Martial Arts, Travel Writing

Boxing and detoxing in Thailand

The Thai word for ‘jab’ seems to be trong. And I think ‘right cross’ is wiang san. But before I can translate suey to ‘upper-cut’ I’m smacked on the head with the pad that was supposed to meet my fist.

In the Horizon Muay Thai training camp on Haad Tien bay in Koh Phangan I am trying to remember the word for sorry. My instructor knows little English and conversely I know little Muay Thai. He shakes his head and gestures I go shadow-box with the others.

The horizon Muay Thai camp

There are twenty people in the class pounding the humid air around me. A couple of men and women, myself included, are here for a casual class between afternoon hammock-swinging and evening Singha-swigging.

The remainder are hard-bodied and focussed young Westerners (usually male) staying in the cliff-top camp to greatly improve their practice, often to a competitive level.

The tough style of kick-boxing using elbows, shins and knees is Thailand’s national sport and therefore taken very seriously. By committing to a tough schedule of twice-a-day, six-days-a-week sessions with former and currently fighting instructors, many of the students have gone on to beat locals in real Muay Thai fights on the island.

A Muay Thai fight
A Muay Thai fight

After the dizziness from my pad work subsides, I am motioned into the ring to spar with the other trainer. Phu is small enough to fit in my backpack but his glistening body of densely defined muscle looks as if he is built from blocks of marble. As I circle him I’m sure the others can see the fear in my sweaty pink face and my lips moving involuntarily to the Rocky music playing in my head. He comically puts one arm behind his back and gestures that this might even my chances. It doesn’t.

I limp off in the worst kind of pain – self-inflicted pain – when my kick spectacularly mis-lands and my foot meets his marble elbow. He looks down with the urgency normally reserved for the tickle of a fly, and lets out a laugh that I’m sure he scolded himself later for being unprofessional.

My bright future as a Muay Thai fighter shattered like so many bones in my foot, I make my way down the cliff-side steps to the beach below.

The tough and physical Yang of my holiday finished, I can gleefully resume the gentle soothing Yin of my plan; my lavish pampering at The Sanctuary Spa and Wellness Centre only a glove’s throw from Horizon.

Haad Tien is a small enclosed beach on the east coast of Koh Phangan, a strategic two bays north of the full-mooning neon-raving Haad Rin, and only accessible by long-tail boat. This positions it as a semi-private, tranquil and deviously clever place to build a resort. Enter The Sanctuary, a world famous (ask Marian Keyes) centre of spa treatments, yoga, meditation, fasting and delicious vegetarian food, cosily squeezed between dramatic rock-face and lush mountain jungle.

Haad Tien bay
Haad Tien bay

First order of business is a Thai massage for my traumatised muscles. This is offered in almost every room with a rug and a ceiling fan in Thailand, and some of the ‘practitioners’ can inflict more pain than Muay Thai fighters see in the ring. But here certificates of qualification on the wall and the blissful expressions of exiting guests indicate no such suffering. I change into loose pyjamas provided, lie on the floor and the masseuse performs a kind of passive yoga on me, stretching my muscles by gently bending my legs and arms around her body. After an hour I come out feeling like a piece of toffee in a most wonderful way. Food metaphors indicated my hunger, so I skip down the few steps to the restaurant.

Haad Tien bay
Haad Tien bay

How an establishment can serve food this delicious and run a successful fasting program seems like dubious business sense to me. But indeed the hammock-strewn wooden deck built artfully into the large rocks is full of people gorging themselves with masaman curries and murmuring “best I’ve ever tasted”. While across a small stream another deck hosts smugly glowing people mid-detox sipping herbal tea and reading books about colon cleansing. One girl in my yoga class chirpingly announced she was on day eight of her fast and “wasn’t even hungry”. A combination of discovering the best veggie burger I’d ever tasted and my boyfriend’s reaction (“why would we pay to not eat food?”) kept me from the fasting route, but all around me people were loudly extolling the benefits.

Daily yoga classes, motionless snorkel-floating in the clear sea and communal dinners of karma-neutral food relaxed me enough to forget all the foot aches and pad flashbacks. Just to be sure though, I signed up for another massage.

I wonder, what’s the Thai word for ‘softer’…

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