“5 minutes”, Bovy bellows across the gym. I crack a mental smile knowing that the afternoon warm-up is almost complete and the symphony of thick ropes striking the floor is close to coming to an end. This warm-up however, is only 20 minutes of an afternoon session lasting over 2 hours. It’s 1400 with the thermostat pushing 35°C, 90% humidity and I already trained in the morning for 2 hours – welcome to Sitsonpeenong and the world of Muay Thai fighting. I’d decided back on 9th January that I would spend 6 weeks of my life training here, twice a day, after a chance meeting in bar (naturally) with another patron who’d been here the year before and sold the experience to me. I’ve often been told that I do not always think along the same lines of logic as most people, but as soon as I heard about the Muay Thai camp, I knew I had to do it.
I also knew:
- I was going to leave my job in a multi-national investment bank and travel Asia, planning to start a new career in health and fitness
- I wasn’t very fit
- I knew little about Muay Thai
- The training program seemed quite gruelling and a huge challenge (this sealed it for me)
A quick check with a friend who works for a boxing gym that also teaches Muay Thai in Singapore, confirmed that Sitsonpeenong is a very good place to train – the deal was sealed.
For those who, like myself, know little or nothing about Muay Thai, Sitsonpeenong is a well-known and respected Muay Thai fighting camp on the outskirts of Bangkok. Owned by MT encyclopaedia Tim Dhamajiva, it features world-class fighters such as Kem Sitsonpeenong and Sitthichai Sitsonpeenong, who are not related but follow the Thai tradition of taking the name of their gym as their surname in the ring (often the first name is changed from birth name too). Several young, up and coming fighters are also in attendance with slight builds that betray the reality of the substantial power they’ve been developing upstairs. It’s hard to capture in words, how strange it is to kick a punch bag yourself and hear a decent ‘thwack’, only to then hear it dwarfed by several large ‘kaboom’ thuds, and see a 60 kg, 17 year old working the pads.
The trainers are a heady mix of personalities, physiques and faces, all with one common denominator – countless years of fighting experience in the stand-up striking sport also known as the art of eight limbs. My own personal (tor)mentor is Bovy Sor, a former fighter known for his all action ‘war of attrition’ style, who brings the same steel and determination to each training session, wrapped in blankets of laughter that follow my attempts to negotiate 50 high kicks on the pads, down to 15.
The spacious open air gym on the second floor of Sitsonpeenong is the arena where champions are made, or in my case where people realise how much fitter they should be, and twice a day is home to the sound of kicks, elbows and punches being thrown, as well as bags being pulverised and weights being lifted. The cadre of people training includes both men and women, sponsored (all costs and accommodation paid for by the gym) Thai & foreign fighters, and foreign guests (that would be the likes of me) who hail from countries such as England, Ireland, USA, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Australia and Hong Kong.
The day begins before the sun has risen, it’s 0530 and a 10-15km run in Suan Luang Rama IX Park waits ahead. For visitors to the camp this part of training is left up to the individual’s prerogative. Between waking up and staying focused on the morning canter, it’s easy to fail in appreciating the beauty of your surroundings and note the incredible number of people who are also in the park, walking, running, taking part in group aerobics and using the free outdoor gym. The striking centrepiece of the grounds is the golden-spired gallery that celebrates the life of the King but in this instance serves as a useful landmark for gauging how much of the run has been completed (depending on how many laps you’re doing). As I said, the sheer number of people, particularly elderly, up at this hour exercising is pretty impressive and not something I was accustomed to seeing, growing up in East London. It’s amazing what a difference an early sunrise and warm temperatures can make to the desire to drag yourself out of bed and make your body move for your own benefit.
With the temperature between 25 -30°C, it’s advisable to start with less than 10km and even alternate the days on which you run (call that your lie-in). By the time the run is complete the sun will be smiling at you across the sky and some energy will need to be reserved for 1-1½ hour training that follows. Arriving back at the gym by 0650 (leaving 10 minutes for light stretching and some water) the real action begins at 0700, where the Thai trainers will put you and the rest of the fighters through a session that includes sparring (boxing or Thai, depending on the day) and/or pad work – 4-6 x 4 minute rounds with 30 second breaks, bag work, hand weights and a gauntlet of strength and conditioning drills, finishing off with a thorough stretching protocol. By the time it’s all over it’s 0830 and time for a shower, followed by breakfast (very healthy options provided by the gym).
In the afternoon session, you can take the above, remove the run, add in 20 minutes of skipping warm-up, 20 minutes of clinching (my favourite part), but be assured you will do both sparring and pad work, followed by the bags and a healthy does of S&C work. The stretching session at the end is serenity granting clemency for tired muscles and the easy option here is to sleep-walk through this final stage but given the ultimate benefits for recovery and range of movement, summoning the energy for a few more minutes of vigorous application is in your best interests. Another shower and meal awaits!
“What are you going to do when you’re not training?” was the most common question I was asked by friends, after convincing them I was not insane. Sitsonpeenong is serious about training but has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere with common areas for watching television, playing pool, video games, and strong Wi-Fi throughout the facility. Larger shopping precincts are only a short cab ride away and regular trips to the Lumpinee or Rajadamnern stadiums are always being organized, for those who like to relax after a day of Muay Thai training, by watching some live Muay Thai fighting. If you’re planning to train by day and party in the evenings, this isn’t the place for you. It’s in a quiet suburban area that has street food and a supermarket as the main late night attractions. Personally the lack of ‘distractions’ appealed to me and since most people training here tend to spend the break between morning and afternoon sessions sleeping/recovering, the onus is on yourself to find activities to stay amused in the evenings (reading, watching movies, even blogging!).
So what does one need if deciding to go to a Muay Thai camp for the first time? Beyond the obvious travel necessities such as clothes and toiletries:
1 gum shield
1 set of shin pads
1 pair of gloves
a water bottle
1 pair of hand wraps
Normal shorts or traditional Thai fighter? That’s up to you but it’s rare for anyone to wear a top whilst training so be prepared to get through a lot of underwear but wash everything else as normal.
Did I mention I know very little about Thai boxing? One afternoon I noticed there was a fighter in the gym that I hadn’t seen before. He was sparring quite actively with Sitthichai and there were several photographers in the gym taking pictures. I thought his face rang a bell but couldn’t be sure so I enquired with one of the foreign fighters, who also happens to be my roommate “Juan, who’s that guy they’re taking pictures with?” Slightly puzzled, he replied “that’s Kem”. The same Kem who has his face all over the Sitsonpeenong website and is in several photos adorning the facility – clearly I still have a lot to take in.