Want to learn how to kick arse and show your respect for thai culture at the same time? Not far from Khao San Road, down a small alley, is hidden the Sor. Vorapin boxer training center. You have likely walked past and been mystified at the shouts of “ess!” followed by the rather painful sounds of passionate pummeling. Yes, this is Muay Thai, Thailand’s national sport, and you too can get in on the action!
Sor. Vorapin started around 30 years ago with only three people, and was initially a thai-only training center. This was back in the days when there were no banana pancakes on Khao San Road- no dreadlocked hippies, no VW bus bars – in fact, there wasn’t much there at all at the time! The location was chosen simply because of its proximity to Sanam Luang, where the trainees would be able to run around the park if they so desired, as part of their training. Eventually the area started to become the foreigner circus it is today, and farangs started traipsing past the gym and being distracted by the grunting and sweating. Simultaneously, the trainees had grown into champion fighters, and started thinking about training others. In around 1984, a french lad named Frederic became the first foreign student of Sor. Vorapin. He was also the first foreign champion.
Nowadays, people (both men and women) come from all over the world to study muay thai at Sor. Vorapin. There are an average of five trainers on hand daily, who can give personal attention to anyone from a wide-eyed beginner to a (hood-eyed) experienced fighter. Each trainer has many years of fighting and many champion titles under their belt
We stopped by during an evening class to get the scoop. Dodging high kicks and flying sweat, we found a safe corner in which to gawk. The gym has a boxing ring, several hanging punch bags, lots of weights, space in which one can practice making evil faces in the mirror along with perfecting that move with their knee. The many students were each paired with a trainer of similar size, who prompted them to hit as hard as they could on the rubber pads they had slipped onto their hands. A tiny thai girl screeched loudly as she wailed on her startled victim in merciless succession. A well sculpted irish girl casually jumped rope. Several Japanese boys practiced combos on mats.
We cornered a group of trainers once they got a break and fired up the old pencil. A young man named ‘Us’ was most happy to oblige our interrogation. He, like many professional boxers, came from the area of Buriram, and has been with the gym for about 15 years. When asked why in the world he would ever choose fighting as his profession, he interrupted defensively- “it’s not so much fighting as it is an art”. Sure, he gets a lot of aggression out in the ring, but the reasons for his chosen life are more complex. Muay Thai teaches discipline, he says, and helps you realize your strength, both inner and outer. It also keeps you healthy, in shape, and away from vices like alcohol and drugs. It helps you defend yourself, and in the case of thais, is a way of showing patriotism to their country. The other trainers nodded in agreement, and a garrulous ‘Singh’ piped in that the money and international travel opportunities were good motivators as well. How much money do you make as a fighter? “It depends,” says Singh, “in my village when I was a little kid I made 50 baht for winning my first fight. Nowadays I make an average of 6000 baht per win, and much more in international championship fights”. Us nods, adding that he is headed to Indonesia in a couple of weeks for a fight and is excited to add that to the list of countries he has been to. “It’s good to give exposure to Muay Thai to other countries. It’s not like any other martial art- it requires you to be much harder and there’s a lot of different technique involved”. When asked how he will prepare for this upcoming fight he sighs- “It’s a lot of relaxing. Meditating, cleaning out your body, staying away from alcohol, getting sleep”. My Thai companion leans over and whispers in his ear and he blushes and says sheepishly “it’s true, you can not ejaculate for 2 weeks prior to a fight. It builds up tension which you can use to your advantage against your opponent”. I muse that it’s rather like joining the monkhood and they nod. “It’s a spiritual practice in much the same way. It’s been around for hundreds of years [in fact, it is first on record in the year 1767] and every thai child grows up with a certain reverence for it. It’s very ceremonial- before each fight we perform the wai-kru, which is a sort of traditional dance. It’s a way for us to please our families, please the king, and please ourselves with our bravery and stamina. This takes a lot of self discipline.”
A very large thai man emerges from the gym with his arm slung around the neck of a lily white dutch student, and I recognize the man from the many pictures pasted up on the walls as being Mr. Tanomsak. He is one of the most well respected trainers in Thailand, and now spends part of his time teaching in Switzerland. I am lucky to catch him. I ask him why he thinks people should come to his gym and he smiles. “We have so much experience, we’re all champions here. We’ve worked with foreigners for years, and we have a good understanding of just how far we can or can’t push someone. Each trainer has their own special techniques for bringing out the best in people, and we welcome anyone who is interested in observing or joining up”. I ask him if one should be worried about pain or injury and he laughs. “It happens occasionally, and certainly the first couple of times might be a bit painful. But you learn to feed off the pain and it eventually becomes welcome”. He adds that they take every precaution as to the safety of bones and muscles. I ask him how long it takes to become a champion and he muses, “It’s probably easier for a thai, as we grow up with muay thai and many boys start learning at a very young age. But if a person is careful, has a good trainer, and learns step by step- starting with building up strength in the body and progressing to having the strength in the mind, they can be ready to fight after just a couple of weeks of training”. Do they turn out farang champions? He nods vigorously, saying many backpackers come for just an introductory class and end up changing their tickets home so that they can stay longer and do more intensive study. “We have champions in Holland, France, Switzerland, Japan…. you name it. We have girl champions too!”- he scrambles for a photo of a very large swiss girl with arms like tree trunks and I shudder in awe.
Mr. Tanomsak urges anyone who is interested in having a look to stop by around 3pm. To get to the center you cross the main street (Jakapong) at the Khao San police station and walk left until you see the sign at an alley on the right. Training occurs from 8:00am-10:00am and again from 3:00pm -6:00pm. An introductory class sets you back a mere 400 baht, and they have special deals for packages of classes. Everything you need is on hand, just dress comfortably and bring an open mind. They guarantee you won’t leave without learning a thing or two, and you might even have some fun!
Nicole Furi lives in New York. She is a gradutate of the University of Colorado, Boulder (Psychology major) and a Human Factors expert working in the web industry where she designs and tests Graphical User Interfaces. She is also a writer. Currently in Thailand, Nicole is spening a bit of time writing for KhaoSanRoad.com. Are you interested in booking a Thai Boxing course? Use the form below to make an enquiry…