Land of ‘the art of eight limbs’

For many Israelis, Thailand is for rest and relaxation. For many others, it’s where you go to learn Muay Thai.

Practicing Muay Thai (Credit: Anna Ahronheim)
It’s called “the art of eight limbs,” where, using eight points of contact, a person transforms his or her body into a weapon.
Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, a sport practiced and respected across the East Asian country, and I had come to learn it.
Many of the millions of tourists who flock to Thailand every year come for the beaches and parties, but thousands of others come to learn this ancient martial art, to perfect the skill where their hands and legs turn into daggers, their elbows become like maces, and their shins and forearms harden into armor against the blows of their opponents.
I arrived in Thailand after a number of years training in the sport in Israel, and seriously training over the past year, going three days a week to my gym in Tel Aviv preparing myself for the challenge ahead.
I had signed up for two weeks at Tiger Muay Thai, a popular gym for foreigners on the island of Phuket. Excited, I checked off “sport training” on the visa entry card while still on the plane.
About an hour’s drive from the airport, Tiger Muay Thai is located on a small, quiet street in the Chalong area of Phuket. Unlike the notorious Khao San Road in Bangkok or Bangla Road in Patong, Tiger Muay Thai and all the other gyms on the street are far removed from the parties and beaches that most tourists flock to.
According to its website, Tiger is the world’s “biggest and most recognized Muay Thai, MMA [mixed martial arts] and fitness training camp and destination gym,” and has grown exponentially in the 14 years since it first opened.
I heard about the gym from my coach, Adi Rotem, who trained there several years back. Even now, when you ask trainers at Tiger about Israelis coming to train at the gym, the first person they mention is Rotem.
TWO-TIME WORLD champion Rotem has been training in martial arts since the age of five, developing her skills in Israel, the Netherlands and Thailand.
“I went to Thailand for the first time in 2000 to a gym that is no longer around, Muay Thai Institute, next to the airport. It was really authentic, full of real Thai fighters and only one Japanese and one Korean tourist. There weren’t many tourists there at that time,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
Nine years later Rotem found herself once again in Phuket, training at Tiger, which at the time had only recently opened.
“The reason I went to Tiger is that the year before I lost the 2008 European Championship to a Russian woman who had perfected her Thai style, and I had a great Dutch style. I thought to myself that I have the Dutch style down pat, but if that is my weakness, and if I will be going up against Russians who use the Thai style, then I better learn the Thai style,” she said, adding that she was even asked by coaches at Tiger to move to the island to teach.
Rotem, who has been coaching Muay Thai at Fight TLV for the past five years, told the Post that several of her students have gone to Thailand to train.
“It’s a great thing because the more you train, the better you get.
It’s a different style, but that is a good thing because you need to be able to adjust your style, depending on who you might be up against in the ring. The more skills you have, the stronger you get.”
Pointing to one of her students, she said that he came to her with strong Thai style skills to learn the Dutch style of kickboxing.
“I first started training in Thailand, I took a few courses in Kho Phangan, and then, when I returned to Israel, I kept training,” he said, adding that he “had strong kicks, but when it came to punches, I had no idea at all how to use my fists.”
For me, it was the opposite. While I came with enough experience so that I jumped into the intermediate class, I had come with the goal to improve my kicks, something I just could not seem to get. I also chose to take private lessons, which a friend who had done the same sort of trip just two years earlier had suggested.
LIKE ROTEM, Avishay Luxemburg went to Thailand to train in Muay Thai several times, first in 2005, when he began training in the sport and went to a gym in Bangkok with Shuki Rosenzweig, an Israeli Muay Thai coach who has lived in the Thai capital for the past 20 years.
“I traveled around Thailand and trained in gyms across the country. I didn’t do it as an organized trip, but I was traveling and trained wherever I was,” Luxemburg told me, adding that “Shuki is a great coach who trains not only Israelis but people from around the world.”
In 2008 Luxemburg returned to Thailand with the sole focus on training, spending two weeks training at Fairtex gym in Bangplee, a “hard-core gym with serious lightweight fighters but also very good for tourists.”
He went again in 2010 with another friend from Israel, training for three weeks at Tiger Muay Thai in the advanced class and training with fighters who competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship as well as two women from Jordan and Egypt and several Europeans.
“It doesn’t matter where you are from, who you are; everything is about the sport. They look at you like an athlete,” Luxemburg said, adding that “those who really train don’t have energy to go out at night. But it’s not only the energy; it’s the mentality. People who come to train focus on bettering themselves.”
Describing Tiger as a “Muay Thai Club Med,” with all classes of all styles of martial arts, Luxemburg explained that in other, more authentic Thai gyms, the foreigner is looked upon as a “walking wallet,” expected to pay for everything.
For private lessons at Tiger in 2010, he paid 600 baht (NIS 67).
For comparison’s sake, eight years later I paid 700 baht (NIS 78) per private class.
“My first time I was there, I didn’t realize what it was like. Only on my second time I realized that the Thais don’t take you seriously; you are more of a walking wallet that they don’t want to get hurt,” Luxemburg added.
The types of training experience also differ greatly, depending on the gyms, Luxemburg said, explaining that in Fairtex the training was more “Thai style,” with a focus on bag training, pad work and clinching but “almost no sparring.” At Tiger or other gyms along the same road in Patong, such as Phuket Top Team or Dragon Muay Thai, there are no Thai fighters but more foreigners who are not fighting every other week, which allows those gyms to also focus on sparring.
But it all depends on what you are looking for, Luxemburg explained.
“If you are someone who fights and you want to advance in your technique and get closer to how Thais train, then go to gyms like Fairtex. But if you are more amateur and you are doing it more for fun and to meet people, then Tiger is a better place because there are more tourists there.”
THAILAND’S TOURISM Authority released data last year that showed that Britons, Australians and the French make up the majority of those who come to the country for Muay Thai tourism.
Citing a 2016 survey, the authority found that 11,219 British people, 6,800 Australians and 5,852 French nationals visited Thailand to learn the national sport.
Others came from Germany (4,688), Sweden (4,253), Russia (2,183), Denmark (1,855), Japan (1,841), New Zealand (1,781) and Spain (1,633).
The sport has grown so much in popularity around the globe that Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha asked International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach in mid-April to consider including Muay Thai boxing in the 2024 Olympics.
Muay Thai received provisional recognition from IOC in 2016.
Phet Chaimanee, Muay Thai manager at the camp, told the Post that the majority of foreigners who come to train are from the United States and Europe, with about 5% of the guests coming from Israel.
“When tourists come to Thailand and choose to come to learn Muay Thai, they become powerful, and we are filled with pride,” Chaimanee said.
The Muay Thai center caters to all levels, from beginners to professional fighters, and Chaimanee said that “if you are a fast learner, you can easily advance to a better level. It all depends on skill.
Sometimes it can take months before you move up from beginner, but sometimes it can take less than a month.”
I MET my coach, “Lightning Teep,” in the ring. He was chatting with another tourist, Paris Cook, who after just three months of training with him was preparing to go up against a Thai girl in the local stadium for her first amateur fight.
Teep has been teaching Muay Thai for over a decade at several 18 MAY 25, 2018 gyms on the island of Phuket. Originally from Buriram, Teep began training in the martial art at the age of seven and fought in over 500 fights during his career.
“If you like Muay Thai, come straight to Phuket,” he told me after one training session, adding that for him it is important to teach the art “because I don’t want to stop Muay Thai. Once I die, my style will keep on going, champion style. Some people teach different styles, but there’s no wrong way. Only what’s good for you.”
“I feel honored to teach our national sport to foreigners, and it excites me when I see my students fighting for the first time.”
A few days later Teep was with Cook as she climbed into the ring. I came to watch with another 20 people from Tiger, to cheer her on in her first fight. When Cook and her opponent started their wai khru traditional ritual dance before the fight began, the cheering reached new levels.
It took less than 40 seconds for Cook to win.
At the Cook fight I was sitting next to 26-year-old Jessica Duffy from Sydney, who the following week climbed in the ring herself after less than a month of training at Tiger.
Jessica Duffy of Austrailia. (Courtesy Jessica Duffy)Jessica Duffy of Austrailia. (Courtesy Jessica Duffy)
“I came here because I needed a break. I work a lot of hours a week. This is me time,” she said as we sipped watermelon shakes after a morning session.
“I train twice a day back home, but I go through the motions and don’t have the time to take for myself.
The first week was the best week because I got to see again how strong I am. I do this for a reason and I really enjoy it,” Duffy, a fitness and Pilates trainer back home, told me ahead of her fight.
“I knew in the back of my mind that this [fighting] was going to happen while I was here, so that was my main focus,” she said. “I’m not going to miss this opportunity.
I’ve always said that as long as I get into the ring and I don’t get absolutely killed, annihilated, that’s fine, but now that I am so close and I’ve put so much effort into my training, I want to win.”
Addressing the question of coming to Thailand as a single woman to fight in a sport dominated by men, Duffy responded: “I’m pretty strong,” explaining that she’s traveled many places by herself, including New Zealand and Southeast Asia.
“I like to be independent, and certainly it’s hard to be here. I miss my little brother and wish my mother could be here, but at the same time I think it’s a good thing that my family isn’t here for my first fight, in case something happens,” she said with a smile.
“I’m confident that I will be safe, but, yes, it is a pretty big thing to come here, as a girl by myself, to fight by myself. I’m not going to have anyone in my corner, but it will be okay,” she added.
And while Duffy said she would not live-stream her fight, just in case she got injured, her family and friends had nothing to worry about. Duffy took on her opponent, and after two rounds had knocked her to the ground.
“Oh, God, I’m such a badass,” she later wrote on Facebook after she won.
BUT NOT everyone comes to fight. Evelyn Grzegorczyk, 24, from Sweden, came to Tiger for one month to train in Muay Thai and other fitness classes offered, such as Crossfit.
Grzegorczyk, whom I met during one of the clinching classes, told me that she had heard of the camp several years ago.
“You can train at home, but here you have the time to train multiple times per day, and the weather also helps. To go to the gym in Sweden, it’s cold and you have to warm up for 30 minutes just to get one bit of sweat. Here the focus is to train, all the time.”
Grzegorczyk said that while she’s been to Thailand before with friends, this was the first time that she was traveling on her own.
“I have been in Thailand many times before, but when I train, the partying lifestyle doesn’t fit in,” she said. “I like that we aren’t in Patong, that we are surrounded by people who want to focus on training. The only bad thing is that the beach is 15 minutes away, and if you don’t have a scooter, it’s hard to get to.”
For 20-year-old Noah Franz and 19-year-old Simon Eggert, both from Germany, coming to Tiger was the first time they had traveled outside Europe.
Eggert was at Tiger for one week, one last stop on a three-month journey around Southeast Asia.
“This is a great way to end my travels,” Eggert told me after a morning Muay Thai class.
Franz, who trains regularly back in Germany, came to Tiger for one month, after hearing about it from friends at home.
“I work out regularly back home. But here I can train whenever I want, and I can do every class here,” he said, before he headed for a Western kickboxing class taught by a coach originally from Kazakhstan.
“It’s a great way to meet people from all over the world,” Franz said. “Sports connects people. Whenever you go to class, you meet and train with them. If you want to connect and meet new people, you can do it here, no problem.”
For Keivan Hirji from North Vancouver, Canada, Thailand was his first stop on a yearlong backpacking trip.
“For me, this trip was really about relaxing and healing after losing someone close to me. For me, partying was not the focus; it was really about healing and soul-searching,” Hirji said.
Explaining that he trains four days a week in Brazilian jujitsu back in Canada, Hirji said that other people from his gym had recommended that he come to Chalong and to train in Muay Thai, to get out of his element and comfort zone.
“If you want to train in Brazilian jujitsu, go to Brazil, but if you want to train in Muay Thai, go to Thailand.”
Coaches at Tiger Muay Thai with the author on her last day at the gym/ Anna Ahronheim Coaches at Tiger Muay Thai with the author on her last day at the gym/ Anna Ahronheim
While Hirji didn’t plan on fighting, he was impressed by those he saw in the ring with local Thai fighters, saying that “it takes a lot of guts, to come over here and go up against these people who are tough as nails.”
The feeling of connecting with someone who, before sparring with him, was a stranger was a sentiment echoed by many others I met at the gym. Like Hirji, Franz, Eggert and Grzegorczyk, I, too, had come to Thailand alone.
According to 36-year-old Joe from Los Angeles, who was at Tiger for 21 days, “the best way to immerse yourself into a local culture is a martial-arts gym. If you get the shit kicked out of you by a stranger, you bond with him,” he told me outside the gym on his second day of training.
While he has previous fighting experience, Joe said that his goal was to “become more fit and enhance my SPORTS 19 hand-to-hand combat. It’s always good to know how to protect yourself.”
While I didn’t meet any Israelis practicing Muay Thai during my time at Tiger, Yosef Cohen from Jerusalem came to practice Crossfit, another popular sport. It was Cohen’s second time at Tiger, a gym that has “everything I need, everything I want.”
The author and other tourists who came to train in Muay Thai at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand in April 2018/ Anna AhronheimThe author and other tourists who came to train in Muay Thai at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand in April 2018/ Anna Ahronheim
A professional Crossfit athlete with goals to compete in international competitions, Cohen told said that training in Thailand “is another world, but it’s the right place for me now, to focus on my training.”
“There are people here from all over the world [here], and it’s beautiful,” Cohen said. “[It] gives the place color and life.”