The above photo was taken during my first ever training session at Master Toddy’s Bangkok Gym in December 2011. You can see me in the centre, just above Master Toddy. Today marks three years since I moved in here to start training with him full-time. In this post, I want to talk about how I got here, why I’ve stayed here and some things that have changed between then and now.
How Did I End Up Here?
I never planned to train at Master Toddy’s. In fact, before I arrived at his gym, I didn’t even know who he was. I was so new to the Muay Thai world that I’d never heard of him before. My previous experience of Muay Thai was minimal, so let me start by telling you how that happened.
After graduating from university in 2010, I almost immediately left the UK to go backpacking, starting in Thailand before heading to Singapore, South Africa and then The United States over a 6-month period. My first month in Thailand was spent travelling and the second was spent training Muay Thai at a gym in Chiang Mai. This was my first experience of Muay Thai and as most do, I fell head-over-heels in love with it. When the time came, I moved on with a heavy heart and although I had the most incredible time in South Africa, I was almost unable to fully enjoy it because I missed Thailand so much. While I was there, I made the decision to commit to my dream of teaching and training in Thailand. This meant cutting my trip short and cancelling my flight to and from the states. I’d previously planned to do 7-week journey across the US, flying into San Francisco and out of New York, but during my time in South Africa, I realised that I had two choices: to continue as planned and go to America, a trip which would almost certainly leave me completely broke, forcing me to go back to the UK for work and join the rat race that I was trying to avoid in the first place; or to go back to Thailand, where my money would go a lot further, I could sustain myself for as long as I wanted and work towards dreams that I was only just realising were actually within my reach – teaching, training and fighting in Thailand (although I ‘d barely admitted the last one to myself, let alone to anyone else at that point). While travelling across South Africa in December 2010, I battled with hostel computers and terrible internet connections to book myself onto a course to become a qualified English teacher, which was to take place in Chiang Mai the following April. I then re-arranged my flights, surprised my parents with the news and felt like a weight had been lifted. Everything had been thrown up in the air and rearranged before falling into place.
After returning to Thailand and getting qualified to teach, I worked in a school in Bangkok for eight months. During that time, I tried to find a Muay Thai gym so that I could start training again, but was unable to find one that could fit in with my work schedule. I resorted to taking private lessons after school with a trainer near my apartment, but soon decided that wasn’t enough for me. I had set aside some savings each month that I was working and had three months before I had to head home for my sister’s wedding, so decided to quit my job and commit those three months to training Muay Thai full-time. I thought I’d have one fight, maybe two by the end of it, just to tick the box before moving on and maybe going home. My original plan was to head back up to Chiang Mai and train with friends that I’d met there earlier that year, but another friend from America named Tom whom I’d met through teaching was planning to head to Master Toddy’s gym around that time. That was the first time I’d ever heard of Master Toddy. Since my friend would be training there and it was actually not far from where I was already living, I decided to join him there for two weeks before he went back to the US, at which point I would then go up to Chiang Mai. Incidentally, that’s not how it happened. While Tom moved on, I never left and three years later, I’m still here.
First Impressions of Master Toddy
I recall being really surprised by Master Toddy when I first met him. I had no idea who he was and wasn’t sure what to expect, but he definitely wasn’t it. I vividly remember him striding out of his office to greet me when I arrived at his gym for the first time. Tom had mentioned that I was from England, to which he replied “no kidding?” and striking up a conversation with me. I was surprised by how warm and friendly he was. Anyone who’s ever met Master Toddy will know that he has a certain kind of charisma that draws you in when you talk to him. I immediately knew that I was going to like training with him. I then had my first training session at his gym, loved it and began a two-week stint of commuting there for training up until Christmas. After that, I planned to move in, completely abandoning my idea of going to Chiang Mai. Over that short time, the quality of training, one-on-one feedback, attention and support I’d received far exceeded anything I’d experienced before. I’d learned more in those two weeks than I did in two months of training in Chiang Mai previously. I’d already made such progress and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more. I didn’t need to go anywhere else, this was the gym for me.
Three Years Ago Today
I spent that Christmas with friends that I’d made while teaching in Ratchaburi province, which is around two hours from Bangkok. I’d been asked to stay there for a few days, but was so eager to commit to my training that I only spent Christmas day there before waking up early the following day to take the first bus back to Bangkok at 6am, after which I moved all my stuff out of my apartment, threw it in a taxi and headed to the gym to move in. As far as I was concerned, the holidays were over and it was time for me to get started on my dream. So, I ended up moving in here on Boxing Day.
When I turned up at the gym with my luggage, Master Toddy took me to one side, put his arm around me and said “I’m going to teach you everything. I can see that you want to fight. You don’t talk about it, but you have the determination. I’m going to teach you everything and then you’re going to fight”. Everything he’d said was right. I did want to fight, that was my whole purpose for being there, but I hadn’t actually said those words out loud to anyone. I’d barely admitted them to myself. At that time, I didn’t have the confidence to do so and I certainly didn’t think that anyone else would take me seriously. I didn’t even have the courage to voice a desire to fight. I was a complete beginner with no athletic background whatsoever. At this point, I’d only met Master Toddy two weeks prior and hadn’t spoken to him in to much depth at all, I’d just put my head down and trained. He has such an incredible way of reading people that it is sometimes a little frightening (something I’ve seen many times since then). This was my first experience of that. From the start, I completely trusted Master toddy and I knew without a doubt that I’d found the right teacher and that he was the one who was going to get me where I wanted to go. True to his word, eight weeks after that conversation, I had my first fight.
After my three month stay, I went back home for my sister’s wedding before returning with a view to stay for good. I got another teaching job with a more suitable schedule, which allowed me more time from training and fighting, and have stuck with it ever since.
Bumps in the Road
The time that I’ve spent here has been nothing short of incredible. It’s allowed me to do things that I never thought I could, has shaped me as a person and continues to do so. Still, it hasn’t been without its rough patches.
Some time during the end of the first year, I’d momentarily convinced myself that I wanted to go home. This was mainly due to loneliness. I’d had a close-knit group of friends here inside and outside of the gym, but most of them had coupled off before moving on to other countries or going home. Even while they were here, my commitment to training meant that I could spare little time to see them. Friends and family at home were moving on with their lives, getting married, having children, pursuing careers. You know, the stuff that you usually see people around you doing while you’re in your twenties that makes you think to yourself ‘fuck, am I supposed to be doing that, too?‘
In terms of my work and training, I was completely in my element and couldn’t be happier, but having no family and very few friends around to share it with began to put a strain on me and whenever special occasions rolled around, it would get me down. It was when a particular friend of mine, who I’d grown quite close to and with whom I spent most of my free time, left Thailand to go back home and study, that it really hit me. The day after he left, I unexpectedly burst into tears over lunch and went on to convince myself that I ought to think about going home, myself. With that, I began to put together loose plans around heading home six months later. Thankfully, that feeling didn’t last long and I ended up only booking to go home for a three-week vacation before coming back to continue my life here. Since then, I’ve made no plans to move on. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to make too many plans because they almost always change!
That first year or so was particularly difficult and I remember a significant period during which I felt consistently depressed. For quite a while, I was the only long-term fighter at the gym and the only female, and wasn’t meeting anyone that I really connected with. On top of that, I’d been forced to let go of a lot of people in pursuit of my dream here, some of them because of circumstance and some of them out of choice because they weren’t supportive of what I was doing.
There was also a huge change in my life here when my main trainer left the gym. This left me a little unsure for a while. At that time, I still wasn’t quite sure exactly where I was going or if I was even really a fighter. I was fighting, but was that really who I was? Was I even good enough at it to be able to say that? I knew that I wanted to do it, but I still didn’t have quite enough confidence in myself or my abilities. Later on, a huge blow came when I was told to give up fighting by someone close to me. This shook my confidence even further and sparked another difficult period for me, but was ultimately a positive experience that cemented my goals and my determination to achieve them. The same can be said for all of the negative experiences that I’ve had here. I’ve come out of all of them a different, better person just as I’ve when I’ve come out of the ring after each fight. I spoke specifically about this in a post I wrote just over a year ago, ‘Does Fighting Change You?‘
Then and Now
The interesting thing about that picture of my first training session here is that aside from Master Toddy and his wife, none of the other people in it are still here. Of course, people come and go while they’re travelling or on holiday here, but even the long-term ones, even the trainers aren’t here anymore. In that picture, I was the new girl at the gym with no idea what I was doing. Now, I’m the longest-running member and an experienced fighter.
While I’ve lost people along the way, I’ve only been on an upward trajectory. We now have a great team of trainers and fighters who have become close friends. I’ve also met lots of other wonderful people who come back every year and it’s nice to link up again each time they return. It was around half-way between then and now that I started blogging, something else that I’d wanted to do for a long time wasn’t quite self-assured enough to put into action previously. This has most definitely done great things for me.
For a start, it’s given me a voice and put me in touch with a wider community of people in the Muay Thai world, specifically female fighters. Since that’s happened, I’ve never felt lonely or unsure in the way that I did when I first set out on this journey. It’s also done lots for my confidence, and even provided me with new training partners, one of whom now lives and trains with me here. I wrote about this in ‘The Joys of Having a Female Training Partner Part 1 and Part 2 and ‘The Queen’s Cup: One Year of Under the Ropes and the Power of Connection‘.
As with most ventures in life, there have been naysayers the way. Some of those people were ex-training partners who chose to move on and tried to convince me to do the same. Some were friends who asked me things like “aren’t you bored yet?” Some were family members who’d repeatedly ask me when I’m going to ‘come home’, ‘get a boyfriend’ and ‘use my bachelor’s degree‘. When I was last home earlier this year, one of my family members even asked me “Emma, do you win any fights?” because of my modest record. Despite these comments, I’m absolutely sure that I’m in the right place and my progress so far only reassures me of that.
There have also been people that I’ve met during my time here who were much more talented or skilled than myself, but lacked something else that left them unable to keep going and have since drifted away and given up fighting altogether. I’d always believed that I wasn’t at all talented when it came to Muay Thai or athleticism, and that I had to work much harder than most just to become proficient. In doing so, I’ve ended up outlasting and exceeding some of those people. There are also plenty of people who tell me that they wish they could do what I do. But I’m not special. I don’t have any particular talent for Muay Thai. Anyone can do what I’m doing, given that they’re lucky enough to have the means.
When I first came here, I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to fight. Thankfully, Master Toddy knows exactly how to instill confidence in a person. Had I never met him, I’m not sure that I ever would have become a fighter because he was the only person to make me really believe that I could do it. Then, he gave me all the tools I needed in order to make it happen. Without him, I might not still be in Thailand now. The growth I’ve seen in myself, not only as a fighter but as a person, since I’ve been with him is quite amazing and I’m grateful for the coincidence that brought me to his gym in the first place. On my third year of living here, I still can’t imagine being anywhere else.