There are so many misconceptions about this mysterious kingdom. So what is the truth about Thailand? Firstly, you don’t have to sacrifice much coming here. Whatever you want, whatever your interest, you’ll very likely find it the land of Thai.
People rave about this country for a reason. If you’ve been here it will always hold a special place in your heart. Why? So many aspects about Thailand that hook you; for me it’s the people, year-round sun, beaches, jungles, islands, mountains, cities, hole-in-the-wall coffee shops, the streamlined services, modern amenities and conveniences, the Muay Thai scene, expat community, cheap prices, geographic location in SE Asia, budget flights, nightlife, unique culture etc.
It’s an exciting place and you wake up feeling alive.
And then there’s the flip side; police corruption, politics, pollution, Thai tempers, seediness and poverty…. But this also adds to the allure and fascination of the place. Out of all the countries I’ve visited, none compare with the overall experience of Thailand. There’s something here for everyone; it’s perfect for single travelers, romantic for couples, convenient for families and no better infrastructure for a training holiday. And of course the mecca for Muay Thai.
My first impressions
Thailand was just meant to be a 5-day stop over on my way to London back in 2001. I didn’t give it much thought at all. I just imagined a country of brown people with slanted eyes and no personalities, a beach with palm trees and a few low rise building here and there. That’s literally what I thought it was. And man, was I wrong. Those 5 days blew me away and I never knew how much fun could be had in this world.
After that I was in London for 8 months but all I could think about was Thailand. I went back the following year for 5 months, and then around 15 trips since.
A few things I’ll be mentioning about Thailand that I don’t see much written on, or hear talked about. I’ll try keep it more Muay Thai related. If you’re a first timer or have only spent short times here, then these observations might give you a better gist and understanding of this fascinating country.
Remember; the first few months you’re on a Honeymoon
Thailand is far from a paradise. Yeah the islands are freaking gorgeous. Yeah the service people treat you like royalty. Yeah everyone looks happy and everyone is getting laid. But… that’s just the facade, dig a little deeper and it ain’t as utopic as it seems.
Firstly, if you’re traveling- you’re on holiday. You are going to interact with service people, and they’re going to be super nice. Not because they love you or think you are handsome but because its their job to make you feel welcome. And they do a good job at that. For the most part, holidaymakers deal with resorts and service people- all trained to be sweet. You are on a high arriving to a new country, and just like a new girlfriend, everything she does is cute and beautiful, even her ugly habits- for now.
If you stay for more than a month, and let reality settle in, then you can’t help but start to see the cracks. And it’s not a bad thing. Some people are let down, disappointed, even get angry that Thailand is not the utopia they thought it was, and that it doesn’t represent their western ways of doing things or their values. But that’s the beauty of Thailand.
Its one of the very few countries in the world that hasn’t been conquered by a foreign power hence the little foreign influence on things, making their culture distinctly “Thai”. The only place the Thai language is spoken in the world is in Thailand. They have their own traditions, festivals and ceremonies that only exist in Thailand. The other country I can think of that’s similar in it’s uniqueness is Japan (for example Japanese is only spoken in Japan, never been conquered by a foreign power so everything is very “Japanese” etc.). The Thai value system, language and customs are very foreign to us- and this is the allure for many, but some get pissed off and frustrated about it!
If you move to any country or city, the honeymoon period where everything seems amazing and lasts around 3 months. The next stage is somewhat a rejection, you start finding faults, get a little mad- really it means you are being challenged to understand, accept and adapt. And eventually if you’re not an arrogant ignoramus you adapt and accept, and at around 6 months in you feel comfortable in your new home. If you go for a short time, keep in mind you’re honeymooning, and the reality of the place hasn’t caught up to you. Enjoy it for the honeymoon that it is and don’t mistake it as the reality. Know that you don’t know and don’t be fooled. This will keep your views balanced and open.
Understanding Thai culture
Unless you speak the language, you’ll never fully understand a culture. The longer you stay in Thailand, the more you realize you know less than you think about the Thais. You can study the language, work here and engage more in the culture but what will happen is you’ll realize there’s more to this culture than you ever imagined. For most people it’s either you fall more in love with Thailand, or become jaded- depends on what you’re doing here.
I remember all the stages I went through; the early days when I thought I’d figured out the Thais, how they think, why they do what they do…. Not even close. I am naïve for even thinking so.
It’s like the Arab world. If you don’t speak our language, you will never know how we think. Never! Language, or words create images in the mind, and words structured in a particular way invoke specific images only available in certain languages. So for example many words and concepts that exist in Arabic don’t exist in English and you can’t translate it because the same words don’t invoke the same imagery and feelings. When you translate Arabic to English the potency is lost. It becomes impotent, and almost doesn’t make sense. And vice versa, Arabs that don’t have a good command in English will never understand the west- hence the clash of minds! There can’t be a bridge to the other world unless you know the language to communicate those ideas, concepts and reality. Thai is the same, but it’s radically different from English or Arabic. Another world with it’s own values, concepts, ideas only communicated and understood precisely through the Thai language.
So my point is this; trying to understand Thai through our Western lens is impossible, we will always miss. We can observe the culture and interpret it from our western point of view, but that’s as far as it goes.
It’s far from complete. We will never know the reality of Thais and how they view the world. Like I said, the closest we could get is if we are fluent in the Thai language. This too is the beauty; the foreignness of the culture is seducing- everyday is a surprise; a blend of excitement and curiosity. Nothing beats it and I love it.
Gyms in Thailand vs Gyms back home
It’s trendy and a romantic idea to go to Thailand to train at one of the famous “Muay Thai” camps. Of course it can be an amazing experience, you could learn tons and have a blast with whatever you do but before you get super excited understand the reality so you don’t go over there a fool.
Firstly, Thailand attracts a lot of fucked up people; a ton of egos, many weirdo’s, and plenty of seedy characters. The gyms aren’t as regulated as the west. Anyone can punch holes in your head and get away with it. Not always, but it’s very common from what I’ve seen. You need to take care of yourself- don’t rely on anyone, including gym staff or owners. Don’t blindly trust a coach or gym organizing fights for you. I have seen such ugly stitch ups… so much. You need to understand Thai people are doing it harder economically than westerners, even if from the outside it doesn’t look like it.
Think about this: The average Thai pad holder gets around 300 baht (10 bucks) a day to get his forearms smashed on pads by foreigners double their size, day-in-day-out. I call that hard labor. So, if your Thai pad holder is sometimes less than enthusiastic, be a little compassionate. They see hundreds of people like you come and go every month.
In the West members are long term, so they build relationships. In Thailand foreigners are transient and come and go by the dozens. In the West trainers chose their profession because they’re passionate about it, in Thailand it’s usually because that’s all they’ve done since childhood.
As far as what the best gyms to go to are- they vary, and what’s in today might not be in tomorrow. It’s like nightclubs, they change regularly. It depends what crowd is training at the time, as the members are a lot more transient and people come and go. Maybe last month your friend had a ball training with a bunch of Swedish girls and when it’s your turn this month you’re getting bashed by angry Russians. Like I said, gym members and vibes change like the wind.
Some gyms have a high turnover of trainers also, so where one person had the best experience one month with his favorite trainer, the next month is a drunken gambling trainer beating up on you. It won’t be a consistent experience. My advice is show up and go to a few gyms, pay a casual day pass and train at at least 3 gyms; and if the energy fits then stay.
Who benefits most from training in Thailand?
The communication barrier is a big issue. If you don’t have a Muay Thai base from back home then you’ll learn mostly by imitation. The ones who benefit most training in Thailand are established fighters and novice but serious fighters wanting to immerse themselves in the Muay Thai culture, to understand the sport better.
For established Fighters the benefits are unlimited sparring partners and fights almost every night; you could rack up experience faster than anywhere in the world and the availability of pad work is on tap. For novice fighters they will absorb everything Muay Thai; the tradition, how they train, how it looks, and the culture that goes with it. It kind of gets your head straight before coming home and you recalibrate your mind to be more focused.
In a way, every fighter has make the pilgrimage to the home of Muay Thai.
Choose a Region to base yourself
Next and before you leave home, chose a region to base yourself, then plan to visit gyms when you arrive.
I split Thailand up into 4 general chunks; Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Issan and the Southern Islands. Each is distinct and each offers their own lifestyle and experience. There are other spots but I’ll stick to the 4 most popular.
BANGKOK: The Capital
Bangkok is one of my favorite big cities in the world. It’s endlessly fascinating. My first visit I hated it, but when I stayed for 8 months teaching English it grew on me big time.There’s a cool expat community, always interesting (and weird) people to meet, something going on 24-7 kind of like a New York, plenty of amazing food, loads of cool neighborhoods to explore and I love the sheer size of the city where you can keep discovering new areas and never get bored. The gyms here are the best in the country and the two Muay Thai Mecca stadiums are here; Lumpini and Rajadanerm.
CHIANG MAI: Northern Thailand
Chiang Mai is one of two of my sweet spots in the world (the other is Santa Marta, Colombia). Since my first trip in 2001 I have loved this city like no other and go back almost every time I’m in Thailand. Where to start… I love the size- not too big but not too small. Traffic isn’t bad like Bangkok and its easy to get around. I love the fact that it’s a moped riding city full of lane ways and hole-in-the wall cafes waiting to be discovered.
Chiang Mai is a kind of vortex that attracts everything spiritual. Buddhist students, yogis, mediators, organic this and that… its a more chilled city and has a hippy vibe. The coffee here is damn good and good conversations are plentiful. Chiang Mai is very relaxing but has everything you could need and want in a big city.
ISSAN: Huge north-eastern region
There’s a few main cities/ towns in the north-east Issan region and they have their own charm, but for me it was too quiet and not as convenient (as things close so early). If you study Thai language, then this place is the best because nothing is in English! And if you want to be far away from the foreigners and the bright lights of Sukhumvit then this is the place. The people are so nice here though. Extra nice. The gyms are OK, but maybe they’ve changed now as I haven’t been in some years.
THE SOUTHERN ISLANDS
The main Southern Islands are Phuket, Samui, Koh Phang Nang, Koh Tao and Phi Phi. There’s a bunch more but they’re smaller. It’s beautiful in the south, and the most popular destinations for tourists. In general it’s pricier, and can get so overpriced that things can cost more than the US. Having so many foreigners there drives up prices. In general it’s the least Thai cultural experience. I personally never wanted to stay long term. I’ve visited the islands over the years, but I’ve never found anywhere where I liked the vibe enough to stay put for a while. In general it feels very exploited. You can find some secluded places I’m sure but they’ll be just that- secluded. But I have to say there are some gorgeous paradises in the south. And nothing beats training and dipping in the ocean afterwards. Nightlife is manic in all the big centers (Phuket, Samui) but expect everything to be geared towards tourists and getting ripped off. Also I find that the biggest egos and craziest foreigners tend to gravitate towards Phuket (and Pattaya, which is actually east of Bangkok but don’t worry about that one. I didn’t include it in my 4 chunks).
SHOULD YOU GO?
Don’t waste another day. If you’ve thought about it and promised yourself one day you’ll go, or been curious for a while- you need to go. Don’t procrastinate, rationalize and put off the dream. Don’t hype it up more than it needs to be in your head. Take action; it’s worth it. You will survive. Your bills will be paid. You will always be able to eat- you won’t starve. Go and have an adventure, that’s what life is about. Don’t wait- that is the silent killer and years will pass and you will have just watched YouTube clips of Thailand. Please fucking go, and have a different experience. You need it.