My taxi driver reads the name on the red brick building and turns to me, surprised.
‘Are you here to learn Muay Thai?’
I can understand his reaction. After all, why would a five-foot-tall woman with a slight build ask to be taken to a Muay Thai camp in the Bangkok suburbs, instead of a swanky downtown shopping mall?
But that’s exactly what I’ve done. The Luktupfah Muay Thai Academy, on the outskirts of the Thai capital, will be my home for the next 36 hours as I train in the country’s national sport.
In Hong Kong, Muay Thai became popular a few years ago, marketed as a magic bullet for losing weight thanks to its high intensity and mix of strength and cardio training. The traditionally male-dominated sport has acquired a significant female following – including me.
I train in Muay Thai three times a week. I’m still far from being an expert, but I love the way the ‘art of eight limbs’ – a nickname given to the sport thanks to its use of punches, kicks, elbow and knee strikes – involves the use of both the body and the mind. Now, I’ve arrived at its place of origin to experience one of the nation’s infamously intense Muay Thai training camps.
‘We get all kinds of people coming here to the camp,’ Jade Sirisompan, a Thai-British Muay Thai trainer and former professional fighter, tells me at the reception of Luktupfah. ‘There has been an increasing number of women practising in recent years. Many of my students are Westerners, including some with zero experience in Muay Thai. I also see many women from Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan travelling here to improve their skills.’
After settling in, I follow Jade to an open-air arena and she begins to demonstrate a set of classic elbow strikes as she calls out the name of each technique in Thai. Her movements are smooth as silk, almost like she’s dancing across the boxing ring. In the wall-mounted mirror I watch the graceful, confident image of Jade – and me, trying my best to keep up.
Jade notices my frustration. ‘Many women find it quite difficult in the beginning, but once you’re used to the movements, Muay Thai helps us to build our strength and a sense of empowerment,’ she says. ‘We set up goals and challenges, and train ourselves to overcome each and every one of them. It’s an amazing journey.’
While Muay Thai has always been part of Jade’s life, she didn’t begin training in the sport until she was 17. Jade’s father, Chinawut ‘Woody’ Sirisompan, is the founder of Luktupfah and chairman of the World Muay Thai Organisation. But at first, he didn’t approve of his daughter getting involved in a seemingly unladylike pursuit.
‘I used to always get these looks from the guys at the gym – looks that meant I had no business being there simply because I’m a girl,’ Jade recalls. ‘In the beginning, I was only able to participate in sparring drills with shorter boys. As girls, we have to go the extra mile to prove that we’re serious about it.’
For a year and a half, Jade did exactly that. She began a rigorous daily routine, starting with a morning run at 5am, followed by pad and heavy bag drills. After school, she’d head back to the gym for another round of training. ‘I was almost always the first to arrive at the gym. It was the only way to earn my coach’s respect.’
Her hard work paid off. Since the age of 18, Jade has fought in 20 international matches. Now, the 27-year-old is the only registered female Muay Thai and self-defence coach in Bangkok and the founder of the Female Fight League, the only Thai boxing league for women in the country. She’s also a wellness advocate in the community, hosting workshops that incorporate Thai boxing, self-defence and aerobic dance techniques for women.
That evening, I attend one of Jade’s Rooftop Muay Thai classes at The Hive co-working space in Bangkok’s hipster Thonglor neighbourhood. Along with a dozen other women, we take part in games and routines designed to improve our reflexes, balance and basic defence skills. As night falls on the Thai capital, we leave with big smiles on our faces.
But at Luktupfah the following day, it’s a totally different story. After kicking off with 30 minutes of running and rope-skipping, we break into groups based on our skill level. The training consists of eight cycles of a four-minute pad work session with a trainer, a set of 10 press-ups and then a one-minute break. By the sixth cycle, I can barely raise my legs.
As the only female trainee that day, my self-consciousness kicks into high gear every now and then, and I start to feel like other male trainees are making fun of my movements. But whenever that happens, I’m able to find encouragement in something Jade said to me earlier: ‘Both men and women are born with a pair of fists and legs; Muay Thai is a sport for everyone.’
Another great thing about learning Muay Thai in Thailand is the affordability. A two-hour session for adults at Luktupfah costs only 400 baht (about HK$105), which is half the price of a class in Hong Kong. Similarly, at my next stop in Pattaya’s Fairtex Training Center & Hotel, 2,400 baht (HK$620) will get you two Thai boxing classes, along with a one-night stay in a single room – breakfast included.
At Fairtex I meet Kelly, a woman in her 40s from Hong Kong. She doesn’t have a set exercise routine back home, but she’s travelled to Pattaya specifically for the Muay Thai classes – and has previously been to Phuket to do the same. ‘Instead of some cookie-cutter beach holiday, learning Muay Thai and watching live fights in Thailand is an experience that you can’t get anywhere else,’ Kelly tells me.
One of my trainers at Fairtex, Natchakamon ‘Nat’ Chanthasri, has been fighting since she was 9. Like Jade, Nat also has a boxer father who denied his daughter access to the sport – and like Jade, Nat got her own way. Now, the 20-year-old boxer has 60 fights under her belt and is determined to turn her passion into a career.
‘Things are different today. Female boxers are on the rise, and I have to seize this opportunity. The ideal date for me and my boyfriend, who’s also a fighter, is a sparring drill!’ Nat tells me. ‘Sometimes I envy my peers who get to go shopping and hang out with friends while I’m stuck in the gym training. But Muay Thai is always going to be my priority, no matter what.’
My time in Thailand has been very different from the shopping and eating sprees I used to associate with trips here. I’ve given people more neck clinches than I have handshakes. And I return home with more skills, more energy – and a lot more confidence.
Muay Thai Gyms In and Around Bangkok
Located near the Ratchadaphisek MRT Station, this sleek, modern gym offers programmes and trainers for all skill levels. There’s also a dormitory and a cafe for visitors who need to rest up after a session.
Luktupfah Muay Thai Academy
This well-equipped venue on the outskirts of Bangkok is ideal for those who are travelling with the sole purpose of training.
Tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, this gym is popular with foreign visitors – but it’s best suited for Muay Thai fighters with a medium to advanced skill level.
Fairtex Training Center & Hotel
Located in Pattaya, two hours from Bangkok, this gym offers personal or group Muay Thai classes and other fitness programmes. Fairtex is a famous brand in the scene, and its equipment and accessories are available to buy for newbies in search of their first Muay Thai experience. The Club’s social media manager Matt Lucas says 20 percent of the hotel guests are female. There are eight female boxers at the gym, including kickboxing and Muay Thai world champion Nadthawan Panthong, better known by her nickname, Stamp Fairtex.