The following is meant to act as a cultural primer for training in traditional Muay Thai gyms in Thailand. Note, I have little experience training in gyms heavily trafficked by Foreigners. I’ve never been to Phuket. Nonetheless, based on my own experiences balanced by discussions with those who have, the following guidelines are applicable. One of the notable differences between gyms with a heavy Foreign presence and ones without is that many of the Thais have a greater understanding thus tolerance of Western cultural norms. It doesn’t mean all of them do. Often trainers move from gym to gym and you may find yourself with one who recently arrived from the countryside for the first time.
I suggest taking the following into consideration regardless of where you train in Thailand.
Muay Thai in Thailand is a business. The fighters, including the children enter the ring to provide for their families. There may be those present who are orphans and/or were abandoned and subsequently taken in by the gym. Thus fighting has been fundamental in their basic survival. Dependent on where you choose to train there may be the occasional Thai (or more) who studies Muay Thai part-time and/or is there for fitness related goals. For the purpose of this piece, the focus remains on the culture of those whose vocation is Muay Thai. The acquisition of money is what drives the sport in Thailand and it’s something that you should be cognizant of. If you establish yourself as a recreationalist upon entering a gym through your attitude and work ethic, you’ll be treated as one.
A Muay Thai gym is a home. The trainers, fighters and often the owners live there. Should the owner not live at the gym, they generally live nearby. There’s a balance that was established before you arrived. Realize this and do your best to not disrupt it. It’ll neither be appreciated nor respected although it may be tolerated for, from what I’ve witnessed, a short period of time.
Thai culture is deeply hierarchical. In regards to a Muay Thai gym, the order is as follows:
- owner(s) and immediate family
- promoters, matchmakers, anyone who is hired to do office and/or legal work
- the head trainer
- the trainers
- established fighters
- fighters including children
Present within a gym is a hierarchy reflective of age. The young are expected to respect those older regardless of having the same experience and occupying the same space in a gym. For example, a twelve year old fighter will be mindful of the fact that his fifteen year old counterpart bears more status as his elder. The same is expected of you. Be mindful of the established hierarchy. This may require you to be more submissive than you’re accustomed to.
It’s recommended that you don’t question those with more esteem. This includes your trainer.
Questioning your trainer is perceived as disrespectful as it’s a public display of a lack of confidence. Students are expected to not question their teachers in Thailand, the same holds true in a gym. Simply put, you’re to do as you’re told and to neither question nor complain. If there’s something you’d like addressed, wait until after training hours to discuss it privately. In congruence with Thai expectations of polite conduct you may also want to address the issue indirectly. By doing so, you avoid causing the person a loss of face. Additionally you avoid being perceived as confrontational, arrogant, and dismissive of the social structure, thus losing face yourself.
Causing someone to lose face is highly discouraged and is sometimes dealt with harshly. I suspect it’s why I had my hand broken. At the very least, expect it to not be forgotten. Note, you may notice those who publicly confront others. I advise paying attention to the hierarchy. I suspect you’ll find it to be someone with higher esteem confronting someone with less. The person being confronted is expected to absorb the confrontation and submit. Should they refuse, which may include speaking (i.e. the Western custom of explaining one’s argument or verbal defence) they will cause themselves a loss of face. Alternatively, if you’re at a gym with a Foreign liaison, I recommend speaking to them regarding any questions or issues you may have.
- Acquaint yourself with Thai etiquette.
- Refrain from showing overt displays of annoyance, anger, dismay, judgement and frustration at all times regardless of how you may feel. You lose face when you do. Thai culture places a high value on harmony. The public domain is not yours to infect with what are generally considered immature and negative indulgences.
- If a space is quiet, maintain its harmony. For example, speaking loudly in a residential soi is considered impolite. Learn from those around you.
- Don’t complain. Here’s an article I wrote, The Art Of Not Complaining which is incredibly pertinent to training Muay Thai in Thailand. It’s where I developed this aspect of mental discipline. You’ll be expected to as well.
- Set boundaries. There’s a line between being respectful of the cultures you’re living in, meaning both Thai and Muay Thai gym cultures and being taken advantage of. Thai gyms like anywhere else aren’t immune to people who manipulate and exploit. Foreign nak muays have asked if they’re obligated to buy goods and services for trainers and/or fighters as they’ve felt extreme pressure to do so. This may include meals, phone cards, Nikes, cigarettes, a night out (however defined), or lending cash. You’re not. Note, integral of Thai culture is the notion of taking care. Taking care has a variety of connotations, however, for this piece it may be simplified to mean whoever has the means may take care of whoever has less. Taking care translates in a myriad of ways and does include services and goods. When someone takes care it’s a display of respect to the recipient(s). The person taking care is respected in return. If you’d like to buy a trainer or a fighter goods and services, do so. However, use your discretion. If you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, aka disrespected and/or hustled, you probably are.
- Respect your fellow nak muays, Thai and Foreign. You may not like them but for the sake of maintaining harmony, tolerate them during training at the very least.
- Although it’s not always expected of Foreigners, I suggest you Wai before entering the ring. The following video explains the importance of the Wai and illustrates its forms. Within this context, I was taught to Wai by placing the tips of my fingers at the bridge of my nose and bowing my head slightly. Observe the Thai fighters and follow their form.
Tradition stipulates that one is to Wai the bag, their trainer and their clinching partner(s) before and after working with them. Other than receiving the occasional Wai from a nak muay when training the clinch, I haven’t witnessed this tradition in practice. I suggest paying note to the culture of the gym you’re in. Do as the Thais do. Note, I was instructed to Wai the heavy bag preceding and proceeding sets of knees on it (gloveless). I noticed this practiced at more than one gym. It was explained that the bag is my teacher and should be respected. On that note, refrain from getting saliva on the bag. It was stressed that by doing so, you’re showing incredible disrespect to the point of having the bag deemed useless. I have no idea if saliva destroying the integrity of the bag applies to everyone or just to women. I didn’t think of asking at the time. If anyone has any idea, please let us know in the comments.
- Aim for daily improvement and not perfection. A Type A personality is not your friend in a Thai Muay Thai gym.
- Sparring is meant to be technical. Refrain from using power. Becoming aggressive, particularly with Thais may result in casually but technically served punishment. Want an injury? Step into the ring with ego and aggression.
- Using the word Fuck in any context holds more power to blindly enrage than you may expect. Adding Off to it may result in time spent in the hospital. Erase it from your vocabulary or invest in a great medical insurance plan.
- Wear a shirt when you run. Going topless is frowned upon. Yes men, this includes you.
- Shower often. Thais shower more often than your average Westerner. It’ll be appreciated and it’ll deter bacterial infections. Generally if you’re outside and return inside sweaty, rinse off. Shower between training and your post training meal at the gym. Use body powder to help keep heat rash at bay.
- Fighters are instructed to be humble. I’ve trained with some Thai fighters that were anything but. They were tolerated if they were profitable, however their lack of humility didn’t go unnoticed.
- A smile goes a long way in Thailand. Train hard and keep your heart light.
- If you plan on spending significant time in Thailand, consider learning to speak Thai language. A whole new world opens up to you when you do.
In addition to the above guidelines, females require an additional set. Expect a post with recommendations to follow.
Does anyone have anything they’d like to add? I’m curious about your experiences, particularly in gyms with a heavy Foreign presence.