I learned judo when I was a kid and boxing when I got older. More recently, I’ve taken up kickboxing. I still have much to learn, but I love it – the fitness as much as the contact. Thailand, of course, is the spiritual home of kickboxing. The sport of Muay Thai is a national obsession and anyone who seriously trains in this sport dreams of making a pilgrimage to a Thai kickboxing camp.
So, on a hot and humid afternoon on the outskirts of Bangkok, I found myself knocking on the door of the Meenayothin Gym.
Of all the places on offer, this is an unusual choice for a Westerner. The Meenayothin Gym is one of the toughest camps in Thailand – and mostly locals only. It’s bare and brutal, but the fighters here are living testament to its success. Up to 40 Thai fighters live and train here and the walls are adorned with their success. More than 50 title belts, countless photos of trial and triumph. I’m only here for 24 hours, but it will be the toughest training session of my life.
At 7pm dinner is served. We sit around on reed mats and devour rice, fish and chicken. No one speaks English. The fighters then give me a tour of the gym. It doesn’t take long. Four dorm rooms with bunk beds, a few squat toilets, a bathtub full of water for bucket showers. Then there’s the workspace – the gym floor. One boxing ring, a series of bags in various states of disrepair, some climbing ropes, a row of speedballs and racks of weights.
At 9pm it’s lights out and I’m shown to a metal bunk bed with a hardwood base. The pillow is a piece of foam the size of a brick and about as soft. It’s a long night.
At 5am the TV is cranked up to full volume and we all struggle out of bed and into our training gear. In the soupy darkness of a Bangkok morning we set off for a 12-kilometre road run. I’m dripping with sweat by the time we get back. This is the warm-up.
What follows is a three-hour circuit from hell. We shuttle from bag to bag, working on elbows, knees, punches and kicks. Then there’s skipping, sit-ups, push-ups and rope climbs.
I’m exhausted but enjoying it when I hear a whistle. The trainer is calling me into the ring for pad work. I learn quickly it’s very different to pad work at home. If you drop your guard, you get a swift smack to the side of the head. Same goes for the ribs and the legs. My bruises start to multiply.
Compared to these seasoned fighters, my technique is terrible; the trainer can see my kicks coming from a mile away. To him, I’m slow and predictable with far too much unnecessary muscle. The fighters here are super lean, aiming for maximum height and reach advantage with minimum chest and arm muscle. They find my build hilarious; to them I’m a cartoon character.
The trainer doesn’t speak English, but I understand his instructions. At the end of four rounds, he’s greatly amused while I’m hobbling and close to passing out from exhaustion. But I’ve learnt more in four rounds with him than four months of pad work at home.
Four hours after we started, the morning session is finally wrapped. Everyone showers and washes their clothes in buckets. Breakfast is at 10am, huge mounds of omelette and rice. We eat like wolves then retire to our dorms. Everyone passes out and I’m no exception. My hardwood bed is suddenly very comfortable.
But it’s not over yet. At 2pm the afternoon session begins. It’s a carbon copy of the morning’s session, a gruelling four hours that begins with another 12km road run. The only difference – it’s now the middle of the day. Outside the sun’s beating down and the mercury’s nudging 32°C. Inside the metal training shed it’s close to 40. I’m soaked in sweat and several times I come close to vomiting. I’m dizzy from heat exhaustion.
Training finally ends at 7pm. There’s not a muscle or joint that’s not aching. I have skin off my knuckles and lumps on my shins. I’ve worn a heart-rate monitor for the day and the stats are impressive. Over 12 hours I’ve torched almost 19,000 kilojoules and for well over three hours my heart has been pounding away at 90 per cent capacity. I feel triumphant – then I look around.
The local fighters have breezed through the day and tomorrow they’ll do it all over again. In fact, this schedule will be repeated all week. In Thailand, there’s no such thing as a day of rest. Two meals a day, eight hours of hellish training a day – seven days a week! Meenayothin Gym won’t have enough wall space for the title belts to come.
Me? I just need a good lie down.