Home to dozens of Thai boxing schools that cater to both local and farang (foreigner), it’s no wonder that Chang Mai is a mecca for Muay Thai.
Muay Thai, Thailand’s national sport, combines the principles of boxing and kickboxing, working both the body and the mind. It’s a popular martial art that’s part entertainment, part deeply rooted cultural tradition.
Travelling through this Southeast Asian country, it’s common to see posters for upcoming Thai boxing matches. From lightweight teens to muscle-ripped pros, trim athletes battle in the ring for championship titles. They kick and punch in a sporty combat that clearly requires tons of training, skill and discipline.
I discover that not only nationals train in the art of Muay Thai. Young backpackers are flocking to northern Thailand from all over the world, keen on learning the sport for themselves.
Looking to investigate this growing tourist trend, I decide to check out the Lanna Muay Thai Boxing Camp, one of the longest running training facilities in the region.
I get there early morning to find a group of fighters fresh from their 10-kilometre jog. I learn that many have come here specifically to study the sport, while others use the training as a way to get fit. “I’ve never felt so healthy,” says one of the girls who trains close to six hours a day.
The training regime in this live-in camp starts at daybreak, with conditioning and stamina-building exercises to whip the body into shape.
Though each student is encouraged to go at their own pace, the raw energy and Rocky-esque determination in this place is sure to inspire.
The main area is filled with boxers in tiny polyester shorts, each beating the stuffing out of red punching bags. Bare feet whip around on cement floors; sweat drips down six-packs; the air is thick with testosterone.
The boxers are predominantly men in their mid-20s, but there are a few women. Seeing them gives me the inspiration I need to grab a skipping rope, treat my body to a little warm up and prepare for my very first Muay Thai lesson.
I’m introduced to Nok, a ripped but tiny man well-known in the scene. A former champion, he now spends his time coaching new up-and-comers. He binds each of my hands in what looks like an oversized shoelace. I make a fist and follow his directions.
Following him into a dilapidated ring, I learn the basics of balance, punching and kicking. I’m introduced to sparring and the choreography of footing.
Sweat beads on my upper lip as I shadow box with the coach. With every jab, I imagine myself in front of a roaring crowd of fans, cheering me on as I dart around like a Thai version of Muhammad Ali. I’m loving this! Feeling fit and fabulous, I finally understand why so many Chang Mai bound backpackers get hooked on Muay Thai.
• Watch Julia in Thailand tonight on Word Travels, airing at 10 p.m. on OLN.