We’ve made the decision to leave Lanna and Chiang Mai in order to head back down to Pattaya, to train again at WKO with Sakmongkol and at Petchrungruang Gym; we’re moving. I announced it on YouTube and Facebook a few days ago, but this post is about the decision, what means to me. Actually making this decision has a kind of heart-stopping effect of causing me to feel panicked because change can be difficult, but it’s also freeing. Any kind of big move does cause one to take inventory in a way, of persons and experiences, and over the past 2 years at Lanna I’ve met many people who, to varying depths, have affected my life. The trainers at the gym have, naturally, the greatest impact on me as I spend 6-7 hours per day, 6 days per week with them. And I love my trainers as friends, as mentors, as advisers and as a kind of family. Each of them is important to me and there simply isn’t enough that can be said here that would do justice to the relationship and admiration I have for them. So, rather than trying to make a succinct statement about very complex and immense emotional gratitude for my trainers, I’m going to talk about the more unexpected relationships that are involved in training at a Muay Thai camp, those other than trainers.
There are of course the Lanna boys: Big, Tor, little Neung, and Off. They are inhabitants of the gym in the literal sense – they live on the premises and seeing one or more of them stumbling through the gym to brush their teeth in the morning or lying half-asleep on one of the rings in the middle of the day is no infrequent thing. And in a very real way these boys are the soul of the gym and, it is their space and people just come and go from the sidelines of their little fraternity.
Big is the funny one. He’s cocky and playful, but with a too-cool-for-school attitude that isn’t dismissive or abrasive. And he’s also a wicked fighter, so it’s exciting to go watch him in action. Tor is his best friend, the two oldest boys at the camp. Tor is quiet and polite, confident but behind a wall of introspection and a tinge of shyness. Tor is studious, both in his Muay Thai and as a university student, so he kind of grounds the other boys in his work ethic. Little Neung is the next oldest and the biggest of all the boys, but emotionally he’s the youngest. Everything is a joke or a prank, until he has a bad mood and then he sulks around the gym like a sedated hulk. He’s closest to Off, maybe because of their ages, but Off is largely apart from the gym anyway since he’s the youngest and smallest of the boys – the kind of “runt complex” being his most salient quality. In the past month both Big and Off have left the camp. Big has turned 21 years old and was conscripted into the army – it’s literally chance, as men who are fit and in good health draw a ball out of a box and if it’s red you are in the army. So he left on May 1st, posting pictures of his shaved head on his Facebook page. And Off just disappeared and sent word that he’s staying in Bangkok now. So both Tor and Neung were kind of left by their best friends. It’s not unusual, these kinds of cycles and changes happen all the time, but it’s as though Tor and Neung have lost their balance… it’s palpable in the gym space with half the fraternity gone. I am leaving their space, with half of them already gone.
And there are long-timers (farang) who have been at the gym for what I can only assume is forever, like Rodrigo. He was a fighter at the gym and then became an English teacher at one of the local universities, got married and had a new baby son. Rodrigo would still come train at the gym after work because he loves Muay Thai and the gym was like family. You can see him joking around with Big in the video below. Last year Rodrigo moved to China in order to earn more money for his family. And if and when he comes back to Chiang Mai for visits he will surely stop by the gym and train a little bit and it will be as though he never left, which is what it’s like when nearly anyone who has spent significant time at the gym drops by. There are perhaps a half-dozen men from various different parts of the globe who visit the gym annually and completely see the space as a kind of “home base.” Like meeting your buddies at the same park or the same bar where you all used to hang out. I humorously call some of these guys senseis – not to them, but referring to them – because they tend to assume a position as instructor or teacher at the gym – something that was maybe welcomed by Andy when he was there and maybe is part of the progression away from training and fighting but still wanting to be in the space. It isn’t a favorite thing of mine, but it is and was a part of the gym culture there. Rodrigo definitely wasn’t a “sensei,” but he was always happy to help or offer advice when asked, and I loved sparring with him.
And there are people you meet because of the revolving door that leads back to Lanna. Students of the gym will return with years in-between visits and friendships develop quickly due to the shared experience of the gym and love for Muay Thai. It’s a “reunion” with persons you’ve not met before, which is kind of cool. And there are those who are kind of on the periphery of the gym but are nonetheless a huge part of it. “Swimmy Knees Kid,” as I call him, who is actually nicknamed Godzilla, is just such a person. He’s a Thai who is maybe 17 or 18 years old and he belongs to a gym that is owned by the Chief of Police, but he comes to Lanna to train on some afternoons. He does padwork with Nook and clinches with the bigger westerners (he’s very big for a Thai; his thighs alone probably weigh what I weigh). He’s very sweet and polite, always greeting everyone when he arrives and saying goodbye before he leaves (which isn’t super typical for Thais). I’ll miss him. And then there is the extended family of the gym, like Pom’s kids, who are in their 20’s and are always coming and going from the gym. I’ll run into them on the street down by my apartment, usually where they’re buying dinner from some vendors and we have a nice exchange of hello. And big Neung’s wife, who is one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met and his little daughter, Nong Jeen, who is about 6 years old and comes to the gym during breaks from school (otherwise she lives with her grandma during the school year), and they’re absolutely part of the gym. Nong Jeen throws herself around the ring, bouncing on the ropes and running around with the little boys (Den’s nephews, who also come train during breaks from school).
And of course there are people outside of the gym. I am friendly with vendors on my street – the pharmacist who makes jokes and asks about my fights every time I see her; the fried chicken lady and her husband who always wave and smile; the BBQ chicken lady and the som dam man who think it’s hilarious that I only want one chili in my spicy salad but love asking me about Muay Thai. And Pook, who runs the Mong Pearl, where we eat breakfast nearly every day. Pook is a good friend and it is very sad to be moving away from her. My life here is very small; I go to the gym, I eat and I sleep, so the space I occupy is very, very small and the persons within it are therefore very close. Pook is a big part of that very small space.
In addition to people are the dogs of the gym. Andy loves dogs – I’m personally suspicious of anyone who doesn’t – and there is a legitimate pack of dogs that live at the gym. When Andy was still here, before being cast off to the Hill Camp after a break-up fight with Pom, the collection of dogs was always growing. He’d bring new puppies home several times per year. Now that Andy is only at Hill Camp, the dogs have remained steady but I’ve grown to love them as one would their own dogs. There are the little brothers, “Black Face” and “White Face,” who are actually named Ong Dam and Tong Dee but they looked identical as puppies except for the black and white on each of their faces, hence the nicknames. Wandee is the unchallenged matriarch of the pack and the only female of the dogs. She’s been there since my first ever visit to Lanna and is a strong presence at the gym, not to mention the chief regulator of the other dogs. She has a brother, Tom Daeng, who stays in the house exclusively now that Andy’s gone. With him is Nam, who has lost most of his hair and looks like a creature, but still has very sweet eyes and if you can coax him over for some strokes and pats he still loves affection. And then there’s little Poklok, who I initially despised because he’s a tiny poodle. My affection for him grew when I started seeing him shaved, this ridiculous little black body scurrying around after Wandee everywhere. He’s always excited about everything and he loves Wandee, like the nerdy little sidekick in love with his best female friend. I very much love Poklok now. In the first year that I was at Lanna big Neung got a baby pitbull from a friend, named Sylvia. How she got that name is a whole other story that I can only speculate on, but she was wonderful. She eventually was given to someone else and left the gym, but she was a big part of while she was there. Same with a puppy that very recently was living in the apartments right next to the gym – I called him “Possum” although I think his name was Kaew (“white”) – they belong to a family next door but are completely integrated into the gym as well.
Leaving Chiang Mai
It’s not a small thing to be leaving Chiang Mai. When we first moved here we’d hoped to get 6 months out of our savings. That has turned into 2 years already, which is absolutely shocking to us, but it also means that we’ve always had in our minds that one day we will be leaving – so it’s actually a huge relief that our first move from Chiang Mai is still in Thailand, rather than moving back to the US already. We do love Chiang Mai though. It’s a beautiful place with mountains as the backdrop to everything, jungle filling in space between concrete and buildings, a relaxed atmosphere and the “Old City” is surrounded by a moat and ruins that are a few hundred years old. It has meant a lot to me to be living near the mountains, to see Doi Suthep and is weather change every day outside my window (photo below), in a way that isn’t all that dissimilar to the flatirons I grew up with in Boulder as a child. This is no small thing for a mountain girl. Chiang Mai a romantic place. I’ll miss the actual space of Chiang Mai in much the same way I’ll miss the people who fill it.
Going to Pattaya
I never, ever, pictured myself in Pattaya. It’s not a place that I’d wanted to visit and falls in the category of places I would purposefully avoid. But that’s where Sakmongkol is and so I was willing to go there. Turns out, while there are lots of aspects of Pattaya that I do hate, there are far more elements that I surprisingly like or even love and I’m actually looking forward to moving there. I can actually feel the roads and the spaces that we became familiar with when we were there for almost two months, and so there’s a comfort in my mind and heart when I think about inhabiting those spaces again. There is an odd sort of resilience of Thainess there, when you pushed below the obvious outrageous tourism. Pattaya is very Thai. The tourism is confined largely to a few streets or avenues, while much of Pattaya feels like parts of Chiang Mai or other towns of Thailand. I also met incredible people who I look forward to spending time with, learning from, and becoming better friends with. It’s exciting.
Changing Gyms For Real
There’s something to be said about gym loyalty, which Emma Thomas wrote about in her very popular (and controversial) post, “Gym Hoppers and the Importance of Loyalty in Muay Thai.” Two things: 1) I’ve said several times in comments and responses to Emma’s post that I believe she’s speaking in broad terms about a very specific situation; and 2) being a westerner makes this whole concept of loyalty more complicated. It is worth talking about.
This move is not “gym hopping.” That phrase refers to people who move between gyms somewhat flippantly, whether it’s short term everywhere they go – like touring areas of Thailand via Muay Thai gyms – or whether they spend significant time at more than one gym. Emma’s criticism, I feel, is in the lack of appreciating and valuing each gym and treating the process of changing gyms like a free-market decision. A lot of westerners see it this way and it makes sense, somewhat, for them to feel this way. Westerners pay gym fees and so feel that they are purchasing a service. If they don’t feel the gym is meeting their expectations or they simply want to move toward a different experience, it is a completely acceptable act in western commercial values to simply take your purchasing-power elsewhere. Thais, generally, don’t pay for training and so their loyalty is based quite firmly in the economy and morality of debt; fighters are indebted to the gym for the investment the gym has made in raising them as a fighter, and in many cases are legally contracted to them, something that formalizes in law the deeper social debt. What serious westerns may not understand is that even though you have paid for services at a gym the Thai code is that you are indebted to the gym that trains you, that invests in you if you are a fighter. So to “take yourself elsewhere”, as a customer, has cultural consequences in Thai contexts that might be side-swiped by our western free-market ethics. To this end, Emma is absolutely right and I do not change gyms lightly. I’ve been struggling with my place and possibilities at Lanna for about 6 months prior to making the decision to move; and loyalty is a very strong reason for why it has taken me so long to reach the decision. I owe a great deal to both Lanna and its trainers.
Much of it comes down to the proverbial “glass ceiling.” I’ve written about it before and I absolutely still believe that the opportunities I’ve had through Lanna would not have been available to me at any other gym. My fight rate, the range of opponents, the range of experience from stadia in the Old City to temple fairs and festival fights, facing world champions and sport school students within days of each other, and of course the training I’ve received from Den, Daeng, Neung, and Nook. I’m grateful for all of these things. But I’m also aware of the limitations that I keep banging my head against. It’s nobody’s “fault,” but the laid-back attitude that has allowed me to fight the way that I have at Lanna is also what’s preventing me from growing to the capacity that I believe I’m capable. When I was in Pattaya I experienced a serious growth-spurt in a very short amount of time. It’s partly due to different styles, but it’s also due to focus.
It’s about the investment in me developing as a fighter and being loyal to that process, even if it means a degree of disloyalty to those who have helped me get this far. I’m not leaving on bad terms though and truthfully there are a lot of changes in the gym going on simultaneously. It’s a good time to be leaving. There is no misunderstanding from my trainers about my motivations for this move – for some the name “Sakmongkol” alone is a satisfying one-word justification, and everyone wishes me luck and I, of course, want the best for them as well.
My Vlog Update on the Move
above, my filmed thoughts on leaving from a few days before
Going to Petchruangruang
I’m very excited to be returning to Petchrungruang Gym in Pattaya. It was almost accidental that I ended up there. Sakmongkol’s gym only has Muay Thai in the afternoon and so I looked for another gym in the area to supplement my training. Petchrungruang looked good to me because it has so many kids, an idea that I found cool, kind of abstractly, but that ended up being the most perfect training environment for me because a) I have some major holes in my training which have mainly to do with basics and kids are taught from the ground up, so the gym is very adroit at drilling and instilling the fundamentals; and b) the kids are young enough that they’re close to my size, not worlds away from my own level like they have been at Lanna (and even when they’re much more skilled they’re many kilos smaller, so I’m not outskilled and outsized), and they’re too young to have any say over whether or not they train with a woman. It’s win/win for me and I will learn tons with more time there, especially since my main clinch partner Bank is now fighting at Lumpinee and probably growing by the day. Additionally, Kru Nu may be the best padholder I’ve ever had and it’s a 3-generation, family-run gym.
my video on Petchrungruang
Sakmongkol and WKO
Sakmongkol was the main impetus for heading down to Pattaya in the first place and he is just an amazing teacher. One of the kind in the world. I love his style, I love how he teaches, and I love that he’s annoyed enough by my inabilities that he wants to change them. It’s not going to be easy because he revealed himself to be very hard on his fighters. He’s impossible to please, which is both good and bad – it’s good because I’m never satisfied with myself so I know why he’s that way and it forces me to try hard, but it’s also bad because it feels like shit to always be disappointing your mentor. But given how much he changed my technique for the better in such a short time, I really look forward to a lot of growth under his instruction. Below are two links that can help you explore what I learned in my two months earlier this year.
WKO – What Is It?
I’m not going to WKO to study Karate, but rather to be with Sakmongkol. But the gym does have a very unique atmosphere. Some of the advanced fighters there are extremely nice to be around, like surreally nice. Something of their energy and their commitment was captured in this film 100 Man Fight (2011) which we just watched, the other night. If you can get a hold of it you may find it interesting.
And you can’t really talk WKO without talking about it’s driving spirit Sifu McInnes, a world class marshal artd devotee and innovative thinker who has trained some of the best fighters in the world. Sakmongkol’s eyes bugged out when he saw Sifu hold pads for me, as if nobody really gets this kind of attention from him (you can see the padwork linked below), and I truly hope that though I probably won’t have time to study Karate (I did take one class in February), that I’m able to pick up some striking and strategy wisdom from Sifu while I am there.
PhetJee Jaa Documentary
In addition to all of the above, one of the reasons we strongly considered moving to Pattaya was to be able to shoot our PhetJee Jaa Documentary. If interested in updates you can sign up for the project Newsletter here.
…but not only to shoot the documentary, but also to just be closer and get to know and even train a little bit with PhetJee Jaa. I plan to be running in the early morning with the Petchrungruang kids (5:30 AM) before they go to school, so I suspect I’ll be running with her as well, as I believe she sometimes joins them. I hope also to get over to her family camp O. Meekhun gym for some clinch practice and maybe even sparring with her and her brother Mawin at times. Her fundamentals are so amazing, I could only improve by being around her. Being near PhetJee Jaa is significant thing for me, as I’ve said before she is kind of a hero to me.
Onto One Hundred Fights
I hope to be getting to Pattaya with 80 fights (just needing two fights here to finish). I’m not sure what my fight rate will be down there since it was harder to find fights for me than it is up here, but the promoters down there were already starting to get to know me so it shouldn’t take long for them to know what I’m about. My goal has been amended to be 100 fights in Thailand, which means 109 fights all together – this means I have about 30 to go in the next year. That’s been my fight rate for the past two years, more or less. The question is how long we can afford to stay in Pattaya; it is more expensive there, just living expenses, than Chiang Mai. But where there’s a will, there’s a way and I’m already much farther than I’d thought was possible when I first started to dream. On to the next, onward toward 100 fights in Thailand.
And it’s worth stating that I’ll be capturing my experiences here on this blog, as I have for the last 2 years. It’s a tremendous amount of work, but I find that it’s worth it both for myself and for others. Thank you to everyone who has kept up with me and for supporting me. My Muay Thai family only grows.