A Muay Thai vacation

I’ve wanted to go on a ‘wellness’ retreat (or a trip that hinged around movement and massages and food that was both delicious and nourishing) for years, but there’s always been something in the way. They were all either too long (yoga courses worth their salt tend to be at least a month-long) or too-spendy and too much of an investment, or they just weren’t the sort of thing that my partner wanted to participate in, which is a real hurdle when you’re trying to use vacation days to get some time together. I found the solution to three in Chalong.

Tucked away in one corner of Phuket (which you currently either know for its beaches or for notorious Thai party destination Patong) is this little place, an unlikely shrine to wellness and the pursuit of roaring good vibes, strength, and pushing your physical limits. Think health, not hangovers.

We first heard about it from the trainers at the studio we go to, who all departed en masse one December for some sort of kickboxing thing and returned visibly stronger, incredibly enthused about something called Tiger Muay Thai (just gibberish to me at the time), and volubly encouraging us to all just go. Some visitors go for a week or ten days, as we did, but very few. Most go for a month, or three, or six, or eight.

It all started with the professional fighters who came to hone their MMA skills in the tropical sun and under the tutelage of the local Thai kickboxing trainers at Tiger Muay Thai, the place at the epicentre of it all and around which the rest of Chalong’s offerings have sprung up. Today Tiger is home to trainers from all over the world, and to a mixed bag of disciplines: Western boxing, jiu jitsu, Muay Thai (of course), as well as things like weights, functional training, and other strength and mobility practices. All around it there are Muay Thai camps, gyms, CrossFit boxes, juice bars, massage and physio centres, a flotation therapy place… and that’s all within a one-kilometre stretch.

There are pro fighters everywhere. In line to get juice and a chicken and avocado pita at Ali’s BBQ we’re standing behind two ripped giants, and this is the case everywhere. It is easy to go into paroxysms of self-doubt when walking around the place, because you’re surrounded by bodies in peak physical condition, also clearly all dab hands at various MMA streams but don’t. Everybody is almost comically strong. I mean, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

This place is an unlikely shrine to wellness and the pursuit of roaring good vibes, strength, and pushing your physical limits. Think health, not hangovers.

Dragon Muay Thai is our first port of call and it is a two-and-a-half-hour class with loads of running to warm up, sparring, partner work, and sweat sluicing off everybody. It is a (relatively) gentle lead-in to the week but we’re all dehydrated as fuck, unaccustomed both to working out outdoors and the humidity. The week following, we drop in and out of classes at both Tiger and at Unit27 next door, where the emphasis is on HIIT and functional training more than Tiger’s MMA focus. At Tiger we sign up for private Muay Thai lessons, where an instructor works with you one on one to build strength and correct form and that’s something I’d recommend over the group classes. By the end of the week, when I’m bruised all over (seriously, not an inch of me that isn’t tender to the touch) from the kickboxing, Unit 27’s insanely-hard but not contact-sport activities are where we end up. Make no mistake, these are the very opposite of respite. In fact, these are the hardest classes I’ve ever done, but I’m beyond delighted when I’m making it through them and still standing at the end. When I can do three hill runs and not want to die (okay, want to die only a little) I allow myself a little pat on the back (metaphorically, my arms are too sore to go all the way back).

In between classes and walking around, all diet and training regimes are supported; you’re more likely to find cold stone protein ice cream than a Cornetto. Even the fro-yo place has protein chocolate and dulce de leche with protein brownies as toppings. The food is light, fresh, MSG-free, and designed to nourish but still delicious because… Thailand! There is green juice and coconut water everywhere and no one here smokes (if you’ve travelled in Thailand before you know what an anomaly that is). Everything also is shut at 10pm, because everyone’s exhausted after days training and already in bed, ready to rise again at 6am. Only every fourth or fifth place serves booze and it is just beer and wine. It is unlike every other trip to Thailand before but by the time we get to day five, past the soreness and stiffness of days two and three, we are all brimming with energy, de-puffed, de-bloated, and just feeling pretty good all round. I feel like it takes a week just to settle into the regime, I’d have loved a second whole week to really push harder, but that will just have to keep for next time.

Everybody is almost comically strong. I mean, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

Part of what’s appealing is the ability to immerse yourself into it all. Making change stick through the power of ritual, of daily repetition, and of the single-minded focus that you’ll find there, in the people you’re running alongside, and in the trainers. In truth, despite my focus on eating well, and on getting enough fresh produce and green things into my belly, my nutritional habits have always been a bit…wobbly. I’ve been the person that drank the green smoothie, and then ate three packets of Gems. Or the person who ate the spinach and peas in coconut milk with grilled chicken with great gusto, and then, with equal gusto, scarfed down the better part of a large pizza only to end up miserable, bloated, and suffering the ill-effects of both gluten and lactose intolerance only hours later. The start of this year was rough for sugar consumption, and right before I went to Thailand my face was puffy, I wasn’t sleeping well, and I was heavier than I’d been in eight years thanks to fairly consistent seesawing between exceptionally healthy means and binging on junk like a starving teen, and I’ve known for just as long that it’s been the one thing that stood between me and all my health goals.

After the first few days I am achy, have a sore lower back (from hitting 77 kilos on the heaviest deadlifts I’ve ever managed), and sort of like my legs might fall off. I also feel stronger than I ever have before. When we are done with that day’s training we eat in that “I am so hungry I could eat a horse” way that I have, truly, forgotten. We eat because we have been working hard and are starving, not because it is lunchtime, and it has been, I realised, a long time since I felt truly hungry. After, we get massages (warning: Thai massages are EXCRUCIATING when you are bruised all over from kickboxing) that we really feel like we’ve earned. The masseuses think our screams of pain are hilarious, which sort of does take the edge off a fresh batch of wincing. On Sundays all of Chalong rests which makes it a good day to go get a massage or do some other sort of restorative bodywork. (Massage places are cheap and plentiful in Chalong, although it might take trying a few to find one you like.) Or else go to the beach, about 5 kilometres away.

Where to stay

Accommodation up and down the street ranges from the basic to the more luxe, but don’t go if you’re not there to train because you won’t find those beautiful villas and five star hotels along this stretch. If you’re on a bike though, or decide to rent a car, there is sexier accommodation a couple of kilometres away. We stayed at a place right in the thick of it all, Signature, which was super-convenient and allowed us to hop in and out of classes, massages, meals with ease. We also stayed at a place a short drive away – Villa Sonata – which was beautiful, peaceful, and perfect for when you want to scale back the training a little and also get some downtime, but do your own research and find what suits you and your own budget.

It’s not for everybody. If your idea of a great break involves lying in the sun with a cocktail, might I suggest Rawai or Koh Samui instead. ‘Why would you go work out on holiday?’, I was asked, but I mean, why would you not?  Some people go on holiday to dance til dawn, while others go to explore cities (also very fun, of course), but if sport and training is your sort of thing, this place is heaven.

For more on Tiger Muay Thai Training Camp, their rates, and training schedule, please visit their website
For more on Unit 27, their rates, and training schedule, please visit their website.
For more on Villa Sonata and their tariffs, please visit their website.
For more on Signature Phuket and their tariffs, please visit their website.