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Darina

Sitmonchai Gym - A Review

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First of all, I've only been at Sitmonchai for six weeks, which isn't much. I'm sure Kelly, who is on this board, could give a much, much better and insightful review of the place. On the other hand, my perspective is probably quite different from hers, as I just came in as a new person, new to Thailand and completely unsure of what to expect.

When I first made up my mind to go to Thailand, I did not know a lot about the country, or even about muay Thai in Thailand in general. I thought it would mostly be Thai men living in cramped conditions kicking banana trees.

I googled the hell out of it however, binge-reading the various muay Thai blogs and going crazy with all the gym reviews. Being very shy, the idea of just going to Thailand and trying out gyms until I liked one was scary, I wanted to decide on a place to go before I went there.

I first wanted to go to Sinbi because they have a female fight team. In retrospect I'm kind of happy that they didn't have space, forcing me to keep looking. The amount of gyms you find is overwhelming, and you can never tell the quality by the reviews, because you don't know what the person was looking for in the first place. So I changed my tactics and decided to choose a gym based on what I want as a fighter and not on what I want in a gym.

Suddenly it wasn't even a question. Hands down my favourite fighter is Pornsanae Sitmonchai. I want to fight like him. I'm not an elegant technical fighter, and I never will be, but I sure as hell can fight a war. So I googled Sitmonchai just to see what would come up. What came up was their website, which was in English  - good start. It described the gym as a nice, family-style gym. They also clearly stated that they have their distinct style - the style that I liked in Pornsanae and the style that I wanted for myself as well. I emailed them, got an instant reply and that sealed the deal. I would go to a gym in the middle of nowhere and see what happens.

So what is there to say about Sitmonchai? Please bear in mind that this is the only gym I have ever trained at in Thailand. I cannot compare, I can only state things the way I saw them.

There is a foreigner liaison. Abigail is has a child with one of the older fighters, she lives in the camp and speaks Thai. This means the world, because if you have any kind of problem you can go and talk to her in English. It's a nice bonus that she is a woman, so you can also go and talk to her about things you might not want to confide in a man.

The gym is owned by a Thai family, with Pee A (brother of Monchai, who the gym is named for) running the business, his dad kicking the bags every morning and being generally badass, his mom cooking the food and his three year old son playing Thai boxing in the afternoon. When he isn't away at fights or on business, Pee A watches the training sessions to make sure everybody does their work. He truly loves muay Thai and knows a lot about it. He is also very well connected, and can get you fights on your level. He could have matched me up with girls who had upwards of 20 fights, but he didn't and kept looking until he found a more even match up.

Women and men are not equal but this is probably as close as it gets in Thailand. You can go in the ring any way you want, you can spar and clinch with men (in fact, you can ONLY spar and clinch with men, as you are supposed to work with Thais and there are no female Thai fighters there), you get exactly the same attention and the same amount of rounds as the men. You may get wanted or unwanted attention from some of the trainers (one trainer really) but it's minimal. I still think that it's not nearly as bad as what I've read about other gyms, and the management keeps a very strict eye on what is going on.

You get training no matter who you are or what you want. While there are professional fighters who pilger to Sitmonchai, or even fly out the coaches to help prepare for fights, I've met all sorts of people during my stay. The outliers include a finnish guy who just started learning muay Thai at the camp (it's incredible how good he was after one month - it would have taken him way longer to get that good back home, for sure). And a 53 year old lady who trains for the sheer joy of it. I can imagine that there are plenty of camps that would laugh at her and not treat her seriously. At Sitmonchai she was working with Kru Dam, the most decorated of the trainers, who gave her his full attention. It was beautiful to see.

There is a method to the madness. The pad holders of Sitmonchai are not random, they have been carefully assembled by Pee A to provide everything you need in training. There is the one who pushes conditioning, the one who is heavy on technique, the one who will teach you combinations, the one who will test your balance, the one who will teach you to fight while still holding pads... I spoke with Pee A on one late night, and he has put a lot of thought in to the staff he has hired, and is not intending to bring anyone else in, unless he needs replacements. He's really proud of his gym. Pee A himself is pulling the strings in the background, sending you to work with this coach or that, whatever he feels you should work on.

There is no sparring or clinch among foreigners, 95% of the time. You are supposed to work with the Thais, either the boys who are actively fighting, or the coaches. It is always very light and very controlled - I lost my mouth piece on the first day and didn't find it until weeks later, but I didn't need it. There is no way I can imagine sparring without a mouthpiece at any of the gyms I've trained at outside Thailand. Not everybody likes soft, playful sparring however - you need to decide if it's your thing. Some of the male fighters were complaining... I went a round with an American guy on Songkran, when all of the Thais were out, and yeah, it's nice to go hard from time to time, too.

You need to be self-driven if you want to prosper in training. Nobody will push you if you don't push yourself. Nobody will make you go to the heavy bag and do your work, or wake you up to run, or tell you to do conditioning exercises. Even on pads, if you let yourself be sluggish and tired, they will allow you to be sluggish and tired. They will push you, but only if you want to be pushed. This can be dangerous. As far as I understand it, the general mood changes with the foreigner population. If there are many professional fighters there, then there is an attitude of hard work, making it easy to work hard yourself. I hit a low season point, where most people had just come off fights or weren't that interested in training hard in the first place. This made it a lot harder for me to train the way I wanted to, both in terms of motivation and socially (feeling weird being the odd one out still kicking the bag while everybody else is showering).

The training itself consists of two sessions. The morning starts between 6:30 and 7am (nobody will make you get up). Most people run 8-10 km. Some run alone, some run in groups, some don't run at all. By 8am the pad holders take their place in the ring and it's time to go. Usually the morning sessions are about five rounds. Three rounds with normal pads, one with focus mitts and one round of low kicks seems to be the default, but it depends on the individual coach and what they feel like doing. After that you are left to your own devices until about 10 am when the breakfast is served. So you have up to 90 minutes that you can spend kicking bags and doing strength training - or sitting around on the mats chatting with your mates.

The afternoon session begins with a run at 4pm, most people running about 4km. Then there's pads again, followed by sparring and maybe clinch (if you ask for it). Pee A tends to assign sparring partners, but you can also ask the boys. One thing that I missed is that nobody supervised sparring. You were learning by doing, sure, but sometimes it's worth a lot to have somebody shout "You're dropping your left hand" from the side lines. I'm sure the Thai trainers do it in Thai with the boys, but the foreigners don't get any of that.

The sparring goes on without breaks or with small breaks as you need them. Usually the activity winds down at about 6pm, leaving you with enough time to go back to your back or strength training or messing around before dinner is served at 7:30.

If you want to clinch a lot you probably hit the wrong gym. There is some clinching going on, and one of the trainers is a former Lumpini champion with amazing, "You can't come close to me if I don't want you to"-level clinch. But Sitmonchai is not famous for it, and it's one of the main reasons why their fighters lose (when they do). I learned a little bit here and there, but it was an afterthought, maybe ten minutes a day, and not every day. There are gyms that put a lot more emphasis on clinching than Sitmonchai. I suppose those gyms do not give you 2-4 rounds of lowkicks PER DAY.

When I told Pee A after my fight that one of the reasons I didn't win was because I couldn't clinch well, he didn't say "clinch more", he said "learn to get out of the clinch". Nuff said.

The rooms are fantastic. I had a private room which was clean, spacey, and came with a private shower and toilet (I had fully expected an outside shower and toilet). There is also WiFi. The only problem I had was that all rooms for the foreigners are centered around the common area which has the TV. You can hear it in the room, and if you are like me, you cannot sleep until it's off. Some nights I would lie awake waiting for people to go to bed until midnight. By the way, the TV mostly runs English-language movies. You can live there for a year and survive without learning a word of Thai.

The food is... interesting. As a disclaimer, I do not like Thai food very much in general. I do like Isaan food and some curries, but the food at the gym was something I ate because I had to 80% of the time. You get a plate of rice and three dishes - usually a very oily fried egg, some fatty fried meat and a boiled or stir-fried vegetable. There were some dishes that were delicious (massaman...) but mostly I secretely hated myself for injecting my body with so much sugar and oil. I found it difficult so skip meals however, as there is a social component to sitting together after training, too. I know that the others went out for more meals than the two provided by the gym, but for me, even with those two meals I was gaining fat, so getting additional food wasn't really an option.

There isn't much to do. Tha Maka is as rural a small town as it gets. There is more action in Kanchanaburi City, but it's almost an hour by bus away. This isn't a gym location where you spend the nights at the bars. You spend the nights in your room, or in the common area hanging out, or getting food in the conveniently nicknamed "food street". There is a night market twice a week, but little more. On weeks that we did not go to see fights the furtherst I left the premises was to go to Tesco. If your idea of going to Thailand is spending time at the beach or going out several nights a week, then Sitmonchai is definitely not your camp. If you like to live in relative quiet with chickens, free roaming dogs, and a guy who forages for mangoes, you'll like it.

The last point I want to make is about the interaction with Thais. Like I said before, I haven't been to many other gyms. But from what I heard, the default is that there is little interaction between the Thai and the foreign population at muay Thai gyms. It's different at Sitmonchai. Sure, it takes the boys quite some time to warm up to you, and they generally don't want to invest too much because you'll be leaving. But as most of the foreigner clientele are return customers, friendships do develop. We went to the market or to Kanchanaburi in mixed groups, and we certainly drank together more than once. There still is a very tangible line of who is Thai and who isn't (at least to me, but I'm incredibly shy and also more than ten years older than all of the boys), but it definitely isn't a parallel life the way I've read about it in other gyms.

In summary, I loved it there and I will definitely come back.

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