training in Thailand: the tough life of a nak muay
Muay Thai training has a completely different meaning here In Thailand. In this post , I describe what Muay Thai is from the perspective of a local fighter. First of all, it is much more than a sport. It’s a life choice and a lifestyle. It is also a way to escape poverty. In rural areas, where farmers often don’t own land and cannot offer much in terms of schooling and future to their children, parents introduce the most promising son to a kaai muay, a Muay Thai camp. Note that the word kaai also indicates in Thai language an army camp. It won’t be far away from home as there are hundreds of such small camps throughout the country. Aspiring fighters enter Muay Thai training at a very young age, often as young as six or seven. Upcountry camps are populated by kids that often don’t go past primary school. In the kaai muay, the young fighters train, eat, sleep and grow up together, like little soldiers. In my opinion, this is the main reason that prevents foreign fighters to defeat a Thai in the lighter categories. No European or American kid will be able to train as early and roughly as his Thai counterpart. When a kid starts kicking the pao at the age of seven, it is scary to imagine his skills at the age of twenty. Sometimes orphaned children, or children from very poor families, may be sent to a Muay Thai camp instead of a monastery. Due to this social environment, Muay Thai training in Thailand is a world few foreigners manage to see or experience in the same way as a Thai.
The greatly respected founder of the camp, called ajaarn, traditionally pases his skills and techniques, to one or few pupils, called kruu, who have a very important role. The teacher (kruu) is a mentor, a fatherly-figure, a friend and a strong presence in every nak muay’s life. Love and respect for the kruu are expressed beautifully in the pre-fight wai kruu performance.
As a member of a big, extended family, the young fighters train everyday, fight against other kids from nearby camps, trying to make a name for themselves. In time, the cash prizes (always shared with the kruu and the kaai muay management) will grow and the nak muay will start earning a living, fighting as often as possible to maximize his chances to make money for the camp. At this stage, promoters start to play a major role in a nak muay career..The few who reach the ring at Lumpini or Rajadamnern stadiums can say they’ve made it and will earn enough to ve considered quite wealthy back home. The ones who don’t make it will fight in upcountry boxing stadium for a lot less and will gravitate around the camps to work as trainers or assistants.
In the old days, a retired Lumpini champion either opened a restaurant or started his own kaai muay, capitalizing on his popularity. But in the past ten or fifteen years I’ve seen a different pattern emerging among successful nak muay: they’ve discovered there is literally a world of opportunities to make money outside Thailand, fighting against foreigners who can’t wait to challenge them. The best example is Buakaow Por Pramuk, a flamboyant nak muay who never quite made in Thailand and went abroad to beconme a living legend in Japan, the hero of K-1 tournament, and the most paid fighter ever in Thailand. Another option for a retired nak muay is to teach Muay Thai, by being invited to various schools to conduct seminars and stages and/or by living abroad full time.
The level of adulation and respect Thai fighters enjoy in the West is not even comparable to what they get at home. In Thailand, a nak muay’s place in society isn’t very high: for a foreigner, it is weird to meet ex-fighters, who fought at Lumpini in their heydays, earning a living as gamblers or taxi drivers. Thais are very fond of Muay Thai as a part of their cultural heritage, but any middle class family would be pretty horrified if a son wanted to become a professional nak muay, instead of going to college and get an office job. The reality is that Muay Thai is a very tough and rough way to earn a living, filled with injuries, hard training and not much money, so only the poor and the uneducated take such a path.
The daily life of a nak muay
The daily routine varies from place to place. Professional fighters usually train from 6:30 am till 10:30 am, then again from 3:30 pm until 6:30 pm. It is common for everybody to wake up at sunrise, to take advantage of the cool morning air and do jogging for at least 1 hour. The morning run is followed by a shadow boxing session. Then it’s personal schedule: some fighters work on rubber tires to reinforce legs and knees, others do sparring or sets of combinations at the banana bag. Every activity is timed by a bell at five minutes intervals. As an extra exercise for strengthening the body, some athletes may work with weights, or do sit-ups or pull-ups. A classic old-style training is the reinforcement of the neck’s back muscles (to avoid being knee-ed in the chin): holding a bucket of water in his teeth, the nak muay lifts it for a certain number of times, developing an unbendable neck. After the morning session the fighters take a shower, eat all together (mostly Thai or Lao-Isaan food), and go to rest. Everyday duties, like washing clothes, cleaning, buy supplies at the market or simply take a nap have to be performed during these hours when it’s too hot to train. In the afternoon, the same training routine is repeated more intensively. This is the major factor that separates beginners/amateurs from professional fighters: the intensity of every training activity, especially sparring.
Below there is an example of a professional Thai nak muay training schedule – not for amateurs!
Morning Muay Thai training
06:00 – Warm up
06:15 – 1 hour jogging
07:20 – Drills (knees, kicks, punches, elbows with training bag)
07:30 – Shadow boxing (5 to 6 rounds)
08:00 – Training bag techniques (4 to 5 rounds)
08:30 – Kick pads workout (2 to 5 rounds)
09:00 – Clinching/Sparring (up to 5 rounds, alternate days)
09:15 – Drills (knees, kicks, punches, elbows with training bag)
09:35 – Exercises (sit ups, push ups, chin ups)
09:50 – Shadow boxing (2 to 3 rounds)
10:05 – Cool down, end of morning session, rest
Afternoon Muay Thai training
16:00 – Warm up
16:10 – 3 to 5 km jogging
16:35 – Skip (4 rounds)
17:00 – Shadow boxing (5 to 6 rounds)
17:30 – Training bag (6 to 8 rounds)
18:10 – Kick pads workout (5 to 6 rounds)
18:45 – Clinching/Sparring (5 to 6 rounds, alternate days)
19:15 – Drills (as in the morning)
19:35 – Shadow boxing (3 to 4 rounds)
19:45 – Cool down, end of the day
Thai nak muay diet
Thai food is very various, rich and very healthy. Thai people, including Muay Thai practitioners, generally eat 3-4 dishes of steamed rice per day with small portions of whatever they fancy with it: curries, meats, seafood, vegetables. Thais don’t eat a lot, but eat very often. They always seem to nibble on something: fruits, dried fish, small chunks of roasted meats. All dishes are prepared using fresh ingredients and are highly nutritious, with very low fat. A young man will have rice porridge with pork or seafood for breakfast, plus a few snacks during the morning. For lunch, an abundant dish of rice with a few spoonfuls of spicy curries will do. In the Nort East of Thailand, where most the nak muay are from, boiled rice is substituted by balls of glutinous rice (kao niaow), usually dipped in ultra-spicy sauces, accompanied by barbecued chicken or fish. In the afternoon, fruits dipped in sour sauces are the most popular snacks. Dinner, usually eaten at about 18.30-19, can be a more abundant version of lunch.
Thai training in Thailand for foreigners
For a nak muay wishing to seriously train hard as Thais do, nowadays the choice is enormous, but still limited to those camps where English is widely spoken. Dealing with foreign practitioners, who pay the highest tuition fees and make the camp wealthy, is a good business and more and more camps dealing almost only with foreigners are popping up everywhere. In comparison with the camps in the West, the ones in Thailand appear more rustic, with more space open-air, obviously due to the hot and humid climate. The Fairtex camps in Pattaya and Bangkok maintain very high standards, comparable to those in USA, and look like resorts for fitness enthusiasts and well-off tourists than kaai muay. Camps like FAIRTEX, where foreigners can train in air-conditioned rooms, use the best Muay THai equipment, buy whatever they need directly inside the camp, rest in a resort style environment are the easiest way for a non-Thai to start training in Thailand. Apart from the instructors, you won’t see many local nak muay there.
Many foreign Muay Thai champions have spent years training in Thailand and fought with Thais, too, but very few have had the chance to live in the small kaai muay upcountry. In some places the kruu may be reluctant to take on foreign trainees because of the language barrier. Thais, from all walks of life, always feel shy if unable to speak English with the foreign visitor. Being good-natured and kind, they also worry the foreigner nak muay, even if very motivated and willing to work hard, won’t be able to endure the harsh living and training conditions of the camp. Also, very pragmatically, Thais think that if a nak muay is unable to generate cash for the camp, why train him?
If you want to test your determination, your humbleness and your fighting spirit, you may select a camp upcountry and ask to be accepted. The best way to persuade the surely puzzled kruu is to learn the rudiments of the language first (it takes about 4 months, studying very hard) and then convince him with your eloquence and good manners. When a farang speaks Thai well and know how to behave politely, Thais are compelled to offer him the same courtesy and many doors may open. However, be prepared for total culture-shock. Forget about the lovely first impressions you had about Thailand (the Land of Smiles!) and the kindness of the easy-going people. Instead, be prepared to be challenged and tested in every possible way, not only physically but also culturally. As you abandon your status of “wealthy tourist” to be a nak muay among nak muay, in a low social strata, you become an intruder with a lot of money, not necessarily always welcome. Your Muay Thai training will be the hardest you’ll ever experience in your life, but the unique experience will definitely be worth the struggle. Chok dee! (good luck)