I spent my first week in Thailand split between Bangkok, where I happily whiled away a few days with a family friend, Amanda, and Chiang Mai, where I had planned to stay for two nights and ended up staying four (the town just pulls you in, I love it!).
Afterwards, I headed to a small town in the Mae Hong Song province called Pai. I decided to do something different instead of just visiting though. Since I had spent the previous week relaxing and taking it easy, I decided that it was time for something a bit active. So, naturally, I signed up for a Kung Fu retreat.
Yes, you read that correctly. Despite never having had any interest whatsoever in Kung Fu or any martial arts, I decided to sign up for a week long retreat learning various different aspects of Kung Fu, including Chi Kung, Shuang Yang, Pushing Hands and various stretches and attacking / defensive moves (including the ever useful ‘groin kick’).
I had no idea what to expect and was slightly apprehensive when I arrived at the retreat but, as soon I was shown my room, a group of people appeared and all welcomed me, telling me that it was a great place and that I would enjoy the experience. The retreat was just outside Pai and consisted of two accommodation blocks, two training areas, a dining area / kitchen, a shrine room and an office / weapon room (plus the family accommodation of the owner).
I was thrown in at the deep end, with afternoon training starting less than thirty minutes after I arrived. That began the cycle of training that would be my life for the next week. Training sessions were usually taken by Master Iain Armstrong, a British man who moved to Thailand in 2006 to set up the retreat. He has a pretty impressive history in the world of Kung Fu, including two world titles and the prestige of being the first westerner to break a brick with his finger tips (ouch!). When he wasn’t training us, sessions were led by a guy called Yan, who moved to the retreat a year ago and hasn’t looked back since.
Within 24 hours of arriving, I started to think that I had made a big mistake in signing up for the retreat. Each day starts with training at 6am and the first couple of hours are spent practising Chi Kung and Shuang Yang, both of which I really enjoyed. They are slow moving and precise and, by focusing on the movements, the experience becomes almost meditative. It was the last hour of training that threw me off track when, after our tea break (got to have tea in the middle of training – love it), we started to practise downward punches.
I can’t remember the name of them but they involved standing in the horse riding stance (feet just over shoulder width apart, toes slightly turned in and hips pushed forward), bringing one arm over my head and swinging the fist down from above shoulder height and letting it drop quickly to the pad below (or, if you were doing this in reality, to someone’s head / throat / arm….you get the picture). I realised very quickly that, having never been involved in any kind of contact sports, that I was extremely prone to bruising and, within a couple of minutes, large bruises appeared on the top of both of my hands. It hurt a LOT.
By this point, I wasn’t sure whether Kung Fu was very ‘me’ but I persevered and, within a couple of days, I started to get into a bit of a routine. In fact, I started to get quite into it, even doing extra training during the day between the morning and afternoon sessions. As part of the retreat we had a total of just under six hours of training each day, with the first session starting at 6am and the second one beginning at 3.30pm. Each session was different and pushed us in different ways but they were all good (apart from the bruising) and everyone who attended was a lot of fun. Most people on the retreat took the training seriously, with the majority of them staying for two months or more. I was definitely one of the exceptions for only being there for a week.
Master Iain enjoyed demonstrating various aspects of the art with the highlight being when he demonstrated his ‘Iron man’ skills over tea. He pulled a sword out of the weapons room, asked Yan to hold the base steady on the table, and put the tip of the blade against his throat. After taking a few deep breaths, he leant forward and bent the sword using only his throat. Miraculously, his skin remained intact and the only evidence of what had just happened was a small red mark in the hollow of his throat. It was pretty impressive.
In addition to the training, the retreat was generally a sociable place. Although we were given dinner onsite, we would often head into the small town in the evening to either have a bit more to eat or get some drinks. Tuesday and Friday nights were big nights out because we didn’t have training on Wednesday or Saturday.
After a week of training, I have learnt a Chi Kung routine and have a small Shuang Yang practise that I can continue to develop. I met some great people, worked out a lot and, generally, had a good time. I have now left the retreat and will be spending a few days in Pai relaxing before I head back to Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
Whilst the retreat didn’t convince me that I would want to get involved in the contact parts of Kung Fu, I have definitely discovered something interesting, particularly the Chi Kung, which I hope to continue. Besides, I am pleased to say that I went on a Kung Fu retreat because, hey, who else can say that?
For more photos of Bangkok, click here.
For more photos of Chiang Mai, click here.
For more photos of Pai, click here.