Travel Blog: Notes from Sinbi Muay Thai Camp

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I visited several Muay-Thai kick-boxing camps before choosing "Sinbi Muay-Thai". It is the best in the area of Rawai/Phuket. There are about 8 trainers. We have the past number 1 and 2 champions in Thailand as trainers. All the others are also accomplished and focused.

The students here are from all over the world. The first student I see is training in the ring is a Hawaiian in near perfect shape. He is about 200lbs+ and has a black tear tattooed under his eye, I think he has killed a man in the ring. A champion MMA fighter from Korea just smooth and solid -- no definition but could probably squat a Mini Cooper. A man training to be in the French foreign legion. A rumored AWOL Legionnaire that just left. Another champion from England. A clean-cut Aussie with a huge bald scar around the back of his head. Another man who is on his way to Afghanistan, and on and on. Scars, bruises, and muscle. There are a few guys here just training for fitness like me, but we all have the bug and want to fight.

On Sunday night went and watched two students fight at the new Bangla Stadium. Stan is from Singapore and Dave is from England. An Australian at our gym, Chris, was going to fight for a championship belt tonight but he broke his foot 2 days ago. Chris has a perfectly chiseled nose. He shows me that he can press down on his nose and make it disappear. He has no bones left, but some how when he lets go, his nose returns and looks great. He tells me that in his last fight he was knocked unconscious, awoke on an 8 count, then got up and won the fight. Incredible.

We are at the stadium and Stan’s fight is about to start. He looks like he has no confidence. I think he will loose. His opponent beats him mercilessly during round 1 but Stan expression remains unchanged. On careful review of the video tape Stan managed to block every strike. And what I thought was an expression of no confidence turns out to be his poker face -- he shows no pain, no effort, no fear, no aggression -- he gives his opponent nothing. Round 2 and his opponent is tired, Stan lands a perfect hard right jab and I jump out of my seat. Stan kicks him in the head and knocks his opponent out. The Stadium explodes. As his opponent is walked off I notice his shin is reddish purple from the knee to the ankle -- from all those blocked kicks that scored no points. Poor guy.

The fights are truly brutal and disturbing. I watched 9 fights that night and over half end in knock out, or technical knockout. A technical knock out means the man is bleeding badly or blood is impairing his vision. Considering you can throw elbows, grab the back of a man’s head and knee his skull, or shove your toes into his diaphragm, it is amazing every fight doesn’t end in knockout. The bug to fight is leaving me.

The fight after Stan’s also ends in knockout. The man is punched so hard he is rigid, knocked out, and falling backwards. But it is legal to strike a man until he hits the mat. So on his way down a spinning back kick lands perfectly on the man’s head. A loud and brutal blow. The winner must have played a lot of soccer because that is what it looked like. GOAL! and once again smelling salts are used to resurrect the dead as the victor walks off with the champion’s belt.

Dave from our camp fights and also wins in the second round with a knock out kick to the head. A promoter from Korea asks if he can fly him to Seoul for his next fight on Nov 7 and he accepts. Really amazing. They have done the camp proud. I have known these guys a little over 24hours but I have an odd loyalty and pride towards them. I am happy and I sleep well that night.

Over the next few days and nights I get to know the group. Everyone turns out to be kind and friendly. Even the aspiring Legionnaire’s perfected and permanent "tough-guy snarl" is easily broken with a slap on the back and a quick remark. I get to know "Koa" -- the killer with tear-tattoo. It turns out it is just a big mole under his eye. I tell him that I thought it was a tattoo and that he had killed a man in the ring. He laughs. He confides that he has never been in a match and is scared. I can’t imagine being that big and still being scared. I talk to another "tough-guy" Rob while he is getting his back tattooed with a traditional bamboo and metal hand-pump. I ask about the massive scar around the back of his head and he tells me it’s from his hair transplant operation!! I tell him he looks great bald so why did he bother and he assures me he looks even better when his hair grows out. Again things aren’t always as they appear.

As the week progresses I meet more and more part-time students who are out of shape or older and are just training for fitness. They don’t live at the camp and most lack discipline. The truly disciplined run about 12 miles and train for 5+ hours every day, 6 days a week. I lack the energy reserves for this intense training. On Day 1, I train about 5 hours, sleep for 14 hours, eat for 2hours, and vomit for about 3 hours.

Day 2 I am sore and despite having not been struck I am bruised. Every time I look I find a new bruise and I haven’t even been struck. Next day I train for 5 hours sleep 11 and eat whenever I am awake.

At night the group gets on their motorbikes and we head out. It is calm, quiet, the night air is perfect. A beautiful tranquil ride on a smooth road that continuously curves around the hills with clear views to the gulf. We enjoy some beer and get to know each other over games of pool. I am invited to a student’s, AJ, home in Malaysia to watch him fight in early November. I will go. I meet Pablo from Spain who doesn’t speak English. When he learns I speak Spanish, he is like a man dying from thirst who just found an endless well. He speaks, and speaks, and speaks. He has been at the camp over a month alone. Everyone here stays for months. I feel like an impostor staying only a week, but I plan to train in other cities in search of the perfect gym. I think I may have already found it.

On day 3 I wake at 6am for a run and am back by 7am to train for 2.5+ hours. The camp is explosive during training. Men who can successively throw 100 round-house kicks. The successive kicks sound like a large slow Gatling gun with perfect time. Then 2 other members start throwing successive kicks and the gyms sounds like a war zone. Shouts, whistles, explosions.

By day 3’s afternoon session I can throw 10 successive kicks, but my unnecessary upper body tension keeps exhausting me. Every trainer repeats -- relax Lou, Lou relax, relax. How many times I have heard this in life. That afternoon, I try to lie down after training and find myself back on my feet. I do not remember standing. I lie down again and my subconscious puts me back on my feet. Weird! I tell the other members and they say the experience the same. At night you wake up a 2AM ready for action that isn’t there. Our bodies are prepared for a spontaneous war and our bodies are confused. We have awoken primitive genes that don’t understand that the time for battle is planned by the stadium promoters.

All the trainers are champions, all have an unbreakable stare, but are also quick to smile. I really like this group of friendly people who have no problem scarring their fellow man, making them bleed until they are blind, or knocking them out and then thank them for the privilege.

After a training session (particularly morning) the camp is perfectly still. People lie perfectly still, near comatose. After a morning session, a tourist peeks in my room and asks for info. What he must think, a camp filled with the laziest people on earth. I take 30 seconds to get out of my bed to greet him. I look and sound like an exhausted junkie in the middle of an overdose.

Another afternoon session begins and the explosions resume. There is a professional German photographer at the camp with his crew. He films me as I spar with Justin who at 210lbs out weighs me by over 30lbs. Justin takes it easy on me but still hits me 20 times for every 1 strike I land. A trainer tells me that I keep curling up each time I am struck and turning my back. "Stand straight, hips forward!", he shouts. But each time I get hit my hedgehog instinct return and I curl up. I am frustrated. I can’t imagine what my bruises will look like tomorrow. By rounds 4 and 5 Justin is too tired to strike me but NOT too tired to BLOCK all I give him. I am so frustrated. This impotent hedgehog wants revenge but gets none.

The following morning an older trainer approaches me and shouts in what I assume is an agressive dialect of Thai only spoken by Muay-Thai masters. Every syllable is a near identical burst.

"Burst!, Burst!"... I do not respond. So he then raises his foot to my stomach and pushes his toes past my abdominal guard, then under my ribcage, and finally compresses my diaphragm. I now and forever know that command means I should front kick his abdominal pad. "Burst! snarl!" (left kick), "Burst! scowl!" (right kick). Kick after kick, left and right. Then he smiles at me and starts speaking English. "Jab, jab, left hook, upper cut, block, and right knee, knee, knee!." I am exhausted. The whistle blows and every trainer yells "BREAAAK!" but at this camp break means drop and give me 10 push-ups, 20 sit-ups, and or 10 squats. I am exhausted and the breaks are breaking me. I am at a forced labor camp and I have paid to be here.

On my last day another professional photographer stops by and takes pictures of Thailand’s latest champ who will begin training at the camp. Saenchai Sor Kingstar is the number one pound-for-pound Muay Thai fighter in the world. He goes round after round with any in the camp who wants to spar. I watch him do cartwheels and kick a man in the head while standing on his hands, drop to the mat and sweep kick. This photographer was kind enough to promise to send me photos, but I am still waiting.

That night I put my shoes on for the first time in over a week. You keep your shoes outside in Thailand. As I put my numb and slightly swollen foot in my shoe it no longer fits. I try forcing it in the shoe and I suspect something is blocking me. Indeed! I have just crushed a small toad. It falls out of my shoe and hops away; sort of. I can’t imagine it will live for long. If this had happenned in the U.S. I would have reacted and at the very least shuddered. But emtions like suprise, disgust, even pity, take energy. And all my surplus energy has been depleted days ago.

I will leave soon. I will miss the students, the trainers, and their families. Every morning I am attacked by a trainer’s 4 year old son. He likes shouting back whatever words of mercy I scream as he attacks me (e.g., "Ahh ! You wild monster!"). What a crazy way to learn English. What a happy kid. I have made more friends in a week here than I have all year back home. Tomorrow I head out and I will feel a little lost and alone.

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