I run barefoot laps around a rain-slicked training area. My instructor exhorts me to punch, kick and raise my knees as I run. He speaks limited English. We move on to circuit training. I work the pads. Then the bag. Now I spar. Three hours pass. I'm exhausted, hungry and thirsty. I anticipate the wind-down. The instructor thinks otherwise. "Tousand sit-up." I buckle down and do the exercise. A trainer comes around to inspect. He drops a medicine ball on my midsection. This is my vacation.
A decade ago, William McNamara, an American running the English programme at a local Catholic school, bought a small gym so that he had somewhere to train in muay Thai. Today, he finds himself the owner of a camp that serves 300 to 450 people every day.
Tiger Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts camp attracts everyone from beginners looking for a challenging workout to professional fighters sponsored by the Tiger camp. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) stars George St-Pierre, Phil Baroni and Dave Menne, Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Dan Simmler and mixed martial arts (MMA) legend Royce Gracie have all trained here.
And then there's me: a 36-year-old journalist with one fight under her belt. In March, I stepped into the ring for three rounds with a fellow participant in the three-month corporate contender boxing programme at Haddins Fitness in Abu Dhabi. I acquitted myself well and got a great sense of reward from the experience. So here I am.
It's June, the rainy season, and water beats down all around us. The floor, covered in blue foam squares interlocked like puzzle pieces, is soaked around the edges, and the water is creeping in. The beams on the industrial steel roof are rusted. Fourteen punching bags dangle from the roof's edge, waiting to be punished. There are no walls. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's Thrift Shop pulses through the speakers; it will become the anthem for the week.
The Tiger camp is divided into training areas for beginners, intermediate, advanced and fighters. There are 40 men and women from Europe, North America, Australia and the Middle East in the beginner area. There are day-oners and people who have been here for weeks; six-packs and no-packs; and bodies in various stages of tattooedness.
A short, 50-something Thai instructor with a generous goatee and a bandana wrapped around his head is the spitting image of Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid. Before the class begins, he leads us through a series of stretches. He doesn't say a word. He indicates each new stretch by clapping his hands together, and everyone follows along. After the warm-up, several trainers help wrap our hands, and we don our boxing gloves and leg pads. Then we line up facing a mirror and Mr Miyagi - who has adopted both the iconic character's name and disposition - leads us through a series of muay Thai moves.
Muay Thai is a combat sport that uses fists, elbows, shins, feet and knees, as well as clinching. It became popular in the 16th century, but gained international recognition in the 20th century as Thai fighters were successful against fighters practising other martial arts.
My move from boxing to muay Thai mirrors that of Riddick Bowe, the former world heavyweight boxing champion who is also in Thailand learning the sport. The Bangkok Post reports that the 45-year-old, 300-pound Bowe will make his debut fight later in the week.
The physical exertion required for this training is extreme and probably better suited to the majority of this camp's trainees, who are much younger and more nimble than myself. Most visitors stay for a minimum of a month and usually for several months, which is the minimum training time to do any real fighting.
My days begin with sunrise yoga, and amount to five or six hours of exercise classes with generous napping, eating and massage peppered throughout.
By the third day, I feel that I have a firm grasp on the basics moves and won't completely embarrass myself with a personal trainer.
I get assigned to Big Nong (not to be confused with Small Nong), whose clinching prowess is apparently legendary. He's completed more than 300 fights, beating some of the biggest names in the sport. He's trained several champions, including Lamsongkram Chuwattana, whom he coached to the world middleweight muay Thai title.
And now he's stuck with me.
Big Nong takes me through all the offensive and defensive moves in various combinations over the course of an hour. He corrects my stance, my footwork and my techniques, distinguishing my progress with grunts of concern and approval. His only English vocabulary is: jab, right, kick, knee, elbow and "relax", which apparently is something I need to be reminded often. But despite this limited communication, he is a most effective trainer. My confidence and skill improve dramatically during the course of the week.
The camp is situated in Chalong, on a 2.5-kilometre jungle road called Soi Tad-ied that housed only a couple of businesses when the camp moved in. Now it's a thriving stretch, with dozens of inns, restaurants, massage houses, pharmacies, laundries and stores, all catering to the camp.
While many of the trainees stay outside of the camp and get around on scooters, I opt for one of Tiger's deluxe gym bungalows. It is an extremely spartan room, with air conditioning and a hot shower being its main selling points. While the decor is lacking, the location, in the middle of the camp, makes my day effortless, as several showers and power naps are required.
With so much calorie-burning going on, I work up an appetite. The camp's eatery, the Tiger Grill, turns out to be one of the week's unexpected highlights. It serves all manner of comfort food, but the big hit is the Wagyu cheeseburger for 200 Thai baht (Dh24). It's one of the best burgers that I have ever enjoyed, and I soon learn that the man behind the burger is Cheffy Baby, an American celebrity chef who has been in Thailand for the past 11 years exploring the cuisine and, more recently, bringing exceptional food to hungry fighters.
The people that I meet all have different reasons for being here. Some want to lose weight and get fit; some are using it as a home base to explore the region; some want to learn self-defence. I meet a grade-school teacher and a former military intelligence officer, both of whom, like me, are keen to conquer a challenge. It's a communal atmosphere where faces quickly become familiar, and each of us is known by the country that we come from, if not by name. There's a sense of belonging that's comforting as we all test our limits together.
There is time outside the daily rigour for some adventure. I rent a bicycle from the camp and explore the area (100 Thai baht [Dh12] per day); one evening, I join the trainers to watch a night of muay Thai fighting at Suwit Stadium, a 10-minute drive from the camp; and I get numerous rubdowns (400 Thai baht [Dh47] for a sublime, two-hour Thai massage). On Sunday, there is no training, and I use the opportunity to ride an elephant at Siam Safari. They operate in Chalong's Nakkerd Hills, which house Phuket's famous Big Buddha. The views are spectacular.
As we wrestle with perfecting Mr Miyagi's moves, he surprises us by hollering at somebody walking past the class. All 40 heads swivel to see a young guy with his leg in a cast, hobbling along on crutches. Mr Miyagi tells in great animation of how "British Man" performed a defensive move incorrectly and snapped his lower leg. "Don't do like British Man!" he cautions, between bursts of laugher.
Muay Thai is unforgiving. As my week comes to a close, I Google Riddick Bowe, and discover that he was knocked out in the second round of his debut fight. His Russian opponent is quoted as saying: "He's too slow and a bit too old".
But Bowe refuses to call it quits. "I'm going to do it again. Next time it's going to be different," he tells the local press.
I'm with Bowe. After just a week, I feel stronger, tougher and more confident. And with all these new moves, I don't think I'll give up just yet.
If you go
The flight Air Berlin (www.airberlin.com), partnered with Etihad, flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Phuket daily from Dh3,375 return including taxes
The training A week’s accommodation in a deluxe bungalow at Tiger Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts camp (www.tigermuaythai.com, 0066 76 367 071) is Dh1,000. There are also cheaper shared accommodation options. A week of training is Dh354, which gives you the choice of 11 classes daily. A private, one-hour muay Thai training session is Dh71
Follow us @TravelNational
Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.