“You! Today you die,” my trainer barks as I pull on my gloves and climb into the ring, giving him a glare which I hope matches his bite. I dodge a high kick and block one to my shins, only to receive a tap to the face that leaves me disoriented. And then it’s all downhill. For the next 12 minutes, I proceed to get owned – jabs to the face, kicks to the thigh, foot tips to the stomach. In fact, the only time I can take a breather is after I’ve been dropped in a most unglamorous manner and crash to the floor. My trainer’s grin never leaves his face, even as he shouts encouraging words of abuse, a reminder that I’m in still in the Land of Smiles. Despite the beating I take, when I limp out of the ring I “Wai” him – bowing my head with my hands together in a symbol of respect and gratitude – for making me feel alive.
Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing, is Thailand’s national sport. An ancient form of combat used on the battlefield, it is as practical as it is deadly. Practitioners are taught to turn every part of their body into a weapon, from shins that impact like baseball bats and knees that can crack ribs to elbows that slice skin open. To keep my body and mind in working order, I make the pilgrimage to Thailand every six months or so, for at least a week. This trip, my fourth, is to Fairtex Bangplee, a mere 20-minute drive from Suvarnabhumi BangkokAirport. Fairtex, Thailand’s most famous Muay Thai brand, has several branches worldwide and is known for churning out a remarkable number of champions – as well as being luxurious and pricey compared to other camps. However, starting at just 7,700 baht (HK$1,700) for a week-long package that includes twice-daily training, meals and accommodation, it is a lot cheaper than staying at a luxury resort.
The daily itinerary consists of two three-hour sessions. Students wake up at 6am and warm up with a run, followed by bag work, and then hitting pads with the trainer. If students are confident, they can move on to rounds of sparring with the fighters in the ring. After eating a healthy breakfast together, everyone is free to rest or sight-see – although you’re best to get some shut-eye to help your body recover before the next session starts at 3pm.
If there ever was a cure for the mundane woes and stresses of over-caffeinated city slickers – and a way to expend your wrath in a relatively wholesome way – it’s stepping into a ring and hitting something as hard as you can. With every loud “thwack” you inflict, your worries seem less significant. Nagging thoughts about your micro-managing boss, your mortgage and that everyone can see your fat thighs jiggle, seem insignificant. The harder you hit, the easier it is to exorcise those city demons. Every ounce of concentration is reserved for your next move and getting an extra ounce of power in those kicks and punches – and perhaps a word of praise from your trainer.
It sounds ironic but the act of hitting an inanimate object like a bag or pad has a cathartic effect, leaving you feeling more relaxed, at peace and mentally alert than any flashy treatment in a day spa would. Integral to the philosophy of Muay Thai is being able to control aggression, and leave it where it belongs – in the ring. Even after inflicting bloody wounds on each other, Thai opponents will hug – and it’s common to see fighters joke with one another minutes after a bout. Professional fighter Kim Khan Zaki, a contestant onMuay Thai reality show Contender Asia, jokes that he stopped getting into fights soon after picking up the sport, because “knowing that I can do some serious damage makes me thinks twice hitting someone”.
My week goes by only too fast, and I return to Hong Kong, sad, but with a spring in my step, and a renewed confidence and the composure to deal with the stresses of the rat race. At work, my inbox is overflowing with mostly silly tasks, but I feel unfazed. I’m surprised when people tell me I’ve lost weight and look revitalized, but the only compliment that makes me blush fiercely is at the gym, when the head trainer quietly informs me that my punches and kicks have come a long way. Why wait six months until I’m out of shape again? I’ve decided I’m going back next month.