As most people who have visited Thailand will confirm, although Rama IX sits on the country’s throne it’s really disorganisation that’s king. The lack of structure evident in most things extends to the Fairtex gym in Pattaya, which – despite producing some of Muay Thai boxing’s most celebrated fighters and boasting arguably the best training facilities in Thailand – laughs in the face of quaint notions such as punctuality. There are two scheduled training sessions a day, one from 7-10am and the other from 2-5pm. I arrive for my first at 7am and am not entirely surprised to find I’m the only person there.
I wait long enough to start wondering if I’ve come at the right time, or even to the back in the ring to hit some pads and I promptly manage to forget everything he has just taught me.
Despairing at my ineptitude, Chang continues barking, ‘Left, right, left, left, right, left.’ After most punches he gets me to repeat the action and grabs my arm to correct my form. When I forget to return my hands to the guard position in front of my face, he wags his finger. The fourth time I’m punished with a swift blow to the head. It has the desired effect and after a couple more whacks my hands instinctively return to protect my face.
The heat is on
At Fairtex, each private session with a trainer lasts five four-minute rounds, with traditional Thai boxing pads (long pads that protect the trainer’s forearms) used for the first four rounds and focus pads (smaller hand pads) for the last one. With the conditions hot and humid, fans blow a fine mist of water over the rings. It’s impossible to imagine training without this, and it provides welcome coolness during the breaks between rounds, which still end all too quickly. My cardiovascular fitness is good, but what saves me from exhaustion by the last round is the constant pausing to have my form corrected.
If you’re a fairly experienced Muay Thai fighter thinking of training in Thailand, it’s worth working on your overall fitness before you go to ensure you get the most from your sessions in the heat. If, however, you have no Muay Thai experience, have classes first to familiarise yourself with basic techniques. I’m the only person training at Fairtex with no knowledge of Muay Thai and while everyone makes me feel welcome, some trainers speak little English and struggle to teach technique from the ground up as a result. Although I haven’t really mastered punches, Chang and I move on to kicks, knees and elbows – none of which I truly get the hang of.
For the afternoon session I return to the matted area and try to put what I’ve learned into practice on the bags. Chang is doing padwork with someone else and again I feel a bit clueless about what I should be doing. One of the trainers who doesn’t speak much English gestures for me to kick a large padded column, simply saying, ‘Better than bag’ with a slightly manic grin.
I step to the left to open my stance and, lifting my right leg, swing from my hip to connect with my shin. It turns out the padding isn’t very thick and a dull pain shoots across my lower leg. I look back at the grinning trainer who responds with a shouted order, ‘Fifty – each side!’ Not wanting to be a whining foreigner, I do what he says, but with each blow the pain grows and the occasional misplaced kick instantly bruises the top of my foot.
I’ve heard of young Thai boys repeatedly kicking solid objects to condition their shins to feel little pain, but I’m not sure it’s something you can just jump into at the age of 27. Especially since the next day I can barely move myself out of bed. Each step is a chore and I find myself making a weird grunt of effort every time I change position. Conscious that I only have five days of training, I make the difficult decision to sit out my second day.
As a novice, my main conclusions on training at Fairtex are ‘difficult, painful and hot’, so I talk to other foreigners training there to get their perspectives. The universal response is that it’s everything they hoped for. Training with professionals who’ve competed in the fierce bouts that take place in the sport’s homeland offers an opportunity to learn from some of Thailand’s best fighters. Most of the men and women I speak to are even hoping to enter their first proper fights at the local stadium.
One piece of advice they all give me is the Fairtex trainers don’t care about ability, only that you’re keen. If you don’t want to train, they won’t want to train you. With this – and the echoes of a local fighter kicking pads so hard it sounds like a series of sonic booms – in my mind, I leave the gym for a swim in the hotel pool and get an early night in preparation for another day’s training.
The next day I feel even more sore than before but force myself to hobble down for the morning session. By the time it kicks off around 7.20am I’ve been doing bagwork for almost an hour, in which time my stiff legs have regained full mobility. The trainer who got me to kick the column two days ago sees me and asks if I want to do some padwork. Five rounds later, despite my awkward stance and poor technique, I feel I’ve won his respect just by coming back. But perhaps my style has genuinely improved, because when I go back to work with Chang he keeps smiling and saying, ‘You a real fighter now.’
If you go to Fairtex Pattaya expecting organised group training sessions with strict time slots, you’ll be disappointed. But go with the aim of working hard and the trainers will respond to that. I wouldn’t recommend going if you want to learn Muay Thai from scratch, owing to the language barrier, but if you have some experience and want to refine your technique with some of the best kickboxers in Thailand, Fairtex Pattaya has to be on your travel bucket list.
For more information visit fairtex-muaythai.com
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Max was the head of digital content for Men's Fitness which worked alongside Coach between 2015 and 2019.