We arrived in Chiangmai on Thursday afternoon. Coming from the airport, the little neighborhood in which the gym is located became recognizable very quickly. We checked into the same hotel we stayed at last time and walked over to the camp to say hello. I was able to make it to 4:00 training and was surprised to even see some of the same faces of people who were training the last time we were here, two years ago.
The first day of training wasn’t easy. To be more accurate, the first half day of training wasn’t easy. There’s something to the process of acclimation when jumping into full-time training at a Thai camp. It’s small things, not the rigor of 6 hours per day of training. My feet aren’t accustomed to the cement floors and the humidity, so for two days they were being shredded on the bottom where callouses were insufficient. The bags are hard in some places and soft in others, but if you kick with the same power without first locating these spots on the bag you easily bash your shins in a way that is good – it does toughen them – but is quite jarring and can slow down drills for that session.
Pad work is another thing entirely. Nok picked me up immediately, getting me in the ring with him almost the moment he saw me. His whole process is causing you to lose your rhythm, getting you to fall into little traps and laughing with genuine glee as he tricks you into missing or getting slapped in the face for falling forward on a punch. Once you know his game it’s not difficult to solve these things – just don’t fall for it. Wait when he tries to make you miss or throw something other than what he’s holding for. He’s one of the souls of Kiat Busaba that makes it such a wonderful place and I’m very happy to train with him, but he’s also an “entry level” stage in coming into the camp. You have to work hard with Nok in order to be picked up for pad work by another trainer.
The second day of training I woke up very early and got to the camp by 5:00 AM in order to meet Andy. I’d misunderstood from his explanation the day before and missed going up to the lake with him, but I did get back from my run in time to see him return and we got to some pad work. I love the way Andy holds pads. It’s intuitive in a way that a fight should be – he challenges you and gently pushes you into corrections in a manner that is very productive. I learn an incredible amount about myself in 20 minutes on the pads with Andy. He had to leave for work, building rings in various locations around Chiangmai and areas adjacent, but I stayed on to do some bag work. Nok, either not having realized I’d just done pads with Andy or not caring that I had, pulled me into the ring for some boxing sparring. That was fun and incredibly frustrating. He loves games and even though he doesn’t hit hard enough to hurt, he hits accurately enough that even a light punch is startling. We went 5 rounds before he nodded, letting me go, and I went to get some water. No sooner had I drunk half the glass than he called me back into the ring for more pad work. Right. He repeated this entire process in the afternoon session.
I told Den I wanted to fight in about 2 weeks. He said that was fine and I added that I want to fight a lot, many times. He smiled a very wry, Den smile and said OK. I noticed then that none of the Thai boys were training and deduced that they must be fighting soon – turned out they were fighting that night. Unfortunately I was too tired to attend – I’ve been passing out at about 8:30 every night and sleeping straight through until getting up for the morning run. It’s not a restful sleep, but it is deep. I can’t recall dreaming at all, although I have woken up a few times with my legs twitching in sleep kicks.
In the morning Den held pads for me, bringing me through combinations again and again, diagnosing me in a way to see where I am in terms of being ready to fight, how to match me, etc. My knees are very good, although my kick has alluded me for whatever reason. It’s getting better as I focus on it, stepping across and rotating my shoulders. I think Den wanted me to knee up into his pad, rather than in to his belly pad, but that’s not the way I’ve trained. So I kneed in, stabbing and with great force. I’m certain I didn’t hurt him, but he definitely felt it in a way that was different from what he wanted and must have been uncomfortable because he started jabbing me in the abdomen every time I kneed, trying to take my wind. I just let him, trying to figure out a better way to do more damage than I was receiving and, ultimately, I think I won for my own purposes. I like that my knees are strong because they come from Master K. When I got out of the ring not one but two trainers toyed with me, pretending to attack and I gave it right back, causing them to retreat in a joyful, very Thai pretend fear. It feels like acceptance to be messed with like that.
In the evening session Den asked me if I wanted to clinch, which I very much did. He put me in the ring with Boy, who happens to be Den’s nephew and seems to have changed the least since the last time I was here. He was 13 then and 15 now and has clearly spent a lot of time clinching. He was a good practice partner and did right by me. He started out slow, certainly maintaining an upper hand the whole time, but he advanced slowly, escalating only gradually as I began to try harder. He dropped me to the mat many times, flipping me quickly and adroitly to the floor with nearly no effort and smiling to his friends “off stage” while I scrambled to my feet and started again. All of the tricks I thought I knew were easily and swiftly solved or reversed by him and he got my head down into a terrible position that would have ended in a knock out so many times I can’t count. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing what to do, but of not having the appropriate response time to avoid it. This is something I can get better at, though. I did get emotional, having been so thoroughly lost in knowledge and dominated by technique, but I am happy that I kept going and ultimately felt grateful for the experience rather than defeated by ineptitude. One of the greatest difficulties of training in an art like Muay Thai is that you are always training for a fight, both in the body through technique and in the mind and heart through how you respond and deal with being overwhelmed emotionally. I’m getting better at that part.
I spent a long time on the bags while fewer trainers than usual took people into the ring for pad work. It was Saturday and it felt lazy, like the week was ending, like there were fights late into the night before and everyone was ready for Sunday’s rest. I’d been on the bags for about an hour and a half when a trainer sent one of the young Thai fighters to get me, pointing to the ring. I grabbed some water and reported to the ring. This trainer actually knows me from the first fight I had upon returning to the States last time because he was guest-training at the gym where my opponent trained. We’d only really met at Lanna this time though. He’s very instructive and thorough in his technique, which is very nice. I learned a lot and he was generous in the details and breadth of techniques he offered. There were ticks I have that he didn’t like and he made me work hard to overcome them. He worked with me for a long time, maybe 10 rounds, before lighting began to flash around the tin roof. Moments later, the electricity went out and the threat of rain breathed heavy into the gym. Thunder sounded and the dogs started barking and jumping into the ring. We tried to do some focus mitts in the dark but it was growing darker and he suggested we should break. A few people gathered their things and ran out of the gym, hoping to get home before the rain started but there was no chance – the sky cracked open and the water poured down as if the clouds were being wrung out.
There was nothing to do but wait.
A few trainers and one student set up a little table in the women’s ring and started sharing a beer, singing “Happy Birthday” to Neung, a young Thai fighter who’d been strutting around all day, partially from his win the night before but certainly because of his birthday. Some of the late-comers kept pounding half-heartedly at the bags and a few men lifted weights so close to the mirror that their noses might have touched the surface. I sat covered in sweat and with my arm wrapped around a shaking dog, watching as the wind tore off pieces of the blue tarp that hangs from the tin roof, tossing them onto the floor near the ring like sea-creatures washed ashore. Kevin sat next to me in the dark, every sound muted by the crash of rain all around us.
After about 20 minutes the rain let up enough that it seemed reasonable to make a break for the apartment. I zipped up the Helium jacket that Kevin had bought for me, an ultra water-resistant and light weight jacket that met the approval of Daeng, a trainer who ran his finger down the sleeve after asking in disbelief if we were going to go out into the rain.
There is no way to prepare for this rain. One can watch the sky, but you never know how close the rain is and you can either hide yourself away or know that you may be stuck in darkness for a while as the world outside is swallowed by storm for a time. You’ll have to stay where you are until the storm rides out – the decision is where you are and with whom you wait in darkness when the storm first hits.