktails before hitting the chaos of Bangla Road, Phuket’s nightlife hub located a 10-minute walk away. If you’re after well-priced drinks, street performers and fascinating people watching, this is the place to go.
But before I drown my senses in its colourful chaos, I decide to soak up the arts and take in a cabaret show. Not your ordinary run-of-the-mill cabaret though – this is Simon Cabaret, one of Thailand’s most famous ladyboy productions, which promises a “glamorous evening with a spectacular show”. It certainly delivers – this cabaret is professional and entertaining. An explosion of colour, originality and grace, the performers light up the stage with their songs and dances that take the crowd on a journey across time and cultures. It’s easy to see why visitors flock here every night.
After the show, it’s time to enter the realm of the “disco” tuktuks. There’s really nothing like traversing this buzzing nightlife hub in what is essentially a mini nightclub on wheels. The experience is even sweeter when you add champagne and good pals to the mix.
I come to the realisation that I won’t survive the night on a liquid diet. Luckily Patong is renowned for its food and offers an ever-growing list of authentic eateries – from hole-in-the-wall family restaurants to hip beachside cafés.
Chalong Bay Distillery provides the perfect opportunity to enjoy a tasty assortment of all that makes Asian food great – think light yet hearty pad Thai and tender, aromatic chicken satay skewers – accompanied by a skilfully mixed Mojito in a tranquil outdoor dining area. For something a little more homely, do your tastebuds a solid and try the chicken on offer at Briley Chicken Rice. The name says it all… It’s chicken. It’s rice. It’s bloody good.
While there’s great food everywhere in Patong, Kalim Beach – a five-minute tuktuk ride to the north – is a go-to when the sun goes down, as there’s an endless array of late-night street food vendors. A highlight was ordering a plate of pad kra pao and banana roti, then heading down to the beach to enjoying this simple but delicious meal by the water’s edge. Perfection.
Offering local flavours of a different kind, Butcher’s Garden back at Hotel Indigo showcases high-quality local meat and is the only restaurant in Patong with a dry-ageing cabinet. A Muay Thai fighter does need protein and I enjoyed getting stuck into a tender 160-day dry-aged steak. Pescetarians are also catered for, as the restaurant serves excellent seafood from the Andaman Sea.
The problem with having a big night out is that it’s not conducive to optimal Muay Thai training the following day. At 7am the next morning, I’m pretty groggy when I meet up with Kamphol in front of the hotel for a run in the morning sun. It’s already a humid 33°C.
Once I take my mind off the heat and the symphony of jackhammers pounding away in my brain, running starts to feel really nice. I follow Kamphol through the streets of Patong and by the time we arrive at the beach I’m actually enjoying it. Wild.
Thailand is home to some of the world’s most spectacular white sand beaches and Patong Beach is no exception. The scenery is stunning and I’m beginning to feel like running seven kilometres before training – standard amongst professional fighters according to Kamphol – won’t kill me. Even though we don’t run quite that far, the humidity is getting to me by the time we get back to the gym and the air conditioning offers a welcome respite.
With gloves strapped on, we get into the ring and Kamphol begins to test me with punches and kicks. I can’t believe how much I’ve learnt in just one day. Kamphol, a former high-level fighter, was born to teach. I’m landing combinations that seemed completely impossible a mere 48 hours ago and it feels good. Really good. There’s something addictive about making rapid improvement in a pursuit that only yesterday felt so foreign.
We take a quick water break and when I confess to Kamphol that I’m considering leaving my old life behind and joining an intensive Muay Thai training camp, I’m only half joking. “See, it’s easy!” he says with a laugh. “And with practice it will be even better.”
It’s all about connecting the brain signals and the muscles to produce automatic responses, which comes in time. It’s only my second session and already I feel a lot sharper, more confident and find certain actions becoming automatic. “When you taught me the knee guard in the first session I’d get all crossed up in my feet and basically trip over myself,” I tell Kamphol, as we’re strapping our gloves again. “I’m not having that issue today.”
He smiles knowingly. “Everyone is like that in the beginning. My first time was the same.”
The following day I get a ringside seat at a professional Muay Thai exhibition fight; it’s fascinating to watch the fighters’ hands and feet become like swords and daggers – swift weapons of war. While their knees, shins and elbows – toughened and calloused by years of vigorous training – act as robust guards, they are just as swiftly utilised when defence switches to offence. The raw emotion and energy of the fight has me hooked.
On my last day in Phuket, a few hours before I board a flight back to Melbourne, I have one last chat with Kamphol. He tells me about his life as a young fighter, his training and the untimely injury that cut his career short. But it’s when the conversation swings away from his achievements, and he talks about the youth and future of Thailand, that Kamphol is visibly filled with pride; despite the heat, goosebumps develop on his forearms as he speaks of the young fighters he trains and the growing global popularity of Muay Thai.
For Kamphol, Muay Thai represents a noble way of life – one that teaches young Thais the importance of discipline and not giving in to the struggles they face inside the ring and, more importantly, outside it. “When you feel so very tired, you’re hurt and you want to stop, you cannot do that. You have to keep going, you have to fight... with your heart,” he explains. Pausing for a moment, he looks me right in the eyes and says, “And when you do that, when you fight with your heart, you feel special – fantastic.”
“People think Muay Thai is difficult,” he continues. “That’s not correct, it’s very easy – I think you can agree.” I can. This deeply ingrained facet of Thai culture is as much a mental pursuit as it is a physical one – once you get the hang of all the basic moves and combinations and begin to get into a flow, the experience is almost transcendent.