BANGKOK – Thailand has a reputation as a hedonistic holiday destination famed for its parties, beaches and the backpacker Mecca that is the Koh San Road.
Yet nothing could be further from the traditional tourist experience than the lifestyle led by a small group of English women who train and compete in the national sport of Muay Thai.
The rules differ from traditional boxing in that fighters are allowed to use their fists, elbows, knees and shins – earning Muay Thai the moniker of “the science of the eight limbs”.
While locals typically take to the ring in search of a route out of rural poverty, the sport is becoming increasingly popular with foreign visitors to the kingdom.
The training is harsh, and involves waking up before sunrise for the first of two daily sessions. The financial rewards are meagre, but that is not enough to deter the English women who come to Thailand not in search of a suntan, but to prove that they can compete with some of the best female fighters in the world.
One of them is 35-year-old Melissa Ray from Huddersfield, who has a doctorate in neuroscience. She decided to turn a 2006 trip to Thailand into a permanent move and went on to become a Muay Thai world champion,
“I went to Thailand to train and get more experience fighting,” said Melissa, who had participated in just a couple of amateur fights before moving to Thailand.
“I never originally intended it to be a long-term move – I thought I would stay a few months then return to the UK – but seven years on I’m still over here and loving Thailand life very much.”
Although now retired from the sport, Ray is a veteran of over 40 fights and thinks that the experience of training in Muay Thai gave her an insight into the culture that most expats would never experience.
“I saw a side of Thailand that even a foreigner who lives here and teaches English perhaps wouldn’t get to see. A Muay Thai gym is like a family, so being involved in the sport has really helped me to get close to Thai people and to understand more about the language and culture,” she said.
The purses on offer to female fighters like Ray pale in comparison with those their male counterparts can expect to receive if they are fortunate enough to reach the pinnacle of the sport. However, gambling is prevalent, and Ray recalls having the equivalent of £4,000 riding on the outcome of one of her fights.
“On the King’s birthday in 2008 I fought Praewa Sor Penprapa with a 200,000 Baht sidebet. She was awarded the win, but several of the spectators disagreed with the decision and threw beer cans and water bottles in the ring when the result was announced,” she explained.
Although that fight ended in disappointment, Ray would ultimately have her revenge the following year.
“Our rematch was on the Queen’s birthday in 2009 for the WPMF [World Professional Muay Thai Federation] belt. I had been out of action for several months during 2009 due to a hamstring injury, and that rematch was my first fight in nearly nine months. I ended up winning by TKO (technical knock out) in round three and it was the happiest feeling of my life, a mixture of relief and complete elation.”
In Thailand, children as young as six years old are allowed to compete in professional Muay Thai. By the time she retired from the sport at the age of 33, Ray was accustomed to taking on opponents half her age.
“When I fought Mesa Tor Buamas on the King’s birthday in 2010 and at a show in Ratchaburi in March 2011 she was 17 to my 33. It did cross my mind quite a few times that I was old enough to be her mother. Jomyutying Kiat Nor Wor, who I fought during the S-1 tournament on the Queen’s birthday 2006, was also around 16 or 17. I’m sure there have been other opponents who were considerably younger than me,” she said.
While Ray embarked on her Muay Thai career immediately after graduating from Newcastle University, where she earned a PhD in Neuroscience, another English fighter who has been living in Thailand long-term started the sport much later in life.
Geraldine O’Callaghan, 45, from Ramsgate, was working as an office manager for a software company but after being made redundant in 2007 she decided to take a trip to Thailand for the first time.
“I wanted to take a break before looking for a new job and I came across a website for a camp in Phuket where you could learn Muay Thai. It appealed to me as I had been doing some kickboxing and boxing for fitness in London and wanted an activity based holiday,” she explained.
Although O’Callaghan didn’t envisage becoming a full-time professional Muay Thai fighter at that stage the holiday piqued her interest and she set about returning to Phuket at the earliest available opportunity,
“I returned home after three months and got myself another job which I stuck out for a while before deciding to return to Thailand for another break. I’ve been here permanently since 2009 – my family is happy and supportive but some of my friends back home were surprised I was fighting, as I outwardly I am pretty quiet and reserved,” she said.
O’Callaghan went on to become a world champion, just like Ray, and feels that the locals now look at her in a different way to the millions of short-term visitors who descend on Phuket every year.
“The longer I’ve been here the more familiar I have become with Thai culture, and I think that the longer you are here the less you are treated less like a tourist. I’ve been picking up more of the language as well because the trainers in the gym tend to speak to me in Thai,” she said.
Muay Thai might not offer much by way of a pension plan but every time Ray or O’Callaghan steps inside the ring they are creating memories which will potentially last a lifetime. This goes a long way towards explaining why these English women have turned their back on a traditional career to pursue their fighting dreams.
James Goyder is freelance journalist from the UK who has lived in Thailand since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @JamesGoyder and find his website at www.jamesgoyder.com