Learning Muay Thai in Doi Saket

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Kim sparring in the ring

Muay Thai is a combat sport and is the National sport of Thailand. It is also called “the art of eight limbs” because it combines fists, elbows, knees, and feet. As an English volunteer teacher in Doi Saket district I spent my evenings in Doi Saket with Kim, another volunteer English teacher. We always introduced ourselves to all the shop owners we met around the market. The reason is that Thai people are very friendly, and we wanted to make as many friends as possible in Doi Saket. On one of these occasions we befriended two young women, Kwang, Gift, and their mother at their family’s grocery shop. Kim forgot his notebook in the shop, that is why he had to come back the following day. While chatting with them he learned that their father used to be a Muay Thai fighter and was now training a few young men for free. They offered us to be trained at their gym. In exchange Kim offered to teach English to the youngest sister Kwang, whose English was weaker than her sister’s.

That is how we started training three to four times a week in Doi Saket. Kwang and Gift’s family owns a huge house surrounded by a wide domain including several traditional guest houses, farming activities and a gym with bags, gloves, weights and even a boxing ring. Even though we were a bit shy at the beginning, our Muay Thai teacher and his family made us understand that we were now part of the family. We call our teacher “Pa”, which means “Father”, and his wife “May”, which means “Mother”. We are trained by our teacher, but also by his four students, all younger than us (they are aged from 15 to 19, while Kim and me are 21 and 23 years old). Pa’s friends are visiting him daily and, along with the employees of the domain, they usually stay around the gym to watch the training and give us very useful advice.

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Me having fun in the ring!

More than just learning Muay Thai, we truly feel that we belong in this big family. The daughters always make a small detour to chat with us while we train, and sometimes even bake cakes for us. Our teacher and his friends are always smiling and patient, debating about how to improve our boxing and then trying to guide us with simple Thai or English words. The other fighters we train with are very talented despite their young age. One of them has fought more than 70 times. It is a privilege to learn with them : they are always training very seriously and being very warm and respectful with us, even though I am a complete beginner.

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One of the fighters getting ready for practice

All our training sessions start jumping for several minutes on a tire laid on the ground. We punch the air in front of us while holding small weighs in our fists. After this warm up we usually do pull ups, push ups, sit ups and lift weights in order to build our strength, as physical strength and endurance are a very important part of Muay Thai.

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Me doing some chin ups

As a beginner I have spent most of the first trainings hitting bags in order to learn different moves : kicking with the shin, usually as high as possible, hitting with the knee while holding my opponent’s neck, punching with one hand while protecting my jaw with the other and relaxing my shoulders to hit with my elbows. I have also learnt how to stand with my legs straight, my upper body bent forward and my fists held high on the sides of my head. I have trained to protect myself by lifting one of my knee and up to my elbows. I can create a wall with my upper arm and my shin in order to protect my head, neck and ribs.

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Practicing on the bags

When I started mastering these moves I was invited to enter the ring and practice with the other fighters. After exchanging a few punches, we practice clinching, grabbing each others neck and trying to free our elbows and knees to hit the other (lightly of course). We can also try to tire our opponent or throw him off balance. During my last training I also tried my kicks on one of the fighters who was wearing heavy protective gear and tried to punch back every time I kicked, to teach me how to protect myself against counter-attacks.

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Practice in the ring

I am very happy to feel that I am improving day after day. But the thing I appreciate the most about Muay Thai is that it is a smiling boxing style. We learn to relax and ideally to smile while boxing. The family atmosphere of our gym makes this trait of Muay Thai even more enjoyable. We train, fight and have fun at the same time, trusting each other and laughing as we learn together.

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Group shot!

I will keep training and I hope to come back to Thailand next year to continue this great experience.

Stay posted to learn more about Thai culture and the experience of volunteers within the Wat Doi Saket project.

Antoine Gratian, on-site intern

info@atmaseva.org

www.atmaseva.org

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Photography Corner : Punakha Dzong

Pungtang Dechen Phodrang (meaning “the palace of great blissness”), most popularly known as Punakha Dzong today, was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal , the founder of the Palden Drukpa Zhung in 1637. It is the second oldest dzong in Bhutan. This structure was first constructed after the formation of the first official government. Its leader Zhabdrung made it the capital of Buthan. However, the capital was shifted to Thimphu (present capital) during the reign of the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.

This Dzong has played a vital role as a historical benchmark of Bhutan eversince its construction. The Machen Lhakhang, a temple inside the Dzong, enshrines the mummified body of Zhabdrung, who passed away in 1651 while in retreat in this temple. It was in this very Dzong that the first king of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned on 17 December 1907. Ever since, all the monarchs of Bhutan have been crowned in this Dzong.

Today it serves as the District administrative centre of Punakha as well as a winter residence for the monk body. Like every other Dzongs in Bhutan, Punakha Dzong exhibits Tshechu annually. It is a special religious and historical festival consisting in a variety of mask dances.

written by: Jigme Namgyel

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Photography Corner – Chorten Memorial

The Chorten Memorial, located in the middle of the capital Thimphu, was built to honor the Third King, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who is known as ‘the father of modern Bhutan’. It was the Druk Gyalpo’s dream to build a monument to world peace and prosperity, but due to his unfortunate death in 1972 he could not fulfill his dream of erecting the Chorten. However in 1974, at the initiative of the Royal family, the Memorial took its present shape, built in the King’s memory and also as a monument to peace.

On the outside of the Chorten three statues stand upon the entrance, representing the protective Bodhisattvas – Avalokiteshvara (the symbol of compassion), Manjushri (the symbol of knowledge) and Vajrapani (the symbol of power). They reflect the deep insight into the Buddhist philosophy. Four statues of lions sit smugly upon a pillar, facing outward in four different directions. The huge golden spire is the prominent part of the monument, making it visible from almost everywhere in the capital.

Ever since its inauguration a thousand of devotees have visited the Chorten on a daily basis, especially the older ones, for they find the monument a safe haven. They circumambulate around it in a clockwise direction, reciting prayers and turning the large prayer wheels painted with Buddhist mantras (Mani Dungku). The number of devotees visiting the Chorten in times of holy occasions is even greater.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern

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Bhutan – Archery : A tradition embellished in time

Archery is the most popular sport played in Bhutan. Indeed, it is the country’s national sport. It is considered a cult evolved in time and this game has changed as it was embellished by modernity and globalization.

Nothing is more incongruous than team members yelling across the archery field, trying to help their team mates by literally standing near the target while arrows are shot at it from the other extremity of the field, but in Bhutan it is a common practice. The conducts involved in an archery game or tournament are truly unique. There is always excitement in witnessing an archery game. People either participate as archers or watch cheerfully while others play, in a lively atmosphere.

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People dwelling in the villages perceive archery as their favorite pastime, and in times of festivals such as Losar, and particularly during ‘Chodas’ (a particular event whereby a village directly challenges another one), the events are even more colourful and exciting. Adult men in villages set off for the competition early in the morning, hanging their bow and arrow cases upon their shoulder. The archery field can stretch as long as 130m from one end to the other. Relatively small and beautifully painted wooden targets (Ba) are placed at each end of the field.

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The other members of the family also play a vital role in the event. The children bring tea and Suja (butter tea), and locally prepared alcohol (Ara and Singchang) as refreshment for the archers while archer’s wives prepare their best dishes and drinks. Apart from these, the archer’s wives cheer their husbands by singing symbolic songs. They also tease the opponent teams with disturbing gesticulation and often singing songs with words of affront.

As the competition draws to an end, usually in the late evenings, all the archers gather with their wives and the audience to dance. They dance in a circle. One leads in singing while others follow him/her, changing the pace of the dance with the tone of their singing.

IMG_1189Before having competitions, teams often seek advice from an astrologer (Tsip) in order to draw luck in their favor or to hinder the opponent’s capabilities. The archers even spend a night outside their home, for example in barns, the night before the competition. The astrologer, through his astrological finding, instructs the archers to enter the archery field in-order according to their individual horoscopes. Such beliefs are very prevalent among the people regardless of the influx of modernity. In addition to this, archery in Bhutan is a concept linked to friendship and cooperation. This is evident from the pack lunches that the people bring along with them and the gestures that they share while on the field. Archery is a mean of socialization in Bhutan, with diverse people brought together to enjoy the same game.

IMG_1195This sport has been embellished by the modern technology. Although all other trends have remained the same, the bows used in the competitions have changed. The use of bows made of bamboo and arrows from reeds has been slowly waning. Today archers in Bhutan prefer to use compound bows. These imported compounds bows are either American or European. Many modern trends such as individual and corporate sponsorship, cash and material prices have become a vital part of any archery competition or tournament.

IMG_1185The archery field right next to the Changlingmithang stadium in Thimphu serves as one of the country’s most famous archery fields. And the most prominent archery tournament is the Yangphel tournament.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern

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Photography Corner – Mae Sai part 2

In Mae Sai part 1, the ATMA SEVA team went to the White temple and also Mae Sai.  On our second day, in the morning we went to Wat Thampla MaeSai also known as the Monkey cave temple, as monkeys roam around and live on the premise.  The temple is set right into the mountain and jungle and there are two caves you can hike up to.  There are great views and the caves are fun to be in and the Buddha shrines within are stunning.  There are quite a few monkeys and visitors are accompanied by local teenagers who carry bamboo sticks in case the monkeys bite or jump on people.

After Wat Thampla, we set out to find a very unique temple named Wat Maa Tong or the Golden Horse temple.  The temple is famous because of the abbot Phra Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto, who is a former professional kick boxer, and has also helped the local hill-tribe community immensely.  He also teaches self-defense and muay Thai to the young men to teach discipline and give them strength.  The monks in this temple ride horses to collect alms in the morning, hence Golden Horse temple.  A while back a horse was donated to the temple and the abbot saw how the horse could help him spread the Dhamma.

We went for a hike next to the temple to try and reach a stupa on the mountain.  After about forty minutes of hiking we found a farm in the jungle where lots of horses were and we also saw the abbot, but he was unable to speak as he was in the middle of a seven day meditation.  The area was so mystical with a muay Thai training area, horse farm, and Buddha statues nestled into the lush green background.  We never reached the stupa, but we were overly satisfied with what we had found.

Stay tuned for the next Photography corner as the ATMA SEVA team went to Wiang Haeng several days after this trip!

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Photos by David Poppe

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