Pattaya, Thailand – This isn’t a lecture from on high on how you should be, we all come to Thailand for different aims and purposes. It’s about how you might be offending your Thai instructor without realizing it at all, and a little on how you can re-balance the situation. Kru Nu is sitting on the dark, polished wooden bench that runs the length of the far side of the gym. He’s pinching the skin of his stomach between his fingers and frowning while I finish my set of curls. He’s gained a few kilos of weight since I’ve been gone for 6 weeks, staying in Bangkok for a project. He always gains weight when I go away, because he stops working out, but I’m usually only gone a week or so for fights and so it’s a small amount of weight that comes back off quickly. But this time, with me being gone so long and it being Durian season, he’s gained almost 5 kilos. He’s bummed about it and he keeps sighing and shaking his head as he pinches at his belly. I laugh every time he does it. It must be hard for a middle-aged man who spent so much of his life as a fighter to witness himself aging against the backdrop of 6-packs, adolescent boys. But, in Thailand you also age into higher and higher social status, so part of the process of letting go of youth is grabbing hold of more authority and respect.
I put the bar I’ve been curling on the bench beside Kru Nu and take a seat on an empty weight bench across from where he’s sitting. I’m not much of a weight-lifter, I would never do it on my own, I just take turns to keep him company in his workout, and to talk a little. He doesn’t get up right away to take his turn with the weights, so I ask him where his Chinese student is. He joined the gym while I was in Bangkok and took my place as the sole student at the late-morning sessions. Obviously, Kru Nu didn’t adopt a new workout buddy with my replacement, and the work ethic I’ve seen expressed by this guy in the week since my return makes it pretty clear why. He had one fight with the gym so far, after more than a month of training at Petchrungraung, but he’s not an experienced fighter and he’s not a Thai boy, so he’s not contracted to the gym and obliged to the same program that the Thai fighters are. Kru Nu shakes his head and laughs, saying that this student is resting. “He tell me his body need rest,” Kru Nu says. Then he laughs again and adds, “he my teacher.”
I arch my eyebrow at him as he says this. Kru Nu has a wonderful sense of sarcasm in his humor, but it’s sometimes hard to pick up on because of the somewhat dead-pan Thai accent in English. He holds his hand to his chest and says, “I know Muay Thai all my life,” – he’s referring to the fact that he started training at 10 years old and grew up in the gym as a fighter, then became a trainer and now runs the whole gym geared to sending boys to fight at Lumpinee – “so I tell him go run or kick the bag and he tell me, ‘no, my body need to rest.'” Kru Nu points at the ring in the other room with his chin, “I tell him clinching 30 minutes, then he clinch for 10 minutes and tell me ‘enough’… he teach me.” He chuckles, but it’s clear this is only sort of funny to him. He’s making a point about his own position as the teacher, the Kru, and the audacity of a student insisting on his own program. I start laughing, once I pick up on Kru Nu’s sarcasm. “Many falang like this, I don’t know why,” he adds, although this student is not technically “falang,” so Kru Nu is now referencing foreigners as a whole. “Not you,” he says, “I tell you come train with the boys at 6, you come at 6; I tell you go knee the bag, you go knee the bag.” I nod, although to be totally honest and fair I oppose Kru Nu in a lot of other ways. I’m far from obedient to the degree that his young male fighters are, unquestioning and never uttering a word of opposition or even suggestion – they just do – but I’m also outside of the reality of a contracted young male fighter, I cannot rely on the gym system to book me fights for instance. This allows me to get away with some things that they definitely couldn’t, but to be completely honest I’m not even sure that I am getting away with some of it. I just can’t be 100% obedient and be the fighter I want to be, as a woman. If I were 100% obedient and unquestioning, I’d fight once or twice per year. Fuck that. But in terms of doing what I’m told in the gym, absolutely. Kru Nu says run, I run. He says lift weights, I lift weights.
But there’s an interesting and important point about what Kru Nu is complaining about one of his international students. It’s a point about respecting your Kru. The role of a teacher is a highly esteemed and respected role in Thailand. In schools, you do not question your teacher, to the point that a school teacher can literally give wrong information and no student would dare correct him/her. To oppose your Kru in the gym is to disrespect him, whether you’re intending to or not. Kru Nu is a very generous and tolerant man, for the most part. He has a tremendous tolerance for people and treats everyone with dignity – an overweight man in his 50s gets the same attention and focus on the pads that his top level fighters do. It’s one of my favorite things about him and it’s also one of the reasons I’m able to thrive in this gym, despite being the only woman most of the time. Kru Nu likes hard workers, so an overweight old man working hard is valuable to him, because the hard work is respectful of his program. But there are many European men who come through (we do not get many fighters from North America), who want fights through the gym and to be treated with the honor of a fighter, but who aren’t willing to actually put in the work. These guys frustrate Kru Nu. He tells them to come run with his fighters and they don’t come because 5:00 AM is a hard hour. He tells them to kick the bag and they do 50 instead of 200 kicks. He tells them to get into the ring for clinching and they either quit after a few minutes or refuse outright, complaining that they’re tired or that their necks hurt, or whatever else.
Here’s the thing we need to keep in mind: your trainers have seen hundreds, if not thousands of fighters. They know when you’re tired; they know why you’re tired; they know when you’re injured or sick or if it’s hot out. I was at Dejrat Gym, where the Thai National Team trains, and this western guy was flopping around the ring taking breaks in his padwork. Arjan Surat is very harsh, but he likes hard workers. He asked the guy what was wrong and the man complained it was hot. “Everybody hot,” Arjan replied, “you think only you hot?!” Krus know how to train around injuries and they know when you need to lay off of something. They know when you’re pushing through fatigue or cutting weight and when you need to actually take a rest. The last few days Kru Nu has been tsk-ing at me for being tired, but he doesn’t actually care if I’m tired. He cares that I’m performing fatigue in my face, even though I’m pushing through everything. But he saying he’s going to stay home to rest, it’s not that Kru Nu doesn’t think anybody should ever rest, it’s that he knows when it’s actually needed versus when it’s indulging. Kru Nu has been training westerners for many, many years. There was a Frenchman at the gym within the first year it opened, in 1986, when Kru Nu was still a teenager (so, not training this man, but training alongside him). More than three decades. He’s so tolerant and generous, he never even writes off these guys who he feels disrespected by, but as someone who knows Kru Nu, I can say that it’s not a small thing. And it’s not unique to him. I think about these guys who are experienced athletes or fighters from the west, who come to Thailand and want to be immersed into the gym as “real fighters,” but they also come with this attitude of “I know my own body.” So they have excuses for why they don’t run, or why they are implementing their own program instead of the program prescribed by their trainers. You might know your body, but if you want to be treated like a “real fighter” in a Thai gym, then you are no longer the authority over it. There are absolutely times when you’ll be pushed beyond your limits and it’s miserably hard, but your trainers aren’t in the business of making you weak or sick or injured. Do your best to communicate with them about if you’re sick or injured, but “tired” is neither of those. Opting out or suggesting alternatives might not seem like it’s disrespectful, because you don’t intend it that way, but you might unintentionally be disrespecting your trainer; and that might have consequences you don’t see. If you can’t run, like really can’t do it, tell your trainer that you can’t run and then ask him what you can do instead. Don’t tell him. Respect his position by honoring yours.
There are, of course, many gray areas in this. If you’re not a fighter, you don’t have to be doing the work of a fighter. My husband trains at the gym and can’t do 500 knees on the bag. Kru Nu wouldn’t tell him to do anything so beyond his abilities, but if he was told 100 that also might not be possible. But it would be a good moment and gesture for him to try. There is also a gray area in that we, as westerners, are not contracted Thai boys. They gym invests a great deal in these young men and so it is very literally their job to follow orders without resistance. We, however, pay for our training and therefore it’s a relationship and dynamic outside of – or on top of – the traditional Thai structure. It can be the difference between an enlisted soldier and a foreigner paying to pretend to be a soldier, who might not ever be deployed. Very different realities there. And then there’s someone like me, who acts outside the unwritten rules often and there’s a degree of understanding because I’m so outside of everything anyway, but in fighting broadly I am at times doing things that can be felt as transgressive – or at least not as honoring – to my trainer, gym, the hierarchy… all of it (this is complex, as there is also a lot of gym pride when I win). I’m aware of this, and because of it I do my very best to perform actions and attitudes to make up for it, to overtly express due appreciation and respect to authority in the gym, to re-balance the scales as much as I can. So I have to do many things adjacent to those possible affronts. If I played by all the rules, I’d be retired… years ago. My case is unusual and extreme, but its example is that this isn’t just a “do what you’re told all the time without question,” but it’s also about making sure that you’re not accidentally disrespecting your trainers, by not honoring their position as a teacher especially within the gym itself. Travelers from the west often imagine that they are paying for a service, and it is the kru who works for them, the customer. This has things upside down. When Kru Nu says “He is my teacher”, he is making a joke using the absurdity of the reversal, like saying a child is a parent. In Thailand in service industries you’ll see real deference from waiters, hotel staff, rental car agents. Your kru does not work for you, you are paying for the opportunity to be in the gym, and experience some of the things that otherwise only a Thai fighter might, and part of that experience is the expectation of respect. And part of that is to some important degree a transfer of authority over your own body, and the accepted wisdom of “I know my body”. Understand that if you are going to take authority over your body you are likely breaking the bond of Kru and student, and at the very least you should work to overcome that disrespect.
Small things you can do to show respect – a bit of extra effort can go a long way in Thailand
- When you enter the gym space look for your trainer’s eyes first, and when you have them, wai. The same when you leave. Do not casually come and go like it’s Planet Fitness.
- Do not explicitly disagree. Even in cases where you think you will not follow advice or prescriptions, accede to them publicly. Do not argue or debate.
- Do let Krus know in advance if you aren’t going to show up. Each and every time.
- If you are struggling, physically, still come to the gym to move around, even if it is very lightly done. Regularity shows commitment.
- Communicate your problem to them. If your shin hurts and you can’t kick, tell them. If you are under the weather “mai sabai”, have a stomach ache, etc, let them know.
- Assume the more “polite” attitude in your own culture, it will usually translate well.
- Be very aware that if you are going to instruct other people in the gym you are walking on delicate ground, even if they are your students. Thais won’t say anything (to you), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue.
- Realize that there can be a very casual relationship with krus, as if you are buddies or friends, but the need to snap into a respect situation can happen in an instant. Be ready for the switch.
- You can always raise the level of respect by simply asking a question of what to do, or how to do something, basically emphasizing the kru/student relationship.
- After a kru teaches you something, visibly practice it in shadow and/or the bag. They are watching, even if you don’t see them. This pays respect and, honestly, it is a sign of respecting their knowledge for yourself as well.