Above, a tour of Sitmonchai premises, guided by Abigail
Okay, there’s no such thing as “The Best Muay Thai Gym” in Thailand or anywhere else. We all have different needs, different levels of experience and different preferences. But we travel thousands of miles to get technique, instruction and experiences that, hopefully, can’t be had anywhere else and we can’t help but want the “best”. I get lots of questions about gyms I recommend, as one might imagine, and honestly it is just too complicated a question. But because people do need some direction, I do try to give an answer that at least narrows the field. And my most standard answer these days is Sitmonchai gym, 2 hours outside of Bangkok.
Best of Many Worlds
Technique-heavy like Santai Gym, Fight-Connected like Lanna Muay Thai and Bangkok gyms, Female Friendly like Por. Promin and not too westernized, like more out-of-the-way gyms.
There may be many superlative gyms out there, which perfectly fit what you need or hope for, but to my eye (and ear, from what I hear) Sitmonchai combines all in one gym some of the most sought-after qualities in a Kai Muay; qualities that have given me to recommend other gyms in Thailand.
Technique But Still Thai
Sitmonchai is guided by one of the most esteemed and technical instructors in the International fight scene, the incomparable Kru Dam. You can see how intensive his technique instruction can be in this 1 hour private I shot with him a few months ago for Nak Muay Nation. The gym has a solid and cohesive fight approach, one that can be successful both in and out of Thailand, founded on the system brought forth by Kru Dam. A “coherent system” of fighting is for instance something that makes Santai Gym (just outside of Chiang Mai) much sought after by westerners looking for instruction and correction (which is not always found in traditional Thai gyms, simply because fighters have so long to develop), but Sitmonchai lacks the very heavy “farang feel” that other technique-teaching gyms may have. While there are always a mix of westerners (farang) and Thais training at Sitmonchai, it maintains a small, family feel with interaction between the fighters, whereas some gyms end up with a kind of division between the westerners and the stable of Thai fighters (or even with no Thai fighters at all). At Sitmonchai there are lots of active Thai fighters involved, and the manager Abigail explains that westerners do not spar with other westerners, only with Thais, so that they can learn the Thai style. Sitmonchai has, in fact, only allowed westerners to attend for a few years now and largely the feel is of a small, traditional gym.
One of the reasons why someone might want to go to a particular gym is that it is “fight friendly.” It’s the reason I recommend Lanna Muay Thai to some, I believe it is the most fight friendly gym in Thailand – aside from Phuket, which is it’s own scene. For someone looking to fight in Thailand it’s important to find a gym with promoter connections and with a positive view towards westerner’s fighting. If you go too far toward the authentic gym style you may not find fight opportunities unless you are already top class. From what I’ve seen, Pee A, the gym owner, not only managed one of the biggest names in Muay Thai (the recently retired Pornsanae), he’s active in finding good fights for his stable of fighters, with proper match ups for western fighters at recognized shows. Because Sitmonchai is in a rural area, there may not be frequent fight opportunities at all times in the local area of Tamaka, but it’s close enough to Bangkok that the opportunities are around. The small, family traditional feel, with fighting opportunities, makes for a nice combination.
I sometimes find myself recommending Por. Promin Gym in Hua Hin to women because of the simple fact that there is a western woman who helps manage the gym: Miriam is the wife of the head trainer. My dealings with her have been really pleasant, and there can be no doubt that having a western woman to turn to for help with any cultural confusions, in English, can be a big aid. Sitmonchai has this advantage in a strong way. Abigail, who I video interviewed here, has been with the gym since they opened it to westerners and is married to one of their long-time and still active fighters, Thepnimit. She is a perfect go-between for a gym which still reads as authentically Thai.
My recommendation of Sitmonchai for women also stems from Kelly Creegan who lived full time there with largely a positive experience. You can see my video interview of Kelly, just as she was leaving the gym to move to Bangkok after more than a year at the camp. During her time at Sitmonchai I was in touch with Kelly a lot, and of course avidly reading her blogging of her experiences It’s Pandamonium. Every Thai gym will have potential cultural pitfalls around issues of gender, but with Abigail there to mediate, this feels like a big plus to me.
In any case, no recommendation can be complete and universal, as everyone has different needs. These are just my general thoughts about the advantages of Sitmonchai. If you are looking for lots of activities to do outside of training or a hot social scene, probably not for you. It’s 2 hours outside of Bangkok and surrounded by sugar cane fields. It keeps a tight cap on the number of westerners at any one time, so I’m not sure how hard it is to book. I can just say that any time I’ve interacted with Sitmonchai I’ve felt nothing less than embrace and family, from the fighters, to the cooks and the trainers, and to the management and owner. They have top-notch, active fighters that bring energy and excitement to the space, a great lead-trainer who will bring you into sharper focus (whether or not you want to fight), and Pee A is one of the nicest guys you’ll meet.
You can find all of my articles on Sitmonchai Gym here.