Here’s the background story:
Back when I started Muay Thai Citizen and traveling to train in Thailand, I would look up forums like Sherdog and Reddit/r/MuayThai as I research for related information. This is when I came across a Sherdog forum user who goes by the handle of Ryukyu Damashi.
Over the past decade or so, Ryukyu Damashi has generously shared tonnes of his training/traveling experience in Thailand on the Muay Thai subforum. Much of those experiences have in turn, inspired me to seek out my own adventures and subsequently pen many of the well-received Bangkok-related articles here on the blog.
For those wondering why I went on about Ryukyu Damashi, that’s because he’s Matt Nielsen, our protagonist for this article. It’s fair to say that Matt has indirectly contributed to a fair share of my articles. Last week, I decided to message Matt over Instagram about a Q&A to share his vast experience on training Muay Thai in the motherland. And of course, he agreed. Seriously, the man is an unsung hero.
This is Matt’s story and -mostly- his invaluable insights on training Muay Thai in Thailand.
Born and raised in a small country town of Holley, NY, Matt Nielsen’s first experience with Muay Thai came in the unlikeliest of places: Okinawa, Japan. This was in 1994. For 4 years while he was serving on the Japanese island, Matt’s foundational Muay Thai was built at World Ring Boxing Gym where legendary K1 fighter, Andy Hug used to train.
When he moved back in 1998, he continued training in the Thai martial art for many years until he was hired to start a Muay Thai program at Fairfax Jiu Jitsu. He remained as the Muay Thai coach and hasn’t looked back since. By day, the 43-year-old plies his trade as a Physical Education teacher and transforms into a Muay Thai coach by night.
Fairfax Jiu Jitsu (Chantilly, Virginia) may be worth a visit for those in the area even if there is no desire to train there. The huge training space houses the boxing ring from the 2015 Rocky movie Creed (starring Michael B. Jordan). Complete with fake blood on the ring ropes from the final fight scene.
Well, I digressed.
Driven by his passion for Muay Thai as well as a desire to improve his craft as a trainer, Matt took his first Muay Thai vacation to Thailand in 2007. It has since become a triannual pilgrimage.
“I have been going three times a year for over 10 years, so I’ve been there more than 30 times. Two weeks at Christmas/New Years, two weeks at spring break, and 6-8 weeks in the summer. It really keeps me balanced, plus it is a good break from sterile Northern Virginia.”
To date, the Muay Thai aficionado has visited and trained at over 15 different camps in Thailand. These include many legendary as well as gritty facilities, centralised Bangkok locations, idyllic islands and far-flung villages. Need a tip or 2 for your next Muay Thai vacation? You know who to look for – here are 4 tips from the generous Matt:
Tip Number 1: Find the right trainer
“Try to find a trainer who takes their time teaching Muay Thai. Not just someone who tires you out on pads. You might walk out of the gym exhausted, but if they were letting you repeat the same mistakes just for the sake of tiring you out, it is potentially making you worse at Muay Thai.“
Tip Number 2: Respect the culture
“There are so many cultural nuances in Muay Thai gyms that are beyond my ability to explain, so it is often better to just keep your head down and mouth shut. Try to observe the culture of the gym and follow along.”
Tip Number 3: Train hard
“Try not to show too much emotion or fatigue, you might feel like puking your guts out, but just try to hide it. Your trainer will know you’re tired, telling him about it won’t make it any better.”
Tip Number 4: Go “Hi-So” for a Quick Fix
“I was able to see the rise of “Hi-So” Muay Thai gyms in Bangkok that cater to rich local females that want to use Muay Thai as exercise. It has given former fighters more opportunities to work at trainers. The gyms are actually pretty good places to pop in to sneak in a training session. The trainers are typically experienced and are happy if someone comes in who is somewhat decent at Muay Thai. They are not burnt out like many trainers at farang tourist gyms.“
When it comes to finding the right gym to train at, Matt sure knows more than a thing or so. It’s hard to say what’s the best for people since everyone has different goals and ability. Whether it’s a hardcore fighter gym to focus solely on tough training or a tourist gym with a social culture in place, the key is to know what you are looking for.
If you are looking for specific gym recommendations, Matt has listed some of his top picks (below) but remember that YMMV (Your mileage may vary).
Sitjaopho Muay Thai Gym (Hua Hin)
“Sitjaopho is the best fit for me, Phet Tho is a saint. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t gamble, and is a family man. That is very rare in a Thai trainer. He is 100% dedicated to teaching proper Muay Thai. All of the other trainers at Sitjaopho are also very motivated.
“Now I mostly spent my time at Sitjaopho in Hua Hin. The trainers their are always motivated to help me improve. Phet Tho’s technical style of Muay Thai has really improved my teaching and outlook on what proper Muay Thai should be. He is one of the few trainers I have met in Thailand that truly loves to teach Muay Thai, he can spend hours after training talking about technical nuances and strategies. They typically have larger farang from Scandinavian countries for me to clinch with, which is helpful.”
Phuket King Muay Thai (Phuket)
“This is a new gym in Phuket. If you want to learn to clinch, Pol Bunpot (owner) is the man. He is another trainer who doesn’t drink, smoke, or gamble and loves teaching Muay Thai.”
96 Penang Muay Thai Gym (Bangkok)
“I always try to stop in at 96 Penang. The gym changed owners a few years ago and the trainers are different, but I enjoy the raw grit of the training atmosphere.”
Loog Khok Rak (Buriram)
“I think it is important to experience a rural gym in the countryside to truly understand what Muay Thai is about. I ended up at a gym in Buriram owned by Somjit Jongjohor called Loog Khok Rak just by accident. I was traveling to Buriram to try to train at Kiatmoo9 the first time, but they were all away at fights.
“I asked a local policeman if there was a Muay Thai gym in the area. It turned out Somjit (a Olympic Gold Medalist in Boxing) had built a small Muay Thai gym in his village not too far away. I was the first and only farang to ever train at that gym. The whole village came out to watch me hit pads. It was quite the experience. They wouldn’t accept any payment, just let me train there for free. A few years later I went back up there to bring them a big bag full of training gear donated by the owner of Boon Sport. There are really down to earth people up in Isaan.”
There you have it. Some great tips and information on planning for your next Muay Thai vacation. Remember to follow Matt’s Thai adventures on instagram @matthewjnielsen.