Arriving to see someone writhing in agony on a stretcher taken away by an ambulance was not a promising start to my 5 weeks training at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket.
I’ve always been quite adventurous, not afraid of throwing myself in the deep end. That’s literally how I learnt to swim, or rather how I tried to learn to swim as the lifeguard dragged my thrashing body out of the pool. Still, you live and learn — well, live anyway. My introduction to Muay Thai had been a couple of years earlier when rather than find a local club, I thought it better to head to Thailand and stay for 10 days in a professional fight camp. That was Rawai Muay Thai in Khao Lak. I enjoyed it so much that I was back in Thailand for more, this time having two years training under my belt so knew what to expect.
On arrival I scouted out a few places to stay. Most people go for cheap rooms with the thinking that they train all day so hardly use them — my thinking (as is often the case) was rather different. I wanted a bit of luxury and relaxation so that I could collapse somewhere nice, safe in the knowledge the only blood stains in the room were mine. I stayed in Bora Bora Villas and having checked out a few of the other higher end options there am pretty confident it’s the nicest accommodation at least in terms of rooms, pool and gardens. Accommodation ranges from cheap hovels (with in-room seasonal wildlife) to places where you can forget about training and remember you’re on a tropical island.
I’d been travelling a few months so hadn’t trained for a while and was not in the best shape. As a result (or punishment) I threw myself into 7 hour training days from the start and managed to make it nearly two weeks before injuring myself (not really surprising). It's hard to apply common sense there as you want to get as much out of the experience as well as push yourself physically. I made the mistake of going to my trainer and telling him I had a trapped nerve in my shoulder. The Thai approach regardless of the ailment is vigorous massage and copious amounts of Muay Thai liniment — if you're not familiar with this stuff then imagine applying molten lava to your skin. As I lay on the floor my trainer applying his bodyweight to the crispy towel he used to scrape the liniment into my skin, I realised the mistake I had made. Needless to say, this did not help. Perhaps he was simply punishing me for continually confusing him with another trainer (I'm not being racist — they looked identical). Come to think of it, perhaps this wasn't even my trainer...
I was asked by my trainer if I wanted to fight in the BBQ Beatdown — a monthly event at Tiger for fighters of all levels. I initially looked at him incredulously and said no. But after dwelling on it I decided it would be a good experience for me, having never fought before. I mean, what was the worst that could happen (well, death I suppose but more likely broken bones, dislocated joints, concussion and a massive loss of pride).
Muay Boran and Krabi Krabong were the reason I’d chosen Tiger over anywhere else in Thailand, for me the enjoyment is in learning the more technical elements of martial arts. It’s also a nice change of pace from Muay Thai and provides a bit of active rest throughout the day. You certainly get to meet a broad section of society here, I befriended an Indian professional Guiness World Record holder, a South African stuntwoman, a Dutch mid-op transexual and a Belgian pacifist. The Belgian's response to being asked if he was going to fight, "I like flowers and dolphins and shit, not fighting".
As a result of my injury I had to pull out of the fight. Watching the BBQ Beatdown I couldn’t decide if I was happy or sad to be missing out. This was mainly due to the matchups which were very badly done. To be fair they had a limited number of people wanting to fight and had to match them up as best they could. The result was a series of generally very unfair fights. I’m not sure what would have been worse, to be beating someone clearly with less experience than you or being destroyed by someone with much more. I actually found it quite uncomfortable viewing as very few of the better fighters were showing any compassion. The Thais fight with honour and will not generally destroy an opponent if they know they have won. The western mentality was much more going all out for the kill, wanting to get a KO at all costs, not simply to win. It perhaps makes for a better fighter but it’s not a quality I’d like to have.
I'd been helping my trainer send text messages for a while as his English was a little unrefined. One day I realised I'd been helping him have an affair. I was the go between. Having only been involved in the occasional message or sentence construction I lacked any context over the conversation, until she started saying she was getting married and couldn't see him anymore. It was a little late to be too disapproving as I'd been involved in this for a while now — I was also about to be put through an hour of rounds so didn't want to question his morals. On the plus side I was complemented for my English skills (although she did think I was her Thai lover — who clearly had been hit in the head too many times).
After recovering from my first injury I managed to train for another couple of weeks before getting injured again, this time sparring. I always thought I had strong legs and could take a kick but that turned out to be a mistake. I took a couple of hard kicks to my left thigh and decided to return these with a left kick. Unfortunately for me he spiked my leg with his knee (although I hope it was an accident) the result being the side of my lower leg striking his pointed knee and a brief moment of pure pain the likes of which I had never felt before. I had a few moments to myself and being a complete idiot decided to hop back and carry on. Fortunately the trainers took pity on me and gave me someone who clearly was in over his head so I just finished out the session on one leg. So, no training again for a while…
One of the benefits of the injury was being able to see a more genuine side of people in Thailand. I was no longer a tourist with money, I was a person in need of help (or perhaps pity). Locals would offer me lifts when they saw how much I was struggling to walk, a taxi driver got a vial of some green liquid from the boot of his car, insisting I use it on my leg and wouldn’t accept money for it (it didn’t work but it was a nice gesture). After a few days I decided to go to a clinic to get it checked out as I was starting to think it was broken but I didn’t want to bother the hospital in case it wasn’t. I’d phoned before hand and asked if I could just get it x-rayed which I was told was fine. When I got there however I was questioned by the doctor and I think classified as a soft, weak westerner with delicate little legs and no understanding of the concept of pain. He had a good prod of my swollen leg and proceeded to tell me that it wasn’t broken and was just swollen. Feeling a bit silly at hearing this I didn’t insist on an x-ray and just took the prescription and various pills he gave me.
It was a good 4-6 weeks before I could use my leg normally again which was good timing as I was about to go for a very very long walk. I am however fairly sure that it was a fractured fibula — it’s a thin leg bone that just happens to be exactly where the damage occurred.
Tiger is a very commercial operation and is located in a very commercial road having been developed over the last few years to cater for fighters and fitness fanatics. They sponsor a number of professional fighters, many of whom you're likely to see there. This commercialism does provide some benefits. You've choice over where you train and stay. You're well catered for regarding nutrition with all the restaurants and shops offering healthy options and protein shakes. You also have very little in the way of night life to tempt you away from your training (although there is a bar with hookers — this is Thailand). However, all this comes at a price. One of these is the actual price, having been to Thailand a few times before I was shocked at the cost of most things here, it’s a fitness tourist bubble and you are charged a premium for this. There are a couple of proper Thai restaurants (well, shacks) mainly serving locals where you can get som tam, gai yang and khao neow for next to nothing — so it is possible to have the Thai experience if you try — but it’s not easy. The other price you pay is the lack of culture, catering primarily for tourists in such a small location has led to little of the traditional Thai charm so evident in other parts of the country. Rawai in Khao Lak is a much more authentic Thai experience.
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly recommend Tiger Muay Thai. The range of styles and complimentary fitness available is probably the best in the world. I don’t think there’s anywhere else you can study Muay Thai, Muay Boran, Krabi Krabong, MMA, BJJ, Western boxing and K1 or anywhere near such a broad range of styles. There are of course compromises involved with this and if you just want to learn one style then you might be better off elsewhere. If you’re gong there to improve your existing skills then it’s a good idea to get as fit as you can before hand as you'll get a lot more out of the training. If you’re going there just to get in shape then that works too, it will just take a while before you can get the most out of it.
I’m sure I’ll return there eventually and perhaps have my first fight. Once I've forgotten how fucking painful it was that is.