Lanna Muay Thai History in Chiang Mai – Brave Dave’s 90 Minute Documentary
Brave Dave, about 10 years ago, put together a DVD of his 3 long visits to Lanna Muay Thai in the early 2000s, capturing a time and a place in a way I’ve never seen before. For anyone thinking of coming to stay long term in Chiang Mai, no matter the camp, this short film is a must see. The things it covers are extensive, including not only the camp but also the “life” that drew people from all over the world to the camp:
Training, Food choices, bro bonding, Chiang Mai markets, renting motorbikes or cars, festival fights, the Olympic swimming pool, renting movies, bar girls and the night scene, infectious diseases, rented rooms, Andy Thomson, how to waste time in training, cops giving you tickets, visa runs, outside travel, the history of Lanna Muay Thai, running in Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep, and more. All three parts here:
The footage of this documentary is 10-14 years old already – filmed over a range of time – but there’s something amazing about watching this time-capsule of what is considered by many to be a “Golden Era” of Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai. It’s amazing to me for a few reasons: firstly, I’m surprised that there is so much about Lanna and Chiang Mai that is exactly the same from 9 years before I ever arrived there; and secondly because a great deal has changed and getting an actual photographic glimpse into the days of the lore told about Lanna is brilliant. This is a historically famous camp, and one I myself trained for two years after it’s heyday, from 2012-2014 (fighting over 70 times with the camp). It was a forerunner camp offering authentic Muay Thai training for westerners, and also famous for the the depicted life of boxer camaraderie. No doubt this DVD, while only around 400 copies were sold, has also played a hand in making the Lanna legend, giving a rare glimpse into the Lanna world.
Watching the footage of the surrounding areas and the routine stomping grounds of Lanna fighters is uncannily familiar to me. The stalls on the streets have changed a bit, but not much at all. The runs are still nearly identical; the lake run is exactly the same in its utter familiarity; the instantaneous recognition of the mountain-slope behind the waterfall that is a nicer, secret-path on the run up Doi Suthep. Those places could change enormously and not seem changed at all because they have a feel to them. If you spend a year or more at the camp, you’ve traced that line so many times, training 6 days a week, that you’ll know it without even looking. It’s like knowing the small spaces and paths from your childhood: walking to school, the hallways of your house, your best friend’s yard. It’s like that.
I don’t know any of the people who are the focus of the action, but they could be practically any of the people I encountered while I trained at Lanna. They’re the “bros,” there will always be bros when you occupy a camp with 20-somethings from around the globe, but they are also a brotherhood. There are women in the background, at times, and that’s kind of how the camp felt for me too. That’s not a criticism – it’s just another aspect of familiarity, these spaces are male spaces. Personally I didn’t experience much of this at all when at Lanna, the scene of male camaraderie was much, much less strong in my time. My husband and I kept separate and I just trained and trained…and slept. But for many this is a huge part of the Muay Thai camp experience in Thailand, and the film does a good job of capturing that joy.
Brave Dave, our guide, has a great attitude. He seems like he’d be fun to have at the camp and his imitation of all the ways in which you can waste time during training is hilarious: the endless drink of water, rolling the wraps, the dog petting. It’s dead-on and not even an exaggeration. His relationship with the other guys at the gym is evident in how they interact on camera, his assessment of each of the trainers at that time (which is so long before I got there) is totally accurate and remained that way for a decade and probably forever after (Daeng, Doi, Den, Nok, Taywin), and while the stadia in Chiang Mai are a bit different now, the festival fights will never change. They are, as Dave asserts, the best atmospheres for Muay Thai to be found.
But my favorite part of the film and perhaps why this trilogy is so precious to me, to anyone who’s gone through Lanna, is the interview time with Andy (above). There is nobody like Andy and to have him in this setting, at this moment, with his dogs and his sage advice…is very moving for me. It’s something that was potent in the Golden Era of the camp and that folks who go there now are truly missing. I love Andy and while I’ve always appreciated how much he means to me and how much he’s taught me, somehow it’s always a little surprising to get a surge of recognition for how much he’s impacted me personally, and how many lives he’s influenced and made better over the years. I almost got teared up listening to him explain, so plainly, that even after 2-3 years a fighter is just a “basic fighter,” and that you’ll never be ready for your first fight in terms of technique and fitness – you just go and see if you have a heart.
If you learn nothing else in life, if you take no other truth from the path of Muay Thai in Thailand, just take that bit. It’s not about being ready. It’s about being willing and then working hard to be as good as you can be.
Lanna camp changed heavily about half way through my time there as Andy, its founder and guiding light, separated himself from the camp to live permanently at “Hill Camp”, previously the retreat location for fighters needing a break from distractions illustrated in this film, a place to “get serious”. The split was acrimonious between himself and Pom, his Thai wife who still owns and oversees the camp, though his imprint on the camp is immense, as he was more or less a father to many who are part of it still. I feel completely blessed to have experienced Andy during my first visit back in 2010, and then again in 2012. He is the soul of Lanna and an ever inspirational teacher.
Today’s Lanna is not the Lanna of when I was there (2012-2014), and the Lanna of when I was there was not the Lanna (2005-2010) of say my inspiration Sylvie Charbonneau who you can read about here. And Sylvie’s Lanna was not the Lanna of these years (2000-2005). But this is all part of western Thailand history, and it’s awesome that Dave has documented this for all to see. And if I’ve learned anything it’s that camps are always changing, there’s always good and bad, they are never the best for everyone, and were never really even what the myths say about them in the past – I’m pretty shocked at the size mismatches between the farang and Thais shown in the fights chosen for this film, for instance. Lanna has always been a place which is extremely fight-friendly, and where you can get outstanding training if you are determined to put the work in, and it is very probably very much the same today (when I visit, it seems so). The bro party scene does seem to be much smaller than it was during the time depicted in the film, but that can be a good thing too for some.
Personally, if you don’t want to watch the full 90 minutes, I’d strongly recommend at least the first 18 min or so, which is just outstanding at presenting the life and the way of Lanna, a spirit which endured all the way to my time, and probably beyond. I’d say skip the last 10 minutes of the first part with guys just trying to be funny in their apartments (but it does show the kinds of room people can stay in, though we rented a nice little apartment for the two years we were there, not shown – or perhaps not yet in existence – at this time). Beyond that, the documentary is full of “Chiang Mai life” details that I’d definitely recommend for people looking to train in the city long term, no matter the camp, especially those who are looking for that kind of camaraderie. The nightlife, the food, the health issues, the motorbikes, the “downtime”, all of it is there.
Capturing what goes into life as a westerner in a Thai camp has has been part of my motivation as well, to inspire others in the future to follow their dreams. Dave succeeds in that with flying colors. Documenting the life, and opening the door to others to create their own adventures, and make their own Thailand dreams come true. I now for more than a year have been living, training and fighting full time in Pattaya, a world of it’s own, a very special time, but this documentary really invokes the world of Chiang Mai and Lanna, a world that has definitely helped make me the fighter and person that I am.
A thank you to teachers Andy, Den, Daeng, Neung, Nok, Pom, Tor, Big, JR, Doi, Taywin and to so many others I met at and through Lanna.