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Muay Thai Chakrit

In Martial Arts on October 20, 2007 at 5:54 am

A Brooklyn Monk Training in Bangkok

By Antonio Garceffo


Coach Adjan Chakrit moves in circles, holding up the focus mitts, he calls out the commands. “One, one two.” I throw a straight left, right combination. “Four!” That means, left, right, hook, straight. This part is easy for me. I have been boxing since I was twelve years old. But now he calls for two kicks on the right side, followed by two kicks on the left side. The energy required to throw a kick, versus a punch is incredibly draining. My balance is off now. My weight is all over the place. More punches, more kiks, a series of elbow strikes.


“Block!” he yells.


Instinctively, I drop my elbow to protect my mid-section. Wrong move! His kick catches me just below the ribcage. This is Muay Thai, not boxing. I have to remember to block by brining up my shins, instead of bringing down my elbows.


“Front kick.” He yells, before I regain my balance.


“Knee, knee, straight, block.”


In addition to dealing with the unusual commands in the foreign language, I am fatigued, and my brain is not working as sharply as it should be. There is a long delay before I can react to the commands. Once again, the coach’s shin catches me in the mid-section.


Muay Thai is an ancient martial art which a lot of people believe was developed first  in Cambodia, and later adapted by Thailand. The Khmers are angry that the Thais have put their name on the art. Monks and scholars I have spoken to in Thailand believe it is very possible that many of the techniques or refinement of this form of combat were adopted form Cambodia. It is certain, however, that there was some type of unarmed combat technique in Thailand before the Khmer influence.


Written records of Muay Thai date back approximately five hundred years. At that time the bouts had very few rules. The competitors fought essentially bare-fisted with their hands wrapped in ropes.


During the 1920s and 1930s, when Thailand was modernizing, the art was further refined into a professional sport. The first stadiums were built and the ring and gloves were added. This period is really the birth of modern Muay Thai. Today, Muay Thai is a big professional sport in Thailand, with somewhere in the order of 60 – 90 thousand professional fighters. In the west, we would expect good professional fighters to have worked their way up from the amateur circuit, but in Thailand there isn’t much of an amateur Muay Thai circuit. For the most part, Thai people can’t see the point of getting beat up for free. As a result, there is nearly exclusively professional Muay Thai.


Muay Thai has been added to the SEA Games (South East Asian) and it will most likely be added to the Asian Games, which will probably promote an amateur version of the sport. Thailand and Cambodia have had a long running feud because Cambodians feel the art should be called Bradal Serey or free fighting. They are angry about the fact that in Thailand branded the art as Muay Thaii. As a result, Cambodia refuses to compete in the Muay Thai championships in the SEA Games and refuse to join the World Muay Thai Council which governs professional Muay Thai. As a result, Cambodia can’t fight for the championship. Vietnam and Lao are both Communist and support Cambodia, by also refusing to compete in Muay Thai in the South East Asian Games.


Training in Vietnam a few weeks ago, I discovered that they didn’t have any kickboxers or professional fighters in the whole country. Consequently, their refusal to compete in the SEA games is not so significant.


Thailand and the Philippines are doing extremely well on the international fighting circuits, in the lower weight divisions. Japan hosts the K-1 which is basically the Super Bowl of professional kickboxing. Now, they have opened smaller weight divisions to allow Southeast Asians to compete. Japan is, in a way, becoming neutral ground for the politically charged sport of Muay Thai. There is also the ISKA, a professional kick boxing league, based out of the USA, which is also seen as a neutral title. Cambodia, Vietnam, and Lao could compete in the ISKA or K-1 without using the name Muay Thai. While Thailand has been quick to join international boxing leagues such as WBA, WBO and others, the neighboring Southeast Asian nations have been reluctant.


Although Muay Thai encompasses a lot of religious, cultural, and political concepts, in practice, it is essentially Thai kickboxing. They hit with punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. The kicks are very special because they are hitting with the shins, not the feet. The elbows and shins are very hard and can cut you wide open. When someone tries to kick you with their shin, you can’t use your hand or your arm to block because you will get hurt. The way we block is by using our shin bone. You raise your leg up and take the impact shin to shin. You can imagine how much that hurts. As a result, a lot of the Muay Thai training deals with toughening the shins, deadening the nerves, and building up scar tissue. We call it hardening the shins.


In provincial training camps you will find poor Thais who see boxing as a way of earning money to help their family. They go to live in a camp and become pat of the stable of fighters. The camp arranges fights for them and takes a percentage of the purse. In return, the boys get free room, board, and training. In these camps you will see people doing all manner of crazy exercises to harden their shins quickly. They kick trees, kick bamboo, or kick metal poles. At night they sit around hitting their shins with sticks or with bottles. They smear all sorts of traditional medicines, potions and lotions, on the skin to quicken this hardening process. This type op training does work. They can go from zero to totally hardened shins in about 90 days, but it is a terrible experience, and the shins will be all cut, open, bleeding, and infected the whole time.


Modern coaches, such as my Bradal Serey (Pradal) coach in Cambodia, Paddy Carson, believes that your shins should just be allowed to harden naturally, over time by kicking the pads and kicking the bag. This is the same as we do for our hands and elbows.

In hardcore gyms the bags are hard to help you toughen up. In some of the foreigner gyms, the bags are softer and the coaches will do things like fall down or act like you have hurt them to pump you up and make you feel good. But take it with a grain of salt. Remember you re paying them a lot of money for that praise.


When you come to Thailand, you will have the choice between training in Bangkok or training in the provinces. If you train in the provinces you will be surrounded by poor Thai guys trying to earn money for family. Living conditions will be difficult. Training will be Spartan, but not necessarily better. The coaches in the provincial camps aren’t usually trained as coaches. They were chosen because they were winning fighters. Champion fighters aren’t necessarily the best coaches.


Provincial Thai people are very welcoming and will probably invite you to train with them. They may not charge you anything and just ask that you contribute for food. A provincial camp could be a great cultural experience, but if you are serious about learning to fight, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, or one of the more developed areas may be better for you. In a provincial camp, if you don’t know how to box already, you may not learn anything. Your training will consist of a lot of running and bouncing on tiers or jumping rope. You will be told to kick the bag but probably won’t be taught HOW to kick the bag. You may or may not get face time with the coach in the ring, working the pads. And you won’t get a lot of instruction. Also, if you don’t speak Thai, they probably won’t be able to communicate with you.


If you train in Bangkok, the average cost seems to be about seven to eight thousand Baht per month. And that is just for your training. Food and lodging are extra. The advantage is that a coach is assigned to you and get a lot of one-on-one instruction. At Muay Thai Chakrit, where I have been training, I can have as many rounds with my coach on the pads as I want. We usually do three or four rounds of just hands and two of kicks. In better gyms, the coach will also watch you shadow boxing and working the bag, refining your technique.  Some gyms actually offer courses where you can learn step by step and even take exams and earn certificates. But many of the gyms in Thailand which cater to foreigners are making the assumption that you have had some training before. And in fact, it is a valid assumption. A lot of the foreigners are here because they are competing in MMA or Muay Thai in their home country and want to get some training experience in Thailand. So, the training in the gym is focused on practice and conditioning and refining technique, but not necessarily on teaching step-by-step, from the ground up.


Training in the other developed cities of Thailand can be much cheaper than training in Bangkok, but may offer the same quality of instruction. If you train in Chiang Mai there are live in camps which are as cheap as 8,000 to 10,000 Baht per month including your lodging


“Muay Thai is not just about fighting for money. It is our art, and I believe Thai people need to practice it. If we don’t, we will lose it.” Said Bom Apiwat, a university-bound student, practicing Muay Thai in Bangkok. In the remote parts of Thailand, professional boxing is seen as a last-ditch effort to get out of poverty, but a new generation of Thai young people are joining expensive gyms in Bangkok, training alongside crazy Farang (foreigners) training for the love of the art.


“I want to go to college and work in tourism, so I can travel the world.” Says Bom. “But first, I want to have at least one professional fight, so I can have the experience.”


Having experience in pro boxing or MMA can be a double edged sword when you are training in Thailand. While you are here to learn their art, you may not want to lose yours.


One of the arguments I get into with my coaches is that they want me to turn my hand over when I hook. Professional boxers don’t turn the hand over on a hook. My Bradal Serey coach in Phnom Penh, Paddy Carson also believes that the hook should not be turned over. He believes the reason all of the Asian martial arts turn the hand over on the hook is because their only experience in the past was amateur boxing. Whatever the reason, I don’t want to undo the things I do which work for me. I want the coaches to improve  my kicks and elbows and knees but leave my hands alone.


The next argument was that they wanted me punching form way out, more than eighteen  inches. But in boxing, I throw hooks and upper cuts from three inches. Working the pads the way they had me doing it in Thailand I was throwing out my shoulder. Some coaches told me that you can’t use the three inch punch in Muay Thai because you will get hit with knees and elbows. Now, I am waiting to see; are they telling me this because it is right, or telling me this because this is what they have always done? This is often the question you have to ask when you are training in Thailand; are we training to be more effective fighters or training to learn the art of Muay Thai better?


Today, the argument was that the coach said I was pressing him too much when we were working the pads in the ring. Every time I hit, I slide forward a bit. I do this to keep my weight moving into the punches and to make distance as an opponent will often back up when being hit. He said, “no you shouldn’t be moving forward like that.” But again this is a strategy that works for me. If I stay at a distance, the kicker will have an advantage. By coming in close, I can neutralize the kicker’s advantage and maximize my strengths which are boxing and grappling. This is what I have done in kickboxing in other countries. But again, I can’t say for certain that I am right, because maybe in Thailand, with the knees and elbows, this is not the best strategy. What I need, is to hear from the coach he has done research, and thought it through, and made an analysis leading to an answer based on fact, rather than “We teach you to do it this way because we have always done it this way.”  


You must be aware that a lot of coaches train everyone the same way. A good coach needs to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the fighter and tailor each fighter’s training to his abilities. Everyone is not a 19 year old Thai guy who weighs 60 kgs and has 0% body fat. A lot of the foreigners training in Thailand are heavyweights and tend to be in their late twenties or early thirties. In fact in my gym, the average age of foreigners is probably around 35. And most are my size or larger. Nearly all have experience in another martial art, boxing, kickboxing, or grappling.


You need to constantly ask your coach why you are doing this or that. Make sure what they are teaching you will work for you.


For example, the coaches wanted me to bounce. They said, “You have to bounce. Muay Thai fighters bounce.” I said, “no way!” I weigh too much. Bouncing would destroy my knees and I would tire out in less than one round. If you watch K-1 those guys don’t bounce if they don’t want to. You have to fight your fight.


Training in Thailand is a great experience. When you come here, you are free of all the other distractions in your life, like working, and you can concentrate on training, eating, and sleeping. If you chose a good gym or great one, either way, you will be getting hours upon hours of training which you never had in your home country. You don’t have to be rich to come to Thailand. The flight is a bit pricey, but once you land, everything is cheap. Excellent Thai food can be had for less than one dollar per meal. Lodging can be found for between three and five thousand Baht per month. Don’t wait till you are rich, or you will never come. Just hop on a plane and get in the ring.


Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” The Pilot episode, shot in the Philippines, is running on youtube, click here.  The Monk From Brooklyn – Kuntaw in the Phillipines Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website


Learning Thai in Bangkok

In Linguistics and Language Learning on October 16, 2007 at 5:32 am

 Automatic Language Growth, a new approach to absorbing a hard language.

By Antonio Graceffo


“The way we found out that our mother had diabetes was that ants would appear every time she peed.” 

The teachers had been standing at the front of the room talking about bodily functions and toilet humor for nearly an hour. The next story was a Thai legend about a half woman and half snake spirit monster, which fed on human waste. I would have been appalled, except that it was all in Thai, and yet, after only a few weeks of study, I understood what they were saying. Maybe it would have been better if I didn’t understand. I could have tuned out. But I had paid money to learn the Thai language through this innovative approach, and apparently it had paid off.


The shocking humor of the subject matter forced me to remember the new language.


The lessons weren’t always so unappetizing. Sometimes they were down right fun or silly. The teacher would say the Thai word for ambulance and the students would have to make ambulance noises. Or, she would say the Thai word for train and we would all make choo-choo noises. We were alowed to shout, laugh, get up, and act out. The one thing we were not allowed to do was to speak Thai.


If a student answered a question in Thai, he would immediately get told off by the teacher.


Sometimes it was difficult, Thais have less of a sense of political correctness than we do. More than once a Thai teacher, named Hom, would pull his slacks up to his nipples, squint his eyes nearly shut, stick out his buck teeth and pretend to play golf. “Look, I am Japanese.” He would say.


The first week of class I thought everyone associated with the program was insane.


“If I wanted to listen to two hours of racist banter, and get yelled at for speaking my mind, I would just go have dinner with my father.”


After I understood the concepts behind the program, it began to make sense. Soon, it was like joining a cult. People who believed in the program couldn’t believe there was any other way to learn Thai. And now I think they are right.


The program, called ALG (Automatic Language Growth), was developed by an innovative American linguist, named Dr. J. Marvin Brown. ALG was based on a much earlier theory, dating back to the 1920s, called the Silent Way and later called the Natural Way. Basically the commonality between these theories is that they were listening based, and that they started by observing the way children learn language.


Chinese, Arabic, Thai, Korean, and Japanese are considered some of the hardest languages to learn, and yet small children in these countries speak them fluently. What is more, the children never sat in classes, learning their mother tongue. So, how did they learn it?


Children learn through listening. Children hear their mother and other adults speaking for months on end before they start speaking themselves. Obviously, you can’t be expected to do something correctly until you have seen it done several times. The same is true with learning a language. If someone tells you a Thai word once, you won’t remember it. If they tell you fifty times, you may remember it, but you will mispronounce it or misuse it. The only way to correctly learn a Thai word, or anything for that matter, is to hear it used, correctly, in context, repeatedly.


If you call someone, but they are already talking on the phone, you say the line is busy. If you are staying in a hotel and you don’t want the maid to enter, you hang a sign which reads, “Do not disturb.” If someone is using the toilet on the airplane, the sign reads, “Occupied.” If you want to sit at the movies, but someone is holding the place for a friend, he says “This seat is taken.”


Busy, do not disturb, occupied, taken all have similar meanings, but it would seem strange to us if you called someone and “the line is taken” or if the seat at the movie theater was “do not disturb.” You make linguistic choices everyday, when to use which of many similar words. If you think back, there was probably never a time in your past when you wrote out these four examples and memorized them.


You never wrote the phrase, “Always use occupied for the bathroom,” fifty times in your notebook. And if you did, it wouldn’t strictly be true. If you are in the bathroom in your house, as opposed to a public toilet, when someone knocks, you say “I’m in here.” Not, “occupied.”


When you tried to learn French or Spanish in school you probably did write out lists of when to use certain phrases and words. And, you probably got them wrong most of the time. Moreover, you would get frustrated when you discovered that every rule had fifty variations and twenty-seven exceptions.


Language existed for thousands of years. Rules have only existed for hundreds. Language is organic. It grows as we need it. Rules are static. And they are only amended long after they are out of date. Have you texted someone recently? The spell check on your computer tells you that word doesn’t exist. But we use this word every day. It may be years until the rule matches the reality.


So, how did you learn these intricacies of the English language?


“Experience is the best teacher.” Says David Long, head of the Thai language program at AUA, Ratchadamri. David came to Thailand nearly twenty years ago to study under Dr. Brown. Since Dr. Brown’s death, David has been continuing his work.

“To learn something, we have to have a meaningful, transportable experience.”


In other words, you learned “Occupied” because you flew on an airplane twenty times and needed to use the toilet. This was a real experience, and it was meaningful. You never forgot the experience of dancing around, waiting for the bathroom to be unoccupied.


“Something taught through experience is infinitely better remembered than something taught through school.” Says Long.


Homework, tests, and dialogues are all school concepts, not life concepts, so they are absent from the ALG program. ALG creates experience through teacher student interactions. The teachers stand at the front of the classroom, acting out stories. One  hour of sitting in class is exactly one hour of listening, because the teachers talk constantly. More importantly, the teachers speak perfect Thai. So, the students are exposed to a perfect model. Is students were permitted to speak Thai, then the other students would be hearing an improper model.


In lower level classes, the students interact, but not by speaking Thai. The interaction may be that they are asked to perform tasks or make noises. The concept here is that we can have meaningful interaction without speaking.


“Words are overrated.” Says David Long. “We use them so much, they have no meaning.”

According to David, studies show that we only hear one of five words spoken in our native tongue. This suggests that 80% of our communication is non-verbal.


If we communicate in our native tongue non-verbally, why then would we expect to communicate in a foreign language using words? That is the first question ALG asks of language learners. Until your level of Thai approaches your level of English, you shouldn’t expect to be able to communicate effectively in Thai.


“Most Thai people have had several years of English at school. It is not logical that you would be able to communicate better than them after only a few weeks or months of Thai lessons.”


A major key to ALG is, we don’t want to start speaking too early.


If we ask the average westerner to imitate a Chinese person speaking English, he will inevitably reverse his Ls and Rs. “Oh, me so solly.” The belief is that Chinese people can’t say the letter R. But Chinese babies adopted by western parents have no difficulty saying the letter R. So, it is not genetic. It is a question of learning, of modeling, hearing, and observing. Once again, Chinese babies adopted by western parents will listen for at least a year and a half before they start talking.


Thai is a tonal language, which means, changing the tone of a word completely changes the meaning. I asked a taxi driver to park the car, and instead, he kissed me. I felt flattered till I found out the difference between the word kiss and the word park was just a matter of tone. The next problem with learning Thai is that Thai has at least three times as many vowels, both long and short, as English. Once again, a small mistake in vowel choice can be disastrous. It can mean the difference between riding a horse and stepping in dog pooh.


Hearing a word once or twice won’t help you to pronounce it correctly. You need to hear it in context and in some memorable and meaningful way, many times before you can remember it.


When I was a young lad in school, we had to make sentences with vocabulary words and memorize them. This was completely meaningless. As a result, of thousands of big words we were forced to “learn” at school very few of them became part of our English vocabulary.


Children learn the words they need, when they are ready to learn them. If you have a two or three year old at home, you have no way of predicting what they will learn on a given day. The child will decide. ALG allows adults to learn the same way. What one students learns on a given day may vary dramatically from what another student learns. But they are both learning.


The ALG Thai program lasts about 2,000 hours. Classes begin early in the morning and continue till late in the evening. Students can come and listen as many or as few hours as they like. Some students try to do two hours per day, others do six or seven. The program is perfect for busy people. As a travel writer I am constantly leaving Bangkok for periods of weeks or even months. When I come back, I simply walk back into the classroom and start learning again. Students are even encouraged to take breaks of several weeks to give their brain time to process what they have learned. Often, after a break of several weeks, a student finds his listening ability has improved.


Why are skeptics so resistant to a method that requires them to listen, without speaking?


“There are pride issues involved.” Explains David Long. “People want to speak and get positive reinforcement. If you say anything at all in Thai, Thai people will say to you, oh, your Thai is so good. Even if they have no idea what you said.”


Another common criticism of ALG is that it is 100% teacher centered. But looked at from another way, having a leaner centered classroom is also the wrong model because we are focusing on the ones who don’t know the language instead of focusing on the experts, the teachers.


David Long feels ALG is learner centered. “Our way is learner centered because students decide what they will learn on a given day.”


A professor of mine, at University of Mainz, told me, “I can’t sit down with my four year old and say, ok today honey we will learn the third conditional.” The child will just pick up the language, because the child has a constant perfect model.


My sister took her four year old to the Bronx Zoo to see the lion. While the tour guide was explaining about the eating and sleeping habits of the massive cats, my niece turned to my sister and asked, “Mommy, how do they make a web like that?”


“Lions don’t make webs.” My sister answered, a bit perplexed.


“Not the lion!” exclaimed my niece. “I mean the spider.”


My sister looked where the little girl was pointing, and sure enough, there was a spider, building a web in the corner of the lion’s cage. The adults had planned a lesson about lions, but the child chose to learn about spiders.


Should this be called a failed lesson? In a traditional classroom, this would be considered a failure, because the daily learning objective was not met. In an ALG classroom, the day would be considered a success, because the student had learned something useful, even if it wasn’t the intended lesson. At the end of the day, a teacher’s intent is not important. The purpose of education is for a student to learn. If the student learns, the education is successful.


David expanded on Dr. Brown’s work and created a concept called Cross Talk. In the cross talk seminars, two people, who do not share a common language, are paired up and taught to communicate with one another. By the end of the first session, they usually come away knowing each other’s life story.


“In Crosstalk, you can have genuinely interesting conversations with native speakers because you are concentrating on the content and meaning rather than the language. The communication becomes the focus not the language. We need to do the same in language teaching.”


If you do your homework while you are watching a movie and cooking diner your grades will be lower and your comprehension of the movie will be lower. If we divide our attention, we under perform. The same is true of a language learner trying to have a conversation in a new language. If he concentrates on language as well as content, syntax, pronunciation, and meaning…the outcome will be poor communication, and enjoyment will be zero.


Enjoyment, meaningful, experience, fun, freedom these all sound like appealing aspects of the ALG program. From hard linguistic standpoint, the idea of listening, not speaking, being the key to learning definitely makes sense. Anyone who has tried to learn an Asian language, especially Thai, knows the frustration of saying all of the words, but no one seems to understand you. Listening more and speaking less may make the difference.


Contact David Long:


Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” The Pilot episode, shot in the Philippines, is running on youtube, click here.  The Monk From Brooklyn – Kuntaw in the Phillipines Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website


Vietnamese Martial Arts

In Martial Arts on October 11, 2007 at 5:59 am

Boxing the VietnameseA Brooklyn Monk trains in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)By Antonio Graceffo An old man slapped me under the chin with the palm of his hand. My head whipped back, and I saw stars.  “Did you find what you were looking for?” Asked my Vietnamese friend and guide in Ho Chi Minh City. “I guess I did, but I hadn’t counted on it hurting so bad.” I answered.  To understand why I was in Vietnam, we have to go back to why I was in Cambodia. And that adventure started in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had been studying Muay Thai Boran in a forest monastery on the Burmese border for three months. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I emerged from the jungle to take a shower, sleep in a bed, and eat at McDonalds. A few days of rest, and I got restless. What was next? What would be the next obscure martial art in a remote location? Burmese boxing looked really interesting. It is, to my knowledge, the only place in the world where people are still fighting with absolutely no rules and no gloves. They are even allowed to head-butt.  Burma, now called Myanmar, lay just over the border. I could see it from John’s Café in Mae Sai, where I where I would pick up stories from the road during my monthly visa runs. But Myanmar was fraught with political issues. A civil war had been burning there for about fifty years. Most of the boxers I had trained with in Thailand were actually Burmese refugees. Burma didn’t look like a viable option. I am a fighter, not a soldier.  “Every Asian country must have martial arts.” I surmised. So, I went on line looking for arts I had never heard of in the surrounding countries. I did Google searches for martial arts in Lao and Cambodia. Eventually I found a name, Bokator, a nearly extinct martial art in Cambodia, believed to be the origin of all Southeast Asian martial arts. And so I hoped on a bus and I went. Three days later, I was in Phnom Penh, looking for Bokator. It took me eighteen months to find the master. That began a three-year-long odyssey of trips in and out of Cambodia to train with Master San Kim Saen and to document the art so that it would not be lost from the Earth.  After I earned my black belt in Bokator, I began looking for the new, new thing. Back to the Google search, I found a slue of martial arts in Vietnam. When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (by plane this time, now I was a famous martial arts write), I began looking for the arts. What I found in Vietnam was similar to Taiwan and other developed countries I had trained in. The main focus in the society was economic development and advancement. Parents pushed their kids to excel in school, study English, and make money. Martial art was low on the priority scale.  Most Vietnamese said to me, “But why do you want to waste time on martial arts? You could teach English and make a lot of money.” Research told me that the Vietnamese had a traditional wrestling form which seemed to have disappeared or may still exist in remote provinces, so it may take me month or even years to find it. Historically, there was also a Vietnamese kickboxing art, similar to Muay Thai or Khmer Boxing, Bradal Serey (Pradal Serey). But, as far as I was able to find out,  this art has died out.  The two main arts I was able to find were Thieu Lam, Vietnamese Kung Fu, and Vovinam, a hybrid martial art, invented in Vietnam in the 1920s. The art is also referred to as Viet Vo Dao, or the way of Vietnamese fighting.  The Thieu Lam master is the one who slapped me under the jaw, so I focused most of my energy on Vovinam.  Vovinam is taught everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The practitioners see it as a matter of national pride, similar to the way Koreans view Tae Kwan Do. Vovinam is a very complete martial art with elements taken from many styles. There are kicks from Tae Kwan Do, but also a limited number of shin kicks and knee kicks. There are grapples from Hop Kido and throws from Judo. There are also a limited number of elbow strikes. They train with an array of weapons, taken from China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.  Because Vietnam is still a communist country, there is no professional fighting at all. So, the Vovinam guys weren’t ready to go fight in the UFC. But, with a bit of tweaking, the style looks like it could be modified to use in MMA competitions. As far as traditional martial art (TMA) goes, Vovinam was a lot more interesting and complete than Tae Kwan Do. Anything that includes a grappling component is more multi-dimensional than a stand up kicking art. Unfortunately, because Tae Kwan Do is now part of the Olympics and the SEA Games, there is a huge push, particularly in Communist countries, to build world class teams. The cost is that the local martial arts are dying out.   In Cholon, Saigon’s China Town, I found a massive sports center. In the basement there was a full weight lifting gym. Gyms in Vietnam were quite complete and training was cheap. Membership in a gym costs les than $10 per month. The other five floors of the building were dedicated to martial arts. Walking up the stairs, I felt like Bruce Lee, climbing the tower in “Game of Death.” On the first floor there were about a hundred people doing karate. On the next floor, Kung Fu. Up a level, Kendo and Aikido. On the next floor, Karate and Tae Kwand Do again.  The price of martial arts training was $6 per month.  On the top floor, I found my home, boxing.  I was in Vietnam to learn something new, so I concentrated on Vovinam. The problem with most TMA is that there isn’t enough of a cardio component, nearly no strength component, and no toughening or fighting training. So, I set up a training schedule of weights in the morning, followed by Vovinam in the evening and boxing at night. The boxing was the perfect addition to make my training day complete. In Ho Chi Minh City people, go out late, study late, and train late. The streets are full of cars and motorcycles, at all hours. Boxing started at 7:30 PM, which is amazing, because in Cambodia, no one would ever consider going out that late. Even more amazing, as I was leaving the two hour workout, people were coming in for their martial arts lessons.  When you walk into a new martial arts school in Asia, there is always the thing about showing respect. They are sizing you up, so you don’t want to look weak. But you don’t want to look challenging either. If they think you have only come to fight, they may not train you, or they may hurt you. Or if they think you are showing disrespect, they won’t deal with you at all.  In boxing, there is none of this. The minute I walked into the boxing gym, the coach, Mr. Ahn, welcomed me with open arms. He was all smiles, asking me a million questions about my training and experiences in other countries. He called the boxers around to listen to the stories and ask me questions. With the martial arts guys, I have to build rapport before I can take out my camera. Mr. Ahn, on the other hand, immediately asked if the boys could take some photos with their new American friend.  As there is no professional boxing in Vietnam, all the boys were amateurs. Most were around 22 years old. They attended university fulltime and boxed part time.  I asked if I could fight in Vietnam, Mr. Ahn laughed and told me that in the whole country there were only four boxers registered at 81 Kgs, the highest weight division. “At national championships they give one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals. So, everyone wins.” In Thailand I am always amazed at the steps they are taking to improve their training, such as brining in foreign coaches or sending coaches to other countries. Vietnam was the same. One of the team’s coaches had trained in Thailand with the Vietnam national boxing team.  “We can learn from them.” Said Mr. Ahn. “In the lower weight divisions, the Philippines and Thailand are the best in Southeast Asia.” Philippine champion, Mani Paquoia (Pac Man) was almost as much of a hero to the Vietnamese boxers as he was to the Filipinos.  Talking about my Muay Thai experience, Mr Ahn told me, “We had kickboxing prior to 1979. But then it was banned. Now they would like to bring it back, but there isn’t even an association or a team yet.”  “Traditional wrestling is also dying out. Maybe it exists in the provinces, and probably not every day, just at festivals.” The good thing about training in a socialist country is that the government supports sports and education programs. Sports are made available to nearly everyone, regardless of how poor they are. The downside, of course, is that while top athletes will have state of the art training and equipment, the average gym is not as good as one we would pay for in a rich country. Boxing training at the sports complex was free, but the boxing team had absolutely nothing. They had half a heavy bag and some rotting, smelly glove.   The bag was hung too high and not heavy enough for me to do body punches or low kicks. There were no coache’s mitts for pad-work. Mr. Ahn showed me where there had been a floor to ceiling bag, but it was broken. One very cool piece of equipment they did have was a makiwara board hanging on the wall. This padded boarded is normally used in karate and other martial arts to practice focus punching. The boxers used it for speed and power drills. One guy would stand at board, throwing one-two, one-two as fast and hard as he could for thirty seconds, while his partner shadow boxed. Then they would switch off. Thirty second board, thirty seconds shadow, alternating for three minutes. It was brutal! By my third rotation on the board I was completely beat. My arms would barely stay up.  During the drill, Mr. Ahn stood by, and made sure my hands were coming back to a proper guard position between punches, so I was punching off my face, straight through.  Usually when I train with amateurs the coaches leave me alone and let me train what I want, which is nice, if I am there for a short time. I like them to leave me alone because amateur boxing is so different from professional boxing. Fr example, they turn their hands over when they hook, which pros don’t do. I don’t want them to undue my skills. But if I am going to be there for a year it is a problem because then I am not learning anything new.  Watching one of the best guys train, he was very fast and had good form and tremendous power or his size, but his hands were down at his sides, like Muhammad Ali, and he was wide open. Maybe he was fast enough that it didn’t matter, but I was shocked at how open many of them were. The gym didn’t have a heavy bag, which would be the bulk of my training as a heavyweight pro. I got the impression that amateurs didn’t work the heavy bag the way pros do. Most of their work was shadow boxing and mock sparing. Amateurs I have trained with in Philippines, Vietnam and other countries did a lot of things we don’t do, such as sliding drills, punching drills, and blocking drills. Maybe we could benefit from these training techniques too.  After the board work, Mr. Ahn had me spar with two of his guys, one round each. We didn’t hit each other hard, just worked.  The second boy I sparred with had one hand on his waste, and punched off his hip. He did all right with it, but it still looked dangerous. The cool thing he kept doing was switching off, left and right hand lead. He didn’t actually change his lead leg, but would twist his body about 50% and lead with a right hand jab. It was tricky and kept giving me a new picture to look at.  They didn’t have a ring, so we were sparring on the floor. Normally I shepherd my opponent onto the ropes or into the corner and pound them. This is much harder to do in an open fighting situation. The speed and stamina of the smaller amateur is a bigger advantage in an open situation.  In pro boxing you are always looking for that knock out or a win by attrition. You lead with the left, but you are constantly trying to set the man up for the big right hand. In amateur boxing, you are trying to win by points. Throwing a flurry of punches, whether they are hard or not, will win you points.  Training with the Vietnamese was great fun, and I look forward to continuing my study of Vovinam, supplemented with boxing and weight lifting. Maybe I will find out who is trying to start the professional kickboxing league and I can help out. Maybe we can build a Vietnamese MMA team and take the Southeast Asian title.  If you are in the USA and interested in training in Vietnamese martial arts, contact see their website at:   Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” The Pilot episode, shot in the Philippines, is running on youtube, click here.  The Monk From Brooklyn – Kuntaw in the Phillipines Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website

Training for Bradal Serey

In Martial Arts on October 7, 2007 at 10:36 am


By Antonio Graceffo


“If you want to train for fighting number one, you must be fit.” Says Paddy Carson, a professional trainer for Bradal Serey, Khmer Kickboxing, in Phnom Penh. For the last four years I have been living in Phnom Penh, off and on, and Paddy has been my teacher, pushing me beyond the limits time and time again. He drills into all of his students that fitness is the key to winning fights.

“Take Mike Tyson, was one of the best in the world. He hasn’t trained in a year. We put him in the ring right now with number twelve in the world and he will get knocked out because he is not fit. You need to be fit because you want to throw the same techniques, the hard bombs, from round three to round five.”

One of the biggest conditioning drills that we do at Paddy’s Gym is working the coaches pads. Paddy calls out the combinations and we have to respond with the right techniques. Four years ago he was only training me in boxing, so the commands were simple. One, was a straight right. Two was left right combo. Four was two left right combos. Three was an upper cut and five was a hook. But now that I am changing to Bradal (Pradal) Serey, the combinations become more complicated as he is now calling for kicks, knees, elbows, and grapples.

When I was just boxing, during the first round, my punches were solid, powerful. When Paddy shouted, “Give me eight,” I ripped into the pads with four left right combos. But, if my cardiop was bad, by the second round, I felt myself weakening. By the fourth round, you could be hitting in slow motion. By the fifth round, I wasn’t even hitting anymore. My hand stayed more or less stationary and Paddy swatted it with the pads.

“If this was a fight, you’d be defenseless.” Paddy would tell me.

It was true. I have had fights where, in the later rounds, I got so tired, I saw the punch coming but just couldn’t be bothered to move out of the way. Getting hit seemed like it would hurt less than trying to move.

Kickboxing takes about five times as much energy as regular boxing. Each time you kick, you are lifting your entire, massive leg in the air, and of course your base leg has to take all your weight. Your muscles begin to burn, and you can look really stupid throwing a slow pathetic kick. Somehow, it is more humiliating than throwing a slow pathetic punch.

“You don’t want your techniques steadily getting weaker during the fight.” Paddy tells us. “Your first round must be hard, your fifth round must be harder.”

Bradal Serey fights are always five rounds. 

“We always train three minutes, with one minute rest. In a Khmer boxing fight they even get one and a half minutes rest, but we train three and one to get my boys in shape. I train them two and  half minutes then the last thirty seconds we pump it out.”

Where Paddy stresses conditioning, fighters and trainers at other gyms have other opinions on what is important.

“A lot of fighters in this part of the world think that they need to make their shins hard.”

This is so true. The rumours and legends people have heard in the west about kickboxers training on trees and bamboo posts, or sitting up at night banging their shins with bottles are true. This always perplexed me, because as a boxer, I know that I need my hands to make a living, so I take good care of them. If you have ever seen a real boxer’s hands, they are not hard and covered with scars and knobs, like a kung fu master. They are soft, pampered, protected by hand-wraps and gloves. Why would kickboxers want to smash their best money-making asset against a tree?

“Your shins get developed not by kicking tress and a poles.” Says Paddy. “You aren’t going to make your shins any harder. All that will do is bruise a bone. To get harder, to condition your bones, you kick the bag. You do three minutes on each leg. And the conditioning will come naturally, with time. You can start with a bag stuffed with cloth remnants. Eventually, you can move up to a harder bag, filled with sand. You shouldn’t smash a tree hard with your shins.”

Toughness is an important part of being a fighter. But toughness, just like conditioning, has to built up gradually. You lose it when you lay of training, and you have to earn it back.

“Take a boxer who has been out of training for a while. His face gets soft. After he is training again his skin gets harder. It gets immune to the shots. It’s the same with the shins. People say I kick the trees. If you want to kick trees, go kick the bag instead, or train by fighting. First fight with shin pads, then wean yourself off the shin pads.”

Another mistake that a lot of people make in their training is sparring too hard.

“In training, I believe you should never go full out. Guys get in the ring and they smash each other. When one of my fighters is approaching a fight, I start to condition him mentally. I get him to believe in himself. You have to believe in yourself. If I put my fighters in the ring a month before the fight and they are bleeding and smashing noses and that, then by the time they get into the tournament everything is out already.”

Paddy tells a story about how a horse race trainer never lets the horse run full out in training. Then, on race day, he pulls away, and wins.

“You want to build them up when they are sparing so that when it comes to the fight they want to let it out. You make them hold it back, hold it back. Then when they get in the fight the mind and body say, I want to see what I can do.”

“That is what a lot of people don’t understand. That’s how it should be, hold back and on fight day, explode and everything jells.”

“Back in South Africa, we have an ultra marathon of close to 100 km. The guys who win it, never run a full 100 km in training. They run very long distances, but hold them selves back till race day. Fight training is not just getting in there and smashing a bag. I have had five world champions and the most regional champions in South Africa.”

“That is the difference between a good trainer and not a good trainer. There are trainers like Angelo Dundee in their eighties and still producing world champions. That comes from experience.”

“You can’t juts let your guys kick the bag and then put him in a championship. It can work like that at the beginning. But like that, you will never make it to the world championship level. Not just anyone can train you to that level. A lot of these guys think training means kicking the bag really, really hard again and again. But it is so much more than that.”

What is power worth?

“Look, power is a lot. We all want power. I want my fighter to be able to knock the guy down with one punch. Some people just don’t have that kind of power. Some guys can train ten years and won’t get there. Others will do it in one year. But they could all be good and they have to fight in their ability. Anyone could be a fighter, but not everyone could be a champion.”

“To a good fighter, power is important, but it isn’t everything. A good fighter is a thinker. He knows strategy. I have seen guys strong as an ox they get in their and win on strength. And they go and they go, moving up the ranks, but when it comes to their twelfth fight or fifteenth fight then they are fighting a guy who is strong and good. The better fighter has strategy and he is a thinker, and the big brawler gets knocked out.”

“Did you ever see a brawler become the world champion in boxing? It never happened. Tyson was not a brawler. He fought smart.”

After our training sessions, Paddy and I often discussed Butterbean, the 5 ft 11 in (180 cm) 398 Lbs. (180 KG) wrecking machine who was called “The King of the Four Rounders.” Butterbean hit so hard, he could demolish almost any opponent he faced and wracked up a winning record not only in boxing, but also in K-1 and MMA. According to Wikipedia, “His combined professional fight record currently stands at 89 wins with 63 knockouts, 13 losses and 5 draws.”

The important lesson Paddy always wanted me to learn from butterbean was that for all of his power, he was not a brawler, he was a thinker. He was smart enough to see exactly what his talent was, and to exploit it to make money. His special, God-given ability, was to pound a man into unconsciousness during a four round bout. If Butterbean had tried to go for the title he would have had to fight ten and eventually twelve rounds. He may have done Ok or may have completely run out of gas and gotten hurt. Instead, he capitalized on his strength, stayed at four rounds, and won almost all of his fights. What is more, because he stuck to his guns and only fought within his comfort zone, he made more money doing four-rounders than any challenger almost-was who tried for the heavyweight belt.

The lessons I learned from Paddy this week were:

  1. Conditioning is key: If you are out of gas, you can’t fight.
  2. Condition your shins naturally. Don’t kick posts or bamboo. Work the bag and let toughness come.
  3. Sparring is training, not fighting: Never go all out in sparring. Hold something back for fight day.
  4. Fight smart: fight your fight. Fight the fight that matches your abilities. Stay in your game and you have the best chance of winning.

If you are going to Phnom Penh and you want to train with Paddy, contact him:

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available on Antonio was the first foreign student of Bokator, in Cambodia. Contact him see his website


Burmese Refugees: Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe

In Adventures in Asia on October 2, 2007 at 6:43 am

Shackled by the Neck

Burma’s Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe chose exploitation in a tourist village rather than go back to a civil war which borders on genocide

By Antonio Graceffo


The Burmese civil war, often viewed as a genocide, committed against Burma’s tribal minorities, has been raging off-and-on for a period of nearly fifty years. Estimates claim that as many as two million refugees, many of the tribal peoples, have fled over the border into neighboring Thailand. The Long Neck Karen tribe, so called because their women wear multiple neck rings, which elongate the neck, to several times normal size, have found refuge in artificial, tourist villages, where visitors, both Thai and foreign, pay a heavy entrance fee to gawk at the unusual looking people.

One such tourism village is Hoy Sua Toa Long Neck Karin village, located in Thailand’s Mae Hong Song Province, within sight of the Burmese border. After paying their entry,  tourists will find that the entire village is one huge shop, with women and children selling goods and posing for photos. There are no Karen men to be seen. Traditionally, tribal people lack a merchant class, and yet the village is 100% dedicated to the sale of trinkets. Karen in Burma live by planting and cultivating rice, raising animals, and by hunting. In Hoy Sua Tao, however, there are no rice fields.

“It’s their choice.” Said Som Sak Seta, a guide who takes tourists to the Long Neck Karin Villages. “The Karen can make money, wearing their neck rings in the camp, or they can go back in the refugee camp. They don’t have a right to stay (in Thailand). This is the compromise of the governors of this place, so the Karen can stay inside of the Thai border and make some money, and the governors can get some money as well.”

Ajan Prasit Leeprechaa, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University is himself a member of the Hmong tribe, a group persecuted in Lao, for fighting along side the Americans in the Indochina conflict. While countless Hmong families languish in refugee camps, awaiting resettlement in the USA, Ajan Prasit uses his education to study and help Thailand’s many tribal people.

Ajan Prasit explained the Karen predicament this way. “The Karen are faced with four options. Live in a tourist village, become official refugees, go back to the war in Burma, or number four, now some countries like New Zealand offer them a chance to go live in cultural tourism villages abroad.”

All of these options are only options if the tribal people are made aware of their rights, which most are not. The Long Neck Karen are typically singled out, because of their appearance, scooped up and deposited in the tourism villages, before reaching the UN camps. Allowing Long Neck Karen to gain refugee status would not be in the best business interest of the village owners, who collect money from the tourists.


Owning a group of Karen is a lucrative business.

“Some Thai made a fake village in Chiang Rai and Chiang  Mai, and stole some Karen from here to live there. They charged 1,000 Baht or more for the entrance fee. But, the Mae Hong Song government went down and took them back here already.” Said Som Sak Seta.


All legal residents of Thailand are given some type of an ID card, with various rights attached. Obviously, citizens get the most rights. Legal aliens may be grated rights such as employment or residence. Because the Long Neck Karen in the tourist villages have no legal status, they have no rights of residence, employment, or freedom of movement in Thailand.

A Long Neck Karin Karen girl, named Mali, told us she hadn’t been given any type of ID card, although she had already lived in Thailand for more than twelve years.

Do you have any other papers for residence or anything?

“No, I don’t have anything. They just let me stay here.”

Can you go into town? Can you go into Mae Hong Song?

“I can, but I can’t stay overnight. I can just go there and buy some food. Afterwards, I have to come back here. I have to stay here.”

In Burma, the Karen people would be engaging in agriculture, as well as hunting and gathering forest products, as their people have done for centuries. But in the tourism villages, they work as full time sellers of trinkets. Normally, the Karen culture would be tied to the land, the jungle, and the agricultural rhythms. As salespeople, the Karen have lost their culture completely.

We asked Mali if her younger sister, who was born in Thailand, had an ID card.

 “No, no we don’t. None of us have an id card, none of us.” Said Mali.

Other Karen have explained that the Thai government is willing to give ID cards to babies born in Thailand, as long as the birth is registered. The same Karen said that they were either unaware of the law at the time their children were born, or that the owners of the villages actually prevented the Karen from obtaining ID cards for fear of losing revenues.

Mali explained how the Karen business worked. “If we stay here and wear the rings around our neck? They will give us 1,500 Baht per month, each. But the men don’t get money because they don’t wear the rings.”

Do they give you rice, something to eat here?

“Yes, they give us 180 Baht per person, per month. So, we take that money and we go to buy rice and food.”

If you don’t wear the rings, will they give you money?

“No, if we don’t wear the rings, we don’t get the money. So, the men won’t get the 1500 Baht. They only get 180 Baht for rice, per month, per person.”

Have you ever thought about going to work in town?

“No, I can’t go. I just can’t go.”

Have you ever thought about what kind of job you would want to get?

“I have been thinking about that? Someday if I can, I would like to go to work in town. But, we wear this metal around our neck, so I don’t think we can go. I think we just can stay here and sell souvenirs.”

Thai spies, in yellow shirts, hung around, photographing my team and eves dropping on our conversations. Finally, to avoid putting ourselves or the Karen in jeopardy, we had

Som Sak Seta take us to a “real” village, called Baan Nai Soi, where it was much easier to do interviews. Som Sak Seta explained the soldiers were only there to guard the border, merely a few kilometers away. While the soldiers sat on a cooler, sipping a coke, an eighteen year old Karen girl, named Zember, told her story.

 Zember only moved back to the village when she was about seven or eight, the age when girls take their first rings. She followed the custom, adding one ring per year, till she was sixteen. Finally, she had them removed in an attempt to gain more comprehensive citizenship rights and be able to migrate down to “urban” Mae Hong Son without being gawked at as a freak   Since removing the rings, she finds herself in a situation of double jeopardy. Now, not only does she still have the lowly status of being a stateless Karen refugee, living in a sideshow, but the Karen elders shun her as a traitor to the ring-wearing community.
Zember said that she does make frequent trips down to the city during daylight

In recent years, Thailand, like many Asian countries, has been rewriting their laws to increase human rights and freedoms. The issues facing the tribal people do not seem to result from a lack of legislation, but rather, a lack of enforcement. Too often, it seems the whim of the local authority prevents people, both Thai and tribal, from accessing rights granted them by the federal government. High percentages of illiteracy and low levels of education among the tribal people also add to the problem.

Although none of the Karen came right out and said it, they must be living under tremendous pressure, knowing that they have no legal right of residence, no right to property ownership, and as far as they know, no access to legal recourse. Add to this the ever present specter of deportation to a war, where they are considered the enemy, and it is no wonder that the tribal people lack the internal strength to stand up for themselves.

Tribal people tend to think in very tangible, concrete realities. And one reality which they see everyday is, as bad as the situation in Houy Sua Toa is, no one is shooting at them. Additionally, they have an income and they have their children and families with them. So, on some level, they are better off than they would be in Burma. And of course, at any time, they are free to return to the war.

The Puyai Ban, village owners who pocket most of the tourism revenue, evoke images of the war as a justification for what they are doing. Tourists, headed into Houy Sua Toa will notice a huge display of bombs and mines, right near the entrance.

“They are just telling what kind of bombs, and how bad it is for these people, so the tourists can know.”  Explained Som Sak Seta.

Som Sak Seta told us that for a brief period, the Thai government had been issuing ID cards to the Karen.

“Now the Karen just don’t get the ID cards anymore.” Som Sak Seta. “They (Puyai Ban) prevent the people from becoming Thai citizens. They are trying not to give them anything.”

“If the government gives them the card, and the people in charge of this income let them have the card, and they become Thai citizens, the Long Neck Karen will disappear. So, no more income and no more attraction. They are trying to keep these people as Long Neck Karen and pay them 1500 Baht a moth, and keep them happy.”

So, what if the Karen disappeared? Mae Hong Song province would just be short of income. Isn’t that so?

“Usually there is a lot of income from foreign tourists. Normally the people who get the money for the entrance fee will develop the roads or build a temple or something in the village, but these people only develop their pockets.”

“The Karen said that if they had to relocate to another artificial village, they would not go there. They would move into the refugee camp. They don’t want to go farther from the border, into the interior. Here, they have NGOs to look after them, like the UN. So, they might have a chance to go to a third country as refugees. Some of them have already moved to Holland, USA, and Australia. I think already, more than 500 have been resettled into third countries by aid organizations.”

“If they stay here they are being pressured by the governors in charge, if they move into the NGOs it will be better for them, they have no freedom if they stay here.”

The rings around their neck are cultural shackles. The Long Neck Karin are faced with a fatal alternative. Is it better to return to Burma, and risk death, or better to remain as a stateless sideshow attraction in Thailand? On the other hand, the Long Neck Karin, because of their unique appearance, are the only one of Burma’s many ethnic minorities who has this option of escape.

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure travel and martial arts author, living in Asia. His specialties include ethnic minorities, languages, and martial arts. He has studied Kung  Fu at the Shaolin Temple and lived in the last Muay Thai monastery in Thailand. He has published four books on

See his website: Contact Antonio: