Want to get under the skin of thai culture? or to get fit fast? Then take a trip to a Muay Thai kick boxing camp — even the luxury spa hotels are offering boxing rings and personal trainers…

Sam LewisIT’S A SHORT yet choppy boat ride along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river to the Wat Muay Thai Training Camp, but the change of temperature from my air-conditioned suite at The Siam causes beads of sweat to drip down my forehead. As the phut-phut of the engine dies, our brightly-coloured long boat sidles up to the dock, a Buddhist monk in orange robes appears smiling and I bow my head in customary recognition before quickly clambering onto the jetty.

In front of me stands the temple of Wat Wimutayarama, but I’m not here to admire golden buddhas or ornate gables — my destination is an unremarkable corrugated-roof gym tucked around the corner. I’m on a journey to discover why my husband is so obsessed with the martial arts; and why a growing number  of farangs (foreigners) are taking up the national sport, Muay Thai — Thai kick boxing.

Nat Geo TravellerAlthough one side of the building consists merely of wire mesh, open to the cooling breeze from the river, the children inside are covered in sweat. While some relentlessly punch or kick boxing bags, others spar in a full-sized boxing ring, gently tapping each other when the other drops their guard. I step inside, over a sleeping stray dog, and, sensing an audience, they attempt to drop each other to the floor. Eager to impress, one ducks a punch, grins and performs a cartwheel, much to the amusement of his friends.

While the training regime is tough — daily jogs before and after school, plus two hours on the pads or bags — the atmosphere is light-hearted and jovial. Aged from around six upwards, most of the children are skinny with more protruding ribs than muscles, but from the sound of the thud of shins on the pads, it’s clear they can pack a punch double their body weight.

The training camp was established around nine years ago when a local Thai man asked the monks if they would donate a small plot of land to start a makeshift gym for the local community. Like hundreds of Muay Thai centres around the country, his aim is to get impoverished children off the street and teach them a discipline that could keep them out of trouble and, for the talented ones, provide a ticket out of poverty. While some kids live locally, turning up daily for sessions, around 10 boys call this camp their home, sleeping on mattresses on the floor in a tiny adjacent room.

As most Thais are Buddhists and believe their good deeds will lead to everlasting happiness, charitable acts are commonplace. Kru Keng, who now manages the camp, tells me several Muay Thai trainers donate their time to teach the kids while the villagers donate food. The equipment and other necessities are paid for with the money the children earn by competing in Muay Thai matches around the country — they get to keep 50% of it, some of them sending money back to their families in the countryside. The more fights they win, the more they will get paid to compete with higher prize money as a bonus, Kru Keng says, pointing proudly at his 10-year-old son, who has won 150 fights and was recently crowned national champion in his 21kg weight class.