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The 18th Annual Pacific Northwest Thai Boxing Association Camp 2008
A loud cheer rose from the almost 140 fighters and instructors as they raced up the hill from the training ground to the lodge. Dinner time. And after a long, hard day of training in the arts of Muay Thai and Boxing, the smells of authentic Thai food wafting out of the lodge were a blessing.
The food was lovingly prepared by Ajarn Chai's family, some of whom flew over from Thailand just to assist in making the 18th Annual Pacific Northwest Thai Boxing Association Camp a success.
Ajarn Surachai “Chai” Sirisute, founder of the Thai Boxing Association, wanted not only to provide his trainees with delicious meals, but also to help them learn about the culture of Thailand out of which Muay Thai grew. For this reason, the camp includes a test each year focusing on Thai vocabulary related to Boxing as well as the history of Muay Thai. Ajarn Chai believes that to truly understand a Martial Art, fighters must understand its culture and traditions. Ajarn Dan Inosonto explains this further by saying that it is important to instill the skills of a Martial Art in a person, but to learn these skills you must learn the culture of that Martial Art, including its history.
This emphasis on tradition could also be seen in the test for full instructorship. In addition to the fighting section of their tests completed before attending the camp, those individuals hoping to increase their rank from Instructor to Associate or Full Instructor were required to correctly demonstrate the Wai Kru Ram Muay, a traditional ceremony performed to honor a fighter's teacher and camp before a match. The Wai Kru Ram Muay includes paying respects to one’s parents, teacher, and ancestors in the form of a ritual dance accompanied by the music of the Dontree Muay. More than twenty men and women performed the ceremony while the rest of the students sat in a square around them to provide the shape of the boxing ring. As Ajarn Chai watched to make sure the ceremony was performed correctly, he also checked that the full instructors were observing. "Do you see how I work with them?" he asked as he had the Associate Instructors perform individual sections of the Wai Kru Ram Muay.
Having served the Thai Boxing Association for 40 years, Ajarn Chai now emphasizes the training of instructors at camp, especially in the last three years. Because Ajarn Chai wants to guarantee that there will be plenty of qualified instructors who have been trained under his careful guidance, some of the students testing to become Associate and Full Instructors at this year's camp have been able to advance in rank at an accelerated pace. Still, after they had performed the Wai Kru Ram Muay, Khuen Khru Greg Nelson stressed to the newly certified Full Instructors that their job is a huge responsibility and that they must "take the integrity of the art to heart." Ajarn Chai says this acceleration is possible due to the quality of instruction those seeking advancement have received from their home gyms around the country and world.
One way that Ajarn Chai ensures that the high caliber of instruction continues is to observe how the Instructors, both Full and Associate, interact with the students at camp. According to Ajarn Inosonto, the keys to being a good instructor are always instilling discipline and being able to adjust physical conditioning to the students’ needs. Therefore the job of the instructor is to personalize Martial Arts training, while maintaining the physical skills. Ajarn Chai pointed out that this is why it is so important that instructors be able to work well at camp; they must be able to work with new students outside of their own schools. Ajarn Chai says this makes many of the instructors nervous, but he wants to make sure that they can teach despite their nerves.
Even Khuen Khrus like Greg Nelson, Dan Inosonto, Leonard Trigg, and Brian Dobler, were watched as they led large groups in push ups, frog jumps, body builders, fighter's stance and other activities before and after the main training sessions. Instructors were also expected to insure that students remain disciplined, paying respects to their partners or bags before and after each round. If students slacked off or failed to pay respects, they could expect to do push ups; but despite the large number of fighters in attendance, this was rare.
Fighters began each day with a very cold 6:15 am run uphill through the Oregon woods surrounding Camp Wilkerson. After the run, as fighters huddled around the fireplace in the lodge sipping hot drinks and trying to get warm, breakfast was served by students from the surrounding area who got up early each morning to cook before beginning the morning circuit with everyone else.
For the majority of each morning and afternoon the training ground was broken into a circuit of six stations, each with one or more instructor focusing on a particular skill. As Ajarns Chai and Inosonto observed and kept track of rounds, fighters moved through stations emphasizing heavy bags, plum, shadow boxing, holding pads, drills for kicks, knees, elbows and punches, and more. In the mornings, training was focused on form and technique. Fighters were told to move slowly and carefully, thinking about their movements, rather than giving everything they had. This also helped guarantee that the fighters had the stamina to keep working out for the rest of the day. Going all out was reserved for the longer, more grueling afternoon sessions. But before the marathon afternoon drills began, a special extended lesson was given to the fighters by Khuen Khru Leonard Trigg. As the fighters gathered around Trigg in the field, the soft spoken and reserved Trigg gave them instruction on Boxing. Trigg asked the fighters to practice the skills they were learning during the lesson, improving their stand up game.
During the circuit, fighters, starting as young as 11 years old, worked for about four, five minute rounds at each station before being given 30 seconds to run to the next and get geared up. On their first day of the circuit, fighters worked through 24 rounds in the morning and 24 for in the evening. The next day their workload increased to 40 rounds in morning and 40 in the evening. The third day of training was accompanied by a drum circle to help the fighters work on their rhythm and timing. Ajarn Inosonto explains that "music and Martial Arts are inseparable. They will work harder with music." By Friday, Ajarn Chai was simply pushing the fighters to do as many rounds as he felt they could. Only when he observed that many of them were starting to cramp did he let them break for showers and dinner. Even at this point it was only the non-fighters in training who were dismissed. Those who were training to fight in the ring had to stay longer to perform 75 body builders while lined up on a steep incline. Finally, the fighters' group was allowed to rest too.
But many chose not to rest completely; lots of the students used the time during and after meals to speak with Ajarn Chai, Ajarn Inosonto, Khuen Kru Nelson, Khuen Khru Trigg, and the other full instructors about their experiences, whether in training for various Martial Arts, opening their own schools, or just having general conversation. All of the experts graciously spoke with students and were open to answering questions late into the evening.
It is not only the unbeatable training opportunities that the fighters, each hand-picked and invited by their instructors, receive at camp that brings many back year after year. "It's like a big family reunion," says Nelson. Many others who have been attending the camp for years share this sentiment, explaining that one of the best parts is getting to catch up with all of the men and women who they may not have seen for a year or more and share their passion for Muay Thai.
Those attending camp do not take Martial Arts lightly; they are disciplined and hard-working, or they will not be coming back next year. It is so important that fighters be able to display these qualities that Ajarn Chai specifically honors those who demonstrate them to the highest degree with individual awards on the final night of camp. Ajarn Chai feels that it is the responsibility of their instructors to prepare their students for the work that will be asked of them before allowing them to come to camp, and was pleased with how ready this group was for the challenges they faced. He says this is a credit to their teachers. Chai, Inosonto and many Khuen Khrus commented that the among the fighters this year there is very little cockiness or ego, and that most are willing to push themselves to their limits. The act of coming to camp itself shows the dedication of those in attendance; the fighters traveled from all over the United States, as well as other countries such as Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, and Australia. Most fighters spent the five nights camping in tents in the woods, despite the cold, though some opted to stay in cabins or motels located nearby. But cold nights and travel expenses could not keep these fighters from taking advantage of this opportunity to study the art of Muay Thai under its most elite practitioners, and leaving the Pacific Northwest Muay Thai with bumps, bruises, and sore muscles is just one sign of the incredible dedication to the Martial Arts that all in attendance demonstrated.