I arrived into Phuket at some terrible time in the morning, and found myself in the Northern bus stop, traditionally placed irritatingly far outside of the city centre. I found the only other westerner on the bus, an American girl called Katie, and we formulated a plan to get to Kata beach; by coincidence, it turned out that we were staying in the same hostel. We ignored the standard horde of taxi drivers and tuktuks trying to pick us up, and made our way down to the main road, to avoid a premium rate.
However, it soon turned out that the whole of Phuket is stuck at a premium rate, and the men at the bus stop had only been trying to slightly rip us off, so we ended up paying an extortionate 200 baht for a 5km ride into town. From there we sat in an open backed bus which was supposed to take us to the beaches.
Which it did.
I was staying in FIN Hostel; a hostel that was slightly more expensive than I was used to paying, but also highly rated, and still pretty much in-line with the rest of Phuket. It had one benefit however; for some reason, the double beds in the dorms were priced the same as the single bed. So for my time in Phuket I’d have twice as much room to roll around in at night. Definitely worth paying for a an extra dollar.
It was 8am when we arrived, and check-in wasn’t until 1pm. We had 5 hours to kill until we could go through and claim a bed. I dropped off my stuff, and took a three hour nap on a bench, before wandering over to the beach. The hostel was covered in slogans about how surfing was the best thing ever, so I was excited to see some of the big waves on Kata beach.
It quickly became apparent that the only big things on Kata beach were the middle aged rotund Russian men that had seemingly swarmed the beach and taken over. Apparently Phuket is a popular destination amongst Russians, for its nice beaches and the fact that Thailand is a relatively easy place for Russians to get into. They had certainly made the most of it here.
I paddled in the sea for a little while, tried to see if my hard won Russian skills had given me the ability to understand the snippets of conversation I heard (it hadn’t), and then wandered back to the hostel, via the 7/11, toasty in hand.
For those of you who have never visited a 7/11, they’re very similar to most western supermarkets, but with a key difference; they sell toasties, in sealed packets, that they will put in a toasty maker whilst you wait. The toasties are great, they’re quick, and 7/11s are open pretty much 24/7, so you can get them whenever.
6 months later, my enthusiasm for 7/11s still hasn’t waned, even though the Filipino 7/11s don’t actually do toasties. It’s the closest thing to a western shop they have out here, and it reminds me of home and Tescos. Or Sainsburys. Whatever.
Over the next couple of days I went and saw a Big Buddha, some waterfalls, and took a small trip around the island, all with various people I met in the hostel.
I did some more research, and found out pretty quickly that Kata beach was, indeed, great for surfing. If you were there in April. In early February, the waves didn’t get much above 10cm high, and the only things that could surf on those were ants.
Inspiration came from a guy called Will, a French/German guy who had come to the waterfalls with us, driving a scooter when it turned out that none of the girls who had wanted to come along were willing to drive themselves. He told me about how he had spent a month in a Muay Thai gym when he was in Krabi, and it had been a great experience. He’d heard that there were a few gyms in Phuket; maybe I should look into it.
After going to see the Big Buddha, and being depressed by the sight of a baby elephant chained up by the side of the road, I went to check out some of the gyms in Phuket. There were a few, it turned out, and the most famous (or best advertised) was Tiger Gym.
They had a pretty cool gym. There were some buff guys standing around looking angry and occasionally hitting each other; plenty of punch bags; a few boxing rings for sparring – pretty much what you’d expect, especially from a gym with a name like Tiger. We wandered around for a little bit, but was quickly informed that the office was closed for the evening, the information coming with a hint that maybe we should leave. So we did, and I decided to rely on the internet to make my decisions.
The next day I emailed a man called Kittisack, who owned the Suwit Muay Thai Gym in Phuket, asking for the price for a week of Muay Thai training with accommodation. I received a response pretty quickly; for a month at the gym, with 4 hours of training a day, and a private room with double bed and private bathroom, I would be charged approximately £300. For a single week it would be £120.
If I’d had more time I probably would have signed up for a full month; even if I’d been staying in hostels in Thailand, £300 a month was bloody cheap. As it was, I had a schedule to keep to. I wasn’t 100% sure what that schedule was, but I knew I couldn’t stay in Phuket for a whole month. Even though I was pretty sure I would be a hardcore completely ripped fighting machine by the end of it. Probably.
If it’s not clear by now, and you haven’t looked it up, Muay Thai is a martial art, also known as Thai Boxing. It’s got a lot of kicking and elbowing and kneeing in it, and can get pretty brutal. It’s famous in Thailand, as a martial art developed many hundreds of years ago, when it was used in war against the Burmese. It looks pretty cool too.
The next day I headed off to the Muay Thai gym, saying goodbye to the friends I’d made at the hostel. I’m pretty sure I agreed to go to Burning Man with two Americans, Cammy and Chris, that I met, but I’m still not completely clear on what it is. Burning things and getting drunk seem to be a key part of it though, so it can’t be that bad.
One extortionate motorbike taxi ride later and I was walking into Suwit Gym, handing over 5000 baht to Kittisack to cover my week’s worth of training and accommodation. I was told that I should be up and at the gym for 8am the following morning; I would meet everyone then.
Suwit Gym was a professional muay thai gym, which housed about 14 students while I was there. These students were all westerners, coming from all parts of the globe: Canada, US, UK, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, you name it. I was there for the shortest amount of time; there were some people who intended on spending the best part of a year there. Most already looked like the kind of people you wouldn’t want to take on in a fight.
I went to bed, a bit worried about what I had signed up for. Certainly more exercise than I had done in months.
I woke up the next day at 7.40am and got dressed into my swim shorts and a tshirt. Not seeing anyone else up or around, I headed by myself to the gym.
I was met by a group of 6 or so westerners who were stood in the gym, using the punchbags, skipping ropes, or weights, all in a pretty decent shape, all looking pretty dangerous. They were all happy to say hi and introduce themselves when I came up, and to show me the ropes. I was informed that I would be given a personal trainer, a professional Muay Thai trainer and fighter, who would take me through the techniques and moves used in Muay Thai. Until that time, it was worth warming up with a skipping rope and some quick punches and kicks on the bags.
If I fancied it then I was more than welcome to come on the warm up run at 7am every morning.
Sounded like fun.
I never ventured deeper into the gym, where I gathered there was a whole different segment of people training for Muay Thai; there were plenty of people in my half that were friendly enough, and it almost felt like a clique. There was Ras and John from Denmark, Chelsea and Tim from the UK, Jeff from Canada, Sanj from all over the place, John from Sweden, and a huge Russian guy that seemed to swing past every day or so, almost destroy a punching bag, and then jog off again. It was a good group of motivated people that always wanted to help others improve on technique and fitness. Four days in, when I hadn’t spent much time grappling, Jeff, and Mau, his trainer, were more than happy to spend twenty minutes showing me the different ways I could be slammed into the ground. They were a great bunch.
I met my trainer a half hour later; a new guy called Pu. He was a short, skinny Thai guy, who looked like he’d be dropped in one punch; this probably meant that he was on to be a champion fighter, as the skinny Thai fighters tended to just be springier, and able to get a rapid shin kick to the heads of westerners over 6 foot tall. His English was bordering on the non-existent, but we managed to communicate enough for me to know when he wanted a cross, a jab, a knee, a kick, or an elbow. It quickly became engrained in me that ‘Whupan’ meant a jab followed by a cross, whereas ‘pan’ was just a cross. ‘Abba’ was an elbow.
I was informed later that these weren’t Thai words, but just random noises that Pu had made up.
Over the next few days I got into a routine of running in the morning, followed by 2 hours of training; then a two hour nap, a quick swim in the pool, some lunch, another nap, another 2 hours of training at 4pm, and then dinner at around 7pm. After that I would either go and chill out in my room, or would hang out by the gym, where a few people would be found for a little while before bed. I was surprised at how quickly I got into the habit, and how much I enjoyed it. Talking to Ras and John, who had been at the gym for 2 months, and were staying for one more, I found myself jealous of the time they’d had there, at the increase in fitness they’d managed. John was even fighting on the Friday; his first, and last proper Muay Thai fight. He was receiving 3000 Baht (£90) for fighting, and if he won then it would increase to 5500 Baht. It would effectively pay for half of his month at the gym.
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much of a drinking culture, due to the fact that even a slight hangover would completely put you off the 2 hours of training at 8am, but there was a good camaraderie amongst all the people training, and every now and then there would be group dinners and outings.
My fourth night at the gym was a Friday, which meant that there were fights on at the stadium. Every member of the gym got free entry, so we all got our stamps and sauntered upstairs to our section, sitting above all the people from outside that had paid to enter. It was mostly westerners, although there were a few local Muay Thai enthusiasts, and a few of the older western gents had brought their suspiciously attractive female Thai friends along.
John was fighting, so we were all ready to support him. There were also two other members of the gym fighting; a 16 year old Japanese lad called Haruka, and a 7 year old kid that no one knew the name of, but was recognised as being the young son of one of the trainers. Apparently children fought in these stadiums as well.
The evening started off with the Thai national anthem, which we all stood for. Then the fights began.
The kids were first. They were about 6 or 7, which meant that they were physically lifted about by the trainers, as apparently it was easier than letting them move of their own volition. They were then given a strange hat, and proceeded to undertake a strange solo procession around the ring, with a bow at each corner, ending with them kneeling in the middle of the ring rolling their arms and shoulders around like a psychic fighting off the spirits of Hawaiian dancers. Once this was done, they got to fight.
It was probably for the best that the fight only went on for 3 rounds, instead of the normal 5, and that the kids weren’t really capable of doing any real damage to each other. After 3 rounds there, thankfully, had not been a knock out, but it was clear that the kid from SuWit Gym had not been the best fighter. He still got a loud cheer from our side of the room.
A few more fights had Haruka in the ring, fighting a well built Thai fighter from a different gym. These two also undertook the ritualistic pacing and arm waving, before squaring off against each other.
Haruka, it turned out, was a relatively well-known fighter back in Japan, at their version of kick boxing. I’d not seen him train, but everyone who had had said it was impressive, and it came across when he was fighting; Haruka seemed agile and all his moves seemed smooth and calculated. After the first round it looked like he was going to win, and just needed to push the advantage home. Unfortunately in a game of punching and kicking each other until the other one gives up, just one punch or kick can change the whole thing, and Haruka took a punch to the face that took a serious toll on his ability to fight. In the third round he pulled out, unable to continue fighting.
This left two more fights, although only one that we really cared about: John’s.
This was John’s first ever fight, so he was pretty nervous. I nipped outside to wish him luck as he was having his hand wraps done up and his arms and legs covered in boxing liniment; a kind of oil that smelt like tiger balm and caused your muscles to burn as if they’d been set on fire. Then as he headed in, I climbed back up the stairs to watch.
It was strange how into the fighting I got, especially since I didn’t really know any of the people fighting; when it wasn’t someone from our gym we tended to just pick a side at random and then support them throughout the fight. When it’s someone you do know however, you’re much more invested, and screaming for blood.
John’s first round was unspectacular; he was a tall lad, against a normal sized Thai guy, and he let himself get pushed around more than he should have. Fortunately he had some people in his corner giving advice; Kittisack, the gym owner, and Sanj, a veteran fighter. Apparently Kittisack was known for his advice following the lines of ‘Don’t let him hit you! Kick him’, so it was good that Sanj was there for some more useful tips. At the beginning of Round 2 John was much more focussed.
And it showed. In round 2, John pushed forward, being much less defensive, more willing to risk himself with a punch or a kick. At some point his opponent went for an ambitious kick that ended up hurting himself more than it did John. He ended up limping off, and suddenly the fight was over. You can’t fight a Muay Thai fight when you’re unable to support your own weight. John was declared the winner; the first and last Suwit winner of the night.
That night a few of us went out for drinks to celebrate. It wasn’t a heavy night, but not a single person made the 7am run the next day, and very few appeared at the morning session. Since I was paying about 30% more per session than everyone else, and due to the fact that I only had about 14 sessions in total, I forced myself to go, sweating out everything from the previous night and feeling terrible about it. But I did it.
I had three more days at the gym before I had to leave, but I hadn’t yet committed to any plans after the gym. People had told me that the islands were worth visiting, but I wasn’t really feeling in the mood for islands. I had 2 months until I had to be in Vietnam to meet my step brother; maybe it was time to add an unplanned country into the mix.
I applied for a visa to Myanmar. You can do it online, it costs about $50, and practically everyone I knew who had gone there recommended it. I did some research, and found that there was a border crossing just 3 hours north of Phuket; it was all adding up. In an effort to be super organised, I also booked a night’s stay in the first place I could find worth staying; Myeik. With a bus ticket to Ranong, the border town, I was pretty much set up for the next part of my trip.
We were given Sunday off, so I had a lie in, then hired a scooter and went to see the island. I was slowly starting to believe that scooters were the best method of transportation ever invented, with the built in air conditioning, the nippiness, the way you could just glide around everyone and everything in the road. And in south east Asia, the scooter is king on the roads. Everyone bows to you, everyone knows that you’ll be filtering through to the front of the traffic light queue, to join your royal brethren before you fly off the millisecond the light turns green.
So I spent the day lying on beaches and visiting viewing points. It was a great day. I got a lot of reading and sleeping done, and I saw lots of pretty stuff. What else can you ask for?
My last two days of training went by quickly, too quickly, and I resolved to return one day, for a reasonable length of time. There was some real fellowship within the group, and combined with the fitness you gained and the skills you learnt, it was a great place to spend time. Considering you could get it all, with food, for £350 a month, it was not a bad option for a few cheap months away from home.
Maybe next time.
Tim offered me a lift to the bus station at 6am on Wednesday 15th February, which I gladly took; a mototaxi at that time would have cost close to a tenner. We arrived shortly after, and I said my goodbyes, and headed on to the bus.
It was time for a new adventure, in a fairly new land. Everyone said it was best to get to Myanmar before tourists ruined it, which seemed a bit lacking in self-awareness, but there you go. I was about to do the same. Why not?