Thailand’s national sport isn’t merely a discipline of enormous skill executed at lightening speed; it’s one deeply ingrained in the country’s culture - and in devout principles of dedication, hard work and respect for both trainer and opponent. Growing in popularity around the world, Muay Thai is now on course to become an Olympic event. Martial artist David Leck travelled to Koh Samui to have a go... but was he tough enough?
'Keng bounces around. He may have the stripped body of an athlete and the razor sharp discipline of a boxer, but he also has a permanent grin and a quite definite sense of mischief. Every place of work should have a Keng.
But beware anyone who lets the 33-year-old Muay Thai fighter’s infectious disposition fool them. It's a serious business learning the finer points of Thailand's national sport - and behind that sunny persona, it's a fact Kru Keng is unlikely to let you forget.
As you leave Thaweerat Phakdee, the busy approach to Superpro Samui gives way to, at first a single lane, and then to little more than a dirt track overshadowed by towering palms and punctuated by glimmers of local life.
Should you arrive when a class is in session, you'll do so to a soundtrack of skipping-ropes smacking rubber mats, gloved fists landing on punch bags, and legs jettisoned skywards in search of a focus pad with which to make thumping contact.
Unlike boxing, Muay Thai is characterised by the integrated use of fists, elbows, shins and knees. There's a good reason it’s known as the art of eight limbs and, in its original form, it enabled the body to replicate weapons of war.
Recognition increased in the 20th century and, when Muay Thai practitioners started defeating figures from other martial arts, the world began taking notice. In December 2016 the sport received provisional recognition from the IOC and is likely to take make its Olympic Games debut at Paris 2024.
Steeped in tradition, rooted in history, and sacrosanct when it comes to respect for trainer and opponent, Muay Thai promotes devout rituals, placing it at the heart of Thai society.
Take, for example, the word 'kru', which prefaces a name when referring to one’s trainer. It means 'teacher' and in Thai culture all providers of wisdom are addressed as such, and deemed worthy of the utmost respect.
The top professional fighters assume celebrity status. Samart Payakaroon was dubbed the ‘Muhammad Ali of Muay Thai’, while Somrak Kamsing combined Muay Thai and amateur boxing, winning gold at the 1996 Olympic Games.
It’s 35-year-old Buakaw Banchamek, with a staggering 236 wins, who is perhaps most famous internationally. But not all stars of the sport are Thai. The late Dutchman Ramon Dekkers and the Cameroonian Dany Bill are regarded by many as the best foreigners ever, with a combined 15 world championships.
Two-hour group sessions at Superpro are presided over by Charoon Juntra, a veteran of the sport and a man with a nurturing soul but a commanding presence.
Classes run with all the precision you'd expect of a discipline steeped in warrior culture. Elements vary daily and involve a mix of drills on the punch bag, working with a fellow student on a series of combinations - and then it’s into the ring. Typically this comprises four three-minute rounds with a trainer honing your punches, kicks, knees and defensive skills.
Visitors from Stockholm to Sydney and London to Lima range from their 20s to 50s, but the atmosphere is one of 'we're all in this together'. You find fellow students readily on hand with words of support and encouragement should your energy dip in the tropical heat.
I'm beckoned into the ring by Kru Noi. The first time I met him some years ago, I was nervous. He doesn't say much, is of indeterminate age, and sports a magnificent long black ponytail. He seems at first fierce and uncompromising, but it is clear he, too, has a developed sense of fun. They're big on 'fun' around here, just as long as it goes hand-in-glove with hard work.
You know you've delivered with the enigmatic Noi when his screams of 'no!' – usually, in my case, in response to a sloppy failure to execute a simple skill – turn into a resounding 'yes!'. The 'no' is invariably accompanied by the request of 'you give me 200 baht', jovially suggesting I should pay up for forgetting the basics!
In working with the trainers, you gain an appreciation of how the principles of the sport fit with the culture of the Thai people and the values of Buddhism. These guys are deadly serious about their craft, but they want you to learn and nurture your skills with good-natured patience.
The camp is co-owned by Robbie Timmers, an affable Dutch man who was enticed here eight years ago with an offer that appealed to the then 29-year-old's sense of opportunity.
'To understand Muay Thai and what it means to the Thai people, you have to experience it. This isn’t just a sport, it’s something of significant cultural importance to the country,' he says.
'I want anyone who’d like to try this to feel completely supported, make friends and have a good time. And what often surprises people is that 20 per cent of our customers are women, and we also welcome families.'
At the heart of Muay Thai is that sense of tradition and respect for others, so classes end with students standing in front of our trainers, feet together, palms meeting in prayer-like style to offer the traditional wai. We then proceed individually to thank each of the trainers in turn.
As I do so for the final time this trip, Noi offers me the broadest smile I've seen from him yet and then says simply '300 baht!'. Clearly, I still have much to learn...
A version of this article first appeared in Sawasdee – the in-flight magazine of Thai Airways International.
If you'd like to try Muay Thai yourself, speak to one of our Thailand Specialists about our Muay Thai Masterclass experience in Bangkok!