It’s rare that I handle a blog post while still in the midst of an experience. But I’m in my favorite café in Pai, carrot shake in hand, taking notes in my Moleskin (#stuffwhitepeoplelike) about my time here, and digesting 45 THB worth of strong coffee and jok, a traditional Thai meal reminiscent of porridge but loaded with a ton of fixin’s. In short, life, as it currently stands, is good. Besides, tonight I depart for Chiang Khong, a border town between Thailand and Laos, before bouncing into the latter for seven to ten days. So, while I may still be in the midst of an experience, it’s a good time to take a breather.
Besides, I just finished a grueling—and mainly enjoyable—week at a muay thai camp in Pai.
Muay thai, also sometimes called thai boxing, is a combat sport that combines striking with one’s fists, elbows, knees, and shins along with upright grappling, called the clinch. While definitely not the most popular sport it Thailand, it is still the national sport, and it seems like many males I’ve come across here have some, even rudimentary, knowledge of it. At its highest level, muay thai involves brutal ass-kicking, tremendous stamina, and impressive will-power. At every level, though, it encourages supportive and productive camaraderie.
On Thursday, September 29, I boarded an overnight bus to Chiang Mai with a new friend who’s set to live in Thailand until December 23. I considered myself lucky to have some company because I thought I’d be spending the next twenty-five days—my break between semesters—alone. I wanted to do a muay thai camp before I left Thailand, which precluded me from joining friends’ trips to Vietnam, Malaysia, or elsewhere. I don’t mind traveling alone—or at least I didn’t think I would—so I dived into planning and coordinating Pai and, afterwards, Laos. Needless to say, though, I welcomed the company, especially from someone as chatty, enthusiastic, and fun as her. She’s a great travel-buddy, as far as I’m concerned.
To take advantage, I of course fell asleep for the majority of the bus ride and left her to enjoy bus-ridden insomnia. Don’t blame me; I was exhausted from grading and packing frenzies. Besides, chivalry is dead.
From the bus, we hitched a van to Pai and arrived by 1 p.m., allowing me to partake in the afternoon training session. (Most gyms have two-a-days. The one at which I trained, Rose Gym, trains for two hours at 8 a.m. and again at 4 p.m.) Since I had a tiny bungalow at the camp, we found the friend a guesthouse and chowed down on a massive mess-plate of vegetarian food for 35 THB, including some of the best roasted pumpkin I’ve ever had.
When I called one of the gym’s proprietors to coordinate getting to the camp, I discovered some terrible news: the bridge that conveniently lead to the gym from town had been washed away after Myanmar lifted a dam to avoid flooding, causing waters to rush south into Pai. One of the main reasons I chose Rose Gym was because of that fucking bridge; it would have allowed me to easily enjoy Pai in between training sessions. Now the goddamn thing was gone and, upon recommendation, I needed to rent a motorbike. Shit.
The first day, though, I got a ride in a pickup from some lovely people associated with Rose Gym. There, I threw my shit in my bare-bones bungalow, changed, and got right to training.
Damn, son, it felt good to be back. I expected a hell of a time getting my body acclimated: I trained in muay thai for a year—more than two years ago—and have had only a smattering of training sessions since then. Plus, Pai is at one ass-end of the Himalayas, and I was worried about training at a higher altitude since I have a history of asthma, even if it’s been mainly dormant for the past eight or so years. Anyway, I did just fine. My stamina held—probably thanks to my irregular triathlon training—and the trainer and I immediately had a rapport, as I mostly understood how he held the pads. Of course, I was rusty as shit, but not so rusty as to be useless.
A fellow student, an Australian, generously took me back into town on his motorbike so I could meet up with my friend. She and I spent the night walking around Pai and bar hopping (but no booze for me). We stayed up pretty late talking about absolute bullshit, but thankful bullshit, since it meant I wasn’t talking to myself. I also had to sleep in her room, since I didn’t have a motorbike and walking to the camp was out of the question.
Why was it out of the question? On a bike, the camp is fifteen to twenty minutes away, half of which is along a very hilly mud/dirt path riddled with trenches. The trip fucking sucks on a motorbike, and would probably be just as bad—and slower—on foot.
I woke early so I could rent a motorbike and find my way to camp before the morning session. Here, I made two wise decisions: to rent for only one week and to buy insurance for 40-THB-extra a day.
“Does this insurance cover everything?” I asked the employee at the motorbike-rental place.
“Yes,” she assured me. Considering I had been on a motorized two-wheel vehicle only once before, I thought the insurance-for-everything was a smart move.
Smart move, Suddenly Farang.
Around twenty or thirty minutes after I rented the bike, I motherfucking crashed it. I took a wrong left onto a wrong dirt road, turned around, and skidded from dirt to gravel—all on steep inclines. My touchy accelerator got the best of me and the back of my bike went right as I went left—and down. I opened up my left elbow and foot and scraped my left knee. Plus, I shattered the left side-view mirror and maybe cracked the front bumper.
Again, smart move with the insurance, me.
All said, the wounds, however bloody, were pretty superficial; the crash was mainly a blow to my ego. However, the planned two weeks at the camp took a big hit: because of the scrapes, I could no longer kick, knee, or elbow with my left side without immediate searing pain.
I treated the wounds with alcohol at least three times a day, but I was still worried about them, especially the one on my foot. As I said, the walk to and from the camp involved mostly mud—luckily, mainly dried dirt by the end of the week—which meant that four times a day (leaving and arriving from the camp after each training session), I dunked my open wound in mud.
Holy hell did I want that bridge.
The cuts stop oozing a day or two ago—five or six days after the accident—which is a good sign? It still hurts to walk, since the one on the foot is at the upper end, and thus stretches open with the first steps after a rest.
Most of all, though, I was pissed about training. I came to Rose to kick the ever-loving shit out things (and have this action returned), not to be forced to wear a shin guard and worry each time I cranked my left leg.
After the morning training, I was really discouraged and angered. I wanted to go back into town for much needed food, but it fucking began to rain, and the last thing I wanted was to deal with were those hills, freshly muddy. Instead, I did what any sensible angry person does: nap.
And I napped again after lunch, because life was just that paralyzingly boring.
Thus far, my choice to train in Pai was backfiring: in one day, I had as many naps as meals, was bleeding like a stuck pig, limping all over the place, and hating my requisite mode of transportation.
After a few harried hours of consideration, I decided to do only one week at Rose instead of the planned two. There was no way my leg would be fine enough to kick as hard as I needed to in two weeks, and I was overly frustrated with my other conditions.
Thankfully, I found balanced contentment by the end of the week. But we’re not there yet.
Afternoon practice normally ended by 6:15 p.m., and the sun is pretty much set by 6:35 p.m. Consequently, I had to use the flashlight on my cell phone—the main perk when I bought it!—to navigate the five minute walk to my bike through somewhat-footpathed fields. I mentioned the stunningly clear Pai sky in my first post about town; the wonderful blackness was no different this time. Unlike before, though, I now had to find my way to my motorbike on foot in order to get into town—all in a blanket of goddamn utter darkness.
Once in town, though, things got better—as they tended to do while my friend was in Pai. She had signed up for a two-day mahout training course at Thom’s, per my recommendation, and wanted to relax after four hours on an elephant’s back. We ate and chilled with another student from Rose who was leaving for Chiang Mai the next day. We finally landed at Nancy Bar, an over-the-top reggae and weed themed bar with—as if it needs saying—a 100% relaxed atmosphere. I once again stayed with the friend—she was lodged at Thom’s, in the same bungalow I had—because driving back was wholly unappealing. Besides, Sunday was my day off from training.
And what a day off it was.
The friend persuaded—well, slightly coerced—me to do another tour at Thom’s. I was pretty reluctant since I had done the walk once before and enjoyed it mainly because my best friend in Thailand was so affectively joyous. However, it was the elephant or be bored off of my balls, so I chose the elephant.
Smart move, Suddenly Farang.
The two of us shared Pom Paem, the elephant that my elephant-loving friend spent her time loving my first time at Thom’s. This elephant is smaller than either that I rode, making this second experience much more comfortable—no ham problems. Additionally, the entire vibe was different: the tour was just me, my friend, the mahout, and Pom Paem; we didn’t have the large group that I had the first time. She and I just sat and bullshat, looking forward to the river and rodeo, which was exactly as fun as it was previously. The current was hella strong, though, so making one’s way back to Pom Paem after being thrown off felt like a light workout.
Soaked, giddy, and back at Thom’s, we ate lunch with two couples—one from England by way of Slovenia and one from Denmark—whom my friend had met the preceding day. The two couples are extensive travelers, and the Slovenian one was in the middle of a ten-month tour of Southeast Asia. I was impressed by their intrepidness, as they were set on not blazing through the region, but instead spending as much time in each country as they could, absorbing as much as possible. The pair has a pretty awesome blog, Rice Capades 2011 – 2012, as well. You should follow them as they make their ways through the region—and tear out toured countries from their Lonely Planet in the process.
Next: hot spring, nap, shower, and riding with my friend back into town on my motorbike. The same group met for dinner and headed to Ting Tong, another relaxed bar that also had couches and was showing some (reportedly) important soccer game.
Although I had completed only three training sessions, I was nevertheless fucking exhausted. Sunday, with all of its relaxed and subtle glee, was a complete rejuvenation.
From here on, I hit my stride with training. My energy levels remained mostly high and I was even put in charge of stretching. Also, two new trainees arrived on Monday—a Dutch girl and a Swiss guy—and stayed for three or four days. Both had a year-and-a-half of training under their belts, including short stints at camps in Thailand. The two were pretty good—definitely better than me—and the guy got me pretty good in two bouts of sparring. For better or worse, I was the only one who trained both sessions every day, so I think I milked the most out of the lead trainer, Lon—who had yet to be joined by Em, who didn’t arrive until Tuesday.
The French friend left Monday afternoon, leaving me to my own devices. The Slovenian couple were in town for another day, however, so I met up with them while the guy was getting the eye of one of the elephant’s from Thom’s, Ot, tattooed on the inside of his left bicep. I met them for final hour of his two-and-a-half-hour session, and was blown away by the final product. After much shopping, they went to Cross Tattoo, whose artist and proprietor was finishing his fine arts degree—a qualification that was entirely evident in the final product.
I also hit my stride with life in Pai. I enjoyed old favorites—smoothies at Baan Pai Restaurant; falafel at Mama Falafel; coffee at Cake Go O @ Pai (where I spent too much time blogging and reading)—while exploring even more of the city. On a few occasions, I purposefully wandered off of the two or three main roads and into the surrounding area. Wandering like this in Pai is like driving ten minutes off the Vegas strip: shit changes. As a result, I discovered awesome and cheap noodle places, a small Vietnamese restaurant, and a carnival that seemed to pop up from nowhere. Much like the salted fish that my good friend and I discovered in Pai the first time I came, there is a surprising amount this town has to offer beyond conspicuous hippie hideaways, picturesque scenery, and waterfalls. Indeed, there is a Thailand up here.
In between training sessions, I didn’t do much of anything worth discussing. I plowed through, and loved, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, blogged, walked, drank coffee, opened William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury for the third time to begin research for a hopeful article, and ate and ate and ate. This final activity may have been the best part of the camp. I feel the healthiest I have in awhile (minus all of the lower-body pain), but I also ate my face off to ensure I had necessary energy stores for pad work. I even regularly indulged in sweets (well, baked goods and large amounts of roasted bananas), which is normally uncharacteristic of me.
During the week, my feelings on Pai wavered—typically in rhythm with how much my body hurt. Looking back at my Moleskin, there is an entire section beginning “*Less in love with Pai,” but which was later punctuated with the city’s better points in the page’s nearby margins. Yes, the city is sleepy and quiet and small, but that’s why I came. Yes, the city has way too many hippies and other farangs—so many that I’d wager the center of town has as many foreigners as Thais at some hours—but this presence has encouraged a wealth of food and drink choices, including outstanding vegetarian fare. Come to think of it, I think I’ve maintained a vegetarian diet since I arrived (save the occasional overdose of nam pla, or ‘fish sauce’, which I’ve also consciously avoided). In retrospect, Pai and Rose Gym are ideal places to train, as your mind and body stay focused while still being allowed to wander and relax. (Plus, Lon is awesome for someone who isn’t quite refined enough to get in the ring.) Someone shouldn’t come here if he/she wants to train and live it up, but definitely if he/she wants to train, do some personal work, and relax in between—and maybe explore less-trod paths.
Friday, October 7, was my last day of training—and training was training. For thirteen sessions, Lon was committed to making me better and ignored the fact that I was at Rose for merely a week and was not going to fight. Naturally, I wanted to say thank you, and figured buying Lon and Em dinner was as good a choice as any for someone living on the baht. The three of us, along with two other (new) trainees, enjoyed heaping plates of Thai food at Buffalo, a dusky outdoor bar/restaurant on the outskirts of the main part of Pai. Dinner was quiet, thanks to the language barrier, but it was good.
In between silences, I calculated a rough estimate of the work done during my thirteen sessions. Here are the estimates:
- 8,000 reps on the jump rope
- 780 right kicks
- 520 left kicks
- 390 elbows
- 650 jabs
- 500 crosses
- 900 front kicks, both legs
- 910 pushups
- 1,625 reps of ab work
- 13,000 swear words
I’m pretty sure I’m low-balling these numbers a bit, since I’m only calculating what was done on the pads and bags, and not during shadow boxing or warm-ups.
And Rose doesn’t even have organized morning-runs.
It’s crazy to think that some people do this—train twice a day—as a career. The main trainer, Lon, started muay thai when he was 8 years old. At the time of this blog, he was 22.
Friday was also when I stumbled across the carnival. The other four returned to the camp, burdened with morning practice. I chose to freely stroll after enjoying my first beer in a week—and quickly saw all of the same shit I had been seeing for nearly seven days. For a moment, I considered driving back to my bungalow—until, that is, I spotted what I thought was a muay thai ring two blocks away from one of Pai’s main roads.
Beyond curious, I decided to walk to it.
Muay thai ring, no. Tiny town-carnival with janky rides and enough sweets to give a dentist a stroke, yes.
Smart move, Suddenly Farang.
I had just finished reading Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, which was good until the final quarter, and thoroughly enjoyed Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, so potentially creepy carnivals set in clearings have a weird, literary allure for me. Plus, they’re just kind of fun. I milled around with my point-and-shoot for a bit before being grabbed by a carny who demanded that I take photos of her and myself with her.
Later, while watching a pair of pétanque games, a clearly drunk guy pulled me over from my lonely spot on the grass, offered my whiskey (which I declined), and proceeded to talk to me in Thai while introducing me to his friends. In Thai, I kept saying, “I’m sorry. I don’t have Thai language”—verbiage which itself indicates a lack of proficiency—but Pipers whiskey and hospitality had taken over and he didn’t give damn, thankfully. I stayed for ten minutes or so, making the same hoots and hollers at good tosses, but decided to leave before things got too drunk. (I wasn’t drinking since I had to drive back to camp.)
I began the cruise back to my bungalow pretty elated. I had just capped off my week of training with a dinner with new friends, dug deeper in Pai to avoid its hippie caricature, and was now pretty comfortable on the motorbike, even on back roads. I had gone so far as to begin constructing mental sentences for this blog about how goddamn pro I was.
Until, you know, dharma upended my bike from between my legs as I proceeded cautiously down a steep hill.
Yup. I got into a second fucking accident. This time (I think), my bike went strangely over a rock or other unseen terrain, causing it to jerk forward and left just enough to twist the throttle under my braced right hand. The bike therefore accelerated out from under me and went straight and up. I was going downhill, so had been rearing back to compensate for gravity. I fell off and to the right.
The injuries weren’t nearly as bad this time (except those to the ego, which were exponentially larger), but I did fuck up my right leg a bit, which was already fucked up from so many kicks. After twenty minutes or so, the leg, from the top of the shin to the beginning of my toes, swelled up pretty good but with little to no pain. Dr. SF’s diagnosis: nothing broken. Prognosis: return the fucking motorbike.
Indeed, I counted myself really lucky: the awkward terrain could have easily created a fulcrum around which my leg could have broken, I could have had my dSLR with me, I could have had my netbook with me, or I could have left my helmet behind as my trainer encouraged me to do (but I wouldn’t have fucking dreamed of). Besides, I think my head slammed on the ground, so score one for me and helmet companies.
Accidents considered, I wasn’t afraid of the bike; I know traveling around Pai is unique because of the road conditions. But I also know when to throw in the towel and take a break—and the second accident, however mild, was enough of a signal for me. So I shit-canned my plans to cruise around to waterfalls and other sites in favor of working in my café, Café Go O @ Pai, and kicking back.
Smart move, Suddenly Farang.
Saturday morning, I got the photos of training I’d been putting off all week—and was blessed with proper lighting. Afterwards, my plan was to grab a so-called Vegetarian American Breakfast—a veggie omelet and toast—an idea I formulated to console myself as I fell asleep the night before with a throbbing right leg. Once in town, though, I scrapped that idea in favor of jok with coffee stronger than motor oil, the second best breakfast I’ve had in Thailand. Until then, I’d been eating and loving instant jok, but the sodium therein was making my teeth chatter. Now that I’ve had the real deal, though, I don’t know if I can ever go back.
For lunch, I had the aforementioned Vegetarian American Breakfast. It was more than twice as expensive as the jok and coffee, didn’t taste nearly as good, and, most importantly, reaffirmed what I and so many others have already discovered: eat local, dumbass.
It’s Monday and I’m still in Pai. I have been super productive here and dived pretty deep into the street food. Plus, I had been hanging out with a South African guy I trained with for a couple days at the camp, so I haven’t been utterly alone and talking to myself. I just bought a minivan ticket to Chiang Khong and I don’t need to be back to work until October 24, so there’s still plenty of time to explore Laos.
As of now, I’m relaxed, industrious, and sated.