Wanting more out of my vacation than the typical stop-and-go views of tourist traps from the plush seat of a bus, I decided to go for it; “it” being an athletic indulgence of sorts into the unfamiliar world of Muay Thai kickboxing. The odds I’d leave a muscularly-chiseled boxing champion were slim to none, since the words “I” and “martial arts” have never been seen together in a sentence.
It would be an experience to live in Thailand for a month; combine workouts with weekend touring. Maybe I could even pick up a little Thai since my extensive vocabulary included phrases like sawatdee ka, hello and kahp kuhn ka, thank you, from my previous week-long trip to Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
My search for a kickboxing gym was limited to Google since I was working off zero recommendations. A generic search phrase "muay Thai gyms" and "Thailand" flooded the site with hits located in both Chiang Mai and Phuket. Since I had already been to Chiang Mai, I decided to narrow the search to gyms in the Phuket area. It was a rookie internet move, but I decided to go with the gym that had the most comprehensive website for attracting tourists, a level of accommodations, a seemingly strong program, and other services, supplemented with a barrage of photographs.
Following my first day at the gym, I was privy to all the dirt: the scandals, the shortcomings and the fraudulent advertising. I jumped ship mid-journey to another kickboxing gym down the street, based on the high marks given by previous program participants. I became a traitor of sorts, however, I was in good company; eight other athletes had done the same.
Chalong Chi was started by Paweena Sripan and Sean Douglas. Paweena, affectionately called Bo around the gym, is part of the youngest generation of a Thai family with over 200 years of Muay Thai kickboxing experience.
Sean hails from an impressive history as well, with a background in Okinawa Te Jets, Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai, Sanshou, and knockdown karate with an international fighting record of 19-4 spread across the United States, Thailand, Japan, Korea, Canada and Singapore. The gym features a boxing ring, a mixed martial arts ring, and a training area, positioned off a palm tree-lined, narrow two-lane road, which runs perpendicular to Highway 4021 in suburban Chalong, Phuket.
I met with Sean and Bo to discuss my limited training experience, specifically what I wanted to gain from such a short-term program; my time now was limited to about a week. My primary goal was to polish up my skills and technique so I could feel confident that my understanding of kickboxing is representative of the time invested in training. If I chose to continue my training back home, I wanted to know that I could practice in a public setting without hearing roars of laughter hailing from the peanut gallery.
Within a half-hour of talking to Sean, I already had a good sense about his program, his level of experience and expertise, and his business and work ethic. More importantly, something that was absent from the previous gym, was a general concern for his students. Sean discourages riding a motorbike in Phuket so strongly that the gym does not rent them due to the frequency and severity of accidents on the island. As an alternative, he offers weekly shuttle service to the local supermarket and weekly fights to insure everyone’s safety, while still getting a slice of much-needed independence when you are trapped in Thai suburbia.
The gym is located adjacent to the Forest Bungalows and Country Café. In the interest of variety, local restaurants and markets vary in distance from the gym; roughly two to six kilometers. In the week that I spent under the supervision of Sean, Bo and the trainers at Chalong Chi, I was able to begin the slow process of correcting my bad habits and flawed technique in posture, stance, walk and handwork. The twice-daily training sessions consisted of a brutal six-kilometer run in the morning (the afternoon practice run was shorter); building up ankle strength by jumping on tires, jumping rope, and shadow boxing; alternating bag work with three to five rounds in the ring. The cardio alone nearly killed me even after I had trained the previous month twice a day. Given that the gym is lost in a sea of rubber trees and coconut palms, my mind would drift to a happy place where I was relaxing on one of Phuket’s many beaches (you know, the one with the idyllic tropical setting), sipping a cocktail from a hollowed-out coconut shell, far removed from my lapse in sanity where I chose to run a grueling six kilometers every morning and sweat buckets before breakfast ever materialized.
The gym’s policy of maintaining a limited number of guests increases the amount of individual attention. I found this practice unique and especially helpful, considering that the most insightful part of the experience was Sean’s thorough explanations (one-on-one) of basic boxing mechanics and the theory behind each movement. With only a week’s worth of time to invest in training, I felt I had come away with a greater understanding of kickboxing, and a sense that the focus was more on the individual, which as an amateur, is what mattered to me the most.