Training in Thailand is not only intense, it is very intimate also. Many gyms provide accommodation for their fighters. The accommodation usually consists of a large single room with a few beds, thus fighters end up sharing everything: bathrooms, equipment, clothing, and sometimes even toothbrushes. Unless a family member is closely attending to the livestock, the habit is almost always strictly male. In the rare case there is a female fighter living at the gym, she is usually taken care of by an older brother, uncle, or the matriarch of the gym. Living at the gym, versus living outside the gym can change how people interact with you. This goes for both foreigners and Thais; those living at the gym tend to form a close knit bond that becomes very difficult to break. Being a female fighter myself, who currently lives and trains full time in Thailand, I get asked a lot about gender at a Muay Thai Gym.
I first arrived in Thailand when I was nineteen and was left at a Bangkok street gym affiliated with Sor. Thanikul. To the trainers at the gym, I was a child and they became my guardians. The gym was located in a low income neighbourhood in the corner of an apartment block. The apartments ranged in price from 1,000 Baht ($30 USD) to 2,500 Baht ($75 USD) per month and usually housed entire families in one room. I was able to get my own place adjacent to the gym but my trainers didn’t like me staying alone, so I would often stay with them and their families. We would sleep on the floor like a can of sardines, sharing a single fan.
The gym had three girl fighters and one of them was my size. Although we clinched together, the majority of my clinching was with a fifteen year old street kid named Rambo who I out weighed by about five kilograms. Everyone fought often but the owners were strict about our training, so unless there was a big show, we had to stay back.
On average I was fighting three to four times a month. During the slow seasons we were matched up at the gym to do boxing sparring. It was understood by everyone that for three rounds you were to go all out like a fight. As opposed to matching me up with the other girl fighter my size, I was matched up against Rambo. Where he might have had a strength advantage, I had weight; the rounds were always competitive.
My training was closely monitored. After my run it was straight to skipping or tire jumping. From there I was either brought to the ring for pads or put on the bag. After pads and bag was clinch work and sparring and then kicks and knees for conditioning. My trainer Dam liked to sit there and smoke cigarettes while counting every single kick I threw. Sit-ups finished the night off.
I never felt that being a girl had any impact on my training, but the reason I was treated this way was because I had proven that I could be a competitive fighter and wasn’t just there for training and instruction. I fought whenever they told me to, even sometimes on just hours notice. For me as a fighter, my time at this gym is a fond memory. I had no responsibilities and my only job was to fight.
Things changed when I came back this year to train and fight full time. I was welcomed into the community as a married, educated woman and mother. I began teaching at a local school so I could pay off a student loan and better handle the responsibilities of taking care of my daughter. I also work as the gym’s manager, so my place with the fighters is that of an authority figure, no longer on equal footing in the hierarchy of the gym.
It was a long road back into the ring; five years off is no joke. I trained full time for about three months before they matched me up for a fight. During that time I was pretty much training myself. I would get to the gym a little later than the other fighters because I had to finish up at work. I had the same routine they did, but was self-monitored. No one ever told me to do knees on the bag or sit ups. I did them or I didn’t.
Once the fight was confirmed, nothing in terms of my training seemed to change. Mr. Dit, owner and head trainer at Giatbundit gym, had trained me in the past when I lived in Issan so I assumed he would take over as my trainer. Alas, a few days turned into a week, and a week in to a month. Mr. Dit never offered me any training and here I was getting into the back of the gym’s pick-up truck to have my first fight back after five years.
I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Had I even trained?
The fights were held at local temple, we were matched the morning of. We stood around like cattle being directed until we were each standing next to someone relatively close to our size. I don’t know the name of the girl I fought and didn’t care to ask. I won the fight and walked over to Mr. Dit to hand over my purse. He opened the envelope and gave it back to me without taking any deductions.
“Your training needs to change.”
I said thank you and walked out into the field away from the crowds. My cousin helped me shower using three bottles of water she had purchased from a food stall. I changed in the bushes and didn’t bother to wash my hair.
Already a few more fights had been lined up for me so there wasn’t time for an extended break. I settled right back in to my training schedule but my motivation was gone. Luckily Rotnarong, Rajadamnern champion and the creator of the cartwheel kick, showed up just in time to lift my spirits.
“Mali, Mali, Maaa-liii! Why so sad today?”
I smiled when he called me by my Issan nickname, Mali, jasmine flower.
“Come, do technique with me. Copy me, that’s all you have to do and you will become a champion.”
Going under the bottom ropes I join Rotnarong in the ring. Even at 42 and quite a few pounds overweight, he flows through Muay Thai like a powerful river dividing land. There is no malice in his spirit, he is methodical in power and technique. The grace and confidence he possesses, whether in or out of the ring, make both his opponents and training partners shine. Working with a legend who is still so passionate for the sport that bettered his life is humbling.
At the end of our session together, Rotnarong tells me to lie next to the ropes so that he can walk on my back. It’s a painful process with positive effects; showing gratitude is only achieved by not showing discomfort.
“Mali, you love Muay Thai so much. That is no problem for you. You try really hard, and you have everything it takes. You need to copy techniques to make you better, so you can do everything. So you can fight someone bigger, someone faster. Even someone with better knees, no problem. Whoever works the hardest wins. You have a bachelor’s degree in Muay Thai already, you know that!”
A bachelor’s degree in Muay Thai? What does that mean? Training with Rotnarong had given me the challenge and guidance I needed but I left the gym unsatisfied with myself, even more nervous for the upcoming fight. My husband Boom was waiting for me at home, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I asked him about the things Rotnarong had said, asked him why no one is training me, asked if I was a good fighter.
Boom started laughing,
“You are an adult now, Frances. No one is going to tell you what to do anymore. Mr. Dit watches you train but he won’t yell because he’s saving face for you. You’re respected by everyone at the gym. What Rotnarong means is that you already know what it takes, what you have to do! If you know you have to train harder, then why aren’t you training harder?”
Boom gives me a kiss on the forehead and rolls over, which means he is done talking. I didn’t need anything else from him; everything clicked in that instant. Most fighters at the gym are under 18. I think to the times when I was the teenager training alongside the few adults at my gym in Bangkok. No one told them to do conditioning, no one told them to jump into the ring for clinch work, they did it on their own. When they had a big fight the support was available, but it was always up to them to take advantage of the opportunities. Each teenage and child fighter, whose every sit up was counted, always watched the adult fighters in awe.
You might call it an epiphany, others like Boom would just call it common sense, but I adopted a profound understanding of gym dynamics in Thailand; age over gender. If I felt at all that I wasn’t being valued as a fighter, it was in my own head. Being a woman has less effect on my situation. Rather, it was a reflection of my age and place in the community. A mother, a manager, a teacher; being a fighter comes last because I let it. I allowed my other roles to take precedence over fighting, and this has been seen at the gym.
This is a stage in my life as a female Muay Thai fighter in Thailand where how am treated is closely related to my age versus my gender. The only way to move forward as a fighter is to embrace my situation and work within the boundaries of my new role in the community.
After receiving a muay thai scholarship to train at a prominent gym in Northern Thailand, Watthanaya packed her bags at 19 leaving home with a one way ticket. She ended up however at a Bangkok street gym affiliated with Sor. Thanikul and married one of the fighters. They took off for Khorat and Watthanaya fought her way through Issan. Now, with a degree in tote, a four year old daughter, and a passion to fight again, she is back. Connect with Frances Watthanaya on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook .