“Farang Muay Thai!”
I like physical activity and sports. I played rugby in college and absolutely loved it. Before leaving for Thailand I got into Krav Maga – Israeli street fighting that’s sort of a mix between MMA and self defense. So when I went to Thailand, naturally I was interested in the national sport of Muay Thai – Thai Boxing. Muay Thai is a bit like kickboxing, in that they use their legs as well as fists. They also use powerful knees and sharp elbows. A lot of Thai fighters may appear small to a Westerner, but watching them connect with those infamous roundhouse kicks will prove size doesn’t have much sway. When I watched students practicing at the college next door to my school, not even professionals, I was convinced they could break me in half with just one good kick, and I probably had fifty pounds and several inches on them. I would not want to get into a fight with those boys.
A few weeks into teaching in Chonnabot I had had a few conversations about Muay Thai with the other teachers. I expressed in interest in learning, saying that I liked boxing. I couldn’t be quite sure how that was going to turn out, but apparently the Thai English teachers talked to some other teachers and suddenly the other foreign teacher and I were all set to have a Muay Thai session from the coach at the college next door. He was also a teacher at the college and stood at the gate in the mornings. Ajarn (respectful word for ‘teacher’) Werawut would give us Muay Thai 101 lessons on the next Monday. When Muay Thai Monday rolled around, I was a lot more nervous than I anticipated. We brought work out gear with us to the school so we could change after class before our boxing lesson.
Our first Muay Thai Monday was still pretty early on in the semester, so I hadn’t totally adjusted to being the primary source of entertainment/gossip in town yet. When we walked over to the prearranged meeting spot at the college for our lesson, there were probably a dozen or so Thai college boys sitting around on stone picnic tables. I thought they were just goofing off after classes had ended, but slowly more laughing teenaged Thais trickled in, until there was a good crowd milling about. Word must have gotten around. I guessed at least 75% of the Thai college boys had turned out to watch the two farang lady teachers try to do Muay Thai. Ahh…brilliant! I, being naturally shy and introverted, was not at all excited about this development. So, I tried to laugh it off. At least the other teacher was there with me. We were going to look ridiculous, but at least we would be ridiculous together.
“If you’re not willing to look stupid, nothing great will ever happen to you,” it has been said. I risked looking really stupid, and I ended up learning Muay Thai, in Thailand, from a “famous” Thai boxer!
So we laughed, maybe a little louder than normal, and kept saying ‘mai bpen rai’ no worries! Ajarn Werawut might have tried to show us how to make a fist? It was difficult in the beginning, because he only really spoke Isaan, or Lao, the local dialects, and less of the national Thai language. And the very few words we knew were in Thai. In all we probably shared four or five words. Kick, hit, watch, Muay Thai. We could count in English and Thai, fortunately. Eventually we learned how to say today, tomorrow, and yesterday, so we could establish ‘today Muay Thai yes or no?’ Muay Thai tomorrow, yes or no? On one occasion I think we told Ajarn Werawut ‘tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow no Muay Thai. Go city,’ meaning that on Monday, or in three days, we would not be at Muay Thai because we had to go into the city. I think he got the gist.
The actual lessons started out a little rough. We had no clue what we were doing, and all the spectators certainly didn’t make me feel any better. But we laughed the whole time and it usually ended up being fairly enjoyable. We had a bit of a hard time sometimes getting the rhythm of the drills Ajarn told us to do. When he was working with his actual student fighters he had my friend and I work together, kicking and blocking each other softly and slowly. Then we would get turns on the heavy bags. One was long and almost reached the ground. The other was smaller, tear drop shaped, and much higher. The second bag was also a lot softer than the first, so while it required you to be able to kick higher it hurt the shins a lot less. And that was about it for our gym. Just the two bags, suspended over a concrete slab.
Now, while I have stated that I enjoy athletic endeavors, I often am also incredibly clumsy and not incredibly graceful. Getting my hips and my legs to do a proper Muay Thai roundhouse kick was a struggle. Ajarn Werawut kept demonstrating and gesturing for me to kick higher and in more of an arc. Yes, yes, I know Ajarn! I know, but I cannot do! My hips can’t do that! He would point to the logo on the heavy bag and indicate that I should hit that point, every time.
Ajarn: Kick! Kick!
The pivot on my grounded leg was a bit tough for me to get down as well. It was all a learning process, of course. It was a lot harder when we had to do it barefoot. My feet were not very tough. Kicking the larger heavy bag was murder too. It stung something awful when I’d hit it with force. Or without much force. My shins felt like they were splintering. Now, I knew before I started Muay Thai that I bruise like a rotten peach. I knew as I worked on my kicks that I was going to walk into school the next day with big blue and purple splotches on my legs. In fact it became a running joke with the assistant director, who was friends with my Muay Thai teacher. He’d point at my legs and say ‘Muay Thai?’ Yep, yep, I went to Muay Thai yesterday. Then we moved to punches and elbows. I promptly got bruises and cuts on those. One day I was practicing with one of the boy students, who held the pads for me to hit. I’d already roughed up the skin on my one elbow and I guess I aggravated it some more and it started bleeding. The boy made me stop and called Ajarn over to look at it. They seemed concerned, was it because I was a farang or a girl? I didn’t want to seem like a wimp or anything, and besides I used to get scratched and cut in rugby all the time, so I just told them ‘mai bpen rai mai bpen rai’ – no big deal don’t worry about it. Still can’t be sure if I was being cool, or stupid.
Our week of Muay Thai turned out to be a good time, despite the feelings of being in a fishbowl. Originally we thought it would just be that week. Then it turned into two, and maybe three? Apparently it was going to be an ongoing thing! The other teacher, however, wasn’t getting as into the whole thing as I was. Even though I didn’t like having the audience I liked learning Muay Thai and how to do roundhouse kicks. So, it ended up that I did Muay Thai the rest of the semester on my own. Some days I didn’t want to go, as I often waited for my teacher for half an hour or so. I was never certain what time to meet him. Thai Time, it was never that strict of a time I guess. The days I thought I was early, they’d already be there working. Days I thought I was late….no one in sight. Oh well.
Eventually everyone in town knew me as the farang learning Muay Thai. Locals I didn’t even recall meeting before knew me, and would shout Muay Thai! Muay Thai! when they saw me or I’d come to their food stand. Haha, chai chai, yes yes. Muay Thai, yes. It was good that I did some Muay Thai while I was there if for no other reason than it was the only real exercise I ever got, as the rest of the time it was too hot to do anything. As it was, by the end of every session I looked like I’d gone swimming. What jokes they must have had about how much the farang teacher sweat. Eventually I got over that, too. I stopped caring that they made jokes about me in front of me. I couldn’t understand 99% of it anyway. The audiences gradually became smaller and smaller until sometimes it was just me and Ajarn Werawut.
Despite not being able to talk much to Ajarn Werawut, I liked him. He was always laughing and smiling, as a lot of Thais are wont to do. But it lightened the mood when I’d screw up. I’d laugh at myself, too. When he or one of the other students would say something to me in Thai, I’d just reply ‘foreigner doesn’t understand’ or ‘I don’t know’ in Thai. But I did become a little proud of my right elbow. I got pretty good at that one. And sometimes I’d land a good kick, with a nice cracking sound as I landed the blow on the bag. I got one or two ‘oohs’ from the boys when I made a good hit on a pad. The fact that I only wiped out flat on my ass once also became a source of pride. Normally my gracefulness dictates I should have fallen at least once per session.
I kind of liked to think that I made friends with Ajarn Werawut, despite our limited communication abilities. One night he called my cell phone, which was odd since all we could ever say on the phone was ‘Muay Thai today yes or no?’ After trying to figure out what he was saying, and the call being dropped, I was fairly certain I had just been drunk dialed. So I ran next door to my friend, the other teacher’s apartment. H! H! I shouted in a whisper. I told her I thought Ajarn Werawut had just drunk dialed me but I couldn’t understand what he was saying, other than ‘Ajarn Werawuuuut!’ So we called him back and I had her talk to him because she was better at deciphering Thai words. Apparently he was trying to get us to meet him at our mutual friend’s coffee cart in the morning. We agreed, but were skeptical that he’d remember this conversation. True to our word, we went out to the coffee cart that morning at 7am. No Ajarn Werawut. So we brokenly tried to explain to the coffee cart couple the situation. The husband, who was friends with Ajarn, finally understood what we were trying to tell him, so he called Ajarn to make him come out to the coffee cart. In about twenty minutes Ajarn pulled up on his motor bike. We were fairly certain that his friend was giving him shit about calling us and having us meet for coffee and not showing up himself. Or maybe that was our own projections of the conversation, but it was good fun regardless. Holding the locals to their drunken promises, regardless of language and culture barriers!
In order to pay Ajarn for teaching us Muay Thai we decided we should at least take him out to dinner, since he wouldn’t accept any monetary compensation. The other teacher and I ended up taking him and his friend to dinner in another town down the road. Well, they drove us and ordered all the food, we just paid for it. The conversation at that dinner was fantastic. Mostly the other foreign teacher talking in the little broken Thai we had learned, and our teacher and his friend laughing at us. Then Ajarn Werawut put his hand to his head and insisted it was too much Thai language, and he kept saying ‘migraine! Migraine!’
The whole Muay Thai adventure frequently frightened and unnerved me. I felt uncomfortable with all the people watching and the locals talking about me at first, but it turned out to be one of the best parts about living in my town, and I was quite sad to leave. I sent Ajarn Werawut one of my rugby team’s jerseys after I got back home. He probably laughed at it and has no idea why I sent it to him. I hope he understood how much I appreciated him giving away his time to teach me. If and when I ever go back, I’ll have to visit Ajarn Werawut, and show him I can still roundhouse kick.