Reasons to go: Training paradise, tons of healthy food, very affordable, beaches, night market, coconuts, scooters
The flight over from Arizona (USA) took about 26 hours, including the layovers. It was good and uneventful – I actually managed to get some decent sleep on the longest chunk of it, which helped pass the time.
On the third section of the flight (from Teipei to Bangkok), I somehow ended up in some kind of first class seat on the second level of what was possibly the biggest plane I’ve ever flown on! The leg space was huge, the seat folded all the way back so I could recline completely, and the blanket was a thick fluffy comforter instead of single layer sheet. I asked the stewardess twice if she was sure there wasn’t some mistake (not wanting to be charged for it later) but she assured me it was correct. I still don’t know why this happened, but it was pretty great!
The (New) Plan
My original plan actually entailed spending the full 4 weeks (the length of my visa) in Bangkok. But Vara (BJJ Globetrotter extraordinaire who currently lives in Bangkok and had been helping to answer my many questions about the city) persuaded me to spend the first week in Phuket with her instead. It didn’t take much persuasion… she had many great reasons why this was a fabulous idea but honestly, she already had me at “BJJ competition on tropical island”.
FYI: Phuket is pronounced “poo-ket”… NOT “fuck-it”.
Thailand grants a free 30 day tourist visa to American citizens upon entry. One special requirements – you need proof of an outbound ticket to be permitted to enter the country. Thailand welcomes travelers, but does not want foreigners settling in their country potentially taking jobs from the local residents, unless those foreigners open businesses that are providing jobs for local Thai citizens. Being a native English speaker teaching English in one of the many schools is fine too.
When you arrive at the airport, you’ll need to fill out a form which you’ll give to customs including a bunch of information about your trip, such as passport info and where you’ll be staying. They’ll add a stamp and give it back to you. Someone told me to keep this, as I’d need it upon departure as well, but no one actually ended up asking for it when I left. Still, seems like a good idea not to throw it away, just in case.
I actually entered Thailand through Bangkok before meeting Vara and taking another flight to Phuket, so passed through customs/immigration there. I must say, I was very impressed by the efficiency and great organization of the Bangkok airport – the entire process from de-boarding the plane to picking up my luggage took less than 20 minutes!
Our lodging was on Fight Street, roughly 50 minutes by taxi away from the airport. Fight Street is a total athlete’s paradise! It consists of one long main street which takes about 30 minutes to walk with the two biggest gyms (Phuket Top Team and Tiger Muay Thai) located on opposite ends of the road. There are multiple other smaller gyms offering classes in cross-fit, boxing, and mma along the way as well.
People come from all over the world to be here, for the same reason: serious training. Everything on this street caters to athlete’s needs. Besides the gyms, the rest of Fight Street is lined with restaurants and hotels, with a couple pharmacies, sporting good stores, and massage places mixed in as well.
Meals, smoothies and snacks in the restaurants are made of healthy foods: fresh ingredients, no extra sugar added, and with many high protein options available. The food is amazingly delicious and incredibly affordable for the quality you get, probably about ⅓ what the same would cost in US!
People we met and talked with were staying anywhere from a couple weeks to 6 months. Most had been here before more than once, returning time and time again for the unique atmosphere. Vara herself had been here many times before. This place has a way of getting people hooked when you see and experience it in person – it really is the perfect training environment!
Transportation – Scooters
One down side of Phuket is that there’s no real public transportation system. Taxis from the airport to Fight Street cost about $25. The most practical thing to do for transportation around the island is to rent a scooter near your accommodations, which costs about $8 per day.
There are as many scooters as cars on the roads in Phuket. I thought about renting one myself, but honestly just wasn’t brave enough to attempt it yet. People drive on the opposite side of the road than I’m used to and the rules (such as who has the right of way) aren’t familiar to me. Also, scooters ride between lanes and weave effortlessly through traffic, which I was definitely not feeling confident enough to try! Despite this, it’s not total chaos, there’s definite order to the flow of vehicles and relatively few accidents. I’m told most accidents are actually a result of tourists being drunk or just driving recklessly.
I think helmets are technically legally required on scooters, but many people (tourist and locals alike) just go without. Having ridden motorcycles for a number of years in US and having been very diligent about always wearing full protective gear (helmet, armored vest, boots, gloves) – seeing so many people riding scooters without any protective gear whatsoever (often in shorts and flip flops) was initially quite shocking!
I’ve now also seen people on scooters carrying babies (either balanced on the handlebars, standing between the adult’s feet or strapped to the adult’s back), families on scooters (dad driving with 3 kids kinda hanging on), and scooter side-cars with an insane amount of stuff piled on (I wish I had a photo but I wasn’t sure if it would be rude to take one). I’m so impressed in the latter that people are actually able to make this work without spilling a bunch of stuff! Traffic and vehicle regulations here are a bit looser than in US, it would seem.
There are a couple important cultural differences you should be aware of in Thailand. First, Thai people consider the feet the dirtiest part of the body. It’s rude to point or pick up things with your feet. It’s also rude to point the soles of your feet at another person, so be conscious of how you’re seated or folding your legs. This doesn’t apply within the context of training inside a BJJ gym, of course.
Second, shoes are always removed when you enter a person’s home. Many smaller businesses (like a pharmacy, the gym, or an acai restaurant) expect you to remove your shoes off before entering as well. You can take a hint by looking at the area out front – if you see many other shoes besides the front doorway, you should probably take yours off as well.
Third, it’s a huge offense to step on money (by accident or to stop a rolling coin from getting away, for example). This is because the faces of the king printed on the bills, so in stepping on the bills you’re disrespecting the monarchy. Along those lines, you should be very careful with (or better yet, altogether avoid) any discussions about politics. Unlike America where we routinely mock and harshly criticize our political leaders, much respect is given to the monarchy here and that sort of discussion is not socially acceptable.
Lastly, it’s forbidden for Buddhist monks (which you’ll see periodically out and about with shaved heads and bright orange robes) to touch women. This includes handing items to monks and sitting next to them. So, if you’re a woman, out of caution and respect, it’s best to just keep a wide distance between yourself and the monk if you see one out in public.
On the second day in Phuket, I discovered coconuts, which became my newest favorite thing for the remainder of the trip. They taste about 100x better fresh than anything you can find in stores in US! In addition to being pretty cheap ($1-2 per coconut) and super refreshing, these are a great source of natural electrolytes. When you’re done drinking the juice, you can scoop out and eat the pulpy white part with a spoon. It takes a couple tries to perfect the technique of doing this well. It’s amazing to watch the vendors fearlessly cut open the tops of the coconuts with a giant knife without chopping off their fingers!
Nai Harn Beach and Phuket Town Night Market
Somewhere in the middle of the trip, we went to Nai Harn beach and the Phuket night market with a group of friends from the gym. Vara and I didn’t have scooters, but most people from the group did, so we rented helmets and rode passenger with some of the guys. I’m still not brave enough to drive one myself, but being passenger and seeing more of the city like this was a very fun experience!
Nai Harn beach (I’m told) is more local and less touristy than some of the other beaches in the area. The beach consisted of super fine pale white sand with lush green hills on both sides sheltering boats in the water in the distance. There were a fair amount of people at the beach that day, but it was not uncomfortably full. I rented a parasol for $1 and lounged around drinking coconuts until the sun went down.
The night market was packed, with a festive lively atmosphere. Most people were locals, though there were handfuls of other tourists there as well. The market consisted of a street blocked off from vehicle traffic lined with vendors down the middle and along both sides. The buildings lining the street were interesting as well, more of a colorful European style architecture from Portuguese influence, with spectacular artwork on a few.
Night markets in Thailand, I’ve now learned, are synonymous for “food festivals”. There are clothing and other small items for sale as well, but the main attraction is the food, most of which comes in small snackable portions cooked up fresh by the vendors. I didn’t know what most of it was but it looked and smelled AMAZING! The next couple hours were spent with the group walking up and down the market tasting all the things.
On my second day in Phuket, Vara and I attended the Siam Sub Series Competition (as spectators). The event was held outdoors in an open air but covered soccer stadium, hosted by Alex Schild of Tiger Muay Thai. We arrived early to help set up the space – arranging the mats, attaching banners to guard rails, moving tables and chairs etc.
The competition featured to big mat spaces, with a smaller warm-up mat off to the side. Later in the day, vendors sold fresh poke bowls as well! As a spectator, this was one of the most fun competition I’ve attended due to the spacious open air venue, very relaxed atmosphere, and layout which made it possible to sit pretty close to the matts to watch the fighters. Most of the people who participated were travelers already staying in Phuket, but some had flown in from Bangkok and other neighboring cities to attend. Saw a lot of really great and fierce fights that day which made me eager to get back on the mats and train more myself!
Besides BJJ, both Tiger Muay Thai and Phuket Top Team offer a range of fitness and fighting sport classes such as MMA, crossfit, wrestling, muay thai. Both gyms provide really hardcore, immersive training programs, including the options of on-site lodging. Both include multiple areas (indoor and outdoors) to accommodate classes of multiple disciplines.
People come to these gyms for serious training. As a result, most of the students you’ll find here are exceptionally focused, motivated, dedicated to their sports, and ready to train hard! It’s a very international mix, with students from literally all over the world.
I wanted to experience training at both gyms so purchased a day pass to each, on separate days. Fortunately (for me), English is default common language, and also the language classes are taught in.
Top Team is actually part of the Carlson Gracie lineage. (4th degree black belt) is the primary BJJ instructor there. I was able to train twice in one day here: Olavo Aberu’s class in the morning and Mateo Bernard’s class in the evening.
Mateo (a fellow BJJ Globetrotter!) is actually an instructor from Exit Asia in Freiburg, Germany, but visits Phuket to train for a month every year. Both instructors were a pleasure to train with – very charismatic and welcoming.
The first class was taught by Maxine Thylin, who is actually in the process of traveling the world with her husband (who also trains BJJ), and is just temporarily teaching in Phuket. Maxine’s bright and cheerful personality and easy going nature made her a pleasure to train with!
The second class was taught by Alex Schild. The technique was a little newer and more challenging for me, but after some repetitions and adjustments, I was able to get a decent approximation of the main movements.
The last two classes in gi were taught by Stuart Cooper, in gi. I was feeling pretty exhausted by the end of it, but still managed to finish every last roll!
Thank You, Vara!
I first met Vara at BJJ Globetrotters Summer Camp in Leuven in 2017. She was manning the check-in booth welcoming the arriving guests, next to a life-size illustration of herself printed on a banner that said “Ask Vara”. If you had any questions about anything, she was the person to ask with the answers!
I really cannot thank Vara enough for everything she’s done to help with my trip this last month. Her advice and insight has been immensely valuable in all aspects of this trip. A week on Fight Street was an amazing experience which probably wouldn’t have happened without her, largely because I didn’t know it even existed. Navigating my first Asian country and understanding how certain things work would have been considerably more intimidating and would probably have taken me 30x longer without her help.
Vara is also an exceptional training partner – easily pinpointing mistakes in my technique and giving me many valuable tips on how to improve. She’s also just an all-around very kind, considerate and fun person to hang out with!
Giant thanks, Vara!