The Slow Cook versus the Hack – Thailand Muay Thai Development
Guest Post: A Husband’s Point of View
One of the things that will perhaps stun you, if you are sitting around Petchrungruang Gym with not much to do like I do, and patiently watch the Thai boys, is that the Petchrungruang 17 year rising old star PTT almost never trains. He’ll hit the bag lazily. He’ll do a few rounds of sluggish padwork…maybe. Sometimes you’ll see him play with the younger kids. But his laconic, cool style, his sleepy smile pretty much governs his training. And there will be several days were he simply isn’t training at all. To hear Pi Nu tell it, there was a time when PTT was someone you couldn’t even give away to another gym. Now everyone wants to buy him. The “Train Like a Thai” story is that Thais train absurdly hard, non-stop – this is something we believed when we got to Thailand, and it led to Sylvie developing an absolutely intense training regime which she keeps to this day because it makes her stronger both mentally and physically, and prevents injury; the secret inside story of “Train Like a Thai” is that Thais really don’t train that hard at all. They’ll ramp up for big fights, but largely they just keep themselves in maintenance mode. That’s what those in the know know.
We see the same thing with Phetjee Jaa. We hear, from the gym itself, about huge numbers of situps that she does, but we never see such situps. They say they run 12 k in the morning, but when Sylvie has run with them it is more like 5 k. Both her and her brother, each of which have been training and fighting since 7 or so, are in very good shape, and are very strong, but there are lots of lackadaisical days which really are about 25% of Sylvie’s average day. Thais, at the face of it really don’t “train like Thais”, at least from what we’ve seen.
But here’s the thing. The difference is between the Slow Cook and the Hack. You simply can’t make an amazing pot of stew in 20 minutes, I don’t care how much you turn up the heat. In the west we are looking for the hack, the secret laboratory-like recipe and ingredients that cheats time and investment, that cheats experience, and just gets to the “good part”. The reason for this is that this is how the industrialized (and now information) west has come to work, how it has come to dominate the culture and resources of the world. The method is always one of extraction.
For some sports Science-y types, Thais in training are just dumb. Thais don’t understand the principles behind the things they do that succeed so they are stuck in a lot of inefficient ways. They might know a thing or two from lots of trial and error, but all the smart “ideas” are missing. In fact, the same goes for the subject of techniques, and MMA is just something that has accelerated the process of judgement. Thais, so some people believe, don’t even understand their own martial art. You ask them what the proper angle of a knee is supposed to be on a roundhouse kick, or which way to point the foot and they just shake their heads: kick the bag. MMA, as Kickboxing before it, just wants to raid Muay Thai, strip away all the mumbo jumbo of culture and hack into the stuff that really works. The most effective way of doing x, or defending y. And as much as I enjoy the latest breakdown and analysis video craze – and I do! – its popularity too is part of it. And Sylvie’s own Sylvie’s Tips is part of it. The feeling is that in just 5 minutes you can get the gist of a technique set, install it or download it into your own technique-set operating system, like an app, and suddenly…”Whoa, I know Kung Fu”.
On a deeper level there is something more than slightly colonialist about all this. The west really is coming to mine the natural (cultural) resources of Thailand, take the ore and minerals of something that has developed over hundreds of years, and plug it into their own marketing machines of young, (white), male rage entertainment and endeavor. The natives don’t really even understand what they have. The west has to come to extract it, identify the hidden (invisible) principles behind moves and training – something that requires a highly mechanistic view of the world, a world not governed by relationships and experiences, a point of view that the west mistakes for “intelligence” – and upon extraction make better use of it. On the small scale you get white, middle class guys – I’m a middle class white guy too – coming to Thailand every year for a time, sometimes slumming it in “real” Muay Thai gyms, so that they can bring “authentic” Thai moves back to their gyms in the west where they are a Kru. These are just the minor prospectors. People looking for a little native gold to bring back home and make a little money and reputation with. No real harm done.
Things change when the mentality of extraction becomes widespread, systematic and even institutionalized. You hear Thais expressing concern or even disbelief at how much the future of Muay Thai may lie in the hands of the farang. Samart expressed it in this interview – while notably participating in the Ayutthaya Muay Boran festival which facilitates this transfer to the west; the authoritative Suwanna Srisongkram expresses the same concern in this interview. While the west seeks to extract the principles and hacks of this noble resource there are Thai organizations and private interests which see and find benefit to systematizing that which is not systematized, so that among other things it can be more easily exported to the west. Well-known Phuket Muay Thai tourism, and in fact Muay Thai tourism itself in Thailand is largely organized around the principles of the “hack” as gyms become smarter and smarter about packaging Muay Thai technique, making it transferable. The hack is nothing other than a new twist on an old western game: abstraction, extraction and mechanization…and ultimately: colonization. And colonization has always had two primary legs to stand on: the aim of natural resources, and the gaze of primativization. The west has always argued that it knew better how to locate and use resources that belonged to others.
Notably, it has been argued that Thailand has historically preempted the threat of colonization through self-civilization, in effect civilizing themselves to expectations and values of the west before it could be imposed.
So as we westerners come to Thailand to improve our kicks, learn moves in the clinch that can be performed like magic tricks back in the west among the less-educated, we should appreciate that we are participating in a huge machine of extraction. And this may explain the existence of an opposite move from the west, an exoticization of Thailand, turning it into an orientalized land of bowing people and inscrutable customs. While the west steals with one hand, it then genuflects with the other, treating Thailand as if it’s the movie Kickboxer, or more, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Much of this is well-meaning. Gyms in the west over-bowing, or wai-ing like nobody in Thailand wais. Mongkols and ram muay everywhere. And at it’s most devoted, traveling 1,000s of miles to participate in elaborate Muay Boran ceremonies, dressing like pre-industrial Thais (what would it look like to the west if Chinese tourists liked to come to America to participate in colonial war reenactments, wearing blue-coats, powdered wigs and holding muskets?). While we steal abstractions of techniques we want to also ecologically preserve what we may be destroying. We want to respect what we are taking. How do you transmit, without over-simplification? How do you take without tearing? Caught between the hack and the deep wai, the west has a really hard time finding an authentic place to stand. Part of this comes from simply being of another culture. Every move you make is somehow not right, especially when you have economic leverage. You are always other, distorting the other. You are always making use.
The answer though likely lies in another direction. Experience. There is a reason why Thai fighters might not train like the mythical Thais when you watch them. It is because there have been years of indeed training like Thais that have been buried in their bodies, a rich harvest of physical, mental and even spiritual investment that stays within them. Sakmongkol, when he trained Sylvie, would talk about the endless droll of hours and hours spent mindlessly doing a drill as kid while no trainer even looked at him, marching back and forth in a ring, beaten, harshly treated. “Stupid”, he says. He tries to train people very differently now. “Smart”. And in fact his training is amazing. Nothing like it. It’s like a ballet master leading you through ballet moves, arm and arm. But Sakmongkol can train this way because of all that “stupid” in his body. The harshness he absorbed, the repetition, it soaked in. There is no hack. He’s taught us the “hack” of his style – Sylvie learning, me watching. It is beautiful. It is great fighting technique. But this technique is not where the heart of Sakmongkol lies. It lies in his experiences, something that cannot truly be extracted by any machine view of things.
This is the most beautiful thing about Petchrungruang Gym. It is filled with kids. These are mostly Thai kids but there are two western kids also, Jozef (Slovakia) and Alex (Italy). Pi Nu runs this place with incredible patience. Just incredible. The patience isn’t so much with a particular person or event, but with a very long view. The Slow Cook. The pot is going to be on the stove for years. He expresses concern whether a certain boy will ever be good, but this is just the Thai way of talking. All the boys are in the pot. They all cook together. There is an unspeakable, and unhackable element to this. You watch the boys almost randomly clinch all afternoon, or play spar without gear as if they are in the WWE, throwing themselves to the ground, or have a full on mock fight with refs and 100% blows, or padwork done by a person of authority, or given to each other. It is one big pot. And it cooks and cooks. Almost at no time do you see a technical correction being made, something to be hacked and abstracted, and when there is a correction it almost always feels as if the reason is: “that is ugly”, shaking one’s head – sometimes followed with a clownish impersonation. The effect of having everyone in combination is something like this synchronization of metronomes (below), but where each boy somehow retains his own Muay Thai, his own style, strengths and weaknesses. They are pulled into a kind of togetherness.
Pi Nu seems to watch kids fall into extremely fallow seasons, where they don’t fight, hardly train, but the process continues. He admits that he is fairly easy on the kids, that there are many camps that are much harder, where the training is rigorous and even with the threat of beatings. This is probably a generational thing. Thailand pedagogy once existed in a harsher environment. Pi Nu is now middle class, instructing a Lumpinee-fighting son (Bank, 14) who is much more privileged than Pi Nu was as a boy, when he had to tend the family ox and work on the family farm each day. Pi Dit, a gym owner in Isaan, speaks of how things have seriously already changed young fighters .
This new generation of fighters, though, can’t touch the fighters of the previous generation. It’s not because modern fighters aren’t talented, but because most of them are not as hard-working. They don’t have to be. Back then, it was so much harder to do anything related to Muay Thai. It was harder to find fights, harder to find someone to train you. The ones who fought at high levels were completely focused. No one could afford to half-ass it. Out here, fights were so hard to find that only the most dedicated would end up fighting and earning money. Only the best of the best, the ones with real passion, ever went anywhere.
While the pressures on young fighters have changed, even in the single generation of the Petchrungruang Gym, the slow cook process has not. The fighting of Muay Thai is an experiential process. The techniques transmit themselves across the bodies of young boys (and occasionally young girls – Phetjee Jaa trained here for more than a year), through the rigors of training, the repeated fights, the process of the kai muay, in the culture of the family that is a gym. You cannot “hack” this. It is a lived and living thing. And for this reason it belongs to Thailand.
In my guest articles here I write about my experiences as a husband to Sylvie, so why have I written this? It is because we have tried to hack Muay Thai here. Sylvie came to Muay Thai later in life, hitting her first bag when she was 24, hardly sparring until we moved here in 2012. But the hack has been the attempt of experience. She’s hit the gas on her training from the beginning, eventually training at two gyms in a day if she had to, training non-stop, and fighting in Thailand numerically more than any westerner has. The realization is that she does not have the decade or more to achieve the art that the Thais have, and she does not have the starter recipe of experiences that some fortunate western women do with early exposure to martial arts as a kid or even as a teen. Instead she has been pushing the experience meter itself, because it’s the only way. She now has more fights than almost any Thai opponent she’ll face, even though they have years on her. She already trains harder than they have done for any length of time. Why? Because this IS a hack. It’s the attempted hack of meaningfulness. It’s squeezing as much experience into her body as she possibly can in the limited time she has. It’s turning the fire up on a very slow cook stew recipe. And this is why all fighters from the west who fight here need to be applauded. They too are experiencing Muay Thai, dipping into the fire water of it, and I say this as a non-fighter. The western fighters of Thailand are attempting an experience hack, if at all that is possible. They aren’t just taking techniques for export…as a favorite of mine Wittgenstein might have said: Muay Thai is a form of Life…and you have to be formed by that Life.
We’ve been so fortunate to have found Petchrungruang Gym, and O. Meekhun as well. When Sylvie sunk herself into the slow cook of the gym she discovered something about herself and fighting. No matter how high you turn up the heat there is still a matter and beauty of time. There is the technique of patience, an art of slowly massaging out a technique…not in a few weeks, or a few months, or even a year. In years. We see Pi Nu do this like a Stradivarius wood carver. It has been such an unexpected combination: Sylvie’s red hot intensity of unrelenting training and fighting, and Pi Nu’s very slow, slow hand. The one thing we know is that the work is just starting to show itself. It should take maybe 3 more years before Pi Nu’s genius really begins to come into being. Do we have that time?
As her husband I just sit here in incredible anticipation, like watching a time-lapse flower, or icy stars tilting quickly across the sky, only it isn’t in time-lapse. It is slow, slowed and slower.
More from a Husband’s Point of View