Like many people who visit Thailand, the lure of learning Muay Thai was strong for Tom and me. At this point we’d been travelling for a year, had eaten and drank waaaay too much and (unlike Tom) I’d done barely any exercise. I was more unfit and out of shape than I’d ever been, and Muay Thai training seemed the perfect way to remedy that. Three weeks might not be nearly long enough to go from lazy layabout to Thai fighter, but it’s long enough to notice improvement and get back on track.
We spent a lot of time researching different gyms. We wanted to find a gym that had a good trainer-to-student ratio, nice facilities, comfortable accommodation and decent food options. Based on these factors (and a series of rave reviews on TripAdvisor), we decided on Sumalee Boxing Gym in Phuket, a Muay Thai gym run by an English woman, Lynne Miller, and her daughter Rhian. So how did we get on?
If you’re thinking about training in Muay Thai in Thailand, you should probably prepare yourself for one of the most gruelling and exhausting, but also rewarding, enjoyable and memorable experiences of your life. For those first few days, Tom and I were squeaking with pain each time we got up and wincing as we walked. But it got better.
The main thing to accept is that unless you have experience in fighting or are already very fit, the training will be a big step up in terms of intensity. There are two sessions held six days a week, the first from 7:30 to 9:00 and the second from 16:00 to 18:00. The sessions are hard, and for someone unfit like me, very hard. Regardless of fitness level, training in a tropical climate is a challenge. To say I’ve never sweated so much in my life is a severe understatement. I don’t think I’d sweated so much in my life as I did that first week!
Each group session at Sumalee follows a similar pattern: about 20 minutes skipping rope, then stretching, wrapping hands, shadow boxing and technique work, three rounds of sparring, three rounds of one-on-one pad work with a trainer, three rounds of heavy bag work, and then a ‘cool down’ which seemed to consist of endless sit-ups, press-ups, kicks, knees and elbows. We always ended with a little ‘thank you’ ritual, which was a sweet way to finish up.
For me, the warm up – 20 minutes of straight skipping – was the part that I struggled with most, simply because I didn’t have the stamina. I was exhausted after a few minutes, struggling with the technique (‘proper’ skipping’ isn’t what you did as a kid!), stumbling over my rope and stopping and starting. But, as with all exercise, the encouraging thing is how quickly you see an improvement, and after a few days I was able to skip ‘properly’.
Though my fitness level was improving, I still had to take quick breather stops, and it gave me a new appreciation for skipping as a form of cardio. I might be able to run for 20 minutes without stopping, but I couldn’t even do five minutes of skipping without a break. The intensity was something I’d never experienced before, but at the same time the sessions genuinely are suited for all levels: if you need a break, you can take one; if you don’t, keep on going.
The trainers at Sumalee were all a delight. Young, fun and ridiculously fit (most of them were still active fighters, though a few were “too old” at 28), they were dedicated and ambitious but always good-humoured. It’s definitely advisable to get some one-on-one lessons to improve your technique. If you’re a novice it takes a while to achieve the correct striking techniques, and even a single individual lesson will help you improve at a much faster rate. The resounding smack of your shin or glove correctly striking the pad soon became the most rewarding sound I could imagine.
Aside from its well regarded trainers and gym, the other factor that made us choose Sumalee was the camp itself. We might have been travelling for over a year, but the idea of staying in a dingy room for three weeks – especially after blitzing it in the gym every day – didn’t appeal to me. Sumalee promised “western standards of service, accommodation, facilities and food,” and thankfully, it delivered. Aside from the tip-top gym the camp also has a outdoor swimming pool and sun-loungers, a weights room and a beautiful yoga studio where you can take lessons.
There are seventeen rooms on-site, ranging from twin rooms, kingsize rooms and Thai-style lodges. If you’re looking for something a little more luxurious (surprise! I was) there are also four suites set apart from the rest of the camp that allow you more privacy and space. I came to love our suite. After so long on the road it was just nice to be somewhere we could unpack our bags and relax for three whole weeks, and it quickly felt like home.
The Sumalee suites have everything you need. They’re made up of an open plan lounge and bedroom area, a writing desk, and a kitchen area with a microwave, kettle, toaster, blender and a fridge/freezer. The suites were cleaned daily, the shower was good, and it was generally a far cry from the bleak ‘gym room’ I’d been imagining. It was satisfying to have a routine again: get up, train, breakfast, relax, write, lunch, train, dinner.
Which brings me onto the next point: the food. It’s obviously important when you’re working out to eat well-balanced, healthy meals, but it’s also important to actually enjoy them. The Ringside Restaurant at Sumalee was excellent, and had a wide selection of Thai and international dishes to choose from. We came to look immensely forward to dinner times, where we’d choose from dishes like stir-fried vegetables and chicken (tofu in my case) and massaman curry, chat with the other students and complain happily about our bruised legs and aching arms.
Three weeks at Sumalee went quickly, and Tom and I were sad to leave. We’d become attached to our new routine, our accommodation, the fun-loving trainers and delicious meals. But the good thing with doing something like this is that while the experience is temporary, what you learn isn’t. I will definitely be continuing Muay Thai training when I get home, and I’ll wear my Sumalee shorts with pride.
(Thank you to Gunn Taylor for allowing me to use his images!)