Below is meant to be a helpful guide, something that I wish I had when I first came to training Thailand. These are just things I’ve noticed in my 4 years of training and fighting here and are not hard and fast rules to follow. If you want to be polite in Thailand gyms, in a culture that is different than your own, these are just a few things to look for. There are of course a wide variety of gym experiences in Thailand, and things that are impolite in a small, family Thai-style gym might very well be common in a larger, western-oriented camps near beaches. Know though that even in large, commercial gyms many of the trainers were raised in more conservative environments. This is a “err on the safe side” list. Keep in mind that in the smaller, family style gyms, you are actually in somebody’s home.
- rinse before clinching
- breathe right in padwork
- how to eat at a communal table
- what to call your trainer and others
- who and how to wai
- what to look out for when changing padholders
- what should women (and men) wear in the gym
- showing respect in padwork
- tipping out your corner
- how to enter a gym
My first visit to Thailand was 10 weeks long, split between Chiang Mai in the North and Bangkapi just outside of Bangkok. In all that time, Kevin and I never entered any temples, even though we really wanted to. My Thai friend Ying expressed shock at this and when I explained that we hadn’t dared to go to any temples because we don’t know how to conduct ourselves properly and were too afraid of doing something inadvertently offensive, Ying just stared at me, “you just go in,” she said.
There are, in fact, a few things I know now about visiting temples that make it more comfortable for me, knowing I can conduct myself with good manners. How to sit, lowering my head, where to leave your shoes, appropriate non-contact with the monks, etc. The only real risk I ran, because I’m generally polite in my own culture, was not understanding the contact with monks issue. Not because I would go and expect a handshake or hug or whatever, but because when receiving something from a monk you should put your hand out flat and let him drop the object into your palm, so there’s no contact. If you’re giving something to the monk, women place the object on a folded cloth which is then reeled in by the monk – again, no contact. So, I didn’t risk some huge gaffe, but it’s one of those things that makes me far more comfortable knowing than not knowing.
So, in the interest of people like me who might have anxiety over how they’re meant to conduct themselves in a Thai gym, this is a list and discussion of gym manners that might help. Keep in mind, if you forget all of these and come to Thailand without remembering any of them, you’ll still probably be fine if you just conduct yourself in ways that are polite in your own culture. I can think of almost no examples of things that are polite in the west that are impolite in Thailand. Rather, it’s that there are things we don’t think about at all that are impolite, not things we think are good form.
As a final note, in many cases a relationship will become less formal over time. So, while you may want to present yourself on the side of conservative manners at the onset, the more you get to know your gym and become part of it, the more you’ll adopt the particular behaviors of that space. I do caution women on this though, particularly in looking at those around you to see how you should behave. You’re not a young Thai boy (the fighters), a middle-aged Thai man (the trainers), and if there are Thai women at your gym they are likely not in your social category either. So, looking to these examples for how to act isn’t always the safest bet. I learned how to wai by imitating the men at my first gym in Chiang Mai and was told by the mother of one of the boys, “you wai like a dude; it’s not beautiful,” (i.e. not polite). So, to use a western example, if you learn to fist-bump with your gymmates, try to make an effort to note the difference between that and a proper handshake for when you are actually in a handshake situation.
Entering a Gym
When you first arrive to a gym, you might not know who anyone is and so knowing who is in charge can be anyone’s guess. It is customary to acknowledge the oldest and highest ranking of a family or gym first, but you don’t need to ignore someone right in front of you in order to seek out the highest rank. For example, when I walk into the gym there may be a number of trainers visible all at once. I wai to my trainer, Pi Nu, first because he’s the head of the gym and my trainer, then I’ll extend the greeting to the men around him even though many of them are older than Pi Nu. (You’ll learn people’s ages as you go.) If Pi Nu is not looking at me when I come in and I see the other trainers first, I’ll greet them in order of their ages or as close to that order as is reasonable without ignoring anybody. The only people I ever ignore in order to say hello to someone else first is kids who are much younger than I am; it’s their job to be polite and greet me first, because I’m older. So, don’t wai to the little kids first – they ought to say hello to you and you can return the greeting, which may not include the wai at all, just a nod in acknowledgment is fine. Pi Nu’s mother never wais back to me, she only ever slightly nods her head, which is fine because she’s twice my age.
Something I’m terrible at is stopping for the greeting as well as making sure I’m fully facing the person I’m saying hello to – this is mostly because I’m still a shy person at heart and I hate calling attention to myself in social settings, I’d rather just slip in unnoticed. So, don’t wai as you walk or twist sideways; face the person you are greeting. I mean, it’s not the end of the world if you do this, but it isn’t polite. You can also get away with not wai-ing all the time; it will depend on your gym and you’ll get a feeling for whether it’s expected or not. Watch what the Thai fighters do and do that, but with some interpretation for your own age. There is such a thing as over wai-ing; westerners might really want to be polite and so wai all the time to everyone (often to children too) and with an exaggerated, deep wai usually reserved for very high authorities. This isn’t impolite, but it can be comical to Thais, like saluting your waitress or calling her “madame”, or extending a handshake to an 8 year old when you enter a room. It takes a little time to get the hang of it, but largely the wai is an acknowledgement to someone in charge or someone older than you.
Here is a basic How to Wai video by the always cute and wonderful Mod:
Feet Are Very “Low” – The Head High
Many know that you should not sit pointing your feet towards someone in Thailand, and especially not towards a sacred statue or a respected elder, but it goes much beyond this. As a westerner, and a soccer player as a kid, it was pretty habitual to use my foot to move my gym bag or anything else that was on the floor out of the way. This is something frowned upon here; in fact, I had a vendor at a fight chide me on this while I was getting ready on my mat – it’s not an “upper society” offense, it’s everyone. And it isn’t just moving or touching things with your feet. You keep hands and feet separate in almost a Kosher sense. A good example of this: my glove laces were getting very rank so I thought I’d be clever and just buy shoe laces to replace them (stinking glove laces can make things unpleasant for everyone). These were brand new shoe laces. But when I showed up at the O. Meekhun gym with my gloves newly laced Sangwean noticed the difference between glove laces and shoe laces immediately. Those go on your feet, not your hands (and hands go near to the face). I never would have thought of it and the laces had never touched shoes or feet. But they’re for feet, so they don’t go anywhere else. There was also a fellow who hung his running socks up to dry on the pull up bar at Lanna, which is actually above everyone’s heads. Not only is this putting something for your feet where your hands should go for pull ups, it’s placing them very high above everything. It was a serious enough offense that one of the trainers actually said something. In terms of disgust, it would be like blowing your nose on shared hand-towel in someone’s family bathroom.
The opposite of the feet is the head. It is the sacred center of a person. This is why you wai or bow. You direct the sacred part of yourself towards an authority out of respect. So touching someone’s head is not something you should do, even in jest. It’s something of an intimate act. In this regard if you are walking in front of someone who is an elder in a distinct sense, it is customary to stoop slightly as you walk by, symbolizing that you are beneath them. It isn’t expected that farang do this at all, but if you do it will be read as very polite. If you pass between people speaking, do the slight bend to acknowledge the interruption. Like how you would to duck past people watching a screen.
Hygiene, Showering and Rinsing
Thais shower a lot. All cultures have an association between cleanliness and moral conduct, but Thais in particular seem to view dirty people as somewhat morally dubious – something to consider if you are backpacking your way through Southeast Asia and have let your hygiene go the way of the wind – I had one backpacking guy training at the gym proudly proclaim that he had not washed his underwear all week. Alright then. So, if you’re training two sessions a day you should expect to be showering multiple times per day. If you’ve just woken up from a nap or been out and about before training, it’s a good idea to take a quick shower before training. When transitioning from regular training to clinching, it’s a courtesy to your partners to rinse your body off with a splash-bucket or under a hose (most gyms have an area for this) before starting to clinch. Also, if you’ve done padwork and bagwork prior to clinching, take off your wraps and give your hands a good washing before you clinch – stinky hands suck for everyone. In the afternoons I often go to three different gyms (padwork at one, clinch and sparring at another, and then clinch again at a third), so it is a concerted effort on my part to keep up with this courtesy. Even bringing extra shirts can not be enough, so I also have a little bottle of body soap at all times so that I can “wash” my T-shirt between gyms and before clinching. It’s just something to be aware of.
Some gyms will still have squat toilets, others might have a western style toilet with no flushing mechanism. For both these situations the way to clear the bowl is by dumping water from a bucket that sits right next to the toilet directly into the bowl. Go ahead and splash water all over the seat or where your feet go on a squatter, rinsing the whole thing is good. Refill the side bucket as a courtesy to the next person.
Some gyms have meals for their fighters right at the gym. If you can rinse off and/or change out of your training clothes before sitting down to eat, absolutely do that. For men, wrapping a dry towel around your waist after a rinse off is fine. For women, a fresh change of clothes is the best option but if you don’t have that just make sure you rinse off. Pi Nu teases this one little Ukranian kid at the gym by reminding him, “ap nam gorn gin kao” (shower before you eat) every single time the kid is leaving the gym in the evenings. I joke with Pi Nu back by frowning and saying, “wait, which one first?” But it’s kind of a big deal. Nobody will likely say anything to you if you sit down in your sweat-soaked training shorts to eat, but they’ll murmur about you. Just because Thais don’t say anything definitely does not mean they don’t notice. I got an earful from a trainer at a different gym, about another westerner who would eat at the gym but not shower or rinse or anything prior to sitting at the table; obviously nothing was ever said to the offender, but based on how it was told to me this was a serious insult. Maybe like coming in from the garage with engine oil all over your hands and sitting down for dinner, grabbing rolls out of the center of the table with your grubby mitts. That kind of thing.
This is one of those examples where you can watch the Thais around you to figure out what is proper etiquette for your gym. If the boys are shoveling food into their mouths, go for it. If you have a “mama” at the gym you will always be offered more food, even if you insist you’re stuffed. You can say “im laew” (full already) but that won’t necessarily help you. I was told that the trick is to leave one or two bites of rice on your plate to indicate that you’re full; a clean plate may get you invitations to keep eating. And no matter whether you like the food or not, the only answer to a Thai asking you if it’s delicious is the affirmative, “aroy.”
For some finer points on table manners and etiquette, check out this breakdown. Keep in mind a number of these are for formal eating situations, but the part about family style eating and how much to heap onto your own plate is appropriate for group meals.
Titles and Names – Pi, Kru, Arjan, etc
In Thailand people have a lot of different names. There’s your given name, which is on your birth certificate and those are long and auspicious; then there’s the “play name,” which is usually very short and you tend to get repeats, tons of people named Dam, Neung, Ploy, Daeng, Nook, Pom, and kind of funny ones like Benz, Ice, or Pepsi. Play names are what you’ll know most people by. And then there are fighter names, which are the ones you know Saenchai, Yodsanklai, Buakaw, Yodwicha, Superball, Superbank, Superlek, etc. You don’t really use last names so much, but you can add a polite title like Mr. or Ms. to someone’s play name to be more formal, polite, or affectionate. So, if your trainer’s name is Dam you can call him Kru Dam (teacher), Arjan Dam (professor), Khun Dam (a very formal kind of Mr.), or Pi Dam (older sibling or good friend).
There’s not a lot of “kru” used in the gyms I’ve been to. It might be used in reference to someone in the third person, like at Petchrungruang there’s a guy named Kru Den who trains the kids and had indeed trained my own trainer back in the day, a little bit, and he’s referred to as Kru Den in the third person but I’ve never heard any adults call him that when addressing him. The kids do, because that’s how they were introduced to him. But even if it’s not used often, calling your trainer “kru” is not going to offend anyone. It’s a safe thing to address your trainer with. Commonly you’ll hear Pi (older sibling) and Nong (younger sibling) used between unrelated Thais. If you’re close in age, like a few years, just use Pi even if someone is a bit younger than you. It’s for someone around your own age. When talking to kids, use Nong or even Nuu if they’re under the age of 10. If there’s a head trainer at the gym who is also older than everyone, someone of high esteem like Arjan Surat, using Arjan is respectful. I don’t use this with anyone I train with, but when I talk to older Muay Thai legends like Dieselnoi and Burklerk I call them both Arjan. For me, it’s a mode of being as respectful as possible, but I’d be pretty surprised if they expected this from everyone. With my own trainer, who is about 11 years older than I am, I alternate between Pi Nu (95% of the time) and Kru Nu, which I mostly choose when there are other westerners around and, again, in 3rd person more than in addressing him. The kids mostly all use Pi Nu.
In the same way you can over wai, you can overdo the respectful titles in some contexts. At my old gym, Lanna, I would sometimes imitate a very serious, but inexperienced westerner to make fun of the the head trainer (and my trainer) giving him a ridiculously deep wai and saying “sit arjan den,” meaning “student of professor Den.” Den has an amazing, sarcastic sense of humor, and would never take on such a title for himself, and we would often have jibbing back and forths. He would laugh and shake his head. He was just “Den” to all of us. Another, personal example, happened during my first few weeks in Chiang Mai. I was out before the sun came up, running before morning training. I’d learned a very little bit of Thai using Rosetta Stone bootlegs and didn’t realize that the Thai they teach is very formal. So, when I saw an older lady setting up her street stall before sunrise, I tried to be cheerful and polite and breakout out my Thai by greeting her with what I thought meant, “good morning.” Unfortunately, what I’d learned was some speaking-to-royalty-in-the-old-days level speech and this woman just started laughing like crazy. I might as well have said, “a good morrow to you, m’Lady!” Overdid it.
There is a trainer at the gym who is a little eccentric and only works there occasionally but he’s cornered for me many times, named Mod Ek. He’s a very cool guy, a great teacher and corner, but undependable and just disappears for stretches. He’s older than Pi Nu but of much lower status in the gym, so I’ve noted he addresses Pi Nu as “Kru Nu,” I think as a way to pay him respect despite their age difference. Pi Nu’s dad is too much older than I am to address him as Pi, so I call him alternately Khun Bamrung, which is quite formal, or Bpu Bamrung, which is like calling him “grandpa.” There is another trainer, older than Pi Nu, who I refer to as “uncle,” Lung Piak, to give respect to his age while also keeping it informal and familiar out of affection.
You can call the people at your gym just by their name, you can just say Dam, but it sounds a bit off to how Thais address each other. That said, circumstances will dictate what’s normal – at Lanna I just referred to all my trainers by their names alone and it was never odd, it is a very casual gym in many respects. Now that I’ve lived here longer, I call Daeng “Pi Daeng” when I go back up to visit, almost out of habit, and it makes no difference to him. Just like in America, there’s no single way to refer to someone, it all depends on relationship and context, but you can err on the side of politeness and respect. This is very different than the subject of whether westerners should be called Kru or attain some kind of certification status that “awards” them “kru status.” That’s a different discussion. But for the purposes of this post, which is on being polite, you’re never going to offend your trainer by calling him Kru, but you’re also not likely to offend him by not using that address. If he calls himself Kru, call him that also. If he calls himself Arjan, call him that also. It’s a safe bet to call your trainer Kru, but there are many other ways to be polite and respectful as well. Functionally Kru might be like addressing people as “sir” in the US. It is always polite, at times it is overly formal, and depending on the area you’re visiting and the context in which you’re using it dictates whether or not it’s expected: in the military or areas of the south, expected; at a diner in NYC, not so much.
Respect in Padwork
Your trainer does not work for you. I know this sounds strange to some people because you’re paying the gym and you feel like your trainer has been hired for a service. I’m watching padwork between this large, older western guy and one of the per diem trainers at my gym, Chicken Man. Chicken Man is an amazing padholder, he generates incredible energy and gets a lot out of his students. Because the guy is a bit older, he’s struggling to get through the 4 minute rounds, so every now and again he turns his back on the padholder (not ideal body language) and takes a breather while Chicken Man just waits for him to recover. It’s an understanding and because this guy isn’t a fighter, he’s allowed this behavior. When the allotted rounds were finished the guy thanked Chicken Man, who went over to work with one of the kids, and the guy sat on the edge of the ring for 10-15 minutes. After he’d recovered, he told Chicken Man he was ready to go again and wanted more rounds. This was an awkward communication because this guy didn’t speak Thai and Chicken Man only speaks Thai, and those of us trying to translate knew what an out-of-place request it was. Whether you can’t finish your rounds because you’re tired or not yet fit for it, or you stubbed your toe, when the rounds are over they’re over. Try again tomorrow. It’s not entirely this guy’s fault as training in the west is so different from Thailand, so he didn’t know how to train himself at all and didn’t do any shadowboxing or bagwork, he only wanted padwork. But from Chicken Man’s world, you do however many rounds your trainer demands of you, whether that’s too many or too little, and that’s that. If you feel yourself tiring let your pad holder know: “Last round”. (If you’re a fighter, you never get to ask when to stop.) It was an intersection of consumer attitudes of paying for a service and the social economy attitudes of following the authority.
Now, coming from me, it’s a bit odd to hear me say “follow the authority.” I ask for shit that’s out of the ordinary all the time, like more clinching, more fights, etc. But I ask politely and if the answer is “no,” I go ask somewhere else. That’s why I train at a few gyms but I am very careful to be polite, respectful and more or less obedient within reasonable parameters at each gym. Culturally speaking, your trainer does not work for you. He will call you into the ring for padwork and you need to be ready when he calls you. I’ve seen men who aren’t done with their “set” of whatever it is they’re doing (shadowboxing, bagwork, getting swole, etc) and so they tell their trainer to wait. Telling your trainer to wait, or telling him “no,” to a task he’s given you, like him telling you to go clinch, to do 50 knees, or whatever… it’s not polite, it’s rude and it’s bad. If you physically cannot do what he’s asking, you can point out your bum knee or say “mai sabai” (I’m not feeling well), but don’t just refuse. I’ve heard from several trainers that they just don’t instruct so-and-so anymore because that person won’t listen; the conclusion came from the guy saying, “no,” or “I can’t,” or whatever, so the trainer just stops trying. You have to keep in mind that at many gyms, it’s a turnstile; 90% of the people they’re training won’t be there next week. When I moved to Lanna, the first thing I was asked by both the boys and a few of the trainers was, “how long will you stay?” They want to know what they’re investing in. Trainers still care about training you if you’re only there for a week or a day, but it’s a different investment if you’re there for a few months or a year or more. If you were expecting more rounds than what you’re offered or you want to work on something particular, ask politely for more rounds or to work on whatever it is you wanted to work on, but keep in mind that your padholder likely has several people to help after you. Do not demand more rounds or for him to hold for some kind of repetitive drill – grab a teammate to work drills with, not your padholder. In Thailand, teachers are highly respected and so you should treat your trainer as a teacher. Ask him to show you something and demonstrate your interest or enthusiasm to learn, so he can teach you. That’s respectful. Treating him like a worker (which many trainers also are and often they’re paid very little for all the work they do) is not respectful.
Some trainers are dicks, it’s just the way the world is. Not everyone is cool and not everyone is a good trainer. If you don’t get along with your trainer you can try to move to another one the next day or you can make great effort toward getting something out of your time together. But be respectful either way. And keep the hygiene note in mind because you’re in close proximity with your padholder. Westerners (myself included) sweat balls in Thai heat, so you might be spraying your padholder with your efforts without realizing it. Believe me, he notices. One guy at WKO puts on a shirt to do pads so he doesn’t spray his trainer, but you could just rinse off before you start or dump some water over your chest and arms between rounds to at least make an effort toward mitigating this. (Just some of your drinking water, not running to the hose all the time.) I sometimes had to watch one of my favorite trainers suffer through being spit on by guys during padwork. They didn’t mean to at all, it wasn’t them being jerks, but there are some ways of breathing that result in a lot of spit spray and your poor padholder is submitted to the deluge. He never said anything to these guys, very Thai, so I don’t know if they even had any idea to be able to resolve the problem, but you could see the dismay in my trainer’s face every day when it was time for those guys’ rounds, the spitters. Keep in mind, spit from the mouth in Thailand (even spitting a mouthful of water for fun) is culturally very low; it’s dirty.
Changing Pad Holders
This one isn’t easy, especially because trainers tend to work together for a long time and by my experience kind of organize or sort among themselves who is with whom. Once you’ve gone with one trainer, you tend to keep going with that trainer. It’s like you get assigned. At some gyms it seems fairly easy to just ask to go with a particular trainer or to get variation between them, but whether or not it’s “easy” from your perspective this might have nothing to do with how it comes off to your trainers. You can very easily offend, especially because every gym in Thailand is structure on an hierarchy among the trainers. Whether you see it or know the structure or not, it’s there, because that’s Thai culture. You’ll generally figure out who the head honcho is right away, but in your first few days or even weeks you might not know the order of things at all, especially if you aren’t looking for it. So, in keeping the hierarchical pyramid in mind there are different sorts of offenses you can create when trying to change padholders: if you try to switch from a low-ranked trainer to a higher-ranked trainer, that might be smooth, but it could make the lower status trainer feel snubbed. But if you have a high-ranked trainer and it just isn’t working for you, so you want to switch to a guy who is lower-ranked because you like his padwork or style or whatever, that can be difficult because of the loss of face to the higher-ranked trainer. In some instances it can cause a lot of problems, depending on the history between the two trainers, and frankly, the character of the top guy, i.e., does he have a thin-skin? I’ve come to see through observation that for many it sometimes is best to train with the 2nd ranked padholder, and not necessarily the head guy who gets all the attention. Head trainers can feel like they aren’t fairly compensated by the gym, develop motivation problems, and in cases that have been shared with me by others, have serious ego issues. A few fight losses under the top trainer might embarrass him, while 2nd or mid-ranked trainers often have a huge store of knowledge, a better attitude towards developing you as a fighter. This being said, I’ve personally had very positive experiences training with the top trainers at both my home gyms: Lanna Muay Thai and Petchrungruang – this is just a general note, something I’ve developed through observation and lots of conversation with others in Thailand.
For the most part, I encourage people to try to change trainers if they’re unhappy with whomever they were assigned to, or find themselves repeatedly with. There’s no reason to get a sub-par experience just out of politeness. With that said, try to minimize offense even if you have to ruffle some feathers in the process. Be courteous to the trainer you’re trying to get away from, even if you don’t like him. If he’s of high-rank, wai to him first when you enter the gym, smile, pretend everything is totally normal and cool. That’s very Thai. There’s a concept of “losing face” in Thailand that is of huge importance and you want to avoid making someone lose face. If the trainer isn’t the head honcho, go to the head honcho to request a session with a different trainer. Make it come from the top. If your trainer already is the head honcho, the only way to get to another trainer might be to book a private session with whomever you’re trying to switch to. The transition might be more natural or accessible through that route.
You can listen to Emma and me talk about getting stuck with a trainer in Thailand: Podcast
Women, Bodyparts and Clothing
I really don’t want to lecture women about modesty, but in a culture that isn’t your own it’s a good idea to cover all your bases so that you are perceived in ways that offer you the most opportunities. In Thai culture, the way you look is how you are and there is a lot of unspoken judgement. Because women are the minority in the overwhelmingly male spaces of gyms, it’s important to minimize the errant messages you might be accidentally sending, especially because it’s so fucking hard to be heard for what you’re trying to say as it is. As a general rule, dressing as you would if you were with your dad is a safe bet. In some places, especially high-tourist and/or beach resort areas, you’ll find women training in bikini tops, very short shorts, or tights – (some of these are areas of Muay Thai I haven’t experienced, so I’ll just speak generally about Thai culture here). Tights may seem like an okay option because they cover skin, but they’re named for their quality and tight clothes are not permitted at temples because they are provocative. Same goes for in the gym. Obviously there are going to be huge differences between the tourist beach gyms in Phuket and the traditional family gyms in Isaan or even just the conservative North for what is practiced, but also keep in mind that none of these gyms are filled with Thai women and so you’ll be taking your cues from other westerners, which is not necessarily a good gauge for Thai custom.
My first gym was in Chiang Mai, which is a pretty conservative part of Thailand, despite its familiarity and embrace of western culture. I could feel just walking from the gym to my apartment, a roughly 200 meter walk, that wearing Muay Thai shorts was pretty “racy.” Men were asked to wear a shirt when running, as being bare-chested is not polite. Now I’m in Pattaya, which is admittedly far more familiar with the mini-dresses of working girls, Speedos and pasties on the beach, etc. If you pay attention, however, you’ll notice that it’s almost exclusively westerners wearing practically nothing at the beach or walking around with no shirt on or their button-down shirt flapping open. Thais at the beach dress in pretty much whatever they’d be wearing around, including jeans sometimes. My point is, watching what Thais are doing will give you a better idea of what Thais expect. And bar girls wear attire intended to express what it is they do for work.
A few months ago some women came to train with me at Petchrungruang. It was my fault really, I forgot to mention explicitly that the unspoken dress-code at my gym, as a more traditional gym, means women ought to wear a shirt and not just the sports bra. I blamed myself for not saying anything, but one woman wore just a sports bra and then the other one arrived after and took off her own shirt to kind of follow suit. It was only three women (myself included) in the morning and my trainer, no kids around, no young Thai men. But there was a definite discomfort from Pi Nu, even though he didn’t say anything. He’s a grown man, he’s not a “dog” or lecherous, but I could see and feel it. Recently a Thai woman who used to train at the gym has come back from living abroad. She wears just a sports bra and Muay shorts, which I’ve not really seen among adult Thai women (anyone over the age of 12, really; even Phetjee Jaa in her own family gym was kind of given side-eye by her father the few times she tried to train in just her sports bra because it was so hot out). If you’re not familiar with the regular feel of the gym, you might never notice a difference at all in how she’s received, but I saw it strongly. She was treated a bit like a “bar girl” by the young Thai men and a few of the trainers, which she didn’t seem to mind at all, but to me it was pretty shocking. And I completely understand that she might both like and seek that attention out, which also might be the case for western women in gyms. That’s up to you, but I’m pointing out here that it isn’t polite. This post is about etiquette and I’m bringing up the ways in which you can be polite – whether or not you choose that option.
This morning, I asked Pi Nu if there was anything he’d recommend to women to be polite in gyms. It took me some explaining to get what I meant across to him, but he understood when I mentioned wearing a shirt versus just the bra. He felt that wearing undershorts was equally (shown above), if not more, important. “Because, many boys around everywhere,” he said, scanning his hand across the circumference of the gym. “When lady workout for fitness, I don’t know what they wear,” he said, “but in here, su-pop dee gwaa (polite is better).” I asked him about women raising their feet in the air during conditioning, which was something I was taught up in the North is an impolite movement, it’s rude because feet are dirty so they ought to stay low but with women it’s also raunchy because it looks like sex, I guess. This one feels like a strict example to me, like how in the West a “lady” keeps her legs together when she sits but you’d really have to be getting some “man spread” on to be considered rude. However, even though Pi Nu told me that he didn’t see this as a problem because it’s a gym and you’re working out, so if you are stretching or doing inverse situps or something it’s in the context of working out, I do have some anecdotal experience to the contrary. Just yesterday I was lying on a bench in the weight room, which was completely empty except for me. I was doing some ab exercise where my legs and hips dipped below the edge of the bench and then I’d raise them 45 degrees above me into the air and return them back down. A kid, maybe 12 years old, came in and sat on the bench next to me to do situps. I know this kid, he’s always very polite and quiet. I could see him watching me, not in a “what exercise is this?” kind of way, but in a getting-an-eyeful kind of way, which had never happened before. I’m not saying “don’t exercise,” but I am saying you need to be aware of perception. For example, in the west there is a very common nudge-nudge, wink-wink about men occupying the back of the yoga class so they are behind all the women in tights doing Downward Dog. It’s yoga. It’s in context. But the position of that pose is suggestive and one that heterosexual men will oggle. So, it’s like that – you have to take into consideration that some positions and movements are suggestive and while you’re doing nothing “wrong,” you just have to know how you might be seen, whether or not that’s fair. And, to reprise what I wrote at the start of this section, how you’re seen is how you are; you may be seen as an impolite person. Some gyms down on the Islands may be very familiar and desensitized to westerners wearing very little clothing to train in, and in these cases you won’t stand out for doing the same. But know that sexualized behavior might come along with this familiarity.
[I am of two minds when writing about women’s place – or lack of place – in gym culture. Part of me is strongly defensive of any and all women’s right to be who they are, do what makes them feel good, and be empowered to say “fuck you” to the expectations about what makes a “good woman” versus a “bad woman.” Another part of me recognizes that the world operates under the limitations of social constructs and there are, whether it’s fair or not, very real consequences for everything we do, not only for ourselves as individuals but also for every other woman who occupies these spaces after us. When you enter a gym space, the way you dress and behave alters the way the men in that space will think about other woman who enter it; it’s just a fact. The above is not a guideline for how to be a good person, or how women should or should not be or feel or what they should or should not desire. Not every woman is coming to Thailand and training in gyms to be a world-class athlete; some are just on vacation and want a good time. The above is intended as a guideline for what is polite, not what is morally right. If you’d like to read more about my views of the complications of the place of western women in gyms: The Mitt and the Joke – The illusions and Pitfalls of Equality]
Dress Codes for Men
Guys, wear underwear. No, I’m serious. Even if you’re not wearing them in your day-to-day, invest in a pair for training or wear long board shorts. I’ve seen several cases where men have elected to opt out. And, when you leave the gym, putting a shirt on is good form. We’ve also had a few guys at both gyms I’ve spent a lot of time with, European fellows, who come and train in what is basically spandex shorts. The Thai men laughed a great deal among themselves, most recently Kru Den at Petchrungruang was going on and on about this guy’s package being fully outlined in his tight shorts, repeating, “why isn’t he shy?” as he laughed and pointed. You won’t be sexualized as women are, but it’s not polite. One westerner at my gym loves to put his cup on while standing in the ring. He kind of only puts in on in the ring because he loves the stage, I reckon. He drops his shorts and stands there fumbling with the strings with his striped bikini underwear for all to see. Again, the men don’t stare the way they do at women, but it’s not polite – Pi Nu only ever puts his cup on (which he wears every day) in the bathroom and when I accidentally kick it out of place he turns his back to me to adjust it. He’s polite.
Menstruation, the Ring, and “Unmentionables”
When I was growing up, my dad would sometimes teasingly refer to my mother’s and my “unmentionables,” meaning underwear. He was being kind of funny, like how well into my teen years he’d refer to the voice-cracking adolescent boys who called the house for me, “gentleman callers.” But in a house that was mostly men (I have 3 older brothers), there was a bit of old-fashioned “keep your lady business to yourself,” attitude and this old way of referring to our underwear not only demonstrates that women’s undergarments are a bit of a sensitive issue even for westerners, but also that my very western, very normal dad still shied away from even saying the word “panties” or “underwear.” It’s far more the case in Thailand, where women’s underwear are seen as taboo and dirty, even when they’re clean. You probably won’t run into it at most gyms, but if you ever are hanging out your laundry to dry, do your best to hang your undergarments (bras included) lower than any passerby’s heads. I live on the 4th floor, so everyone is below my laundry, but I hang my “intimate” washing inside the balcony so it’s unseen.
In line with this is menstruation and the bottom rope of the ring. Not everyone knows that women must enter rings for fights under the bottom rope in Thailand. I’ve written about that a lot. A few gyms may require women to enter under the ropes as well, although those tend to be more traditional spaces; some gyms won’t allow women in the ring at all. Going under the rope or not touching the ring is a matter of being polite, so if I’m in a new gym that doesn’t look too westernized I ask how to enter and then follow whatever is directed. Asking is being polite. And even if they say you can get in however you want, being polite is opting for a through the ropes entry for women; a woman going over the top ropes to enter the practice ring would likely be seen as impolite. Men can get in however they want without it being an issue of manners, so long as they’re not having their feet sticking up into the air. They generally climb over like walking over a ladder.
And if you stay for any length of time at a gym, you’ll probably have to deal with your period in that setting. Menstruation is a natural bodily function but one of very few not talked about openly. Thais will talk about their bowel movements and all kinds of issues that we as westerners would not view as polite conversation, but it’s very open here. However, other than hearing a couple of trainers talking about Thai teenagers being on their period as the reason they’re not training, I’ve never heard it mentioned openly as it is seen as dirty. I don’t know this for sure, but I strongly suspect that training on your period would be considered impolite. So, my advice is just don’t talk about it and try to keep it as unseen as possible – act like you’re camping and “pack out,” your sanitary products or wrap them up to be invisible if there are trashcans in the gym toilets. (There is no a trash in the restroom of my gym, so I always bring a plastic bag and dispose of my products in the trashcans just outside the gym on the street.)
Money and etiquette is extremely difficult to write about, and I have to say that even after all these years I still don’t know the proper answer to what is polite in some situations. At the bottom of this is a potential confusion in that “traditional” Thailand and western capitalism are in serious tension. Money means very different things. In traditional terms the exchange of money for services is the beginning of a relationship. It signals: you are invested in me (and my family), I am invested in you (and your family). It feels contractual, the beginning of an interdependence. On the other hand, to be simple about it, in western terms the exchange of money for services often means the opposite: I give you money, you give me services. We are “even”. Our debt to each other is canceled, we can happily go our separate ways if we choose to. We owe each other nothing. This canceling of the relationship is very un-Thai. Think about the potential for confusion if one party assumes that the same act is the beginning of a relationship, and the other party assumes it is it’s potential end. But it becomes much more complicated in that Thailand is not just “traditional” Thailand (i.e., the customs that shape families and alliances), it is also western-oriented, or capitalistic Thailand. In gyms that deal a lot with westerners, farang may very well be seen as endlessly wealthy, and perpetual sources of potential income. I haven’t had a lot of experience with these situations, but many visitors, especially in commercial gyms, complain that Thais that only want your money, or that trainers that are only interested in giving you good padwork if you buy privates from them. The two Thailands are in tension with each other: traditional vs capitalistic. This is even more complicated by the fact that in traditional Thai relationships often a wealthy person with power takes care of those below them, out of benefaction (and a sign of their largess). So trainers might hit you up for beers, or to “borrow money” out of any of these three aspects: because you are seen as wealthy and so you ethically should take care of those who are less fortunate, or because you are seen as wealthy and therefore a target among many western targets that pass in and out of the gym with no real social obligation, or because the passing of money or goods between people creates bonds that are hoped to increase and last for the benefit of both each and their families. And it’s very difficult to read which is which, and it could be more than one at once. When it comes to etiquette and the gym it is probably best to pay the posted price for services, don’t tip out your trainers in any sort of daily way (unless you intend to keep doing it and get enjoyment out of it), and if you are happy with your experience at the end of it all offer a tip to whatever trainer really helped you have a good experience. As for beer-buying and hanging out with trainers, this overlaps with western sensibilities of beer-buying and lots of people love this bond, in fact many have found that some of the best times they’ve had in Thailand were hanging out with their trainers. Just know that it may have additional cultural connotations or hopes for future investments, and being “friend-zoned” by trainers can affect their investment in you as a fighter in the positive or in the negative. For women there is an additional precaution, moving into a “party” situation (or just dinner or lunch) can have serious social consequences, and even legal protection complications. For more on these complications read Emma Thomas’s article Rape Culture in Thailand.
Tipping out for Fights
Tipping out trainers who corner for you at fights, this is also difficult to write about simply because there are so many different set ups with gyms, and even after all this time I still don’t even know what is the right thing to do in some of my situations (because I sometimes travel to fights without a corner and find my corner among the gyms there, offerings of money afterwards – 300 baht, 500 baht – can almost read as a light insult, like trying to tip someone who helped you change a flat tire). Also, because I’ve been at my gyms for a long time our relationship has shifted some. Both at Lanna, which I still fight out of occasionally, and at Petchrungruang, there is a sense that they are taking care of me, and it would not be right to offer a tip (I’ve learned this because I’ve tried). We are already invested in each other. On the other hand, in most gym situations it is expected and formalized. Some gyms have fixed tip out guidelines after fights, which will either be taken out automatically or you’ll be told what the amount expected is. Check with your gym what the standard tip out process for cornermen is before you fight. Cornermen might get a set percentage of the gym’s cut of your purse, so a tip out is unnecessary, and any amount you give would be icing on the cake. I wish I could be more firm here, I’m an ex-bartender and tipping is a big part of what I like to do, but these Thai situations are all different and governed by different customs and expectations. I just return to my general rule: be polite in my own culture’s sense of politeness, but keep an open mind looking for cues about how to best proceed.
In the past, because I’m a tipper, I’ve tried to be generous with my corner especially if they don’t have a lot of social standing in the gym (some of these guys are just incredible corners), or if the fight purse happens to be larger than usual. I even one time had a gym I was not very familiar with but fighting under step in when they thought my tip out was too big and prevent me from doing it again – so I’ve learned to just keep it on the down-low to avoid gym politics.
In a semi-recent example which illustrates some of the things I’ve been talking about, I drove out to a fight set up by a man somewhat peripheral to Petchrungruang, but who I know and like. I’ve fought with him in my corner before and every time he’s refused money that I offer him for helping to corner for me. This time he had brought the friend of his son, Tong, who sometimes fights out of Petchrungruang for short periods of time. Tong gave my massage and did all the in-ring work in the corner, so when Lung Piak refused the money I offered to him for helping, as he always does, I took out a little bit from what was offered and said, “then this is for Tong.” He smiled and took that money so that he could tip Tong for his work, as Tong was meant to fight that night as well but his opponent pulled out. But I wouldn’t hand that money directly to Tong, as that’s above my own rank; by handing it to Lung Piak as the authority, with the understanding that he’s in charge of giving it to Tong, that went over well. I think that offering Lung Piak money makes it like he’s a worker, which he’s not – he’s taking care of me. In this case not offering Lung Piak raises his status. Money to Tong is okay because I’m older, of higher status than he is, so I can “take care” of Tong, but making that go through Lung Piak’s authority was the best road of all.
This is a long article and I’ve presented a lot of things to think about. As a sincere person, a lot of this just comes from experience and I’m still learning. I’m still trying to figure things out and you just learn as you go. It’s hard to say, “don’t worry,” but in the end everyone makes mistakes and you just make adjustments. This article is intended as a very loose guideline – again, everywhere is different and just as there are general rules of politeness in the US about not putting your elbows on the table or that you should pick up the bill if you’re the one who invited someone to dinner, there are clearly exceptions to those practices; it’s not “finishing school.” The best guide is just to be polite in your own codes of conduct from your own culture. Most of those practices carry over beautifully.
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