Thailand Training Camp: A Fortunate Journey I’ll Never Regret

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“Passionate” doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about martial arts…

I have been sucked into “life” for as long as I can remember. I worked jobs I hated just to pay the bills. The tiny slivers of free time I found I spent with my girlfriend. I thought building a life with her and holding down a decent job to keep the bill collectors at bay was all I needed to get by. Somewhere along the way, I decided that pursuing money, even if it meant spending all my time doing things I hated, was more pertinent than pursuing happiness.

Back then, I didn’t have enough time to train. Work took over my life, which I thought was a good and necessary thing. I was doing what I had to do: working a 9-5 and being fucking miserable all the time, just like other people my age were doing, too.

But as opportunities tend to do, one popped up in my life. I was at a crossroads. I knew I had to make the biggest decision of my life. It wasn’t easy to admit this because I knew there were many sacrifices I would have make for my own sanity and satisfaction. I was confused at the time, but I was certain of one thing: I knew I had to try.

To pursue this opportunity, I realized I would have to sacrifice, though that doesn’t begin to adequately describe what I did. I abandoned it all: my job, my friends and family, my girlfriend. I even sold my desktop computer, which I had spent so much time and money building from the ground up. But if this was going to happen, it all had to go—everything.

Even though I was broke and had nothing to retreat back to should this trip of a lifetime not work out, I didn’t give a shit at the time. I was going to chase my dream. I had been at my lowest for far too long; I needed to take this risk so I wouldn’t be left wondering “what if” for the rest of my life. But as I dwelled on the point for some time, I knew thirty years down the road, I would not want to ask “what if” of myself. I knew I was doing the right thing.

Consequently, I said my goodbyes to my boss and coworkers, left my girlfriend, and broke the news to family and friends. There was a decided consensus amongst them all, and it was not a supportive one. In spite of this, I booked my ticket and reserved my spot at a camp. I was Thailand-bound.


Arriving Thailand

Thailand was nothing like I expected. The moment I left the confines of Suvarnabhumi airport, I was mesmerized by a country so unlike anything I had experienced before.

After landing in Bangkok, I made a quick stop in the airport to snag a SIM card for about $26 USD (getting 9 GB of data for 30 days was enough to blow my mind!)

And then there was the cab ride from the airport to my hotel. As my driver deftly weaved through traffic-clogged streets, I quickly learned that the rules of the road in Thailand were loosely observed. It seemed that every driver’s objective was to navigate the congestion in the fastest way possible, which in turn only made the chaos worse. It was perhaps my first, true culture shock.

If the cab ride was an unpleasant surprise, my accommodations made up for it. They weren’t particularly lavish or exceptional, but they were familiar. Seeing my hotel room, with its queen-sized bed, air conditioner, fridge, TV, and balcony where I could dry my clothes, felt like a hug from home. Still, as much of a relief as it was, my hotel room was not where I wanted to be. At this point, all I wanted to do was find the gym.

Lucky for me, the walk to the gym was a short one. When I entered, I was dumbfounded in the best way possible. Its massive interior held two full-sized rings, two giant mat spaces, more than 20 heavy bags, and a comprehensive strength and conditioning station. This gym was very different from a typical Western-styled one. But this gym—my gym—was my new normal. I was home. 

I had arrived in Thailand before the camp’s commencement—five days early, to be exact. I planned to take the extra time to ease into my new, strange environment and mitigate what I expected to be intense training. I knew it would be grueling, maybe even overwhelming, especially considering my inexperience. But right from the start, I felt accepted. Two of my trainers, Kru Rong and Kru Sueadam, welcomed me and made it clear that I was part of their team.

Though the camp hadn’t officially started, they were quick to demonstrate and work techniques with me, diligently and patiently. This is truly humbling considering who they are. Kru Rong is a former Rajadamnern champion, which is as prestigious as it gets. He is a famous trainer known by having a heart of gold (read about that here). Kru Sueadam (Black Tiger) on the other hand, has been a top fighter his whole life. He is the cousin of the legendary Black Lion, Singdam Kiatmuu9,  and they grew up together as a Muay Thai family and their fight camp represents the cream of the crop in Thailand. To witness what level these guys are operating at, simply watch them train together.


My Mission: The Sponsorship and The Inspirational People Around Me

Coming to Thailand, I had left a lot behind. But what I did bring with me was a mission. My base experience was solely from grappling, so I lacked in the striking department. My goal was, of course, to build a strong foundation in Muay Thai. But I had an ulterior motive that related to a competition built into the camp. There was a chance to win a sponsorship, which included a free month of hotel accommodations and training at a later date. So while my goal was Muay Thai, but ultimate mission was to win. None of the social aspects or tourist attractions appealed to me. All I wanted to do was train, grow, and win.

In those five days of training before camp started, I realized one intrinsic truth: my technique was shit. I knew I had a long way to go, but I eagerly pushed forward. I left everything behind to be a part of this authentic style of training. As nervous as I was, I arrived with a clear goal in mind and nothing holding me back.

When the camp began was when I finally allowed myself to breathe and smile. I had no choice but to admit what incredible circumstances I was in. Each and every day, I shared the gym space with eight high-level trainers and a team of amateurs fighting at various levels. And to sweeten the pot, I was in the good company of a Western champion: Brett Hlavacek, the protégé of the world-renowned Phil Nurse. Looking back on it now, I know that the unique combination of people present for that camp was by special design to accelerate growth in aspiring competitors like me.

In the weeks to come, I would learn things that would have been completely unavailable to me in my former life. What separates Muay Thai training in Thailand from everywhere else is the pad work; it’s the only place where a whole team is allotted elite pad work in every session. My favorite pad holder was Ruey, the freestyler who caught every strike thrown at him. Built like a mini-Pacuqiao, he fought with immense heart, earning him the #1 ranking spots at both of the country’s major stadiums. I remember sensing and actually feeling his intensity during pad work with Ruey. My muscles would ache during those sessions; my eyes would sizzle and burn. But it was my zealous heart that pad work with Ruey would truly set ablaze.

Then there was Jean and Beam: their pad work made you confident as every shot you threw would be caught extremely well. The combinations they make you throw are the ones that will work in sparring and in fights. No bullshit cardio pad work for foreigners with any of the trainers at Khongsittha.

It was partners like Ruey that forged and polished my techniques, and I was in no shortage. There was Jean and Beam, whose ability to capture with the bag every shot thrown gave me extreme confidence. They would encourage me to throw “real” shots—ones that will work equally well in sparring and in fights. No bullshit cardio pad work for foreigners with any of the trainers at Khongsittha.

There was Rong, the Rajadamnern champion, who was never on the receiving end of a cut or KO. Rong taught old-school Muay Thai and clinch techniques, but what set him apart was his devotion to his students. He took each of his students under his wing, pouring his time, heart, and soul into training and preparing them for their fights. I have been told that this is extremely rare in Thailand—a great honor from a great master.

Near the end of my two months in Thailand, a new team was coming in, to be coached by Paul Banasiak, who you may know as the “Muay Thai Athlete.” He was a top Muay Thai amateur with high level boxing who was enjoying a meteoric rise. Putting his accomplishments aside, he had energy unlike anything I had ever encountered. I had never met or trained with anyone so intense. His passion for the sport fueled my own.

Then there was Sean Fagan, a.k.a. “The Muay Thai Guy.”

Sean is special in the sense that no one has been able to do what he has done: build a flourishing online Muay Thai media business and pursue high-level fighting at the same time. It takes a uniquely talented individual of a special mindset to do something like that. Although he has been struggling against elite fighters recently, he was on a 13-fight win streak right before that. Watching him push so hard, as he successfully juggled building his business and taking hard fights, motivated me to get my shit together in a way I had never done before.


The Thailand Training Camp Experience

As life-changing as that first trip to Thailand was, I suspect an experience like that comes around especially rarely. I was surrounded by people whose passion for Muay Thai woke me to new possibilities and new potential from within. These are the people who shaped me, who showed me a novel way of living. This combined with meeting legends like Saenchai and Kaew Fairtex in person, watching elite Muay Thai on display in promotions like Thai Fight and Super Muay Thai, in places like Lumpinee and Rajadamnern Stadiums, and absorbing the culture surrounding the sport in the country where it was born—it was the most transformative experience I have ever had.

Dropping everything to train Muay Thai in Thailand is beyond tough. The backbreaking daily training and the jarring culture shock is enough to break you—or make you. I arrived in that country, outside that gym, with a mission and a resolute belief that I could not—would not—be denied.

By the end of my second month in Thailand, I found myself in the best shape I had ever been. When I looked in the mirror, no longer did I see the 180 pounder sporting a belly, but the warrior with a six-pack and cardio for days. My technique was sharpened; my focus had never been greater; and I had earned a lifetime of experience in a mere eight weeks. I had constructed, with the crucial support of my partners, a foundation in Muay Thai. And my ultimate goal? My mission to win that coveted sponsorship?

I did it. I ripped myself down to the studs and rebuilt myself to do it, but I won that fucking sponsorship. And now my life’s purpose is to ferret away enough money to send myself back to that mystical, magical country to do it all over again. This time, I’m planning to stay as long as I can.

Sean and Paul have encouraged me to share my story. They tell me that my story is inspirational, to have sacrificed so much to get where I’ve gotten and that I was crazy to have taken this leap of faith. They call me crazy, but to be honest, all I feel is fortunate.

One Response to “Thailand Training Camp: A Fortunate Journey I’ll Never Regret

  • Mick Glover
    10 months ago

    Inspirational story, a few questions though. Author of the article is in his late 20’s/early 30’s? Definitely appealing to 20-somethings and more ‘doable’ to those with youth on their side.
    Just wondering if the camps cater to older guys who are seeking to find a ‘life balance’ but are never going to compete?
    Are your trainers going to be equally as invested in someone such as this?
    Thanks

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