The first day at TMT was a little strange, as there was no official welcome or instruction manual about how to begin training. I was handed the schedule, and shuffled off to my bungalow with a handful of equipment I purchased at the office — gloves, shirts, hand wraps, shin guards. You can train at TMT for anywhere from a day to a month to a year, so there is a constant new stream of people coming and going.
Thankfully I met Dan, who quickly became my new best friend, since we had both arrived on the same day and were each walking in circles, dazed and confused, waiting for someone to tell us what to do. It was such a relief to meet someone else who for no reason whatsoever had booked a trip to a kickboxing camp on the other side of the world. It made me feel less crazy.
Dan’s here for the MMA or Mixed Martial Arts, which is Muay Thai’s sibling sport at the camp. Most people do one or the other, but a few do both. There is Muay Thai and MMA training every morning and afternoon, so you could conceivably do one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Even though MMA entails a lot of rolling around on the ground with another guy, and looks a lot like gay porn in shorts, it doesn’t really speak to me.
But Dan’s all about it, and since Dan’s a hot straight guy, I can watch him roll around with the other blokes all day long. Oh Dan’s also British, and uses words like blokes, lorry, lift, kip, and nackered. He constantly questions me about American English, like “Why do you have two words for rubbish?” (trash and garbage). I told him we like to use more words because it gives us a chance to show off our perfect teeth (oh SNAP).
My first session was with one of the head trainers Phet (pronounced pet). When I told him I wanted to lose 30 lbs, he stared intently at my stomach, rubbed both hands on it in circles like he was rubbing the Buddha’s belly, and said “Yes… 40 lbs.”
Wow. Say it like it is, Phet.
Muay Thai is referred to as the Science of Eight Limbs, as the fists, shins, elbows, and knees are all used (as opposed to American boxing, which just uses fists). So Phet took me through all the basic kicks and punches for each limb in the first session. The hilarious thing about Phet is that he is very easily exasperated when I do something wrong. It just didn’t compute to him that I would need to be told anything more than once. So he’d tell me to step on the left foot and raise up on the ball of my foot and strike with my right shin and tilt my hips up but keep my head aimed down and then bring my right foot back exactly two feet behind my front foot and rotated at a 45 degree angle… And I’d do everything perfectly except my foot would land at 60 degrees and he’d scream:
WHAT ARE YOU DOING? 45 DEGREE! ONE THING WRONG EVERYTHING WRONG!
And I’d bite my lip to not laugh, and try it again. Of course I’d do the exact same thing the next time, and he’d look at me in complete shock and horror, as if to say ”Why? Why would you kill an innocent puppy?”
I’d say “OK OK I got it” and try to shake it off, but the pressure was so intense. Plus the heat is sweltering and I’m trying to shake the sweat out of my eyes while concentrating on this mother fucking kick. So I’d step left, rise up, strike, hips up, head down, foot back two feet and land at a perfect 45 degrees.
YOU HOP! NO HOP – STEP! ONE THING WRONG EVERYTHING WRONG!
“I didn’t hop — where did I hop?”
LEFT FOOT! YOU HOP LEFT FOOT!
NO HOP — STEP!
“OK. I don’t think I hopped.”
YOU HOP LEFT FOOT! NO HOP — STEP!
“OK OK…” (sweat dripping… stomach in knots… eyes furrowed)
STEP left, kick up, strike, hips up, head down, foot back two feet and land at 45 degrees.
I TELL YOU 45 DEGREE! YOU NOT LISTEN! ONE THING WRONG EVERYTHING WRONG!
“That is 45 degrees! Look at my foot!”
“THAT NOT 45 — THIS 45!” he says grabbing my foot with both hands and twisting it back.
At this point I want to ask him to whip out a protractor, but figured I’d let it go.
The thing that made it bearable was that when I DID get it right, he’d let out a very specific happy grunt that sounded like “uh-OIEEE” and that was just the best sound I’d ever heard. I didn’t hear it a lot, but when I did, it was heaven.
The other problem I had was you have to keep your torso facing your opponent at all times, and not turn it left or right. For some reason I kept twisting my body right when I’d get in front of him. He’d yell
FACE ME – WHAT YOU DOING?
and point at my stomach accusingly like he was pointing out the rapist in a police line-up. So of course I’d look down at my stomach to see what he was talking about and he’d yell
NO LOOK – FEEL IT!
So I’d stop, adjust myself so I’m facing him completely, and get in position.
FACE ME – WHAT YOU DOING??
(points at stomach).
I look at my stomach.
NO LOOK – FEEL IT!
OK I was beginning to get the game. The problem is, I really could not tell if my stomach was facing him without looking at my own stomach. The combination of heat, sweat, and pressure completely cut off any sense of body awareness. So then I’d try to catch myself and auto-correct… That went something like this:
Assume position, facing him absolutely square on correctly.
FACE ME – WHAT YOU DOING????
(points at stomach)
I look at my stomach.
Look up, correct, feel it.
After a couple days of this, he would get even more exasperated when I did something wrong, at times yelling in Thai until I was literally on the verge of tears (i think his sister works in Customs). This always seemed like a good time to correct his English in some ultra condescending way. I’d spit out “That’s not English!” or “It’s HOOK — not HOOP!” hoping to find that magic insult that would make him run from the ring in tears, but he was like Teflon.
Once when he was insisting I was not raising up on the ball of my foot when I was insisting I was, I considered pointing out to him that I used to take ballet from Bob Fosse’s daughter Nicole at ABT in New York and one thing I know how to fucking do is a god damn mother fucking foot raise. But I don’t think that little piece of trivia would have been as impressive in a Thai fight ring as it would at a West Hollywood happy hour.
I also wanted to make him start calling me Grasshopper, so I’d feel like there was this heavy spiritual bent to our interaction, but I thought it would be too hard to explain in English, and who knows if Kung Fu ever made it to Thailand. Plus grasshopper is not on the list of crucial words for foreigners, and there may not even be grasshoppers in Thailand. And if there weren’t, I was afraid he’d start calling me something Thai like Mangosteen or Pomelo instead, and that would just be humiliating.
There is a super eclectic mix of music that is constantly playing throughout the camp as a soundtrack to all the training. I usually am woken up to some crazy Thai music and yelling around 6:30am, which makes me drag into the shower. Then I accidentally sleep through yoga and I’m in the ring by 8am subconsciously jazz-handing to “Flashdance.” Minutes later Marilyn Manson comes blasting out, and we’re rock warriors in hell as we punch and kick and duck. Suddenly it changes to a Europop dance mix, and the ring becomes a Florentine disco. My favorite song is the Thai version of “My Hump” which goes “Mee How… Mee How…”
I’m not sure where the music selection comes from, but sometimes the rap music can be a bit jarring. This morning I heard for the first time Afroman’s lyric blaring out over the camp “I was gonna eat your pussy too, but then I got high…” and my jaw dropped open, but since I was the only English speaker in the ring, it didn’t phase anyone else. Not exactly the tracks you’d hear at 24 Hour Fitness.
At some point after a few killer rounds I usually find myself lying on my back in the ring, drenched and gasping for breath. The strong, spicy smell of muscle liniment in the air clears out my head. A speeded up, Mickey Mouse sounding Madonna is singing about Hollywood through the loudspeakers. The rain blurs the jungle around me and makes the roof of the open pavilion roar like thunder.
And I feel incredibly blessed to be here.