Why I’m Taking Karate In Thailand – Creative Tension vs Creating Tension

There is a saying, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” That’s kind of Thailand in a nut-shell. My daily grind is more or less the...

There is a saying, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” That’s kind of Thailand in a nut-shell. My daily grind is more or less the same thing over and over again; it’s routine, it’s repetitive, and I love it. But it’s also unpredictable and keeps me on my toes. Persons are not like heavy bags in that you can’t rely on them to do the same thing with you every day, rain or shine, through sickness and health. Even on inanimate objects, sometimes I’m awesome and sometimes it’s difficult. With human beings, however, there are innumerate factors that come into play regarding who is training, who will train with you, how hard, how long, how strong they’ll be that day, etc.

Part of having two gyms in Thailand is the benefit of spreading that unpredictability out. So, if a group of my clinching and sparring partners at Petchrungruang have fights or are sick and aren’t at training, I’m not totally left out to dry because I still have a whole separate set of training partners at O. Meekhun. And vice versa: sometimes O. Meekhun is injured or lazy or whatever else and I can make up for it at the other gym.

It’s also helpful to not be so emotionally dependent on one place.  Every gym has highs and lows. Sometimes your trainer thinks you’re awesome and sometimes he’s distracted or likes telling you how tired you seem. By having two separate gyms, I’m never only whatever one set says or thinks I am.

Karate and Padwork at WKO

This past week I started taking Karate lessons at WKO, where I’d trained Muay Thai with Sakmongkol about a year ago.  I originally came to Pattaya in search of Sakmongkol, and it was only the complications that can arise from training at more than one gym in Thailand that ended that experiment in the first place. Now, a year away from WKO and things feel very fresh and repaired. Relationships and respect are very complicated when your alliance is in more than one place in this culture. Part of the reason I’ve come back to WKO through Karate is that the gym is primarily a Karate gym, and Sifu McInnes is a huge promoter of Shorin Kempo Karate worldwide – it respectful to do so and it is in my respect for him that I do so. I do not aim to become a belt fighter in Karate, but I and Kevin intuited that it would really provide a certain “break” and distance to what I have learned in the last year. We also thought that the way that Karate attacks the body would go well with the body attacks I’m currently developing in Muay Thai. Already I’m very happy with the “otherness” of the classes, as I’m able to apply aspects of the Karate lessons to my Muay Thai that I might not otherwise be learning. For example, the class is very structured so we learn only a handful of techniques in the 1.5 hour session. In all honesty, I hate group class set-ups, but in small doses it’s really good, especially because there’s lots of repetition. Being in a situation where I’m focusing on only the low kick for 15 minutes, or how to walk forward while punching full power but staying relaxed… those are things I don’t generally practice on my own but can certainly apply when I go back to doing my own thing in my regular training.

What’s probably more beneficial than the techniques themselves, however, is Sifu’s lessons on how to learn. Sifu McInnes is a bang on genius of an instructor and his fighters have had success at the highest levels of fighting: see Peter Aerts and Yodsanan to name two. In class he repeats frequently to me how it’s best not to even think about what we’re doing – the mechanics of it – only consider the objective and then take action. Don’t try to think about how you’re going to step and turn in order to get your body in the right position to land a spinning heel-kick to the head. Rather, just think, “my heel, his face” and go. Your body will figure it out and over-thinking it creates fear, hesitation, confusion, etc.  This is an amazing lesson for me to be confronting several times per week because I can get too hung up on technique and proper execution instead of just trusting my instincts and that my body can go and do.  In the same way that having two gyms has allowed me to not feel overly invested in or reliant upon either one of them, the fact that I’m doing Karate – which is not my art, my sport, or something I’ve spent years devoting myself to – I don’t really care if I make a mistake in the same way. I’m new, of course I won’t be able to do everything right away. Ultimately I’m practicing forgiveness and patience with myself through the cheat of it being in the context of something I’m not used to or as yet greatly invested in. But I’m not over-thinking that either. In just a few days Karate at WKO has been liberating.

The multiplicity of gyms also has an affect on the social dynamics, as I mentioned before in stating that I don’t become overly reliant upon everything being smooth at any one gym.  Kevin taught me this trick when we first started living together and I had just started bartending. He told me to work at two bars, not one. The thought itself felt exhausting and I figured he was crazy, but anyone who has ever worked in the hospitality industry knows it’s an insane place and the stress, irrationality and drama is inescapable. However, if your boss is crazy, not giving you good shifts, being an ass or is just an idiot, you can kind of keep a “fuck it” attitude much easier if you have shifts at a second job. Both places are going to have drama and be crazy and not give you everything you need or want, but you can feel detached in a very nice way.  It’s the same at gyms, and while I am far more invested in both places than I ever have been at a job and the relationships do mean a great deal to me, being in the middle gives me a freedom to not take so much of it personally.

So why add a third? Well, I’m having a frustrating time at O. Meekhun in that the gym is in a heavy state of flux at the moment. The reason I train there is because I want to train with Phetjee Jaa, and since I’ve been clinching with her and her brother Mawin I’ve gotten exponentially better – it’s been a year now. They’re both smaller than I am, but they’re incredibly strong and technically light-years ahead of me, which forces me to get better even though it certainly doesn’t feel like I’m improving while I’m getting my ass kicked by kids I outweigh by 20 lbs. But for a few months now I just haven’t been getting work in with those kids. The gym is getting bigger, which is great, but with more kids training there it’s easier for Mawin and Jee Jaa to kind of disappear into it and they’re actually not doing a lot of training at all lately.  I’ve been put with kids who are bigger than I am but not as experienced or skilled, which isn’t helping me climb the mountain the way going with Mawin and Jee Jaa does. Once in a while is okay, because we all help each other and a physical challenge is still a challenge, but it’s become the norm and, without sounding unkind, without the work with Jee Jaa and Mawin my time at that gym is not worth it.  It was a tough call to make, but Kevin and I decided I’d take a month away – explaining to Sangwean (Jee Jaa’s father) why I was doing so – and give the relationship a month to restart, as well as give time for the kids to get strong again.  I’m not ending the relationship in any way, I’m not leaving the gym, and I’m not making a huge deal out of it. The reason I’m able to do all those things and feel like it’s possible to take a break in order to ask for what I need is because I am committed to more than one gym.

Sakmongkol and Sylvie - WKO - Pattaya 2015 - Muay Thai

Sakmongkol and me today after padwork.


I’ve not only begun Karate classes with Sifu, I’ve also returned to Sakmongkol for pad holding every day at 3:30. This way I get to replace the pad holding with O. Meekhun, and I still get pads twice a day which is important to me.  When I left WKO a year ago it was a difficult choice. My respect and admiration for Sakmongkol is immense and he’s a truly wonderful teacher. We were a bit at odds at the time because he actually doesn’t much like training fighters – he has a very different standard and attitude toward what is required and important for training someone to fight – and that’s pretty much my main focus. I was trying very hard to adapt to the things he was teaching me about ease of movement, flow, relaxation and the heart of a fighter, and as our padwork since I’ve returned has shown, I have continued to learn these things; albeit under the sculptor’s hand of Pi Nu. Their theoretical styles are actually quite similar – they compliment each other – and it’s in my development over the past year that I can now come back and work on the details of the differences. Mainly, I’ve learned to relax more and my confidence and balance has grown in the areas I need it to be strong in order to have fun while working with Mong in his ring. It’s been intense in all the good ways and he can push on more minute flaws to direct my flow. He works a lot with fight “energy” and movement. Sakmongkol has also trained in and fought Karate for the last 10 years, so he works as an incredible nexus point between the work I continue to do with Pi Nu and with the Karate I am now taking. He is a huge amalgam of fight knowledge, and time with him is precious.

It needs to be mentioned that my non-monogamy to one gym is simultaneously totally not normal or acceptable in Thai culture, but it’s also normal and acceptable in the Thai way of things.  While the standard of Thai gym relationships and structures is one of very high commitment, and long term investment, there is also second class of fighters who operate in-between. There are a number of fighters who will fight through other gyms when they go between Bangkok and the rural villages to fight “on the books” (Bangkok) and “off the books” (almost anything other than Bangkok). You would be considered a “guest fighter” in this sense and might use a totally different name; you’d have a contract with your main, home gym and then be a guest at the other gym that is maybe in your home town. They will likely have a relationships with each other (O. Meekhun and Petchrungruang seem to have reached some kind of verbal agreement about me, as well). And there are some boys who I’ve crossed paths with between my two gyms, training some days at Petchrungruang and most days at O. Meekhun.  They don’t “belong” to either gym, which is why that’s acceptable.  And there are lots of kids who come late for only clinching or sparring at either gym, belonging to a third gym entirely. They need clinch partners their own size or of a certain level. These are not star fighters, they are fighters finding their way and in some fashion I kind of am folded in with that. It’s identical to why I started training at more than one place, but the difference is my commitment to more than one gym.

My relationships with O. Meekhun and Petchrungruang do get complicated, and they have jokingly and insightfully been referred to as First Wife (Petchrungruang) and Second Wife (O. Meekhun). When I start winning I can feel O. Meekhun starting to tug at me, trying to pull me away from First Wife, talking her down, taking credit for my success, trying to make money on my fights. When I lose, First Wife proves far less finicky, far more loyal and embracing.  A few months ago O. Meekhun increased my monthly fee by 50%, out of the blue, for no other justifiable reason than that Sangwean felt slighted by the fact that I pay him less than I do at Petchrungruang. I explained to him that the reason the prices are not equal is because my training time is also not equal; I train at Phetrungruang more than twice as many hours as I do at O. Meekhun. But it’s not a request of reason, it’s a matter of pride. Because I want to fight so much, far more than would ever be allowed by a single gym and promoter set, I’m forced to find multiple homes in a way that everyone feels that they are getting an advantage and respect. The difficulty in trying to make myself more in line with what’s “normal” is that I’m not normal. A western female fighter is never going to be high-priority in a normal, socially Thai and culturally Thai gym.  So even if I played the “good girl” student with the hopes of being folded into the gym, I’d be restricted by the position I’d find myself in, low on the ladder, rather than being a warm little cinnamon bun in the cozy blankets of gym-acceptance. So I drift and balance on the lines between. And that works really well for me. I’m not bound by the ropes, I’m tight-rope walking.

Video Updates from the First Few Days with the New Situation

feeling a little nervous going to padwork at WKO for the first time in a year (above)

on this day I went to all 3 gyms, letting O. Meekhun know that I’m taking a month off

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay


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