Pai, Thailand – The second installment of Joup’s three part coverage of grass roots Muay Thai. I have traveled a long road through Thailand to the small town of Pai (80km NW of Chiang Mai) to find the origin and heart of Muay Thai – beyond the glitz and glamor of the UFC and Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok. Of course both Lumpinee and the UFC are huge in modern fighting (and betting and prize purses), but the essence of the successful UFC fighter flow from training in Muay Thai. Joup has reviewed a basic history and development of Muay Thai in Part 1. Now we’ll observe the Pai Training Gym named Charn Chai with head trainer Bee. Part 3 will conclude by following the fighters of Charn Chia including Englishman Liam Kirkham (1-0) in bouts taking place at an annual festival in Pai.
Along Route 1095 from Chiang Mai going northwest to Mae Hong Sae lies Pai (closely pronounced “Bye” in English), a town with an approximate population of 3500. However, during high season (or cold season depending on who you ask), the population of the area can swell as much as 20,000 because of the ideal weather (30-32 C during the day and 24-26 C in the evening). From December till February travelers flock to Pai. However they are not only international guests, but national Thais as well (especially those from Bangkok). Pai is situated in a stunning fertile valley of lush, sometimes -humid, sometimes-mild days and sparkling nights. Weather wise it is actually an ideal place for Muay Thai training. The area may be hot at noontime but early morning and late afternoon sessions are usually perfect with temperatures not reaching over 30.
Charn Chai’s owner and head trainer Bee (AKA Monkoldej Sitthepitak, his fight name) established his gym nearly two years. Charn Chai is his second such venture in the past 6 years, the first being an outfit called True Bee which he co-operated for 4 years before moving on to form Charn Chai. When you look at his stature you see that a brickhouse he is, in the truest sense. I reckon him to be about 5’6″ and 170 lbs. – not quite the normal Thai fighter mold. Howevert I suspect he was a bit lighter in his earlier years. Either way, trust me when I say I’d not like to get in a ring with this guy. He has fought in over 300 career Muay Thai contests with an overall record of 247 wins, 49 losses, 8 draws according to Charn Chai website. That’s good for a an 81.5% winning ratio. Um…an impressive amount of fights and an even more astonishing record. So as a fighter, which he still is on occasion (fighting last week and winning), Bee has plenty of experience to bring as a trainer. Now on top of that, you have a man of over 12 years experience as an instructor. Clearly you see upon whom Charn Chai was built.
Located just a 1 Km northwest from Pai town proper, Charn Chai Gym’s large open-air structure can easily be missed for some reason. I drove past it on my motorbike two times on separate trips because it is set a about 70m down and away from the paved road passing by it. A small sign indicates the whereabouts down a dirt path, but to little help if not carefully looking. Make no mistake, once actually seeing the structure which houses a full ring, seven full size punching bags, three stationary bikes, full set of free weights and three different weight machines, you wonder how you missed it.
A common day of training involves two sessions and warm-ups before each session. Some trainees take part in a 7km run in the morning which may include climbing some 350 steps to get to Wat Phra That Mae Yen overlooking Pai and the valley. Cardiovascular is crucial to a Thai fighters training, so as such, Bee emphasizes this part throughout their program. Beyond the morning run, there are also sprint, jump-rope and stationary bike sessions. The gym also encourages outside swimming at one of the local pools as well.
The fighters are here to train though and once warm-up is over it’s back to the grind of success trough repetition. In the morning sessions Muay Thai skills & techniques are the focus. “Having the proper stance and approach is important to a fighter. So [one is] in the right position and not getting caught off guard.” Bee says. The proper stance like in many sports is squaring up properly. Shifting weight correctly and following through in advances are just as crucial. Basic to advanced techniques are introduced according to a fighters level and ability to demonstrate previously taught skills. Bee’s English speaking skills are more then ample, while his trainers are good at basic explanation and correction. There is rarely a communication issue and if one arise, Bee sorts it quickly.
After instruction a healthy does of bag work comes next with students separating into pairs or threes depending on the amount of students in the session. Instructors Turbo and Ae (Bee’s brother) are there to oversee and correct any mistakes in form. It’s grueling…and this is just the start. We still have the rest of the morning which may include pad work with instructors or Strength & conditioning circuits with free weights or machines. The morning session concludes with an abdominal & core strengthening workout and final stretching before a cool down.
More before 10AM then you can imagine. Let’s take midday break to let that sun pass.
Now as the afternoon wanes and the temperature cools, it’s time to get back to it. Most fighters return to the gym between 2:30 and 3PM to start their warm up. Then the trainers pair with an individual or group of two or three at a specific level and get back to pad work. Drive, kick, follow through and repeat…again and again and yet again. The afternoon session really seem to focus on Te’s (kicks), Ti khao’s (knees) and Ti sok’s (elbows). After a good half hour to 45 minutes of pads, the instructors pair individuals by level.
A Chap kho (clinching) session begins with Bee giving a few reminders of technique and how to approach this part of training. It is here that level separation becomes evident to me. Clearly there more advance fighters in this area of Muay and seems as though the Thais training are especially adept. That’s not to take away from the farang (foreigners) whom seem capable but just not as strong. I find later from Manchester native Liam Kirkham that his strength lies not here but in his punches (Choks). He reckons in the same for other westerns as well.
The afternoon session winds down with more abdominal & core strengthening and stretching followed by a final review of the day with Bee and parting but quick prayer or thanks offering. Another day at Charn Chai comes to a close with some of the students joking around and the instructors sitting down, shuffling and dealing some Thai cards. Still competing, yet in a different arena.
Charn Chai boast 4 profile fighters who return to train there multiple times. Not to mention ALL 5 of the trainers who have a combined 870 bouts fought between them while each winning a healthy majority of them.
The camaraderie of the gym leads to it’s success though. “The gym is family, and we put family second to none.” says Bee. It shows in training in fighter’s development, but how does this benefit an individual student in a brutal individual sport? Up next: Fight Night
Joe Grzesik (JGrez) is an artist developer focusing online on front end development and keeping up with new techonolgies. Photography has been his most recent and strongest passion. He’s shot thousands of photos throughout the years only recently display a larger portion of his library here on Joup.