About eight months ago, I started practicing Muay Thai regularly at the Thai temple, Wat Buddhavas in Houston. Most every Sunday, I’d train from 10 AM to 5PM. It was a transformational experience. I just wanted to learn to fight. Instead, I learned much more about Thai culture that I didn’t notice before. If you are looking to start a fitness program or learn a martial art, give this place a try.

What is Muay Thai?

Muay Thai at Wat Buddhavas
James practicing roundhouse kick with Michael.

Muay Thai is known to many simply as kickboxing. It’s actually much more. Muay Thai is a combat sport of Thailand. Unlike generic kickboxing, Muay Thai incorporate knee and elbow strike as well as several movement techniques not commonly observed in boxing. Before Muay Thai becomes a sport, the Thai martial art was simply a set of unarmed combat skills of Thai soldiers in the past.

The word “Muay” (มวย) has three meanings. Commonly, it means boxing. “Muay Thai” would simply mean Thai boxing. But we already know that. The second meaning of “Muay” is to tie or wrap something around an object. In the past when boxing gloves didn’t exist, fighters tied their fists with rope for protection before fighting. I think this is how “Muay” eventually comes to mean fighting.

The third meaning of “Muay” is one or united. I think this meaning also makes sense. Every Muay Thai move uses a fighter’s body as one. A simple punch, for example, relies on the movement of the entire body to deliver as much force as possible.

The word “Thai” (ไทย) simply means freedom. Putting them all together, Muay Thai translates to wrapping one’s fists in preparation for freedom. The freedom part is not exaggerated. For about 300 years, Thailand (known as Siam back then) was at constant war with Burmese Empire. Muay Thai, in its ancient form, is credited for Thailand’s independence in this long conflict.

Learning Muay Thai

On the first day, I spent about six hours training. I never exercise or play sports that long. I usually get bored easily. But this is very engaging. I feel very satisfied hearing the sound of punching bags getting hit. It sounds like the sound effects in martial art movies.

Kru Chai teaching children class.
Kru Chai teaching children class.

At Wat Buddhavas in Houston, Kru Chai teaches Muay Thai to anyone who wishes to learn. His students range from preschoolers to working adults. No background experience is required to attend. Since there are usually a few adults attending, he is very attentive. In any martial art, executing a wrong move is easy when there is no one watching over. Kru Chai not only corrects us but also takes the time to explains in detail.

The facility is very modest. The training area is a multi-purpose building with open airflow. There is no air conditioning. In summer, I sweat like I just took a shower. There are few punching bags to train with. There is no stationary workout equipment.

I pay $100 per semester to train. The money goes to the temple, not Kru Chai. Kru Chai volunteers his time teaching to preserve Muay Thai in its authentic form. This includes real life application of Muay Thai for self-defense.

What differentiates Muay Thai training here from other places in Houston is Kru Chai’s experience in Muay Boran. Muay Boran refers to the ancient form of Muay Thai that is used in actual combat. He teaches movement techniques known as “Mae Mai”. Theses techniques are ways to evade and counter an incoming attack. They incorporate the historic and the artistic sides of Muay Thai. For example, a technique called “Hak Kor Erawan” means to break an elephant’s neck. Erawan refers to the mythical elephant of  a Hindu god. In this technique, the attacker pulls his opponent’s head down by the neck and deliver a knee strike to the chest, neck or head. Like the name suggests, the technique is very dangerous and it is prohibited in the ring. National Geographic measured the power of this strike and concludes that the force generated is similar to that of a car crash at 35 miles/hour.

Muay Thai at Wat Buddhavas
As a bonus, we often train with swords (or sticks in this case) as a way to learn Muay Thai. The basics are very similar.

Most other Muay Thai gyms around here only focus on the physical aspects. I’ve heard of people doing Muay Thai there and thought of it as just kickboxing and cardio workout.

The only negative I have to say about training at this temple is the attitude of Thai people. In Thailand, people who fight Muay Thai professionally are often very poor and never attend college. I feel that some people here associate this stereotype with anyone who practice Muay Thai.

Transformation

I remember that first day well. We exercise our abs intensely. I felt I was getting a six-pack. It wasn’t long before I start seeing it after I begin muscle training. Before Muay Thai, I only do simple cardio and stretching exercises. I don’t want to be a muscular guy just to impress people. I saw no point in muscle training. But with Muay Thai, I go to the gym so I can fight better. I feel bad (for my sparring partner) that I get punched at all the time without returning the favor.

If you want to get in shape, start practicing Muay Thai. It is fun and you will lose a lot of calories before you know it. Since Muay Thai uses the entire body to fight, your muscle should develop evenly (assuming that you practice all Muay Thai moves). On average, an hour of Muay Thai burns 600-700 calories. The number varies depending your weight and training intensity.

"Hiran Muan Paen Din" - reverse elbow strike
“Hiran Muan Paen Din” – reverse elbow strike

I also changed a lot mentally. We often spar (fight without full force) as part of the training. Even in sparring, some strike really does hurt. Since I’m new to the group, I get hit a lot. There is also another person who started around the same time as me. But he’s very tall and he would hit me first before I can reach him. There is also a guy who have been practicing Muay Thai for a very long time. I have to be very creative to land any hit on him.

By sparring with these people beyond my level, I learned to keep going even in the face of adversity. I realized that it is okay to get punched in the face as long as I keep fighting. More often, it’s just easier to get punched in the face and stop fighting.

This lesson is very applicable in life and business situation since failures and losses are necessary for success. Successful people are normal people who fail but keep on persevering. I’m sure everyone know this. But the act of perseverance is much harder to do when we are confused or involved in difficult situations. Since I started practicing Muay Thai, I relate failures to be like me getting hit while in a fight. I can choose to keep fighting for a chance to win or stop fighting just because I got hurt.

Wat Buddhavas, Houston

Thai classical music class at Wat Buddhavas
Thai classical music class at Wat Buddhavas

Since Wat Buddhavas is the center of Thai community in Houston, there is plenty of authentic Thai foods around. I thought I can train Muay Thai to lose weight here. I was wrong. On the bright side, I didn’t gain any either. There are plenty of healthy options available that are not typically available in Thai restaurants. I don’t have to get Pad Thai or Green Curry here. The healthy foods from northeastern Thailand (Isan region) such as papaya salad are common and tastes very authentic (meaning spicy).

The temple also teaches Thai language, traditional music, and traditional dance. Every Sunday (during school semester), the temple hosts Sunday school for children from kindergarten and up. Some parents train Muay Thai while leaving their children in the school.

Traditional Thai Dance at Songkran festival
Traditional Thai Dance at Songkran festival

There are also two major yearly festivals at this temple. The first one in April is Songkran Thai new year. The second one in November is Loy Krathong. They are the kind of festivals you’d expect in Thailand – a lot of foods, shops, and performances. The Muay Thai team performs demonstration as part of the show too. Beauty pageant contest is a part of every festival. The only problem is they frequently lets old and obviously married contestants enter. Fortunately, the recent Songkran festival only has young contestants.

The only activity I don’t recommend at this temple is anything Buddhism related. The temple is too focused on commercial activities as opposed to being an example of austerity. Buddha teaches people to live simply and be content with little material possession. But this temple never stops looking for ways to make money. In every festival, all the food merchants are there on volunteered basis. All money (including the money the merchants spent to buy ingredients) goes to the temple. In beauty pageant contest, people are asked to buy a $50 balloon to vote for their favorite contestants. And this money goes to the temple. To be fair, most Thai Buddhist temples are like this. This is normal.

 

Overall, I’d recommend Wat Buddhavas as a place to practice Muay Thai. I feel like I am in Thailand every time I come here. If you decide to train here, I’d like to hear about your experience in the comment section.

 

Categories: Personal Lesson

5 Comments

Muay Thai at Wat Buddhavas, Houston

  1. Thank you for your post. I was actually looking for information (class schedule/how to join) regarding Muay Thai at Wat Buddhavas, Houston.

  2. Good article. Thanks for sharing.
    To be fair….since the Wat does not take plate offerings as some Christian churches do, the festivals are the means the temple rakes in “donations” to pay dor expenses that religious organizations typically pay for….utilities, feeding the religious leaders, maintenance, etc.

    1. Thank you for the comment.
      The point I was trying to make is that Buddhist temples shouldn’t be involved with commercial activities on this level. I can understand if they just want to maintain the place with the money. But I’ve seen how extravagant some Buddhist monks live with all the donation money they get.

      Some Buddhist temples, however, do not ask for donation yet they still have the resources to feed poor people with organic foods. Here is one in Bangkok that I wrote about http://blog.jackchalat.com/organic-vegan-foods-at-santi-asoke-vegetarian-society-bangkok/

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