I hobbled into the gym, favoring my left ankle which had now become so swollen it hurt to stand. Whether bruised or inflamed, I was not going to let this stop my training. “Having heart” in Thailand is not only important but essential. Some Thai trainers refuse to work with pupils who they deem lack heart and can’t push through pain. I refused to be considered one of those people. And if I am totally honest, I had a gigantic crush on my trainer, Pot, and didn’t want to miss a session with him.
The 2-hour sessions in the morning and evening plus my one-hour private lesson every day with Pot had taken its toll. But it wasn’t just the physical part. I had a single room accommodation at the gym so I could walk out of my door and be in the gym in 20 steps. The off-white painted walls of my room had remnants of smashed mosquitoes, some of my doing, some from previous inhabitants.
I drenched myself in mosquito repellent at night but it didn’t deter the spiders who bit me several times over my three-week stay. One morning I woke up with such a big spider bite on my head, the trainers thought I had been punched. Tiny ants covered the bathroom, marching in lines up the walls, over the sink and out the window.
Nothing about this place was comfortable. When I wasn’t in the ring fighting with my trainer, I was in my room fighting off bugs. When I walked to the local store I was fighting off wild dogs trying to bite at my ankles. And when I was on a moped, I was fighting my way through large trucks and cars that came dangerously close to cutting me off the road.
However, I had it easy. I was only here to train and learn the basics of the sport. Most of the others here were pro fighters, preparing for their next big fight where they would undoubtedly end up bloody, with stitches, black eyes, bruises, scrapes, and sometimes even broken bones and noses. Whether they won or lost they would be injured in some way. If they won, it often meant that they had less damage than their opponent. The losers went away with not only a hurt body but a bruised ego.
I had been pushing my limits emotionally and mentally in the last few years but certainly not physically. One of my best friends, Cindy, had studied Muay Thai at this same gym years before along with her fighter boyfriend. She returned in the best shape of her life. I always found flaws with my body and wanted to see what was possible to change in one month.
So I booked a ticket to Phuket, Thailand and a room at the Sinbi Muay Thai gym. In Thailand there are myriad Muay Thai gyms everywhere, but Cindy had promised that this was the best place to go as a female traveling alone. It was a small, family run gym and I wouldn’t get lost here or intimidated by the professional fighters.
On that last point she was wrong. I showed up for training on my first day having never boxed, fought or wrapped my hands. I felt like an alien – the only person without tattoos covering my arms, back or legs.
Morning music began playing at 6:30am – the signal that training had begun. Open to the outdoors on all sides, the gym had only a tin ceiling and the sun blared in at around 85-90 degrees. This was not a fancy American gym that was temperature controlled and within minutes I was drenched in sweat. From 6:30-7 a.m. we ran barefoot in counter clockwise laps on red and green foam pads linked together like a puzzle. I had attempted to get in shape before arriving but I quickly realized I had not done enough.
The head trainer, Pot Bunpot, must have seen my bewilderment because he immediately approached me with a smirk, took my newly purchased hand wraps and without a word began wrapping my hands around and around covering everything but my fingers. Speaking in Thai to some of the other trainers nearby, they laughed and stared at me.
Assigning each person to a trainer or a boxing bag, Pot motioned for me to stay next to him. Through very broken English he attempted to show me the basics. We started with punches and a couple kicks. I felt myself getting faint. I hadn’t woken up in time for breakfast and the extreme temperature was making me dizzy. I pushed through as long as I could until I collapsed to the ground, my head spinning having almost fainted.
Pot ran and grabbed me, dragging me to the side of the gym. He poured water over my head and made me sniff a small container that smelled like eucalyptus. Several trainers looked up from their sessions. I felt my face flush with embarrassment. I wasn’t cut out for this. And I certainly didn’t enjoy showing weakness in front of all these hardcore fighters, especially on my first day.
It was time for lunch and I went back to my room, passing out in my workout clothes on top of the dirty pale green comforter. I was still jetlagged and exhausted from the morning workout. But several hours later it was time for the afternoon session. Pot had me work with Dee who would help me with the basics.
Dee demonstrated how to do a kick on me. I stood there tensing my body. His leg flew away from his body and into my right side sending me sprawling across the mat and gasping for air. His short stature at 5’3” had me fooled and I was not prepared for his strength.
“It’s not so hard. Why you fall?” Dee yelled and told me to stand up.
“It was that hard! You have shins of steel,” I told him.
He sternly looked at me and we continued training. Next he had me practice kicking a boxing bag which must have been filled with cement. A 6-inch circular bruise appeared on my shin almost immediately and continued to swell through the session. It would remain there for the next three weeks – except by the end, bruises covered both my entire right and left shins.
When I first arrived, I had hopes of not only getting into shape but learning how to protect myself. I didn’t actually understand why people had a desire to get in a ring and undoubtedly get hurt. People were training here from all over the world but primarily the U.S., UK and Canada. In addition little Thai boys were training even harder than the rest of us, preparing for their upcoming fights. For them it was a way of life. Every fight they took paid them $100 – so even at 6 years old, they were supporting their families.
The foreigners training here who weren’t already professionals had high hopes of getting in the ring in Thailand. But it wasn’t that easy. The famous Thai fighter who owned the gym, Sinbi, had to approve the fight. If the trainers and Sinbi didn’t deem you ready, you were not allowed. Some went back to their country never having a fight in Thailand, swearing to return in better shape and fight during their next trip.
The fighters made sacrifices every day to strive for greatness. Whether it be cutting their food intake, bandaging up ankles to continue training, popping extra ibuprofen, or working out to the point of nausea, they would go to sleep early and do it all over again the next day. While I admired their commitment and work ethic, I didn’t quite understand the attraction to the pain and injury.
I woke up on the second day before the music began playing thanks to a cockroach running across my forehead. Being less overwhelmed today, I finally understood the schedule. Running for 30 minutes, stretching all together, then to the bags or to a trainer. Once five rounds of three minutes were completed, we switched to the opposite activity (bags or trainers) and did five rounds there. Resting between rounds was not permitted. And we would keep busy doing push-ups or situps until the bell rang signaling the next round.
After completing 10 rounds total, we came together for group work technique and sparring. The session ended with stretching and a group huddle where we put our hands together and yelled, “SINBI!”
Every morning Pot wrapped my hands. He was now my unofficial trainer who worked with me during all sessions. He also let me use his shin guards because my bruises were now spread across my entire shins. I found out quickly that although unspoken, Thai trainers require loyalty. There is a respect that happens between trainers. Once you begin with one trainer, you don’t switch. And now that I was considered Pot’s trainee the other trainers stayed away from me.
Even though the gym was full of people, I felt lonely. During group work, the trainers matched us up with people of your own level. When I first arrived, there were no other beginners and no females except for a girl named Donna. She had grown up in a town close several towns over from where I grew up. Originally I thought we could be friends having both grown up in Boston, but I soon learned that would not be possible.
She was here to fight and had been training in the U.S. for the last five years or so. She was now here to impress the trainers and prove herself ready to get in the ring for a Thai fight.
It was my second day and I still hadn’t learned how to punch correctly. Two parallel lines formed across from each other and because she was the only other female, the trainers partnered us up together. The goal was to practice our punching technique. One at a time we took turns holding our gloves in front of our face and gently practiced punching. However when it came to her turn, she was anything but gentle. She punched so hard, her fist went through my gloves and hit my left eye.
My left eye started tearing and I couldn’t see out of it. I bent over screaming. I was sure I would have a black and blue eye shortly. Out of my right eye, I saw her standing there with a smile on her face. I wanted to take every bit of anger and punch her right back in the face.
The trainers didn’t seem too concerned. This was mild compared to what they usually encountered during fights. In fact earlier that day, a guy training for his fight the following week dislocated his shoulder and was sent to the hospital to have it put back in place.
I refused to continue sparring with Donna and made my way to the side of the gym to undo my wraps and gloves. I wasn’t necessarily upset that I had gotten hurt but rather that she had failed to apologize or realize what she had done.
I was exhausted and sore so I opted out of the afternoon session. Instead I went to the massage place next door. Inside there were five large tables separated by curtains. The massuese told me to undress completely except for underwear and within minutes, she was on top of me, pressing down on me with her full body weight, pulling, stretching and digging her feet into my back and legs.
I was screaming with pain – she knew exactly which muscles to press having working on thousands of fighters who came to her. She bent me and twisted me like a pretzel, parts of my body were cracking that I’d never heard before. And I couldn’t believe at the end of the hour they only charged me $7.
I didn’t make many friends at the gym at the beginning mostly because I was intimidated. Many had been here for months or had returned often from their countries to train. Most people knew each other. It was like a big family and I felt like an outsider.
Many of the Thai trainers and Thai boys who trained here did consider it a family, as is common in Thailand. In fact they usually take the last name of the gym they work out at. So my name would become Asha Sinbi Muay Thai if I was a fighter for this gym.
Donna lived in the room two doors down from me and I refused to speak with her after she punched me in the face. I told Pot to never partner her with me again. He laughed and said, “You scared?” Yes! I was scared. I had to go home soon and be ready for my next tour and I couldn’t go back there being completely beaten up, bruised and with broken body parts.
Instead Pot trained with me during partner sessions and although he didn’t punch me as Donna had, he was not easy on me. My biggest fear was getting hurt when I got there. He kept telling me not to be scared but I couldn’t help it. Every time I forgot to keep my hands in front of my face he would knock my face lightly to remind me that he could hurt me if he wanted.
Our sessions usually ended with me standing with my glove-encased hands resting on my head while he punched me stomach for a full minute. In doing this, it would remind me to keep my stomach tight, so when someone did fight me, I wouldn’t get the wind knocked out of me.
By the end of the first week, I was starting to get a little better and a little less scared. Pot and I were now having sparring matches. Usually it ended with me getting thrown to the ground and him laughing. But I continued to pop back up and try again.
I was beginning to make friends, though still went out of my way to ignore Donna. On Wednesday and Friday nights we would take a bus to Bangla Stadium to watch people fight from our gym. It was almost always bloody but I was now getting used to it.
One thing that shocked me though was the incredible sportsmanship that happened between opponents and their coaches. At the end of every fight, opponents always hugged each other, and the coaches from each side hugged the opponents and gave them water as well.
For a sport that seemed so violent, I couldn’t quite understand what was happening. Later that week Pot was out sick and Moo took his place. During my training with Moo, he told me I needed to “Dance, dance, dance!” He demonstrated. Moving back in forth in rhythm, Moo looked as though he were dancing.
As I continued watching the fights at Bangla, I noticed something – the Thai fighters all looked as thought they were dancing, with grace and rhythm. Compared to the Russian, U.S. and Canadians who moved around like animals, trying to figure out how to demolish their opponent. It finally struck me why they called Muay Thai a martial art. In its basic form, it truly was an art, a dance.
For the Thai fighters, Muay Thai was an art that included discipline and respect for their opponents as well as the sport. In fact before each fight, they performed a Wai Kru, lasting several minutes, bowing on all sides and corners of the ring, to pay respect to their country, their trainer, and the sport of Muay Thai.
Moo was one of the few trainers at Sinbi who was still fighting regularly. It was common for the trainers to have affairs with the women they trained. In fact Moo was married with a baby and his wife allowed him two girlfriends every month.
Pot who is famous for clinching in Thailand, finally thought I was ready to learn how to clinch. In clinching you are head to head with someone holding them close and kneeing them in the side. It is intense and sweaty. And I understood why trainers and their pupils have affairs. With such intense physical contact day after day, it is hard not to have a crush on the person you are working with. If Pot weren’t 12 years younger and married, I might have gone after him.
I was now dreaming in Muay Thai. I had woken myself up the morning before by punching in my sleep. As my confidence increased, I asked Pot if he thought I could now win a fight.
“No, you tooooo scared! You not win.”
But I was starting to see the beauty in this art form and could appreciate the skill, the discipline and the foresight one had to have to be good. I asked if he could set me up with a practice fight with someone at the gym. He denied me, saying that everyone was too good for me.
After much begging, he finally told me he had a fight for me. That afternoon he pulled in a 6-year old boy who trained at the gym. This little boy already had 19 professional fights under his belt, having won most of them. He came up to slightly higher than my bellybutton.
We got in the ring together and Pot screamed, “FIGHT!” I tensed up and the little boy came after me, kicking and punching me. I couldn’t fathom kicking a little boy half my size. But he wouldn’t stop. I ran behind Pot and told him to stop the fight. The trainers on the side all laughed.
“You not ready to fight!” Pot reminded me.
Later that afternoon I asked a Canadian fighter why he decided to pick up Muay Thai. He said that people do it for different reasons. Some do it to release their anger, some do it to get in shape and others, like himself did it for discipline. He said that when he fights, he learns many life lessons. He learns the feeling of humiliation and how to be humble. He learns how to keep going when you are hurting, and thinking you have nothing left to give. But mostly he learns forgiveness.
After a fight, he is undoubtedly physically hurt, but he hugs his opponent and thanks him for a good fight. And he learns how to forgive this person that has just beaten him up.
I thought I was here to get in shape, but this conversation was a turning point for me. Perhaps I was here to get in shape. But maybe my lesson here was really to learn forgiveness.
Suddenly the anger I had towards Donna for the last three weeks lessened. What did I expect? I was at a Muay Thai gym where people punch each other all day long. It made me think of all the other times in my life where I had held onto anger, for days, weeks, months and sometimes years. The interesting thing about anger is that it’s like holding onto a hot coal. You can hold it and get burned, but if you choose to release it and let it go, it can no longer affect you.
Muay Thai had become addictive and I did not want to leave. I loved it for its strategy. I had to be completely present during a sparring session. While Pot threw kicks and punches at me, I had to, without thinking, protect myself. Like a chess game, I was always thinking ahead of every possible scenario and how I would react.
I was still scared, but I wished I could stay longer and perfect my skills. A month now seemed like nothing. I was now at a point where I respected the sport and wanted to get in the ring, mainly to see how mentally strong I could be. I wondered what it would be like to feel utter desperation, hurt, humiliation at the same time. And I wondered how I would react to it. I wondered if I would keep going or give up. And mostly I wondered if I would “have heart” to keep going, and the ability to truly forgive afterwards.
VIDEO OF MY TRIP