All gyms go through cycles, it’s the nature of the game. For a gym as long-established as Lanna Muay Thai in the northern province of Chiang Mai, those revolutions have been many. It’s one of the first gyms in the north to open to westerners and has been around, with a very strong reputation, for over 25 years. There’s an “old guard” of Lanna fighters, from way before my time, in the kind of golden years of the gym. They still come around the gym, their loyalty to this camp like an “Alma Mater” of their fight careers. For so long many were returning like clockwork to revisit Andy Thomson, the Scottish-Canadian co-founder of the gym along with his Thai partner Pom, from whom the Thai name of the gym comes: Kiatbusaba.
In the years that I was training and fighting out of Lanna full time (2012-2014), the old guard fighters would come through the gym and on longer runs I could hear some of the stories from the “old days.” Evident was the train hard, party hard ethic of the young men under Andy’s guidance as a mentor. (You can watch this 90 minute documentary made in some of those years.) And there were a handful of women over the early years as well. Fortunately, I got to meet Andy on my first trip out to Lanna in 2010, when I learned from him and got first-hand experience of what an incredible and unforgettable figure he is for countless western fighters. Andy was a powerful shaping figure in my experience of Thailand and Muay Thai (he now is an instructor down in Hua Hin at Congcarter gym). Unfortunately, it just so happened that the timing of my return when we moved to Thailand in April of 2012 was a transitional time at the gym. Andy was distancing himself, working a great deal away from the gym and dreaming of moving up to his Hill Camp in Chiang Rai while the gym at Lanna would be more under the direct operation and control of the Thais who had been trainers there for years. When Andy left late in 2012, however, the transition to a new order of operation was a difficult one and my 2+ years at the gym were a valley in the timeline of its history. It was still a wonderful time for me and the gym remained an invaluable place to learn and fight from, I wouldn’t be who I am without it, but it suffered from disorganization and what I might call a loss of spirit in Andy so you can find some bad reviews online from that time that were a mix of objective reports of inattentiveness, and disappointment that the gym was no longer the same.
above, my walk to Lanna vlog on how Lanna has changed
But this post is a very happy report on the revival of Lanna Muay Thai gym. In the years since I moved down to Pattaya, I’ve come back up to the north for fights on a fairly regular basis, so I’ve been able to witness the gym in snapshots and for days at a time. It is very strong now. Pom has orchestrated some renovations that she told me she wanted to do for a long time and they look great. And the trainers all seem in a good place which is very important. There was a morose cloud over the trainers during the last year I was at the gym, but it has lifted. It took several years to grow stable after the departure of such a powerful force as Andy’s – there is nobody really like him – but the gym now is kind of a 2nd generation gym. It has some Thai boys that were raised as fighters in the gym since they were kids – they are young men now – and long time trainers that come from Andy’s time. The gym has become an expression of the Thais from its glory years. Pi Daeng has taken a strong lead in organizing the training and it’s fantastic for every level. I see women clinching and sparring on a regular basis when I come by the gym, something that was a serious absence in my training when I was here. It means a lot to have this access for women, and because Daeng is a very fight-oriented trainer it fits incredibly well into the fact that Lanna is – and quite frankly has always been – the most fight friendly gym, probably in the world. If you want to fight, you can get a fight through Lanna. And they’ll get you ready for it. It’s not only that there are fights available, this is an important part of the Lanna (and really true Thai) philosophy, that fighting is part of training. It’s what I was raised on. It’s how you learn, not how you show off how much you know or prove how good you are. And that is why I’ve strived to fight as much as possible. You fight to learn. I simply could never have even glimpsed the goals I’ve shot past if it wasn’t for Lanna’s initial embrace of Sylvie Charbonneau who fought there before me, and then their embrace of me and my constant pushing of the line of what was possible. This is not fake bar fighting or belt fighting. This is fighting as a process of finding your boundaries and pushing past them.
above, Pi Daeng is great to take privates from, I still do so when I come up to Chiang Mai to fight – everything he teaches is very practical to wining fights, very grounded
It’s one thing that the entire city of Chiang Mai is a place where fights are readily available on every night of the week, but it’s an important point that Chiang Mai is something of the female fight capital of Thailand (I’ll be writing a follow up post on this fact). Part of this is due to the sheer number of stadia in the city and therefore the opportunities for fights are nearly constant, but there is also a high population of female fighters in the area, and importantly, promoters that embrace female fighting. That means fight opportunities for western women coming to Chiang Mai with the intention to fight, but it also means that gyms in the area are familiar with having women train there. That’s a big deal, and one that has become more evident to me since I’ve moved from Lanna – something I struggled with as one of very few women regularly training at the gym during my time there, but still took for granted how much I gained from the gym’s acceptance and familiarity with training women. I’ve noted that recently there have been larger groups of long-term women at the gym, which is ideal. I would have had a different experience if there’d been more regular training women during my time, and I’ll repeat again that every time I come by, under Daeng’s leadership in the training at the gym, women appear to be getting a lot of really good clinching and sparring in their regular training. And the more women who choose to go there, the better it will be for all women. My presence at Lanna for the 2 years I was there has certainly made a lasting impact on the gym, in ways that I’m seeing now for the women currently training there. And because they’re holding open the doors for the next women, it’s very exciting. We are all part of the amazing Lanna heritage.
There is a lot more to say about Lanna in the plus column. Great runs, a beautiful street and neighborhood, good people, family. I’ll leave those for another article.