After spending six weeks training and living at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand, I wanted to write up some of my thoughts on the entire experience, the gym, and the trainers. This will be a long winded post with a lot of detail – I encourage anyone considering spending time in Thailand training Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and/or Muay Thai give it a read, but anyone else may want to skip it.
Background: I visited Tiger Muay Thai (TMT) from February 22 to March 23, then returned again from April 15 to April 28, 2010. I had no previous MMA or Muay Thai experience, though I did grow up wrestling. I came into my visit with above-average fitness but definitely not close to elite level.
The Gym Facilities:
TMT is amazing, and they finished a big expansion while I was there. There is TONS of room, with seven+ massive separate training areas of various sizes, tailored for MMA, Muay Thai, weight lifting, and crossfit style workouts (kettlebells/etc.). Sometimes they definitely need this space as there are tons of people out here training, other times it feels like a ghost town. Everything from the bags to the mats and rings are maintained in good condition and are constantly cleaned to prevent infection.
A major benefit of the gym facilities is that they are all outdoors, no air-conditioning or any of that nonsense. You will be sweating from minute one and stay warm – very good for your muscles and body. It may take a couple days to get used to but you’ll start to thrive on the heat. It’s a very beneficial environment to work out in. The only problem with this is that after dark you are at risk of distracting mosquito attacks while trying to train.
They also provide free internet with many access points scattered around and it’s blazing fast for the “developing world” (I’ve seen speeds of 6+mbps) – but also extremely unreliable. My experience was that it would randomly cut out and stop working for hours or days at a time, and I think they may have a core firewall being overloaded hitting some sort of max outbound connections limit.
The “Tiger Grill” is also quite good, serving everything from protein shakes to grilled chicken and pad thai. There is a “convenience penalty” for many things (prices for water, soda, etc. are double that of the store fifty meters up the road), but the food is EXCELLENT. Especially the healthy meals of grilled chicken, vegetables, and whole grain rice.
The location is “out in the boonies” in Chalong outside Phuket, but there are tons of good restaurants, pharmacies, groceries, and even a few 7/11’s and ATM’s within easy walking distance. If you want to walk out and party every night, go to another gym – if you want to focus on your training, this place is quiet and perfect for it.
In a nutshell, the place is impressive and combines a great element of modernity with classic developing world style. You will never be without room to work out. My only suggestion to them for expansion would be to add a basketball half-court or playground or something to open up other opportunities for activity – some room to “play” would be well received, I think.
I had a slightly mixed experience here. The first time, I arrived at the airport with my scheduled taxi driver waiting to take me to TMT. I was surprised at how far it was from the airport and admittedly a little nervous about what I was getting into (the entire “train Muay Thai in Thailand” thing was a bit of a whim). When I arrived they had my name on a list and signed up me right easy and quick – except they had somehow botched up the reserved rooms and had no “standard bungalows” available, in spite of confirming one for me a week before. I ended up in a “budget fighter room” which was fine except for the shared bathrooms which always seemed to be plugged up. I highly advise against staying in a place out there without your own private bathroom.
After I had grabbed all the paperwork and dumped my stuff in my room and sort of wandered around for a bit, I came back to the office looking for some sort of orientation or something. One of the Westerers that works/stays there named Will took pity on me and hooked me up – not only did he spend a lot of time giving me the tour, introducing me to all the trainers, and generally showing me around, but then he happily spent even more time going through all the gear I would need and helping me pick it all out. This really helped me settle in and feel comfortable and I’m greatly appreciative of him for it. Will also made a point to ask how things were going whenever we bumped into each other, and gave me good advice that led to my visit to Phuket International Hospital when my tendonitis was flaring up bad. Thanks a ton Will!
Now, the second time my experience was totally different. There was no taxi at the airport, even after waiting for an hour so I had to get my own (supposedly he had gone out there, but nobody knew what happened to him). When I arrived, they kept asking me to pay in spite of the fact that I had paid for it when I left in March. It eventually got to the point where I had to go digging into my bag to pull out my receipt to prove I had paid, which was just silly. On the plus side, I had left a big duffle full of all my training gear there and they pulled that right out.
So, a mixed bag here. I think they’re in the process of improving some of their business related stuff, but with the number of people going in and out every day they definitely need to work out those kinks when it comes to booking, reservations, and payments.
Also, their prices and maths related to prices seem to fluctuate randomly. I don’t understand this bit.
Training – Mixed Martial Arts:
I spent almost all my energy during the six weeks I trained at TMT in the “Beginner MMA” (grappling) classes taught by “Magical” Ray Elbe – and loved it! Ray sometimes gets a bad rap as an instructor from some of the attendees but I think that’s silly and I’ll you why:
Ray is a mid 20’s professional fighter, with a successful career at high levels in jiu-jitsu and mid levels in MMA. He’s been living and training and teaching out of Thailand for a few years at TMT, is a damn good fighters and grappler, and is living the dream – and he knows it. On top of this, he has a highly fluid group of students, with the typical student attending for only a week and almost the entire attendance turning over every couple weeks. The result is that he can come off as slightly arrogant and aloof (I’ve heard it stated as “he’s a dick” but I think that’s unfair) to people who aren’t willing to engage with him – personally, I think this is very understandable, especially with the class rotation.
On the other hand, if a student puts aside his ego and his expectation that this professional fighter is going to go out of his way to give out magically tailored advice (maybe that’s a problem with the nickname?) on day one while acting like a 50 year old stereotypical sensei spouting fortunes, Ray is awesome to work with. I made it a point the first day to introduce myself, tell him my background (lack of it), and start working with him. He immediately asked me what my goal was and when I said I don’t have any he said “You gotta have goals man!” and chided me for it. This stuck with me through the entire six weeks and every day I set a goal to do something different or better than the day before.
Ray ended up being one of the best instructors I’ve worked with and I’m impressed at how effective he is at it – though, I do really want to get a caricature of him with a speech bubble that says “OKAY GUYS!” One class I counted the times he said this for the fun of it and lost track at 50+… lol. ;) “OKAY GUYS!”
Each beginner class is structured in the same way, one that I felt was fairly well tuned and well thought out. It starts with a good warmup followed by a simple static stretching routine (static stretching before working out is a debatable concept, but everything I’ve read indicates that doing this after warming up properly is okay/good). After the warmup, Ray teaches a set of related techniques, usually focusing on offense with only a brief mention of defense (but sometimes the other way around).
He does a great job of explaining why he’s going to show you this move, when you are likely to use it and when you shouldn’t, then walks through the technique breaking it down into steps. It’s really interesting to me the way this knowledge is absorbed – he shows step one, explains it. Then shows step one and step two, explaining step two. Then back to step one, step two, and moving up to step three and explaining it. There always seems to be a moment when I think “how am I going to remember this complex chain of moves?” then he puts it together rapidly and what seemed like a complex chain of moves falls into place. Often during this process he will engage the class with questions and stories.
One of the cool things about Ray as an instructor is that he always asks “Got it? Do you need to see it again?” and if anyone doesn’t seem confident about it, he’ll show the sequence again. Once everyone thinks they have it, he’ll say “Okay, let’s see it!” and everyone pairs off to practice. While everyone is paired up trying the move, Ray walks around and points out flaws, makes recommendations, etc. Probably about one third of the time, he’ll notice a trend in the class of people doing something “wrong” and interrupt everyone with “OKAY GUYS! OKAY GUYS! OKAY GUYS!” until everyone stops, then he’ll break down what a lot of people are doing wrong, explain why it’s wrong, and send everyone back to it.
One thing I really enjoyed is that almost every day, after drilling a few different moves around a single technique, Ray shows something that is “sneaky” or “tricky.” Usually it’s something that isn’t a standard variation, may be excessively risky, or even at times just plain silly. Every time though, it’s something really cool that makes even seasoned grapplers go “oooo.” It makes you think about doing stuff differently, and I love it.
After the techniques, it’s cardio time. There are a bunch of different sets of things Ray cycles through on this and it’s always cool. This is another area where Ray shines as a coach/instructor – he understands that people aren’t here for “fat camp” but want to learn and that everyone has different levels of fitness. He pushes everyone to push themselves, but doesn’t go jumping on the slower guys in class yelling at them to hurry up or get up off the ground or any of that crap – I hate that, and I like that he’s intelligent enough to treat everyone differently. I spent a lot of time at camp struggling with tendonitis that crippled my left arm, and I thought it said a lot when Ray asked me to pick the exercises one day and said “Pick four that you can do.”
Once cardio is over there’s around 30 minutes of rolling in pairs, starting on the ground, five minute rounds with one minute breaks. Again it’s the same thing – Ray doesn’t rag on people who need to sit out a round or walk around talking crap to his students who are gassed out at this point. Instead he usually sits on the sidelines yelling out advice at whoever interests him at the moment (sometimes it’s confusing trying to tell who he’s yelling “TRIANGLE! TRIANGLE!” at), and sometimes participates as well. At the end, everyone circles up for a final pep talk and a hand shake.
Every Friday Ray breaks things up with an informal in-class tournament, usually in two brackets due to the number of people involved. This is a great opportunity to put together the techniques you’ve been working on in a “go 95%” scenario and my favorite part simply because every match starts standing up (I love me some takedowns). Everyone looks forward to and enjoys this, after the coaching and yelling in a circle and the matches are over there is a noticeable increase in camaraderie amongst everyone.
I never attended the Advanced MMA classes, however I watched a number of them. While the Beginner MMA usually has 20+ people of which less than half are actually beginners, the Advanced typically has less than ten people. It starts with an hour of striking with the Thai trainers (good stuff), then splits into a free form sort of class, with mostly sparring and drills from what I saw.
Ray doesn’t do private lessons (at least right now), but Wiktor does – Wiktor is very good, just had his first professional fight, and has been training for awhile. I never took lessons with him but watched a number of them and he’s a great instructor as well as being very skilled and a very cool guy.
Training – Beginner Muay Thai
Originally the main reason I went to Thailand to train, I ended up being really disappointed with the Beginner Muay Thai group classes at TMT. It’s run entirely by the Thai trainers (excellent), but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was basically “fat camp.” The main focus seemed to be fitness and losing weight, NOT learning Muay Thai. The second trip to TMT I never even bothered to attend one of the group sessions, choosing instead to do afternoon workouts on my own. My feelings on this are simple – I can join a gym anywhere in the world and do cardio sessions, I can do Crossfit at home and get even better cardio, or (more likely) I can do it on my own. I don’t need to come to Thailand to do a hundred pushups and run laps.
The focus seems to be pushing private lessons for technique, which I can understand but I didn’t want to jump into private lessons until I had a good grounding. My first couple weeks were not a cohesive experience – each day during the short time spent working on technique I would get paired up with a different trainer, and each trainer had his own idea of the perfect stance and technique. This quickly got very frustrating as I’d adjust my stance for one trainer, spend the rest of the day using that technique, then the next day a different trainer would set my feet or elbows at completely different angles. Everyone I talked to about this had the same experience and agreed it was counterproductive.
That said, if you are just looking for fat camp, this is an awesome way to do it. The workouts are intense and the trainers will push you to the limit, but at the same time they do not respect injuries and the like –people would skip class rather than show up and run the class at 80% when they had problems, which (in contrast to Ray’s MMA classes) showcased the “fat camp” mentality. Even when I showed up with a wrapped elbow and ice, I was repeatedly yelled at to do pushups and throw punches with my left arm in spite of making it clear I wasn’t going to do it (after a couple days of this I ended up hurting my right arm from all the one-arm pushups and stopped going to class for awhile).
So, maybe I had a bad opinion and experience here because of the tendonitis in my left arm, but I think the attitude of the camp can be summarized by the fact that the trainers seemed more concerned with guessing how much weight I could lose in a month instead of how much technique I could learn. There’s no doubt if I go back to TMT I will take some privates for Muay Thai (from what I heard and saw these were generally excellent and very technique focused), but I won’t be joining the group classes. I’m actually curious to compare this to gyms in the DC area when I get back – the simple fact of the matter is that I have no intention of being a professional fighter and don’t care if I don’t have the cardio to go five five minute rounds… I’d rather focus on being able to throw crisp leg kicks with proper form and blocking the incoming hits.
I can’t speak to the medium or advanced Muay Thai, but I get the impression they are more of the same. I think privates at where it’s at – any time you hear about a professional fighter coming out to learn Muay Thai at TMT, they are taking privates, never joining in the group classes.
I had a great time, it was a great experience, and I recommend it overall. The entire cost including plane tickets is a bit high compared to training hard at home, but the experience of being completely submerged in it is awesome. You get to the point where by two or three o’clock in the afternoon you are dying to go out and get some work in, in spite of working out for hours that morning. The weather is hot but that’s completely awesome when all you do is train and you don’t care that maybe you smell a bit or sweat just sitting around because you aren’t worried about stains in your arm pits at the office.
Plus the people out there are generally awesome – I had so much fun just sitting around talking about stuff, with the main focus being fighting of course. I met some very intelligent guys, learned a lot about life from talking with people who had different experiences, got some top tips (my plans in Nepal are based on a recommendation from a guy I trained with for a couple weeks), and learned a ton from everyone. This is also a drawback when you’re out there for awhile, sometimes it’s tough to shake hands and say good-bye to someone who you spent hours working and learning with, probably to never see them again.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for Ray, Randy, Peter and the other trainers that see these guys in and out all the time… Man, that’s tough. No wonder there’s a little buffer.
Anyway, if you’re thinking about doing it, take at least two weeks and DO IT. If you really want to get good at Muay Thai take the privates, otherwise enjoy the “fat camp” for what it is and get some great MMA training in the morning as well (note: women are welcome, common, and treated equally in the MMA and Muay Thai classes). It will be a completely unique experience, I guarantee.
One final tip – keep an eye on their website and try to schedule a visit during one of their BBQ Beatdowns. These are awesome and should not be missed!