"Always protect your head", my instructor advised as he swung a padded punching mitt through the air. I realised his target too late, and it thudded painfully into my ear. His grin broadened, "Muay Thai very dangerous...". Ah, Muay Thai. It had been so easy when I booked it from the safety of my morning coffee a few weeks earlier. A few clicks and I'd signed up for four weeks' intensive training in Thailand, learning the national sport, and, hopefully, getting fit in the process. How hard could it be, I thought? On the cusp of a landmark birthday, this seemed a good time to get seriously toned. My beginner status didn't strike me as problem. I had done Box-Fit, was a ski season veteran and had even managed a few triathlons. Piece of cake.
Muay Thai can be described as kickboxing with attitude. It uses kicks, punches, knees and elbows to devastating effect, where knockout blows to the head and crushing knees to the solar plexus are normal. The training had started simply enough. I had arrived, nervous and self-conscious, at Horizon Muay Thai Camp on Koh Phangan, an island off south-east Thailand. A ripe, green paradise, the island is covered in jungle and surrounded by clear waters. With few roads, the easiest way to get around is by traditional long-tail boat. Perched high on a hill, overlooking a bay amid lush greenery, the training area itself was dusty, well-used, and a million miles from the glitz of Dubai. A banana-leaf roof covered the open-sided arena, divided into areas for weights, punching bags, training mats and a full-size ring. With tatty ropes and sweat-stained floor, it was terrifying, thrilling, and exactly what I was hoping for.
A complete beginner, I stood around awkwardly until a Thai trainer introduced himself as Handsome (indeed, he bore a resemblance to a young Elvis Presley) and began to bind my hands in the long fabric wraps worn under boxing gloves for extra protection. With fluid motions, he silently cocooned my hands from knuckle to wrist, as I stared at them in wonder, feeling like Manny Pacquiao. Standing me on the training mats, he motioned for me to copy some shadow boxing punches, which I mirrored as best as I could as he adjusted my moves with smiles and nods. He raised my elbow here, pushed down a shoulder there, grinning all the while, as I felt foolish and sweaty. I snuck a look around the gym at my fellow students and noticed they too were training in silence. And then I realised why it was all so quiet. Muay Thai is a rapidly growing sport, with people from every corner of the globe coming to Thailand to train, but there's a huge language barrier. With eight languages at my training sessions alone, it was easier to teach by doing. I gave in to the lack of talk and listened to the sound of leather gloves on punching bags and my own ragged breathing.
Thailand is full of ex-professional fighters whose careers start early (age 12 is not uncommon), and few continue beyond their late 20s. Often poorly educated, many struggle to find work beyond the ring, so the recent rise in fight tourism is a way for many to remain in a sport they love. Handsome, at 32, had over 400 fights to his name, and had even fought at the fabled Lumpini Stadium in Bangkok. Having made the transition to teacher, what he lacked in vocabulary he made up for in charm and warmth. With body language, smiles, and the occasional whoop as I finally got something right, he coaxed and guided me through each session.
With two two-hour training sessions per day, a lot of ground is covered quickly, and after three days I had the basic punches, kicks, knees and elbows. I shadow-boxed in front of the mirror, marvelling at how much I had learned in so short a time. I felt dangerous and ready for action. By day four I began pad training, but if I had started to gain confidence shadow boxing, impacting against pads now felt strange and awkward. Foolishly, it hadn't occurred to me this was going to hurt so much. It made my skinny wrists ache and my shins smart. But it was strangely exhilarating. It felt good to be actually doing something.
Despite lots of conditioning runs before I came, the sheer effort of four hours' training per day took its toll as underused muscles were put through their paces. The days passed in blur of pain, although Handsome was careful to alternate upper- and lower-body training to spare me more fatigue than necessary. Even so, I felt battered and bruised, and the gap between my shoulder blades felt like it had been used as a car park. My muscles ached constantly, and no amount of water could quench my raging thirst. I watched with morbid fascination as the skin on my knuckles split from punching, my knees swelled with bruises, and my elbows took on the consistency of overripe mangoes.
Still, with four hours between training sessions, there was ample time to get out and explore. When lying in a beach hammock lost its appeal, there was always Mama's massage hut at the end of the beach, where for about $10 (Dh40) she would soothe and restore our aching bodies with a two-hour, full-body massage. For the more adventurous, just $2.70 (Dh10) would hire a kayak from The Sanctuary restaurant at the foot of the hill, to explore the neighbouring bays. A long-tail boat ride to Hat Rin, the nearest town and home to the infamous Full Moon Parties, cost around $4 (Dh15). This was also a handy gateway to the island's main town, Thong Sala, which offered decent shopping and mouth-watering street food. Bags of delicious freshly-cut green mango served with sugar and chilli was worth the trip alone. Thong Sala also hosted Muay Thai fights every Friday night, so we would all pile into boats and head into town to cheer on the professionals.
The big step forward came when I was allowed to enter the ring for the first time. Handsome held the ropes apart and beckoned me forward. Hesitantly I climbed through, frightened and exhilarated. We went through the same moves as on the mats, but I am sure the added thrill of the setting made me try just a bit harder. As days merged into one, it dawned on me that relentless practice is the key to any martial art, as every day saw endless repetition of the same core moves. Sessions would end with sit-ups, press-ups and bag work, a painful and sobering experience of repeated punching, kneeing, kicking or elbowing the heavy, unyielding, swinging sand bags - in blocks of 50. Painkillers and Tiger Balm became my friends.
After a few more days, Handsome decided I was ready for sparring and partnered me with an experienced Swiss woman with several fights to her name. Worried she would be bored paired with a beginner, she gave me endless encouragement and tips. Only once did she overestimate me and swing a kick I was too slow to block. It caught me square in the throat. I settled into a routine of going for early-morning pre-training runs on the lone road through the jungle, to the sound of screeching monkeys and Muse on my iPod. This was followed by skipping, bouncing on car tyres (sounds easy, it's fiendishly tiring) and stretching, before wrapping my hands to begin training proper.
By week three I was well used to the swing of it all, and calmly nodded when told I would be having a one-on-one boxing tutorial with the trainer of the Swiss national kickboxing team. The size of the average fridge, I baulked when Benny looked me in the eye and told me to punch him. But as he explained, the fastest way to learn is to do something in a controlled environment. He let me throw wild punches, gently pushing them away, and found all the gaps in my defences. After three minutes - the length of a round in boxing - I felt enlightened, elated and utterly exhausted.
By week four I clamber into the ring like a pro and shadow box until Handsome arrives. He nods to me to help him demonstrate a move to the newcomers, and I realise with a shock I am now experienced enough to do it. He murmurs instructions in Thai/English, barely comprehensible a few weeks ago, but now as familiar as my mother tongue. I look up to catch the look of the newcomer as I swing the requested kick at Handsome's head. "Higher," he yells, and I lean my body back further to raise my leg a few more inches. Later in the same session, Handsome tries to explain a move to a southpaw (someone who leads with their left rather than right hand). Both stand confused, trying to communicate, and again Handsome nods to me to help. I step up and begin jumping around to demonstrate a move so familiar to me that I can now do it both right- and left-handed. Astonished at this turnaround, I grin at Handsome. He smiles, bobs his head, and tells me off. "Swing hip, more power," he says.
Horizon Muay Thai Camp (www.horizonmuaythai.com) in Hat Tien, Koh Phangan, Thailand, charges US$177 (Dh650) per person, per week, with two two-hour sessions per day, six days a week, and bungalow accommodation with private bathroom and breakfast