Tag Archives: Personal Growth

Bucket List #5: Train Muay Thai in Thailand

Another tick off the bucket list as I signed up for what promised to be a gruelling week of Muay Thai in Phuket. Muay Thai is the traditional martial art of Thailand and combines punches, elbows, knees, kicks and clinching and the Thai’s are brought up on it. From the moment they can walk they’re trained in the art of Muay Thai and often by their mid-twenties they’ve had well over 150-200 fights. If they weren’t so strongly Buddhist, it would be easy to call Muay Thai their religion.

Training Muay Thai at Phuket Top Team

Knees for days!

I checked out a few of the gyms in Phuket and with the help of a recommendation from a friend who has fought in Thailand for the past 2 years I settled on Phuket Top Team. I won’t bore you with the details but PTT have fighters in the biggest organisations of the Muay Thai and MMA world. As well as that the trainers their are a mixture of retired champions and some of the elite fighters still in competition. It was safe to say I’d be in good hands there but it also meant they would take no excuses.

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I had trained back at home for 2 years but it had been at least 18 months since then and the past 6 months of travel had taken a toll on my fitness. I secretly hoped my treks in the Himalayas would provide me with some fitness but it didn’t prove to help me all that much.

It was 2 x 2 hours sessions a day for 6 days and most of the sessions went down in more or less the same way. Skipping, stretching, sparring and clinching with other people of a similar skill and weight, bag work, 1 on 1 pad work in the ring with a trainer (this involved the trainer calling out combinations of kicks punches, knees and elbows for you to throw and occasionally throwing some back at you to block) followed by a warm down with a couple of hundred push ups and sit-ups.

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Fifteen minutes into my first training session the mouth guards were in and I found myself behind a pair of boxing gloves facing off with an Italian guy in our class. It was the first time back at training for both of us so we stuck to light sparring, moved around a bit, traded some punches and had some fun with it.

The trainers in true Thai-style weren’t so forgiving when my lack of fitness showed up during the pad-work. They’ve been training since they were 2 and excuses never worked for them so they expect the same out of you. In fact, the more you shut up and try to get it done, the easier it’s going to be for you. I saw people learn this the hard way, if you’re the type to whine and complain well guess who’s getting extra push ups.

Phuket Top Team Muay Thai

It’s all smiles for the camera.

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As the days went on my fitness was slowly coming back as was some of the technique I had hidden away from a few years ago. I was sore just about everywhere and spent my time in between sessions either in the pool, in bed or at the massage parlour up the road all of which seemed to make the after sessions that little bit easier.

trainers at Phuket Top Team Muay Thai

The Trainers at PTT

The week came to an end and I had to move on as I have the full moon party booked in on the 9th but I will most definitely be returning to train with the team again only next time I’m hoping to stay for a month.

Have you ever trained in a traditional martial art somewhere? What was your experience like?

How I Became a Sculptor in Mamallapuram

The main street of Mamallapuram is lined with countless stalls selling immaculately handcrafted sculptures and most of the shops owners spend there days working on new pieces in front of their store. I was in the rare mood for shopping probably because I had a good reason this time, my dads 50th birthday was coming up and I wanted to send something home for him.

Wandering through a few different stalls nothing seemed fitting, I got chatting with a local sculptor out of the front of his workshop and he downed his tools and invited me in for chai. I was asking him about getting a small piece custom made and engraved when he suggested that rather than pay someone to make it he’ll teach me to make something myself. The idea sounded great except for one small thing – my discernible lack of artistic talent. He was persuasive enough that I agreed to come back and start Sculpture 101 with him the next day.

Sculpting away...

Sculpting away…

Venkat – my new sculpture instructor – was patient, persistent and extraordinarily resilient, nothing was a better example of this than his story of losing his home, store and complete collection of his work and tools to the 2004 tsunami. An event tragic enough to floor even the strongest of characters didn’t seem to deter his spirit and with the help of the community he managed re-open his shop not long after.

I walked into his shop at 9:30 the next day and he was eagerly awaiting with the tools laid out and a cup of chai and biscuits. We shared chai and looked through some of his work while I decided what I wanted to make and the type of stone to make it out of. I started carving away at big block of greenstone with the idea of a lizard perched on a rock, this was to be my first piece and more of a practice piece than anything too serious.

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The next two days were spent drinking chai, going out for lunch and sculpting in-between. It was awesome I began to make friends in the town and despite my now sore and calloused hands my lizard was starting to take shape.

Then it all came crumbling down.

I was starting to put the final details on the head of the lizard and must have hammered a little too hard into a fault line in the stone and a huge crack ran through – off with the lizards head! I was pretty disheartened, my hands were killing me and a day and a half of work had just gone down the drain. In hindsight, it seems petty to have become upset at losing one piece when Venkat had lost so much more in the tsunami 9 and half years earlier.

Out came a new block of stone, this time I was using a stronger stone which would be harder to carve but also harder to break. I chose a seated Buddha in the palm of a hand. This piece was literally make or break.

The days rolled on in more or less the same fashion – lots of sculpting and lots of chai. Venkat gave me a little help here and there with some of the finer details (I was still a little rattled about breaking my last piece) and my Buddha was starting to take shape. Four days of sculpting and polishing paid off, I had completed it and couldn’t have been happier.

The finished piece!

The finished piece!

In celebration I took Venkat out for dinner that night at a little local restaurant where we feasted on lamb thali. As with all celebrations in India they never just last one day so the next morning we went to the market to pick up some fresh fish, lamb and beer. Venkat invited his friend, a chef of 15 years at Mamallapuram’s nicest hotel to come and cook for us at Venkat’s hut. Venkat lived in a village about 15 minutes away in a hut with a tiny kitchen and no electricity. That didn’t stop his friend serving up 4 amazing dishes.

Cooking up a storm.

Cooking up a storm.

I’m glad to have made such a great friend in Venkat and it is a true example of his genuine friendliness that during my 6 days of sculpting not once did he ask for a fee or a tip for his services and was reluctant to take my money when I offered it. Mamallapuram is a place I will hold in high regard for a long time to come.

Vipassana in India

What is Vipassana

Vipassana is a Sanskrit word from ancient India meaning ‘to see things as they really are’ and this is the aim of the Vipassana meditation retreats. It’s a 10 day journey that will completely change your life but it is by no means easy. The course itself is donation-based and includes your accommodation and 2 vegetarian meals per day (No dinner!). Vipassana was originally a Buddhist teaching from 2500 years ago but has been adapted as a secular program that’s open to anybody. They only ask that you cease all other practices of religion, yoga and alternative meditation for the 10 days as to give fair trial to the Vipassana technique.

During this time you must abide by the very strict Vipassana Code of Conduct. One must abstain from killing, stealing, lying, all sexual activities and all forms of intoxicants as well as this you must follow the daily timetable. You must observe complete silence, and all forms of external stimulation including reading, writing, music and strenuous exercise. You’re basically left with meditation, eating, sleeping and showering from 4am-9:30pm for 10 days. Okay, so maybe retreat wasn’t the right word for it but it was on my Bucket List and being in India, I was committed now.

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The Vipassana Centre and Accommodation

I did my course at the Bhopal Centre in Madhya Pradesh, India. The centre was situated 20 minutes out of town and the first thing you notice upon arrival is the absence of traffic and beeping horns, I instantly began to relax. The first step is to register and hand in our electronics for the 10 days – Goodbye phone, laptop, headphones, books and writing materials. My already light backpack now consisted of nothing more than clothes and toiletries.

We were assigned our rooms and from what I’d heard from friends who had completed the course elsewhere, you usually share a room with someone. I turned up to my room and noticed there was only one bed. Yes! Either I had my own room or Vipassana was going to be weird! It was a small fanned room with an attached bathroom (western toilet too, this place was ticking all the boxes).

Meditation Begins

Noble silence had begun and we were awoken at 4am by a bell with the implied message that we were to be in the Dhamma Hall for meditation by 4:30. The days consisted of 10 hours meditation and a 1 and a half hour lecture in the evening. In between sessions of meditation we had breakfast, lunch and some free time to shower and rest.

The first 3 days you spend focusing your attention on the sensations of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils, the idea of this is to sharpen your attention for the real part of the technique. Although we were sitting for well over 12 hours a day, the mental side of it was exhausting and I took every opportunity to sneak a nap.

On the second night I had started to question why on earth I was here. I remember lying in bed that night struggling to fall asleep, thinking I might be losing my mind. The revelation soon came that that was the point, you were meant to lose a part of your mind and ego.

On day 3 I was feeling more energised and started taking less and less naps during the day. I needed something to fill in my free time and decided to start exercising (only allowed inside your small room), I had a choice of push-ups and sit-ups. While doing sit-ups that afternoon I was laughing to myself that this was how I imagined prison to be, it was at this point I looked up at the wall and saw the numbers 1-10 on the wall with the first 4 crossed out, someone obviously hadn’t made it past day 4. This gave me a little bit of motivation and laughter and I made it a personal goal to see out the course not just for myself but also for the random stranger who hadn’t.

Day 4 brought a change of technique where we started to focus our attention on the natural sensations of our body, this was the actual practice of Vipassana and the technique we would use until the completion of the course. We learnt to observe all sensations as impermanent and to neither crave or develop aversion to the positive and negative sensations. The key here is to accept everything as it is. Through extended sessions of practising impermanence your old patterns of aversion and craving bubble to the surface and disappear layer by layer.

On Day 6 I had a few very profound and positive sessions of meditation that left me feeling euphoric and the next day when I walked into the 4:30am session I assumed I would instantly get back into this zone. I had forgotten the most important lesson – impermanence. I had developed a craving for the positive feelings and aversion for anything less and this stuck with me until Day 9 when I realised this. Day 9 was equally as profound as the earlier sessions but was also the last full day of meditation. I feel like I might not have made the most of days 7 and 8 because I hadn’t fully grasped the technique.

Our Vipassana group with our teacher.

Our Vipassana group with our teacher.

 

The morning of Day 10, silence ended and that afternoon we received our phones and laptops. After chatting with the other students and trading experiences, I found the idea of long conversations a little arduous and retired to my room, I was hanging to listen to some music (first up was The Story So Far followed by Ben Howard). The next day we would return to the real world.

What I Gained from the Course

It’s going to be different for everyone but for me I left feeling much lighter, happier and completely stress-free. I feel much more positive when confronted with adverse situations. 3 months of travel in India had started to tire me out and these 10 days – probably the hardest 10 of my life – left me feeling reenergised and ready to take on the world again. I think if I was to do another course I would gain a lot more out of it as I now have a more complete understanding of the technique. What I found hard about the Course For the first 3 days it was definitely very challenging to sit still for so many hours. My knees and hips ached and most people limped away from the meditation hall very stiff. After a few days your body adjusts and then it’s just the mental side. It was frustrating to realise how little control you have over your brain, it’s nearly impossible to switch off your thoughts and while trying to still your mind for meditation your mind seems to wander constantly. I got extremely homesick and a couple of times I was ready to pack my bags, walk out the door and fly home.

Preparation

I think I would have had an easier and more successful experience if I had taken the time to prepare myself properly for Vipassana instead I spent the week beforehand discovering Mumbai’s pubs and bars with a good mate from home. I would recommend trying to ease yourself into the experience. Try to meditate daily in a cross-legged position for at least 2 weeks before the course even if it’s only for 15 minutes. A couple of massages or yoga sessions leading up to it would also make the physical side of it much easier. Apart from that, the only advice I can offer is to surrender yourself to the experience and focus on the meditations session by session, forgetting about counting down days and forgetting about the positives or negatives of your previous sessions.

It might be difficult but it’s definitely worth it.

theboywander