The 25-year-old grew up in Vancouver and had been casually practicing muay thai for five years. But, after working as a pharmacist for a year and a half, she decided to pursue her dream of fighting in Thailand.
“If you’re going to do muay thai, Thailand is the place to be,” Cheng said.
A combination of martial arts and kickboxing, muay thai is Thailand’s national sport. Although the technique is said to be thousands of years old, the first permanent arena was built in 1920 in Bangkok. Today, muay thai is practiced world-wide and is on the brink of becoming an Olympic sport.
“There’s a rush when you fight,” Cheng said. “You go into the ring and you just do your thing. It’s amazing.”
Cheng left her friends and family behind for an indefinite amount of time. She has been in Chiang Mai, Thailand, more than six months and loves it. In Canada, her fights were often cancelled and her training schedule conflicted with her everyday life, she said. In Chiang Mai, she can fight competitively and train twice a day, six days per week.
“I think training almost every day is a challenge,” she said. “It’s hard work but I love the end result.”
Since moving to Thailand, Cheng has won her first fight. She attributes success to her training regimen and support she receives from her gym, Kaisingthong Muay Thai.
“Everyone in the gym is like family,” Cheng said. “We take care of each other since we spend so much time together.”
Cheng’s trainer, Andy Thomson, is a tranplanted Canadian who has been working as an instructor in Thailand for 15 years. He enjoys the sport because it’s unique.
“The beauty of muay thai is that it’s about the individual who practices the art,” he said. “We are all different and muay thai allows that individuality to come out, rather than be strictly structured like many other forms of martial arts.”
Thomson said he trains people from all over the world, but most of his students are from Australia, the United States and Canada.
Ajahn Suchart Yodkerepauprai is a muay thai master at Toronto’s Siam No. 1 Muay Thai Club. He has almost 400 students, of which about 40% have travelled to Thailand to fight, he said. Some stay for a few weeks, others for several months.
“Everyone who has been wants to go back right away,” he said.
He thinks the trip appeals to Canadians because Thailand’s weather allows for year-round training, and students can experience the culture that parallels the sport.
“Muay thai is so beautiful,” he said. “It’s even performed at special occasions in Thailand.”
Some of those occasions include New Year’s celebrations and the king’s birthday. Muay thai brings forth the Thai culture through a dance called the ram muay, which is performed by the boxers before each match.
“Each pose that is performed pays respect,” Yodkerepauprai said. “It’s respect for their teacher, parents, culture and the art.”
Yodkerepauprai started practicing muay thai when he was eight years old, which is normal for Thai boys. He came to Canada 26 years ago and is happy to bring part of his culture with him.
Back in Chiang Mai, Cheng is preparing to fight a female boxer from Thailand. The arena is packed with tourists and locals who are placing bets. The odds are against Cheng. While her hands are being taped, music starts to play, signalling her time to step into the ring.
As she puts on her red padded gloves, she turns to Thomson and says, “I feel like I got this. I think I’m going to win.”
After that fight, Cheng’s record is now 2-0.