The moment I walked into Baan Kru Preang, I knew there was something there to be reckoned with. I’d seen clips of the students training and had an idea of what they were about, but all that was from afar. I’d had prior experience learning other martial arts, but now, I stood among them in total silence and waited to learn their art of Muay Chaiya.
No amount of pre-training footage could have prepared me for what lay ahead. The focus of their training was not in learning something briefly and putting it into practice. Instead, their preparation was designed to burn their theories and techniques into the students’ muscles, ensuring that it would be something automatic when the time was right. Far from anything flashy, their techniques were simple and for some, probably boring to see let alone do. This did not seem to be a factor for the students at Baan Kru Preang, who silently and diligently trained through each movement, never stopping until the respective kru (teacher) told them to move on. I have to admit, it was a little intimidating at first to be among students so focused, but I have to say it was paralleled by the camaraderie they exhibited. Even to me, a brand new face, an outsider non-Thai for that matter, they were very friendly and patient. It seemed as though not even the language barrier (my Thai is horrible!) was enough to stop us all from becoming friends. When I was shown a technique I simply couldn’t wrap my head around (and there were many), the kru were not afraid to slow down to show me the move, more slowly than before, so I could understand it. This patience and good-nature left me speechless at times and allowed me to feel all the more welcome in a place where I wasn’t sure how I’d be received. Movies had primed me to be the foreigner who wanted to learn a native art, only to be shunned and ridiculed by the local students. I was and am glad to say such was not the case.
Perhaps that’s what struck me most about Baan Kru Preang. Inside its walls were keepers of an ancient are and all its customs. They hold Muay Chaiya in high regard, not just as a fighting art, but as a gem of their cultural heritage as well. This respect fosters a menacing level of discipline and seriousness in its practitioners, but is counter-balanced by a kindness and civility I’ve found rare in most places I roam. I don’t doubt for a second that it was character traits like these that let me get so close to them, to learn their style, and make friends along the way. We were learning the same art in the same place, and surely each had their own reasons for training. Despite differences in culture, intensity, and skill level in Muay Chaiya, we all, like the fists of the fighters of old, had been bound together through this sacred art. Tied together through a an intricate and complex network like the hemp rope gloves of the Kadd Cheuk (bound fist) fighters, we were together. And like the sun-hardened coils on the hemp gloves, poised to destroy those who would bring us harm.