While spending hours upon hours sweating it out at a gym might not sound like an ideal holiday activity for many, ever larger numbers of visitors are arriving to Phuket to do just that.
The ancient martial art of Muay Thai, the Kingdom’s national sport, has seen a surge of interest from around the world in recent years, which has launched Phuket into something of a hotbed for Muay Thai training. Along with the international regattas, marathons and Ironman events, the rise of Muay Thai tourism is widening Phuket’s appeal as a place to pursue sport, health and fitness in addition to being a tropical escape.
Muay Thai’s global popularity is mainly as a result of the fast growth of mixed martial arts (MMA) – a caged fighting spectacle that has emerged as a top draw for television and stadium audiences for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and other high-profile professional events across North America, Europe and Asia. Thousands of people are trying out the sport not only to compete, but as an invigorating way to get fit.
MMA combines several martial arts forms, with Muay Thai being a crucial element in developing a powerful striking technique. Anyone who’s serious about being an MMA contender must learn Muay Thai.
There are now between 20 and 25 Muay Thai camps catering to tourists around the island, but it's along a small road in Chalong where the fast growth of the sport is most evident.
Not too long ago, Soi Tai-ead was a sparsely populated lane lined with rubber and coconut plantations. Today, this 1.5-kilometre stretch of road houses three training camps, some 20 guesthouses and resorts (including a place called, aptly enough, Wallop House), and a proliferation of restaurants and shops all aimed at capturing the martial arts visitor boom. It’s a showcase of the power of niche tourism, which has transformed an area well off the beaches with no obvious appeal to tourists into a hive of activity within just a few years.
The Tiger Muay Thai and MMA camp sits along this road. Arriving to Tiger, there’s a distinct high-energy ambiance with several thwacks and grunts heard from the men and women doing their combat training sessions. Overseeing the camp is director Will Elliot, who first came to the camp to train but ended up taking on the operations for a fellow American, Tiger’s founder Will McNamara, who resides in the US.
Though the camp trains a core group of serious world competitors including UFC champions, a large percentage of Tiger clientele are those aiming to simply fight their way to fitness. Statistics on the number of visitors coming to Phuket specifically for martial arts training are hard to come by, but Tiger alone attracts some 200-300 people to its camp each month.
Some savvy marketing and a diversified range of offerings have helped Tiger reign as the largest camp in Phuket, and perhaps all of Thailand, with a second and larger camp newly opened in Chiang Mai. Muay Thai training is just one of many things on offer – there’s also Brazilian jiu-jitsu training, another key part of MMA fighting, as well as yoga, a workout gym, combat gear for sale and nutrition advice. It’s also in the process of adding CrossFit, a branded strength and conditioning programme that Will says is “taking the world by storm”, to its repertoire.
Tiger also handles all aspects of living in Phuket from accommodation to car/motorbike rental to visa run and tour services. Through its social events and hospitable staff, there’s a community-like feel to the place. There’s certainly a predominance of tattooed, muscle-bound men here, but Will says that about 30 per cent of Tiger’s customers are women. “We’re not judgmental here. It’s all about people bettering themselves, regardless of their sex, age or fitness level,” he said.
There’s been some criticism that such camps are attracting the wrong kind of visitor to Phuket, and a few news stories about violent encounters involving martial artists, including the infamous Lee Aldhouse, a UK kickboxer who’s accused of murdering a US marine following a bar brawl, seem to lend credence to this view.
But there’s little evidence to show that martial arts tourists are any more troublesome than other visitors. Indeed, the manager of a nearby apartment block said that the rise of the Chalong camps had been good for their business, sending them a steady stream of guests year-round, none of which have given them any problems. They’d had more negative experiences with English teachers than with any of their Muay Thai guests, she said.
For many, training at a Phuket Muay Thai camp may simply be a chance to add some depth and excitement to a tropical holiday, but for others it can be a life-changing, even life-saving pursuit. Will Elliot tells of one Tiger customer, 27-year-old James Mason, from Essex, whose obesity was leading to serious health problems.
After an extensive search of ways to improve his health he ended up at Tiger Muay Thai, where his daily training and diet have helped him shed 60 kilograms in nine months, an inspirational feat that prompted a UK television show and a fitness magazine to visit the camp to chronicle his journey. He aims to lose a total of 100 kilograms by the end of the year.
When he weighed in at more than 200 kilograms, James was told by his doctor that he’d be lucky to live another 10 years, prompting him to wage a truly Ultimate Fight: the battle for his life.
Thank you to Tiger Muay Thai and MMA for providing the photos that accompany this article.
(Credit: Jeff Sainlar)