There I am, standing in a complete anomaly. I’m in a small gym of hanging bags, old tires, a ring in the back, a tin roof that thunders when people kick, in a small town skirted by rice fields of incredible Thailand green…and I am surrounded by females. The Muay Thai gym in Thailand is about as masculine a semi-public space as there is, its where men practice at being men, yet here a dozen women and girls are preparing for their daily work, work to be ready as fighters. It’s a female fighting gym.
Some Background on Pettonpung Gym
Over the last 3 and a half years I’ve fought 5 different fighters from the Pettonpung Gym in Mae Rim and always recognized them to be aggressive, strong fighters. The woman I faced a number of times was Nong Ying, their most prolific fighter with over 300 fights to her name – she’s scary as hell. In fact we’ve nicknamed her The Farang Smasher, because she is pretty much the resident opponent taking on Chiang Mai farang in all the stadia, most of the larger than her. In our first two fights I was able to knock her out in round 2, but that was after she’d already put a beating on me for those rounds and I managed to catch her with a knee to the stomach, or in the second fight by hurting her by checking some kicks and her legs weren’t up for the duration of a full fight, possibly a linger injury brought her down. In our third meeting, however, we went all five rounds and I lost the decision, and took on a nasty black-eye and cuts on the eyebrow as souvenirs. It was a beatdown. Nong Ying is significantly bigger than I am (maybe 5-6 kg now, she says she’s 54). She was very sweet after I got my stitches and came over to apologize – this is a common thing to do after fights but sometimes it’s forced – in her case it was sincere. She also is a fan of all animals, including our Jai Dee, so you know she has a good heart. As I mentioned, in Chiang Mai she’s often put against westerners who outsize her – she’s the designated farang fighter, and is extremely tough. This is something that a former Pettonpung teammate of hers was known for as well, back when I was up in Chiang Mai at Lanna; that fighter’s name was Nong Mint and Kevin and I just loved her work-ethic in fights. The Pettonpung gym has kept two of the most prolific farang fighting Thais in Chiang Mai, though Nong Mint has moved on.
It wasn’t until I’d already left Chiang Mai and moved to Pattaya that I came to realize that Pettonpung Gym is full of women. On their facebook page they started referring to themselves as a “group of women” gym and it wasn’t until I actually went there in person last month that I realized it’s all women. They do have one or two boys/young man on the periphery, but I don’t know if they fight. It’s a woman’s space.
The notion of an all-female Thai gym is exciting to me for a few reasons. The first of which is that it means that there is a trainer and place in which women are a focus, rather than just an addition to the gym. In most cases there are very few women in a gym, or often none. In Chiang Mai there are a few gyms that come to mind as having a group of female fighters – Sit Dobwod is one, although they have young boys as well – but I’ve never seen an all-female gym like Pettonpung before. I’ve only heard of one other all female gym in Thailand, though I’m sure there must be a few. The second reason it’s so exciting is that, because women are often such a minority in gyms, we do not get the same bonding experiences that men get when coming to live and train at a camp in Thailand. You hear these very romanticized tales from western men who “slept on the floor with the fighters” in traditional gyms, and you see strong bonds between fighters at those gyms, a connection falling on gender lines. Women don’t get that opportunity because we don’t have that same peer framework. A gym that is all-female like Pettonpung allows for that possibility – one can feel it, just walking in. I don’t know that any of those young women are living at the gym, but I will tell you from first-hand experience that when you spend even one day (or a few hours) together in a group of young Thai women you can get the slumber-party bonding experience. Aside from just looking down a line of bags and seeing people “just like you”, there are things like doing each other’s braids for fights, or helping to wrap hands, even just sitting together and chatting – all things that men have versions of that are strong bonding experiences, and women, for the most part, haven’t gotten the chance to experience in a Thai gym setting. It makes me a bit teary-eyed just thinking about that kind of sorority experience as a westerner coming to a Thai gym. It’s something that would change the female experience of training in Thailand in an incredibly powerful way.
I contacted the gym to see if I could come interview their star fighter, Nong Ying. She was in China at the time but the owner of the camp, a former army general called Yai (Generals are called “yai” in Thai, meaning “big”), spoke with me through messages on Facebook in a kind of wary way. He wasn’t sure what I wanted, even though I explained I’m a westerner in Thai, a fighter, and that I wanted to interview him about his gym. Finally, I sent him a photo of me in the ring right after my most recent fight in Chiang Mai (a couple days prior to our conversation) and he wrote back with excitement that he recognized me from the photo and that I was welcome to his gym anytime. In fact, he wanted to know if I could come to the Night Bazaar that night because one of his fighters was in the ring. We went to say hello and sure enough there was this big line of women at the back of the stadium, preparing their fighter for the night. Unbelievable. A whole gym of women.
ran into the whole gym of women at the Kalare fights
The next evening we drove out the the gym (below):
the drive up to the small community Baan Tonpung
Kevin and I drove out to the gym the next evening. Mae Rim is just outside of Chiang Mai city, maybe 30 minutes’ drive. It’s a rural area, mostly fields and winding country roads (you can see the drive up video below). It was beautiful out there and reminded us very much of the rural roads up in Isaan, just without the buffalo wandering around. This area would be an idyllic for training runs and very quiet place to live. The gym is just right on the side of the road, across from some food stalls on carts that surely wheel away when the sun goes down. The women at the gym had a very laid back attitude toward their training. They were slowly getting ready, mostly chatting with each other and eyeing me with great interest. I said hello to Yai and he immediately called over Petnamgnaam, who I’d fought years ago. She was about 60 kilos when I fought her and he immediately said she was bpum pui now (chubby), although she didn’t look much bigger to me – its a common thing to say about a fighter. She smiled at me shyly and then beckoned me to walk into the gym where some more women were bouncing on the tires and hitting the bags. Later, when I was interviewing Yai, about four of the girls were in the ring holding pads for one another. Pi Yai explained to me that Nong Ying is usually in charge of the training – she’s the trainer in the morning sessions, holding pads for the girls who have fights, and then she directs evening session with his supervision. Maybe that’s why it was so relaxed that day, since Nong Ying was still in China.
the walk through tour of the gym
Yai seemed to really like me. He definitely recognized me from fighting with Nong Ying, although I didn’t recognize him from her corner at all. I only remember the women in her corner, really. But he was telling this lady who ran the coffee stand next to the gym all about me, how I fight bigger girls and never give up, fight frequently and am strong – even that I’d KO’d Nong Ying. He must have seen me get my ass kicked by Nong Ying just a month before and was impressed by my not backing down, I guess. He really wanted me to clinch with the one guy at the gym that night but I had stitches in my face and couldn’t. He may have heard from Nong Ying that I’m strong in the clinch and wanted to give me some work, to only offer his boy instead of working with the women. He was glowing in his words toward Nong Ying. He said she’d been with the gym for about 5 years (she’s maybe 24 years old, so she came to him a bit late after fighting elsewhere I assume. I think her father was a fighter so she certainly started before that but she’s been a strong fighter for their gym in the time she’s been there). The gym is 10 years old. He said the gym used to be all men, for several years. Then, maybe 5 years ago the first women came, and maybe two years ago it changed; suddenly it was mostly women, then all women. I asked him if he’d tried to do that in any way and he just shrugged, like it had happened overnight and he just went with it. He was happy to have women training though.
my interview in my still broken Thai, with gym owner Pi Yai
I asked if he would want westerners training at his gym and he shrugged again, saying he was open to it and they’re welcome, but that foreigners don’t train hard – I’m not sure how many westerners he actually has had in his gym, I’d guess very, very few. Honestly, I think he was commenting that he didn’t really know what westerners wanted out of training; I don’t think he’s ever hosted a western fighter but, given his embracing of me, I believe he’d be fully involved in promoting a female westerner who wanted to fight out of his gym. He asked me numerous times if I was going to come train with him and I had to keep explaining I don’t live in Chiang Mai anymore. He did point over to a nice house behind the gym when I asked about accommodation. He said there were some rooms in there where people could stay – I assume, actually, that it’s his own house – and the price he gave me for rent was awesome: 1,500 Baht/month which is less than $45 a month. I wasn’t sure, however, what he would charge for training. He seemed to be saying that it was up to the individual and their commitment. I’m pretty sure none of the Thai fighters pay for training, other than a percentage out of their fight purse.
I plan to return to the gym and interview Nong Ying in the next few months.
A “Real” Muay Thai Gym
This is what’s important to understand about Pettonpung, and gyms like it. This is a very real Muay Thai gym. In the west we have this romantic notion of the all-Thai gym, where we come in as the sole westerner and are embraced and treated like one of the Thais, taught the secrets of Muay Thai like some Shaolin Temple Kung Fu movie. It’s just not like that. Gyms that cater to westerners have learned how to create the experience we expect, to some degree, which means you’re given attention in padwork and maybe barked at to do pushups or whatever. For Thais, being “treated like a Thai” means you are in charge of your own training most of the time – like, more than 90% of the time. And that’s okay; I can’t tell you what a nightmare it is for me to think of being in some kind of structured “class” at a gym, where we all stretch together and do combinations in formation or something. But that’s me. Some people want that, but a very Thai gym won’t give you that. Aside from the fantasy of what Thai gym is like, there are very Thai gyms that do have a much more structured organization than Pettonpung, with multiple trainers, champions in the making, etc., but the truth of the matter is that what most small gyms are like, all over Thailand, 1000s of them, gyms that may never be heard of by westerner and have only a handful of fighters, they are like this. Extremely, loosely organized. There may or may not be padholding. The bag work is up to you. It’s really just a location for a little equipment and perhaps some instruction. Everyone is there for the work of fighting, and what is important is heart. So this is absolutely a fighter’s gym and if you come wanting to fight, they will get you fights- its how the gym survives, by fighting. The young woman I’d seen preparing to get in the ring the night before arriving at the gym was there the next day, hitting the bag. There was no build up to the fight and no long, ceremonial recovery afterward – just real Muay Thai lifestyle of training and fighting on cycle, all the time. But if you aren’t ready for the non-guided path, it can be a real shock.
So if you want to come to Pettonpung – or any real, small Thai gym where you’re one of very few, or even the only westerner – then you need to be prepared and have the right expectations. Learn how to hit a bag before you get here (by that I mean, how to get a lot out of 5 rounds on the bag), or be aware that you’re going to be learning how to do so by watching others when you arrive. Know that nobody is going to be telling you what to do and guiding you through a training session, that some of those sessions will be harder than others and some days will be basically nothing, or very little happening at all. This happens everywhere. At my own gym in Pattaya, Petchrungruang, which is a family run gym which does cater a little to westerners, there are days when my training partners are getting ready for a fight and so they’re not there to train with me – those are quiet days for me and I have to make up for it on my own. I’ve been here in Thailand for 3.5 years, so I know how to do that, but if you’re not prepared for it you might feel lost. Just relax, figure it out – go for a longer run, hit the bag for more rounds, etc. If you’re brave and want to experience the kind of “authentic Muay Thai gym” that tourists don’t get to see, you’ll have an experience that most don’t get. And that can be both good and also difficult. As a woman coming to Thailand, an all-Thai, all-female gym like this is a real rarity. If I were in a different place, with different goals at this time, I would love to have the experience of bonding with fellow women fighters; Thai women fighters. This is something that has never been a possibility for western women before, and even for Thai women these gyms are incredibly rare.
The Growth of Female Muay Thai in Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai right now is a growing scene for female fighters. There is a high-concentration of female fighters of all different levels (although the “beginners” are small bodied, so if you’re an average sized western woman and want to fight, you’re not likely to find a Thai woman above 50 kg at a beginning level), some of whom are very, very good. There are brand new stadia like the snazzy Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium and the rebuilt military stadium Kawilla, and there are high volume smaller rings like Kalare at the Night Bazaar and Thapae Stadium at the edge of the Old City. The publication Muay Siam has started ranking the female fighters in the north with a Muay Siam title belt in every weight class and some of the best fighters in Thailand are located around the north. With a variety of opponents and at least one female bout on every fight card in the city, every night, there is great opportunity for fighting in Chiang Mai, perhaps better than anywhere else in Thailand at the time of this writing. But while the female Muay Thai scene is really burgeoning in Chiang Mai on the Thai side, it does feel as if the farang-oriented gyms in Chiang Mai haven’t really yet been on the rise in the same way – though individual female fighters have had good experiences at each. Chiang Mai is pretty much set to really expand for female fighting.
How to Give Pettonpung a Try
I’ll say this. If you are a western woman and would think of giving Pettonpung a try you have to be adventurous. There is probably zero English spoken – though that can be interesting in itself. You should be a very low-maintenance traveler, should be able to train yourself in a self-motivated way, and you should be wanting to fight. I know of no female westerner who has done this, so you would be one of the first, if not the first. If things don’t work out at the very least it will be something you’d remember, and you could always go back to Chiang Mai (about 30 minutes away).
So if you want to give Pettonpung a try, you can copy and paste the following text as a private message to their Facebook page. It says that you are a western woman who found the gym through this post and are interested in training at the gym. I’ll leave a black space where you can insert dates you’re interested in (in Thailand it’s day/month/year (2015 is 2558 in the Thai calendar, 2016=2559, etc). If you hear back, use the Thai2English translator and write to me on my facebook page if you need help communicating back, I’ll try to help.
สวัสดีค่ะคุณใหญ่ค่ะ ฉันเป็นฝรั่งและเรียนรู้ค่ายมวยเพชรต้นผึ้งจากเว็บไซต์นักมวยหญิง ซิลวี่ (แต่ก่อน เกียรคิบุษบา) นะคะ ฉันขอเรียนมวยที่ค่ายเพชรต้นผึ้งนะคะ คิดว่าจะถึงเชียงใหม่ (date of arrival) จะอยู่ถึง (date of departure) ค่ะ มีห้องพักว่างอยู่ที่ค่ายไหมคะ ราคาซ้อมกี่บาทคะ
The cost for the room he pointed to near the gym was about 1,500 Baht per month (less than $45 USD) and the cost of training is not yet determined, but likely very, very low. I’d think you’d need to rent a motorbike to get around, since the gym is on a rural road and song taew share cabs probably don’t happen by often. Cost of renting a bike in Chiang Mai is about 2,000 Baht/month as well, it could be cheaper in Mae Rim. In order to get to the gym you’d want to grab a Tuk-Tuk in Chiang Mai, since getting a share cab to go all the way to Mae Rim from Chiang Mai is unlikely – you can offer to hire a share cab to bring you out there, which would probably cost you a 200 Baht or so ($6), and I’m not sure what a Tuk-Tuk would charge. Below is a Google Map of where the gym is located, but for the purposes of your ride you should show this text and then the driver can ask locals for directions once you’re close:
แม่ริม ใกล้กับบ้านเพชรต้นผึ้ง ไปค่ายมวยเพชรต้นผึ้ง
Here’s a snapshot of the routes from Chiang Mai city center, and below that an interactive Google Maps: